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A letter from the Gulag


... Grandma Hanna, waited for letters from there, looking out of the kitchen doorway onto the dusty Devladove path in summer. That was the way the postman, Mr. Dohay, would come, vigorously driving the two-year old colt, harnessed to the two-wheeled wagon, which we always called a Byedka in our village. The postman usually flew past Grandma’s fixed stare, but just once a month he would rein in his black colt by the door and Grandma would dab her dry lips with her apron and say, ‘Run and fetch Dunya’s letter. I don’t want to say hello to that wretch …’ I would dart towards the Byedka, by then I was as tall as the height of its wheels, and Dohay would silently give me the letter with all those round and triangular postmarks and, flourishing his whip, he would steer the horse back to the road.

       The Byedka rolled on, throwing up a dusty whirlwind in its wake, and Grandma would walk among the cherry trees in her yard. She always walked straight to the gate from the kitchen. She took the white, blue or pink envelope from me and sat on the bench by the cellar. She looked over the letter before opening it, raised it to her lips, pursed them as if kissing someone lightly, peeled a corner of the envelope, and then, even more carefully, tore it open from the side, right to the end. Taking the letter, with its compact handwriting, she swept it gently up her apron and pressed it deeply into her breasts. That’s how she would sit for a while ... She would straighten up and begin to read, mouthing the words and dabbing away her tears with her apron. When she read it again, she called me over to listen, she liked to read the letter to me, then Granddad, then Uncle, then you, Mum. Our uneducated grandma learned to read really well because of those letters.

       They always began in the same way, ‘Greetings Dear Dad and Mum.’ After that they would run through the entire family and somewhere among them, my name ... waiting for my name. I began to listen inattentively because they would be written in Russian. Grandma would say the sounds as if they were Ukrainian and I wanted to laugh at those strange, unheard words. The letters came once a month and on letter-less days Grandma would stand at the kitchen door and curse Dohay in farewell as he wheeled past. Dohay never heard those curses, but he was well aware of them because it was certainly he, according to Grandma, who had bad-mouthed Auntie Dunya, resulting in her being dispatched to Kandalske village on the banks of the distant River Biryusa.

       Dohay spent a decade delivering Dunya’s letters to us, which were written in Russian at the demand of the prison’s censor. Auntie later told me about this and about how all the Georgians, Latvians, and Armenians in this political prison at Kandalske were also required to write to their families in Russian. After all, there would surely have been a shortage of polyglot prison censors. Wouldn’t there also have been a national shortage of postmen if the norm was not one letter a month?

       Later we would live with Dad’s parents. I went to school and Dohay would whirl around the village with his black colt, making the whip whistle viciously as he passed every door. In spring the battered wheels of his carriage would cast up a spray of filthy water. In winter it would be converted to a sled. In autumn it would startle the sparrows feeding in the frost-grey knotweed. In summer it was like some huge, monstrous crow threshing its way through Devladove’s boggy road, turning it into dust. A pillar of dust always swirled in the wake of his carriage, perhaps as a result of Grandma’s curses. Folks would say, ‘There goes Dohay, smoking again.’

       Yevdokia returned from the camps completely amnestied and rehabilitated, with her period in them counted as normal working years. All the same, Grandma Hanna forbade her to show herself in front of Dohay’s eyes. Auntie wept and yearned to ask what she had done to deserve spending ten years on Biryusa, hewing down trees since she was eighteen, but Grandma refused, ‘Don’t step out of the door because he will write about you again. That’s how he is, the son-of-a-bitch, they say six poor souls are sitting in jail because of him, and cursing him.’


From Episodic Memory a novel by Liubov Holota. Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj. Now available.