Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Who He Was – Klementei Rybak

Prisoners toil

Klementei Rybak was just like any other farmer in the Russian Empire. After the Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew Czar Nicholas II of Russia and attempted a complete redistribution of wealth. In 1920, he received free land in Moldova, a country in the Soviet Union.  It was distributed to him for the purpose of him making money and growing crops.

For five years, he worked from sunrise to sunset. He toiled on his land, and made it quite productive. Others in his towns were too lazy to plant anything on their government-funded plots.  He fought to support his family.

When the Bolsheviks came to power, they also started to collectivize the nation’s farmlands. They formed  kolkhozy, whose purpose was to control and collect the crops that the farmer planted. Farmers had a choice whether or not to join these kolkhozy.  Klementei Rybak rejected the offer. He enjoyed his success and did not want the communists to take that away from him. Since the majority joined these farms, Klementei became one of the outcasts in society and people started calling him kylak (in English, the literal translation is ‘fist’), suggesting that he was criminally elitist. He was not the only one; there were millions across the country just like him. It did not only happen in Moldova, it also happened in Ukraine, and Novgorod.

Raskylachivanie means to take everything away from a person-house, animals, land, make him poor, and also send him to prison. In 1925, this happened to my great-grandfather. His family was left with absolutely nothing. On top of that, they sent him to a Gulag in Siberia. Gulags were government-controlled camps that were for criminals. His family was forced to move in with relatives who joined one of these kolkhozy. He was now a political prisoner. Millions of people ended up in Stalin’s gulags.

Klementei was exiled to Siberia. The Government needed people to work in Siberian mines and to build roads, and cut down forests, and penal servitude began to replace long prison terms. When Communists came to power, most of the Siberian prisoners were political prisoners who were accused of treason, espionage, sabotage, or anti-Soviet propaganda. Ninety nine percent of them were innocent. Whoever didn’t work, they killed.

The prisoners served their ten or twenty-five-year sentences in Siberian camps for nothing. The purpose of these camps was to destroy not only the opposition, but the idea of the rebellion itself. Everyone was arrested, even communists who helped expose “enemies of the Soviet people”, and soon the majority of prisoners were guilty of no ‘crime.’

Gulag prisoners constructed what are currently known as the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line, numerous hydroelectric stations, and military roads in remote regions. Three types of camps were developed: factory and agricultural colonies for work like lumbering and mining, and “punitive” compounds for special punishment of prisoners from other camps.

Due to its remoteness and severe weather conditions ‘Russian Australia’ was one huge prison, escape from which was almost impossible and very dangerous not only because of the chase, but because of the Siberian killing frosts, unbelievably long distances, bounty-hunting natives, deep forests and wild animals. In jails, inmates were poorly fed. People died from the exhaustion, starvation, cold winters, and disease in Siberia. Inmates were often physically abused by the guards or by fellow prisoners. People froze to death as they were transported to the camps or died from hunger, severe beating or various diseases. For fifteen years Klementei served in Serbia.

In 1940-he came back to his hometown, a year before World War II began. A year later, after the war began, he was arrested again. Some of the neighbors reported him to the government as a conspirator–he was reportedly plotting with the ‘enemy.” In reality, all he had done was keep his light on in the dark. He was sent to Siberia once again. He spent another 19 years there, and came back in 1959, fragile and exhausted. He lived two more years and then he died, in 1961, at the age of 82.

It is a tremendous irony that his grandson, Andrey Rybak, is now the director of the remaining collectivized farms, which his grandfather opposed and for which his grandfather sacrificed his life.