Miracles in the Gulag: My Father’s Years in Labor Camp

Yana's father pictured, on left, with another military member.
Yana's father pictured, on left, with another military member.

In the spirit of Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration of historical miracles, OFJCC staffer Yana Z. describes the miracles of the time her father spent in the gulag.

“I am a prisoner of conscience and I don’t conform to the norms of others. I always thought in a different way and did things differently than others.” –Vasil Zavgorodniy

My father lived a simple life in Odessa, a city in southern Ukraine, with a simple job; working on the machines in an ice cream factory. Like all men living in the Soviet Union, he was required to enlist in the Soviet Armed Forces. After he completed six months of training in the mid 1970s, he had to swear the Oath of Allegiance to Soviet Navy. The oath required all men to “defend the Motherland by achieving complete victory over the enemy” which meant taking other peoples’ lives. My father refused to take this oath because it would go against his beliefs as a Christian to honor life and the Biblical commandment not to kill. As this belief was against the law in the Soviet Union, the commanders questioned my father’s religious views and on May 1st, 1975 he was sentenced to four years in prison.

My dad’s commanders sent him to an insane asylum. They believed that since he refused to take the oath and didn’t want to adopt their ideals, he must have been insane. Once patients were admitted to that particular center, they never saw the outside of their four walls and would eventually die there. The guards and doctors clearly could see that he was not mentally ill and by a miracle, decided to release him.

My father was sent off to a gulag—a labor camp where he worked in harsh conditions, slept on a cardboard “bed,” and was only fed a piece of bread for the entire day. For a year and six months, he was forced to carry and transport tons of water every day. There was one prison guard that watched him and waited for the day that he would either break down or die but every day my father got up and worked. The other prisoners and guards could not understand how such a grueling task would not break his spirit or the hope to live but by a miracle, he survived.

My father served out the last two years of his sentence at a construction site and on September 1, 1979, he became a free man. In 1994, my father graduated with a master’s degree in theology and was able to move his family to the United States the following year where he received his doctoral degree. He now travels to other countries, sharing his story of hope and miracles. In those four years, my father overcame hardships that could break anyone’s spirit but because he had hope and his faith, it taught me to hope for a better tomorrow and to stand my ground.

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Yana Zavgorodnyaya

Written by Yana Zavgorodnyaya

Yana Zavgorodnyaya is the marketing assistant at the OFJCC. Being the youngest child in her family, Yana is a natural-born prankster and comedian. When she isn’t Snapchatting, Instagramming or Facebooking, she utilizes her professional makeup certification by giving her friends and clients makeovers for events. A recent graduate from San Jose State, she hopes not to hear the word “school” ever again.

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