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When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the world watched in shock because, for many, something unthinkable had happened.
But for a Russian artist who was preparing to publish a book about her grandfather’s imprisonment under Josef Stalin, it had long seemed that conflict and strife would always be a part of Russian politics.
Cairo-based artist Xenia Nikolskaya's latest project, a book bringing together photographs, government documents and other texts, is a testament to her home country’s complex — and often violent — political history.
In The House My Grandfather Built, Nikolskaya recounts the love story and subsequent marriage of her grandparents during Stalin’s reign, and shows how Russia's tumultuous political history touched the lives of all who lived through it.
“One area I really wanted to highlight in the book is this concept of genetic memory, how we carry within us the painful memories and experiences of our ancestors. This is something from which many Russians suffer,” Nikolskaya told The National.
Although her grandfather is in the book’s title, the real protagonist is Nikolskaya’s grandmother, a woman she admires deeply.
Her grandfather, a retired priest named Georgiy Mikhailovich Nikolskiy, was wrongfully arrested in what is now St Petersburg in 1935 along with 10,000 others, for the assassination of Sergei Kirov — a Bolshevik revolutionary who at the time was rising as a rival to Stalin.
After his arrest he was exiled to Siberia and Nikolskaya’s grandmother, Olga Sergeevna Gracheva, who was a young geology student at the time, faced a tough decision.
Should she stay in Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then known, or try to hold on to her relationship by finding a job in the country’s destitute far east, where Stalin's political prisoners were thrown into the notorious gulags with common criminals? She opted for the latter.
“One of the things I admire most about her is her refusal to let her misfortunes make a victim out of her,” Nikolskaya said.
Her decision to leave Leningrad might also have been made easier by the deteriorating living conditions in the city, made worse by growing concerns that, with Europe on the brink of war again, the city could be besieged by German troops.
“Which is worse? Being sent to the far east of the country to spend time in a gulag or remaining in Leningrad during its siege?” she said. “This is the irony of Russian history and something my grandmother understood, that sometimes, an option that can seem worse at the start is better in the long run.”
In 1937, two years after Georgiy's arrest and subsequent exile, Olga followed him to Kolyma in Russia’s remote far east, where she accepted a job at a mining company.
Kolyma is known for its stunning scenery and a large mountain range, parts of which were undiscovered until 1926. There, the couple had two children, Nikolskaya’s uncle and her mother.
Georgiy was allowed, at various times, to live outside the prison with his family, under strict supervision.
Nikolskaya said that the leadership at the gulag in Kolyma would often change, and each time a new chief came in, they implemented their own set of rules.
The more lenient leaders allowed Georgiy to live with his wife and children for long periods, but he would often be put back into prison when a stricter chief was assigned.
In Kolyma, Olga became an accomplished geologist working for the state to locate metal deposits in the region. She was awarded the Order of Lenin, the USSR’s highest civilian decoration, after successfully locating a large deposit of tin.
She garnered a fair bit of influence after that, which she used to allow her husband to live in their home rather than in a prison cell.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Georgiy was released from the gulag and the couple returned to Leningrad. They resolved to put Georgiy's incarceration behind them and never talk about it again.
In 1957, Georgiy and his son, Nikolskaya’s uncle, built a dacha (summer house) for the family, about an hour by car to the south of St Petersburg.
The house was a symbol of the family’s newfound freedom and the chance for a fresh start after years of hardship. Nikolskaya spent every summer there as a child.
“We had these huge family dinners, and all the extended family would be invited,” she said. “I remember running in the fields, picking mushrooms and berries. It was a lovely place to be.”
The children were blissfully unaware of their grandfather’s past as a political prisoner of Stalin, and of Olga's hardships as his wife.
“In my grandmother’s mind, telling us about that part of her life would have been selfish,” Nikolskaya said. “She would have relieved herself of a trauma, but then, she would have given it to us to carry.”
It was only when she was at university in the late 1980s that her mother told her about the real reason the family had spent so much time in Kolyma, and gave Nikolskaya her grandfather’s diary.
The diary, many parts of which are included in Nikolskaya’s book, was filled with theological musings and memories.
But Nikolskaya could find only two references to the horrors he suffered at the gulag in Kolyma.
“He wanted to put it behind him, even inside his own mind,” she said.
Nikolskaya became fascinated with finding out more about that period of her grandparents’ lives, and in 2012, for her mother's 70th birthday, the pair took a trip to Kolyma, where they visited their old home — now dilapidated — and all the places her mother had visited as a child.
The trip, she said, not only shone light on her family’s past, but also that of Russia itself.
Nikolskaya believes the book has taken on a whole new significance since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“You have no idea how strange it is for me to be talking about this with what's happening in Ukraine,” Nikolskaya said. “But I can’t say I am surprised, seeing as how some of the 20th century’s most violent political events were witnessed in Russia.”
Stalin's pogroms and the horrors of the gulag system are still fresh in the minds of many Russians, she said, and could be the reason so many people in the country fear change and cling to stability.
“Russians always expect the worst,” she said. “In that way, they are like Arabs, whose suffering through traumatic political events has made them pessimistic and wary of change.”