From Tiger Hunter to Slave Laborer in Arctic Camps

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Oldest Living Gulag Survivor? 98 Year Old Man Found Alive And Well In Russia!

Available for the first time in English - Escape: A True Story. Written by Valery G. Yankovsky, translated from the original Russian by Michael Hintze.

Valery ( "Valery" is a man's name in Russian, pronounced "vuh-LEH-ree") Yankovsky is a remarkable man. I say IS because although born in 1911, he is still very much alive in Russia today.

Alive and healthy today, inspite of having spent years in several GULAG concentration camps, including a GULAG prison north of the Arctic circle at Pevek in the Kolyma (Kolima)region. He had also spent some time in a high security prison at Ussuriysk near Vladivostok, sent there for actually escaping from the first camp he had been sent to, at Nakhodka. He was recaptured near the Korean border because he was trying to help some other prisoners escape. Most others would have been shot on the spot. Remarkably, he was not.

His longevity may have something to do with his early life, and also with his unwavering belief that he had done nothing wrong. He was born into a very hardy family of hunters, outdoors men and women who also raised and bred deer and horses, and owned a large estate on the Yankovsky Peninsula across the bay from Vladivostok in Far Eastern Russia. This estate had been created by his grandfather, Mikhail(Michael) Yankovsky, a Polish exile. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a statue of Mikhail has been put up on the grounds of the old estate, and the family name has been restored to honor after having been demonized by Soviet era writers.

All the boys and many of the Yankovsky women knew how to shoot. It was a fact of life, that one needed this skill, as the area was often plagued by Hung-hu-ze - so called "red-beards", who were Chinese bandits. Because of this, the Yankovskys trusted only Koreans, and adopted many of them in to their own "clan", building up their own small private army of Koreans.

Valery and his siblings were taken by their parents to North Korea in 1922, when it became clear the Russian Revolution would take everything from them. They left just a few steps ahead of the Bolshevik forces advancing on the Vladivostok area. Valery was 11 years old at the time, already a hunter and a good shot with a rifle.

Once in North Korea, it took some time for them to establish themselves, but they created 2 settlements, both of which eventually became summer resorts - one in the mountains, one on the Sea of Japan a few miles away. All the children worked hard; their father was a tough taskmaster, whose own father had been exiled from Poland to Siberia for being a nationalistic troublemaker, and was himself a tough and unbending man. Russia ruled Poland back then, and Polish nationalists were often exiled to Siberia.

Big game hunting became a routine part of their life in North Korea, as well as breeding deer, growing and harvesting ginseng, and running the summer resorts. In the hills, they had built a Russian Camelot, called NOVINA. Built on the Ompo River near a town with famous hot springs, Novina became a flowering oasis well-known to the Far Eastern Russian communities in China and Manchuria. It was well known for about 20 years, and was once profiled in the National Geographic magazine, October 1945 issue.

Unfortunately, the Yankovsky family was surprised by the arrival of the Soviet army at the end of WW2, in 1945. All were put essentially under house arrest, although several of the men were enlisted to work for the Soviet army as translators and as people knowledgeable of the area, having lived there all those years. In fact Valery volunteered to help out because of the sentiment that he wanted to help his motherland Russia, in it's struggle with Japan.

Korea had been under Japanese occupation for quite a few years, as part of the "Japanese Empire", and the Yankovsky men spoke Japanese as well as Korean.

They were led to believe that all would be well; however Valery was suddenly arrested as he was actually on his way to Novina where his wife was soon to give birth to their first child. He was sent to the GULAGs in Russia, and did not learn what had happened to his wife and child until 17 years later, well after he was released from GULAG. His father and younger brother were arrested within days of each other and also sent back into the Soviet Union's GULAG concentration camps.

Valery eventually became a recognized author in Russia, writing many stories for Russian magazines - hunting stories, true life adventures, outdoor adventures, many of which have been collected and published in Russian. He has also written 2 autobiographical volumes. "Escape" is actually the first part of one called "The Long Return", the 2nd part of which is about his life after release from the slave labor camps, and his trip to the U.S.and Canada, where he met his son for the first time, when his son was already about 40 yars old.

Valery Yankovsky's memoirs, From the Crusades to Gulag and Beyond were also translated into English by Michael Hitze, a family friend who lives in Australia. These memoirs include an brief account of his family clan's origins, a history of his grandfather's exile from Poland to Siberia in the mid 18th century, and his creation of a new life in Far Eastern Russia, where a peninsula across the bay from Vladivostok is named after him to this day - The Yankovsky Peninsula.

I am the publisher of record. Although my name is now Elliott Snow, I was christened Ilya Valentinovich Valkov. Valery's brother Arseny was my grandfather by marriage, and my father Valentin Valkov was Valery's best friend.