Let them eat cake at Gulag city birthday party

Fri Aug 14, 2009 8:10pm EDT
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By Robin Paxton

MAGADAN, Russia (Reuters) - Yelena Zyuzka still doesn't understand why she was exiled to Magadan, but 62 years later she would happily share the enormous cake baked to celebrate the city's birthday.

The cream-filled slices were served up for the crowds that gathered in July to watch street performers, open-air concerts and a midnight firework display to mark the 70th year of Magadan, a city in Russia's Far East that was gateway to the most feared Gulags set up by Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

Too frail to walk on her own to the street party, the 85-year old shows cupboards stacked with biscuits, meat and vegetables. She is one of the few remaining survivors who chose to remain after the Gulags closed.

There was certainly no celebration by the first wave of settlers.

"Oh! How my mother cried when they came," said Zyuzka of the day when, aged 23 and living in Ukraine, she was taken to serve her sentence of 10 years' exile.

Stalin needed labor to unearth the abundant gold reserves in this region more than 6,000 km (3,750 miles) northeast of Moscow. For two decades, he sent hundreds of thousands of prisoners to his most feared Gulags.

Magadan today exists on its gold mines, fishing and trade in the goods that arrive across the Sea of Okhotsk from ports further south. Most of the cars on its sloping streets are made in Japan.

The spare room of the apartment where Zyuzka has lived since 1961 is decorated with wallpaper depicting Dumbo, Disney's flying elephant, just in case her great-grandson comes back to stay. Only three, he now lives on the Pacific island of Sakhalin.   Continued...

<p>Yelena Zyuzka, 85, shows an archive photo in her apartment in Magadan, July 20, 2009. Seventy years of Soviet rule failed to subdue Russia's most isolated natives, but "perestroika" proved to be devastating. In the ensuing lawlessness, poachers decimated reindeer herds and unemployment was rife. REUTERS/Robin Paxton</p>