By Arkady Ostrovsky
Financial Times, London
January 05, 2002
The last thing William Pirz remembers seeing in his native US is the Statue
As an 11-year-old boy, he watched it from the deck of a ship that carried
him and his family away from New York and towards the promised land - the
Soviet Union. The year was 1930.
"My father told me I would have a bright future in the land of communism and
I am still waiting for it," says Pirz, an 80-year-old man who spent much of
his adult life in Stalin's real-life version of hell that was the gulag. He
speaks in Russian, the years having erased all memory of English.
Born in Philadelphia, Pirz knew he would die here in the port-town of
Dudinka, 400km north of the Arctic Circle. It is one of the grimmest and
coldest places in Russia, where Stalin's victims were brought to dig nickel
mines and build railways and where many died.
His life is a tragic story of illusions shattered.
When first I meet him and speak in English, his eyes remain empty. Later,
when I ask him in Russian whether he remembers any of his US life, he
suddenly recalls one American word - Manhattan.
"Of course I remember, we had a house in Manhattan," he says, pronouncing
the word in an unmistakeably American accent. He repeats the names of New
York's districts as if they are magic words - Manhattan, Bronx, New Jersey .
. . but then he remembers Dudinka.
His father, an Italian communist, sneaked into the US in the 1920s hiding
under a pile of coal on the bottom deck of a ship. Disappointed with the New
World, he decided to go to Russia to help build communism.
"My father took my hand and we walked around Leningrad. He told me: 'You are
very lucky to have this new homeland'," Pirz recalls, smiling and lisping
through broken teeth.
The family, three brothers and a sister, Clara, were sent to Odessa, a port
town in Ukraine, where the father toiled in the docks for the happy future
of the Soviet republic. Pirz junior's impressions of Ukraine were far from
happy, however. The country was in the throes of a mass collectivisation,
which killed millions of peasants and condemned Ukrainian villages to
"I remember seeing peasant women whose bodies were swollen from starvation
and who came to Odessa looking for food," says Pirz. Many of those who tried
to survive by hiding sacks of potatoes and other food were sent to Dudinka
and nearby Norilsk.
On June 23 1935, Stalin signed a decree ordering the development of nickel
mines 100km north of the port of Dudinka. Two days later he signed another
decree, ordering the creation of Norillag, a camp that was to provide slave
labour for the mines.
At the time that thousands of Ukrainian and Russian peasants were being
rounded up and sent to Norilsk, the Pirz family were applying for Soviet
passports. Local newspapers published articles about them. "The American
family finds a new home in the Soviet Union" is one headline Pirz recalls.
One day in September 1937, however, the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) came
calling. "I came home from a party and saw a militia man standing outside
our house. I thought he had come for me, because I was up to no good at that
time, but he told me to get into the flat. Inside everything was turned
Pirz's parents and two of his brothers were taken away and shot two months
later. Shortly afterwards, William and Clara were arrested as well.
"The investigator told me I betrayed the Soviet Union. I told him, 'Hey
boss, how could I betray the Soviet Union, if I only became a Soviet citizen
a few months ago?'" But such reasoning counted for little, and brother and
sister were sent to the gulag.
"I must have been born under a lucky star," Pirz told me. "I was sent to
Karaganda (in Kazakhstan) - it was a good camp."
When he sees that I suspect him of being ironic he gets angry. "You
understand nothing. I was really very comfortable there. I had three pillows
and a bed-side table. Do you know what it means to have three pillows in a
Compared with his brother, who was sent to fell forests in Siberia, Pirz was
lucky. He was also fortunate to avoid Norilsk, where temperatures drop
to -50 degrees C and nothing grows. Karaganda is a relatively mild place.
Pirz qualified as a tractor driver and spent 12 1/2 years in the camp. In
1941, with Russia at war, he asked to be sent to the front. He was told that
one more such request would land him in a place from which nobody returned.
He was released in 1949 but was not allowed to live in a big city, let alone
leave the country. "After my release I was supposed to report to the local
militia station every month for five years, so they could keep track of me."
He lived in a ballok -a tiny mobile wooden hut - and worked as a tractor
driver, night guard and fisherman in Siberia, where the pay was better. In
1960, seven years after Stalin's death, Pirz was rehabilitated.
Two years later, he joined the communist party. "My wife's brother was a
local party boss, and he explained to me that if I wanted to have a good job
in a collective farm, I must enter the party. So I did," says Pirz
In 1965 Pirz and his wife moved to Dudinka. "She died over a year ago - I
miss her very much." His sister, who also survived the gulag, lives in
Chelyabinsk, in eastern Siberia. They rarely see each other.
Neither of them has ever managed to find relatives in the US, a land that
seems light years away from Dudinka. "Who needs us there? I am a Russian
now - only here they still call me 'our American'."
The Financial Times, January 5, 2002
For personal and academic use only.