My maternal grandmother, Zara Khachukaeva, recalled her mother Khazimat making the doll in an effort to distract her five-year-old daughter from the hunger and cold during their journey to Kazakhstan in 1944. My grandmother described how she had kept asking for food and complaining of the cold. They had stopped at a station and her mother had bartered a gold ring for half a loaf of stale bread. But it had been shared with everyone in their wagon and the food had run out.
They were given scarcely any bread or water on the journey. The freight wagons in which they were transported were sealed shut and only opened to remove the bodies of people who died. Their bodies were just dumped by the wayside or buried in the snow.
Khazimat was travelling alone, without her husband. Azim Khachukaev had been wounded fighting for the Red Guards during the Civil War in the 1920s. His health never recovered and he died just before the outbreak of the Second World War. My grandmother didn’t remember him. His two older sons from his first marriage had volunteered for the front and had gone missing without trace. Around 40,000 people or ten per cent of the population of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR went to the front, fighting in the ranks of the Soviet Army at the same time as their families were being deported. Later all the Chechens and Ingush would be discharged from the Red Army and also deported. Many people would lose contact with loved ones forever.
My great grandmother was deported with her five-year-old daughter Zara and 14-year-old son Andarbek, who later died in a labour camp in Kazakhstan, just outside Semipalatinsk. When her daughter started crying and asking for food my great grandmother cut off part of her long plait and used it to make a doll. The little girl played with this doll throughout the long days of their deportation journey. She remembered it as the only toy she had after they were evicted from their home. From that time on her life was no longer that of an ordinary child – life in a ‘special settlement’ was full of hardship and loss.
This family was one of hundreds of thousands who were violently evicted from their homes, suddenly and without warning, during Operation Chechevitsa (Operation Lentil). The deportation of the Chechens and Ingush to Kazakhstan and Central Asia began on 23 February 1944 at two o’clock in the morning and was codenamed ‘Panther’. The Chechens and Ingush had been declared ‘enemies of the people’ for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, although no historic evidence of such cases was ever subsequently found. This forced resettlement was one of many that took place during the Stalinist repressions.
By 9 March the trains had reached their destinations. Overall, 180 freight trains were dispatched and transported a total of over 496,000 people. The deportation took place in appalling conditions, with people transported under armed guard in goods wagons which were unfit for human passengers and were usually used for the transportation of livestock. The wagons were draughty and unheated, despite the fact that outside temperatures were below freezing. During the journey the occupants of the trains were hit by outbreaks of typhus and other diseases, as a result of hunger, the unsanitary conditions and the freezing temperatures.
People living in mountainous areas were forced to go on foot to the stations from which the trains were to depart. They were marched there by armed soldiers and anyone who refused or was unable to walk, mainly sick and elderly people, was shot on the spot.
Shortly before the deportation began, 100,000 troops, NKVD, NKGB and ‘Smersh’ operatives, were deployed to the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. They were under orders to shoot anyone who tried to flee or disobey. For several weeks they were billeted with local people who considered them guests, not knowing what was to come. Documents have survived which show that, due to the challenging conditions in the high mountain regions, people in remote areas were simply killed in their villages. The eviction operation was managed personally by People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs, Lavrentiy Beria, with the approval and by order of the de factor leader of the USSR, Joseph Stalin.
It is still not known exactly how many people were killed during the deportation. Western and Chechen historians have estimated the total number of deaths, calculating direct losses during transit and the early years in the labour camps at between 120,000 and 200,000 people, in other words a third of the total Chechen population. ‘Labour camps’ often turned out to be special prison settlements without even the most basic accommodation. The deportees constructed unheated dugout shelters for themselves and had to work doing the heaviest tasks, for which they received food coupons which barely covered the cost of basic provisions.
When they were evicted, my great grandmother and all the other families were only allowed to take with them what they were able to gather together while the armed guards were standing at the door. Most people grabbed warm clothes, food, valuables and money. They took nothing beyond the absolute necessities. The deportees were only allowed to return home after the deaths of Stalin and Beria in 1957, but by then their livelihoods, homes and personal belongings had often been destroyed. Other people had come and settled in the territory of the liquidated Chechen-Ingush ASSR.
Consequently, this doll, a memento of my grandmother who died in 2009, remains an ephemeral object, surviving only in the form of a drawing to bear witness to a terrible period in history. According to my mother, Zargan Usmanova, my great grandmother Khazimat lived to be almost 100 years old. To the end of her days she wore her hair in a long, luxuriant plait.
Zarina Akhmatova is a Kazakh journalist, editor and researcher. She is descended from Chechens who were deported in 1944 to Kazakhstan, where she was born and lives today. The main areas of focus of her journalism and academic work are deradicalisation, counter-terrorism, political discourse analysis methods and memory. She has published articles and interviews with witnesses and survivors of the Stalinist repressions