Through the Gulag, To Ellis Island

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The New York Sun

In 1980, when human rights activist Tatiana Osipova was facing time in the Soviet Gulag for her political activities, her husband and fellow dissident, Ivan Kovalev, snuck a message to her on a toothbrush. “Hold on there, baby,” Mr. Kovalev scrawled among the bristles, “I am here for you.”


A year later, Mr. Kovalev, like his wife and his father (prominent dissident Sergei Kovalev), was also sentenced to the labor camps. During his trial, Mr. Kovalev’s mother delivered a toothbrush from Ms. Osipova.


Now these two gaudy plastic toothbrushes, with their barely legible messages, are among the artifacts displayed at “Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom,” an exhibit at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The traveling exhibit, which opens today, was sponsored by the National Park Service, Amnesty International USA, the Gulag Museum at Perm-36, and the International Memorial Society.


The exhibit assembles Soviet propaganda reels, prisoner recollections, and artifacts to tell the brutal story of a system that imprisoned 18 million people. “It tells the story of the dark side of Soviet history, one of the low points of the 20th century,” the northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA, Joshua Rubenstein, said. Under Stalin, the Gulags reached their height in population and severity: More than 3 million people – violent criminals, political prisoners, and innocents alike – were in the forced labor camps shortly before his death in 1953.


Peasant mother Maria Tchebotareva was caught allegedly stealing 3 pounds of rye from a field that had belonged to her family before Soviet confiscation. Her attempt to feed her four children resulted in a 10-year sentence in a labor camp. Unable to return home until 1956, she never saw her children again. Her photograph is displayed next to a small box with the approximate amount of rye she was accused of stealing.


Housed in the cavernous halls of Ellis Island, these and other quiet items bare witness to the cruelty of totalitarianism and the triumph of freedom.


Until July 4 (Ellis Island National Monument, 212-363-3200).


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