Olga stands by the ghosts of Stalin's Gulag: Andrew Higgins in the Arctic town of Vorkuta meets a woman whose Bolshevik spirit survives a white hell

Click to follow
IN THE winter of 1938, in a railway siding at Chop on the border between Hungary and the Soviet Union, Olga Olshevskaya had her fortune told by a Romanian gypsy while she waited for her train to Moscow.

A keen young Bolshevik, she had just been summoned home from her post at the Soviet embassy in Budapest. The gypsy took her palms and told her what to expect on the other side of the border: a hell of white light and torment; she would come close to death many times, but would somehow manage to survive.

'Everything she said was true,' says Mrs Olshevskaya, now 83, enfeebled by a recent stroke, but still very much alive and living in the white hell predicted by the gypsy at the frontier.

The place is Vorkuta - perhaps the most brutal outpost of Stalin's Gulag, 1,200 miles from Moscow, more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle and under snow for up to eight months of the year. On a map, the town looks like a skull, its main road curving round a string of desolate coal pits carved out of the frozen tundra by prisoners such as Mrs Olshevskaya. In all, there were a million of them over the years. A third died in Vorkuta.

Mrs Olshevskaya wants to do the same. But not because she has to. She has been free to leave for decades, ever since the day, 40 years ago last week, when Stalin died. Nor, unlike other former prisoners stranded in Vorkuta, is she trapped by poverty. When the party rehabilitated her in 1954 she received 200,000 roubles, not a lot at current exchange rates, but a fortune at the time. Part was compensation, the rest her share of her family fortune. Her father had been a prosperous chemical engineer, her grandfather a pre- revolutionary aristocrat.

She tried living in Moscow, Leningrad and the Crimea, but she always fell ill. She missed the cold and the comforting companionship of fellow inmates who understand what it was like to survive on 15oz of bread and a bowl of thin soup a day.

'Thousands, including many friends, died here. It means far more to me than my home. I don't stand out here. Anywhere else we are black sheep. No one understands. I want to be buried here.'

When she met the gypsy in 1938 Mrs Olshevskaya was 28 and, by her own account, very beautiful. Today, she has two wobbly teeth that flap when she talks, and cheeks furrowed by too many winters in the Arctic. But her clear blue eyes still sparkle.

She has been in Vorkuta, apart from stints in other penal colonies (a gold mine in the Siberian region of Yakutia, a uranium mine on an Arctic island), for more than half a century. She was here for the arrival of Alexei Kapler, a Jewish film scriptwriter sentenced to hard labour for falling in love with Stalin's daughter, Svetlana; and here for a bloody camp uprising in 1953. She has no intention of leaving.

The gypsy's prophecy was not the first hint of trouble. A friend in the embassy in Budapest had already told her what to expect. The Great Terror was at its peak. Stalin had received a list of the names of 138 diplomats, military officers and party leaders from Nikolai 'the Dwarf' Yezhov, head of the NKVD secret police. He signed the list with a simple order: shoot them all. Among those killed in the slaughter that followed - the biggest single massacre of officials in the entire period - was the ambassador to Hungary, Mrs Olshevskaya's boss.

Mrs Olshevskaya's file, which she has only just been allowed to see, was marked 'For extermination' and signed by Andrei Vyshinsky, master of ceremonies at many of Stalin's most ghoulish show trials. The charges against her were serious: espionage, involvement in an anti-party plot led by the purged Urkainian party leader Pavel Postyshev, and conspiracy to assassinate Stalin.

She was put on a train to the Arctic port of Archangel, transferred to a ship bound for Naryan-Mar, then locked in a river barge for a month-long voyage through the tundra along the Pechora River to Vorkuta. The journey was Stalin's middle-passage - as deadly as the slave ships to America.

Her first task in Vorkuta was to help to build a railway line: the river journey was too slow and a quicker way was needed to get the prisoners in and the coal out.

For all her own suffering, she clings to the system that built Vorkuta. She has no time for 'democrats' - she spits out the word like an insult. Mikhail Gorbachev, she says, is a 'traitor', Boris Yeltsin an 'adventurer and a very good actor'. In 1957, she had landed back in jail for making similarly insulting comments about Nikita Khrushchev.

She reckons the Communist Party has been on a downward path since 1924, when Lenin died and Stalin took over. The fault was not the party but 'opportunists' within it. Lenin remains inviolable. 'I believe in Lenin. I believe in the Revolution. It was necessary. People who want to do good are always punished.'

Mrs Olshevskaya was not among the embittered pensioners who gathered last week in Moscow and other Russian cities to mourn the death of Stalin on 5 March 1953. Instead, she went to a meeting of Memorial, a group set up in the 1980s to expose the full horror of the Great Terror and to honour its victims.

But even the crimes of Stalin, she says, pale next to the humiliation and chaos of Russia today. 'Of course Stalin was bad. But at least we were not indebted to foreign countries like we are now. Our next generation, my children and grandchildren, will all be paying back interest to America.'

At heart, she is herself something of a Stalinist. Of Ivan Guridov, the belligerent, violently anti-Communist leader of the Vorkuta chapter of the Independent Union of Miners, she says: 'Either he will be killed or he will sell the mine. It would be better if he were dead.'

Her predictions of how Russia will end up if it continues on its present course are as grim as those of the gypsy in 1938. But she does her best to keep up her spirits and those of other former prisoners. For Women's Day on Monday, a national Soviet and now Russian holiday, she has written greetings cards to women who survived the Vorkuta gulag: 'Let your smile bloom, your eyes shine with joy like the sun. Let not happiness be fleeting like a ghost.' In Vorkuta, says Mrs Olshevskaya, there are already too many ghosts.

(Photograph omitted)