Sea of nationalities awaits pope in Kazakstan

MALINOVKA, Kazakstan -- When Pope John Paul II looks out over the crowds at his two open-air Masses in Astana Sunday and Monday, he'll see people from a sea of nationalities -- many with roots in the Stalin-era prison camps that dotted the bleak steppes of northern Kazakstan.

"There were people from all over the Soviet Union, and Poland, and as far away as Palestine," said Alexander Taygarinov, as he described the prison camp where his mother was incarcerated for nine years.

"They were sentenced for nothing."

Like neighboring Siberia, sparsely populated northern Kazakstan was long a place of exile and imprisonment. Russian Czarist police sent Polish freedom fighters here as far back as the 18th century. The Soviet government deported hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans, Chechens and other accused Nazi collaborators during World War II. And prisoners from across the Soviet Union languished here until Stalin's death in 1953.

Taygarinov's mother, Yefrosinia Yakovenko, was imprisoned in a camp known as Site 26 or by its Russian acronym ALZHIR -- Akmola Camp for Wives of Enemies of the Motherland. Her husband, a Communist Party bureaucrat in eastern Ukraine, was executed in 1937, and she was sent on a prisoner transport to the barren plains. Her children were sent to live with relatives.

"There was nothing here, absolutely nothing," Taygarinov said. "The first thing they had to do was build a barracks for themselves."

Toward the end of World War II, the camp regime was loosened. Yakovenko was reunited with her two daughters -- her 18-year-old son had been sent to the front -- and she was allowed to do field work outside the camp.

"There was no place around where they could run away. Just endless steppe," Taygarinov said.

At her day job, she met her future husband -- an ethnic Kazak collective farm chairman who'd been sentenced to death for allegedly distributing seed corn during the hungry 1930s, and whose sentence was commuted to imprisonment at ALZHIR. Seligbay Taygarinov was one of the first men brought to the women's camp, in 1944. A year later, their son Alexander was born, and the family was soon released.

They settled in the neighboring town of Malinovka, among a mixed population of former prisoners and their guards.

Family secrets revealed

They never talked about their parents' backgrounds, "only in whispers at home," he said.

The silence was broken only with the glasnost campaign of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and now Malinovka has its own memorials: an "alley of remembrance" at the former entrance to the camp, with metal plaques listing prisoners' names; statues in the Christian and Orthodox cemeteries; and a small museum documenting the gulag in northern Kazakstan. Tall grass has reclaimed part of the camp; a farm occupies the rest.

The pope's first stop after arriving in Astana late today will be the obelisk honoring the victims of Stalinist repression. He won't be traveling outside the capital, but Taygarinov and others from outlying towns will make their way in to attend the papal Masses on Sunday and Monday.

A big contingent of elderly, exiled Poles will also be in the crowd, giving a special welcome to the Polish pope. Entire villages of ethnic Poles were deported en masse from western Ukraine beginning in 1936.

"There was a time when we thought we'd never be able to pray again, much less pray with the pope," said 75-year-old Maria Buchinskaya, grinning from ear to ear as she emerged from a Catholic church in Astana.

When Buchinskaya's family was dumped in the Kazak steppes, the only sign of human habitation was a row of sticksto mark where the 80 families deported from her village should erect their barracks.

Buchinskaya recalled how villagers gathered in one another's houses to pray and christened their children in the middle of the night.

Taygarinov said of the pope, "I'm an atheist, but like everyone I hope for something from the visit, maybe just for a stop to the rain so we can dry our grain."