ALZhiR 26... and the potential for love

I‘ve just returned from a few weeks in Kazakhstan, a large country between Russia and Afghanistan. Home again, I changed my phone message to: ‘Just back from Central Asia, which isn’t Bali.’ Yes, the trip had been disturbing, physically and emotionally.

To see why, let’s go to the deserted steppe of Northern Kazakhstan close to the Russian border.

Forty kilometres from Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, is a place whose name is an acronym and a number: ALZhiR 26. This was a camp where its name describes its inmates: in Russian, the letters stand for ‘Betrayers and Traitors of the Motherland…’ I’m not sure what 26 refers to: perhaps, in 1933 when it was set up, this was the 26th part of Stalin’s Gulag in Kazakhstan, then a part of the Soviet Union.

Among thousands, this camp was unique: it was for women who were the wives — or sisters, or near relatives — of those artists or writers that Stalin had already arrested, exiled, or liquidated.

Between Stalin’s First Purge in1933 and his death in1953, twenty-five thousand women went through ALZhiR 26. What happened was this: their menfolk disappeared, then, days, weeks or months later, in the middle of the night, the women were arrested and deported. If their children were under three, they went with them.

The camp is preserved as a museum. From Astana, we took a highway across the treeless steppe, found a small sign, turned off, and reached a car park. There wasn’t a car — nor a soul — to be seen. From there, fifty metres away we could see only three structures: two outlying and small, one central and larger, with what looked like a sprawling garden in front of it.

We approached the first. Standing high, on a few metres of track, was a railway wagon. It resembled an old cattle truck, made of unlined wood, five metres long, two and a half wide, the same high. The sliding door was open — inside, centrally, was an iron stove a metre tall, close to a hole in the floor.

They called this thing the Stalin-Wagon: in this space, the size of one of our smaller kitchens, 30 or 40 women and children were transported from their place of arrest to ALZhiR 26. The process, often in the freezing winter or boiling summer, might take 3 months. The tiny stove provided the women’s cooking and heating; for their ablutions, the hole in the floor.

Between the wagon and the large, central building was the low garden. Beside stunted rose bushes sprouted hundreds of small plaques. They showed the names of those who’d perished there.

Most of the museum was housed in the main building; within, we could view a documentary about the camp. The film included testimonies of survivors: they explained how they came to be there, and their fate in the camp that the first prisoners had built — by hand in winter.

From the first — the remote steppe, the stark wagon stuck on its bit of track going nowhere, perched above a site desolate, yet filled with the cries of former inmates — the experience was overwhelming. It was not just the horror, but a sense of innocence betrayed. For by their arrest and incarceration, these women were, in an excruciating way, doubly innocent: first, their menfolk had done nothing to deserve their fate; second, the women were being punished by their own blameless — indeed loving — association with them.

But, as the testimonies unfolded, a third innocence was crucified: their children.

You see, if the accompanying child managed to reach three years of age, they were removed from the mother, and returned to orphanages back in Russia.

In the film, one woman was asked how they were treated by Stalin’s security force running the camps. She replied that by-and-large the guards were not particularly harsh, indeed she added that many seemed to behave as if the prisoners were not the Betrayers of the Motherland that they were supposed to be.

She supplied an anecdote.

When the guards eventually came to take her child from her, the woman had looked up, and by the door of the wooden hut stood the Camp Commandant. As he observed the goings-on, she saw tears rolling down his cheeks.

For some reason, this picture triggered a memory: I recalled an incident involving the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Just over the border in Central Siberia, Dostoyevsky, a rebel-of-sorts in his youth, had been incarcerated by the Tsar. He was fettered, his legs bound together with ball and chain. Aloof, vain and opinionated, the other prisoners loathed him. But, one day, six months into his prison life, an old convict took pity on him: he showed the young man the trick of walking in chains, and how to contain the wounds they inflicted.

With such examples, you can understand why I began this talk by admitting that Central Asia hurt me. Yet, after a month has passed, I began to re-discover a strange, internal bent: only by writing about the experience could I begin to make sense — a sort-of-healing sense — of it.

