I grew up on my father’s stories of his youth in Chita, Siberia: walking from one village to the next trailed by a pack of hungry wolves, forgetting to wear his cap (on purpose) and getting frostbit, the flight on foot from Chita to Manchuria during the chaos of the Russian civil war, life as a telegraph operator in Kharbin, Manchuria. Other than the stories, we knew little of my father’s life as a White Russian emigrant traveling from Kharbin to Tokyo and then on to San Francisco, Berkeley, and then the oil fields of West Texas, where I was born.
I am now conducting research for my new book on six families, caught up in the Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, showing how the decisions made by Stalin and his henchmen played out in the lives of ordinary families. I am using the Hoover Archives Fond 17 (Central Committee of the Communist Party) and Fond 89 (Communist Party on Trial) to follow the high-level decisions that set off the Great Terror and then largely unpublished family memoirs to tell the stories of the victims. One such family is that of Alexander Ignatkin, an engineer in charge of the Chita operations of the Transsiberian railroad, with a wife and three children. The youngest, a boy, Yury, wrote an account of the family’s tragic story in 2003. He went on to become a respected mining engineer in Siberia’s goldfields, living in Chita until his death in 2008.
In researching the Ignatkins’ story, I had a number of encounters with my father’s past. Alexander Ignatkin surely would have known my grandfather, who was also an engineer on the Transsiberian. Unlike Alexander, however, he fled Russia in the early 1920s, just as Alexander was getting his first assignment to head a small station outside Chita; his story of itinerant life at various stations in the vicinity of Chita, the headquarters of the Transbaikal line, surely resembled my father’s first years. From my passport, I learned that my father had been born in a place called Khilok, but no one in the family knew where it was. Now I know that Khilok was a small station along the Transsiberian, some two hundred miles west of Chita. Alexander Ignatkin, before his appointment to Chita, served in a number of small stations along the Transsiberian; his three children were born in such villages, which consisted of wooden cottages and a rail station. My father would have been born under similar circumstances in Khilok.
Khilok enters the Ignatkin family story in yet another way: Alexander’s wife, Maria, was arrested on October 7, 1937, not knowing that her husband had been executed on September 29. Shortly after the arrests of their wives, the local newspaper published the list of the 117 executed railway workers (Alexander was 101). The wife of Dianov, the Khilok station head, was arrested in the Chita railway station just after she saw her husband’s name on the execution list (she had traveled to Chita from Khilok hoping to find her husband). Having hidden the list in her shoe she showed it to the other wives, all of whom were confined in one large cell. It was thus that Maria Ignatkina learned of her husband’s execution.
The Chita NKVD headquarters was located in the most imposing building in Chita, Shumovsky Palace, which I learned had served as a prison and hospital during World War I. One of my father’s most vivid memories was having volunteered to transport wounded soldiers on a sled from the train station to Shumovsky Palace); one of them, he said, died before reaching the hospital.
Perhaps the most telling moment of my research was the story of the return of the Kharbintsy, those Russians who, like my father, had fled to Kharbin (now part of China) in the aftermath of the revolution and civil war. There they, like my father, worked for the Chinese Eastern Railroad, which connected the Transsiberian to points east. My father chose to continue east to Tokyo, but many Kharbintsy, promised a warm welcome by Stalin, chose to return. Virtually all were executed or sent into the Gulag under special decrees aimed specifically at them. In Ignatkin’s sector were large numbers of prisoners doing track repairs and coal mining; during his first imprisonment, he was sent to one of those mines. As the Kharbintsy returned to Russia on the Transsiberian, the prisoners called up to them: “Soon you will be joining us down here.” At that very time, my father, one of the “people’s enemies” a Kharbintsy, was working as a petroleum engineer in the West Texas oil fields.
Railroad tunnel in Siberia, Harry L. Hoskin papers, photo file B, Hoover Institution Archives