Russian Recalls the Horrors of the Soviet Era Lev Mishchenko was born in the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. In the next several decades of his life, he lived through the brutality of the Soviet regime.
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Russian Recalls the Horrors of the Soviet Era

Born the year of the Russian Revolution, Lev Mishchenko's life during the Soviet era was a living nightmare. Gregory Feifer, NPR hide caption

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Gregory Feifer, NPR

Born the year of the Russian Revolution, Lev Mishchenko's life during the Soviet era was a living nightmare.

Gregory Feifer, NPR

Recalling the Past

Read about how Russians remember the Soviet era, 90 years after the Russian Revolution.

Lev Mishchenko as a student in 1940, before his deployment in World War II and his long imprisonment. Courtesy of Lev Mishchenko hide caption

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Courtesy of Lev Mishchenko

Lev Mishchenko was 9 months old when the Bolshevik Revolution took place. His engineer father evacuated his family from Moscow to what he believed would be relative safety in Siberia.

But during the bitter civil war that engulfed the country soon after, Bolshevik revolutionaries shot Mishchenko's parents. Four-year-old Mishchenko attended both their funerals.

He was raised by his grandmother and grew up to become a physicist. He graduated from Moscow State University the day before the Soviet Union entered World War II.

From Frontline to Concentration Camp

Sent to the front as a junior officer, Mishchenko was captured during his first battle when Nazi troops encircled his infantry division.

Mishchenko was imprisoned in several German concentration camps. Caught after escaping, he was sent to the notorious Buchenwald camp. In 1944, Allied forces were closing in on Germany and the prisoners were evacuated elsewhere.

Mishchenko escaped again, this time from a convoy of 1,000 captives. He made his way across the frontline to an American tank platoon. But when the highly qualified engineer was offered a chance to go to the United States, he refused.

Millions of Soviets taken prisoner by the Germans died in captivity. Of those who survived to return, more than a million are estimated to have been sent straight to the gulag on suspicion of spying.

Nine Years in the Gulag

Among them was Mishchenko, who was put on trial a second time after an alibi led to his initial acquittal. At one point, Mishchenko was loaded into the back of a truck with other prisoners, who he believed were to be driven away to be shot.

Instead, Mishchenko spent the next nine years in Siberian gulags. His wife, whom he'd met before the war, made arduous trips from Moscow to visit him.

"Stalin was a maniac," he says. "People say he led us to victory against the Germans. In fact, he drove the Soviet Union into the ground. The war was won only because of the heroism of those who fought in it."

Released in 1954 — one year after Stalin's death ended the worst Soviet excesses — Mishchenko joined hundreds of thousands of prisoners streaming back from labor camps. But he was unable to find work in physics for another 14 years.

No Room for Nostalgia

Recounting his experiences, Mishchenko breaks down only when describing some of the people he met as a prisoner.

He says tiny acts of kindness took tremendous bravery: a sandwich secretly given to him by a German secretary; a sympathetic guard who snuck him out of his camp barracks to talk to others.

"Such gestures of humanity," Mishchenko says, "they were the true acts of heroism."

Today, Mishchenko says Russians' growing nostalgia for the Soviet era is a dangerous result of past Communist Party propaganda.

"Tens of millions of lives were destroyed under the Soviet Union," Mishchenko says. "I saw how people lived. Children were starving, and their parents still had to give milk and eggs to the state."