09/24/2007WASHINGTON -- Some years ago, in the late 1970s when I first moved to Washington, I became close friends with a famous older woman writer, the British-born Freda Utley, who had traveled one of those incredible journeys through the ideologies of the 20th century.
Freda looked somewhat prim and proper, neat glasses and countryish English clothes, but her appearance could not possibly have less reflected the political, moral and personal passions roiling within her. Starting out a communist in the '20s, when Russia looked good and Britain was in Depression, she fell in love with a brilliant Russian Jewish economist, the handsome, dark-haired Arcadi Berdichevsky, and moved to Russia with him. Thus it all began, and thus it soon all ended.
We would sit for hours in her pleasant home in downtown Washington, and she would tell me about the Soviets' infamous "knock on the door" at 2 a.m. on April 14, 1936, and how she and her husband knew that the police had come for still another innocent man for labor in the far reaches of the country.
"My father had been head of an import/export government group," their son, Jon Basil Utley, now a prominent developer here in Washington, recalled. "In those days, they would arrest someone and then look for something they'd done."
Seeing clearly the pattern of the Soviet times -- the purges, the concentration camps, the coming war -- Freda, unable to help him, soon used her and Jon's British passports to return to England, where she mobilized important leftist friends, people like George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Harold Lasky, to try to find out where Arcadi was and even sent a letter directly to Stalin. What camp in the Gulag, that web of labor camps that eventually killed untold millions? What part of that white barrenness of the Arctic? Even the knowledge that he had died -- and how and where and when -- would be some sort of solace! But the Soviets were never into solace.
So Freda Utley stayed in the West, moving eventually to the United States, and turned totally against communism, becoming a prominent conservative writer, thinker and activist with her respected books "The Dream We Lost in 1940" and "Odyssey of a Liberal" and many others. With Jon and his family, she settled in Washington, where she died at 80, having learned of her husband's death, but never knowing the circumstances.
And so it might all have remained, another unresolved horror story of the 20th century. But it didn't. It began to eat on Jon Utley not to know -- where his father had been taken, what had happened to him, had he starved to death, frozen in the horrible Arctic winter? What? Where? They knew the why.
In 1991, he began contacting the Russians. Then, by 2004, in that brief interval between the Yeltsian "thaw" and the new Putin KGB regime, he actually traveled to Russia, to the far state of Komi, an Arctic state as large as France, and then to Perm, site of the only concentration camp museum.
With the help of the various officials he met, he was amazed to find meticulously kept records on the prisoners -- and he was astonished to find that his father, Arcadi, had died not from hunger or cold but for leading a hunger strike. He was executed at the famous "Brick Quarry," which Alexander Solzhenitsyn had written about in his books on the camps.
"Copies of files detailing his arrest, indictment and execution order were sent to me by the FSB, successor to Russia's notorious KGB," he told me. "Incredibly, it still has detailed records of political prisoners and willingly provides information and help to searchers like me. They also gave me three photos of my father from the file, taken at the time of his arrest in 1936. They are in better condition than any that my mother had preserved. In Moscow's FSB library, I held the files of his interrogation in my hand."
Utley was especially impressed by the Russians -- NGOs, really -- who man the group Memorial, which keeps alive all the information on the Gulag. "They told me they often feel useless because so few come. It means so much to them when someone comes." He was also deeply moved by a Russian group called Repentance, which has researched and published six thick volumes with the names of everyone ever imprisoned in the Komi region.
Jon's unique search, which should not be unique today when much is opening that was not expected to, has now become a short documentary film. "Return to the Gulag," excellently rendered, is as part of Boston College's Jacques Salmanowitz Program for Moral Courage, a program designed to honor the courage and sacrifice of so many. In addition, there are plans for an exhibit from the Perm Concentration Camp Museum in Atlanta in December, sponsored by the National Park Service and Amnesty International.
As for Jon, what did he feel as he stood at the Brick Quarry, that lone and desolate place? "I guess I felt a certain peace as to where he was," he told me. "It ended a question. Actually, it's a sort of peaceful thing to know what happened because my mother never knew what happened to him."
Then his voice tapered off before he added, "I always wondered what he would have been thinking of, of what was in his mind when he was killed, or whether he would ever have dreamed that his son would find the place where he died."