An exhibition in Geneva devoted to Soviet forced labour camps is bringing home the horrors of Stalin’s Gulag.
For one Swiss woman who spent five years in a camp in Soviet Kazakhstan, the memories of her imprisonment are still vivid.
Else Rutgers, now 92, was one of around 200 Swiss Communists who emigrated to Moscow after the Russian Revolution of 1917 - and one of the few to survive the Gulag.
Rutgers was 19 years old when she left Zurich for Moscow with her husband, Wim, a Dutch Communist. It was to be 25 years before she would return home.
“I don’t know how I coped with everything that was thrown at me,” Rutgers told swissinfo. “Of course we realised too late what Stalin’s regime was really like.”
As a child, Rutgers was raised believing in the ideals of socialism by her father, a member of the Swiss Communist Party.
“Every Sunday I would go on Communist rallies with him, much to my mother’s dismay,” Rutgers recalls. “My father was even forced out of his job because of his party membership.”
Rutgers, who now lives in a nursing home in Zurich, says the Soviet Union of the 1920s was a beacon of hope in a Europe plagued by class hierarchies and rightwing nationalism.
“When I married Wim, I naturally seized the chance to go with him to help build this ideal Socialist state.”
The Rutgers arrived in Moscow in 1932. Although both of them found work - Wim as an engineer and Else as a teacher – life in the poverty-stricken metropolis was hard.
“With so much poverty, it was hard to maintain our faith in the system, but we kept thinking that the regime was still only a few years old.”
Life took a turn for the worse in 1934, when Stalin began his sweeping purge of the Communist party to weed out alleged traitors and spies.
“Friends suddenly vanished, even though I knew they were Communists. We realised that things were moving in the wrong direction far earlier than a lot of Russians, who just didn’t want to see what was happening.”
On June 22, 1941, the day German forces crossed into the USSR, Else was imprisoned by the secret police. Along with hundreds of other foreigners, she was put on a train from Moscow to the southern city of Saratov.
After a nightmarish journey in a cattle wagon, she arrived at the Butyrka prison camp.
“It was cold and there wasn’t much to eat and our bodies were crawling with bugs,” Else recalls. “But the most painful thing was being separated from my young son Petja and not knowing where he was.”
During her imprisonment, Else also lost touch with Wim, with whom she had maintained close contact though they were by now divorced.
“Wim had also been denounced and lost his job,” Rutgers explains. “There was no trace of him after 1942. We still don’t know what happened to him.”
The biggest blow came in 1942. As a “dangerous social element”, Else was sentenced without trial to five years in a gulag in Kazakhstan.
Many of her fellow prison inmates were less fortunate. As “counter-revolutionaries”, they had to serve ten years in the country’s harshest labour camps. Hardly any of them survived.
Rutgers spent over a year doing hard labour in the camp, digging a canal out of the frozen Kazakh ground with pickaxes.
To her surprise and relief, she was then transferred to the camp’s laboratory to work as a researcher: officials had noticed from her files that Rutgers had worked as a lab assistant in Zurich.
“I was lucky not to have to work out in the field any longer. It was still gruelling, with no means of escape, but at least I got enough food.”
When Rutgers was released from the camp in 1947, she immediately set about trying to trace her son, fearing she would never see him again.
“I couldn’t believe it when I found out that Petja’s aunt had tracked him down to an orphanage and had taken care of him until I got out,” she recalls. “It was like a fairytale to find him again.”
The Rutgers were not allowed to return to Moscow. As a former Gulag prisoner, Rutgers was not allowed near any Soviet city for fear that she might stir up trouble.
“We were branded when we came out. No one trusted us and we were watched by the [Soviet secret police] KGB.
“If we wanted to stay alive, we had to keep quiet and never breathe a word about politics nor about our past.”
Mother and son settled in the small town of Aleksandrov, north of Moscow, from where Else immediately set about trying to negotiate her return to Switzerland.
“I was so desperately homesick. All I could think of was Switzerland.”
It took ten years for the Swiss authorities to negotiate Rutger’s repatriation. She eventually made it home – without her son - at the end of 1957.
“Petja wasn’t allowed to come with me. It was ten years before I could see him again.”
Petja, now in his sixties, still regularly flies over from Moscow to visit his mother.
“He’s the only reason why I am still alive. I don’t know how I’ve made it to such a big age after all I’ve lived through and so many long periods of illness and malnourishment,” she muses.
“But I know that despite all the horrors I lived through, I was still lucky.”
swissinfo, Vanessa Mock
Around 200 Swiss Communists emigrated to the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 30s.
Many were expelled in the 1930s on suspicion of being spies, others were sent to the gulags.
At least 12 Swiss died in the camps or were tried and shot by the secret police.
Geneva’s International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is currently hosting an exhibition devoted to Soviet forced labour camps.
The system of forced labour camps, or Gulag, was established during the first years of Stalin’s Communist regime (1927-1953).
Prisoner numbers swelled to two million by 1937 as a result of Stalin’s mass arrests or Great Purges.
At least two million people died in the camps over a 20-year period.
Large numbers of non-political prisoners were released during the months after Stalin’s death in 1953.