And in trying to describe my feelings — mired in the grandeur and tragedy of the region’s past and present — I made a second discovery. As if shrinking from the epic, I circled back to the miniscule — to those little things from which we catch a pulse of beauty… and a gratitude of meaning.

This second discovery — this switch from telescope, to microscope — stands in reverse to the solitary business of being a writer: it depends on the connection to another person.

So a friend happened to mention her visits — thirty years before as a seventeen-year-old — to her father, then a resident of an inner-city refuge for alcoholics: in a second, with equally hesitant steps, I was walking beside her. I knew the girl’s turmoil; I saw the men’s broken faces.

Then, for some reason, an astonishing explosion — the two of us began laughing.

And, just the other day, my seven-year-old grandson — wide-eyed on hearing that his old-ish, mad-ish grandpa had jagged a new girlfriend — suddenly burst out: ‘But Papa, does she love you?’

As time has passed, these almost-random beams of connection have provided more than comfort — within, they stir a joyful thankfulness. For here in Australia many of us are granted a rare freedom: being unshackled enough from poverty and oppression, we can step alongside another fragile being… and feel towards them an unencumbered arrow of understanding.

And then act — to add our atom of goodness to an uneasy globe.

How can one understand such a transmutation of sorrow and grief into joy and compassion?

I remain wary of many of the new discoveries adroitly correlating neuro-anatomy and human behaviour — is this, I ask, a more sophisticated version of phrenology, where the Victorians thought skull shape provided a way to understand behavior and personality with scientific precision? However, recent studies concerning the development of the social brain might provide insight into such a seeming-miraculous turnover as this.

In University College London, psychologists Uta and Chris Frith have been showing that the early development of social skills and understandings – especially the capacity to read and process emotion – takes place in the young child’s brain alongside, but separated from, the acquisition of ‘practical’ material skills. The infant learns about the material world — this is hot, that is hard, a cup falls and smashes — at the same time, but in a different way and in a different place in the brain, from where they discover the pliant swish of approval and disapproval, affection and anger, irony and humour… In short, the child begins to ‘mentalise’, allowing them to step into the gorgeous but messy stuff of others’ minds. And this process depends entirely on inter-personal interaction.

So we are social animals from birth; from the start our brains are hardwired for feeling and interaction. Or as Lao Tsu put it a millenium ago: love and food are equally necessary for our survival.

I hope that, by now, I’ve taken you past the prison camps, and a world where, for a thousand years, from Genghis Khan to Stalin, the inhabitants have been done over, successively, by marauders. And that, on the way, you have managed to find some little grace within my close-at-hand miniatures: in a girl’s tumult before her humbled father, in a child’s wonder at his grandfather’s audacity… And, too, that you have re-savoured the commandant’s tears as he watched the bereft mother, and the old convict’s healing words for the wounded writer.

If so, these interactions have managed, somehow-or-another, to set our ‘social brain’ whirring: as its glowing nodes form their primal knots, we step into the feeling world of those suffering others… and, before long, find ourselves ready to recreate the healing bonds that Stalin so brutally attempted to sever.

Johann Sebastian Bach believed that the great cosmos owns its own primordial harmony, and that the task of the humble music-maker is to capture, as best they can, a sliver of the celestial resonance of the Music of the Spheres.

Since the nerve cells making up our brain are as numerous as the stars in our universe, and these millions ultimately derive their energy from the same suns that fuel the heavenly bodies shining in the vastness of space, I would like to think that there exists a counterpoint to Bach’s empyrean song: within our own heads — our inner worlds — lies its sweet echo, one we first heard as infants, one allowing us to bond, forgive, nurture and heal.

In a world where Stalin’s successors have remained busy — in Isis’ beheading of those of another belief, in the atrocities of our own allies in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison — it is a goodly comfort to know that within us rests a potential opposite to violent self-interest: innate, in-eradicable, microscopic-but-of-the-heavens — for love.

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation