Deportation to GULAG - JUDr. Ivan Kováč

14.12.2011 14:16



Texts with the evidence from JUDr. Ivan Kováč

We can point out that the isolation of the political opponents and criminals in the inhospitable regions of the country is not a Soviet invention. The tradition of exile has had a long tradition in Russia.  F. M. Dostoevsky wrote an excellent book, called Notes from a Dead House, about the Russian tsar prison in Siberia. When we read it at the present times, we find out that it is the first publicist work from exile camps, although the author tries to tell it as novel recollections of a third person. But what Dostoevsky could not experience, or even know, was the communist reality in his “destination”, in Omsk, a hundred years later. From the same town of Omsk, from the same prison, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a detailed report, as well as another man, a citizen of Czechoslovakia, the Ruthenian Ivan Kováč. Both books, written by Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, caused sensation. The harsh tsar prison from the past was changed by the Bolsheviks into a hell the great author could not have dreamt about. By the way - according to Ivan Kováč, the prisoners passing by the cell of F. M. Dostoevsky took off their hats, in honour of the writer.

There are also works of other authors having experience from the work camps in the USSR. The co-prisoner of A. Solzhenitsyn from the camp in Omsk, Ivan Kováč from Košice, contributed to Solzhenitsyn’s library with hundreds of pages from his memoirs in the camps. Their rareness is underlined, among other things, by the fact that the records, notes or even a pencil were the causes of severe punishments, often with fatal consequences. The drama of Ivan Kováč is discussed in the next chapters.

Cecília Kováčová from Košice was only a little more than fourteen years old when she and her whole family were taken from Bardejov to a concentration camp in Auschwitz (Poland). Her family died in the gas chambers, she was fortunate and somehow she mysteriously managed to survive. At the time of the liberation of the camp she was less fortunate. During the interrogation of the Soviet NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), her knowledge of several language made it more difficult for her, and, according to her story, the very fact that she had survived the misery of the concentration camp. She was condemned as a young spy for ten years in the work camp in Vorkuta (Russia).


The arrested citizens were brought to the Soviet-type court, the so-called special meetings of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (in Russian: OSO). Such an illegitimate tribunal judged, as one of the many, also JUDr. Ivan Kováč, originally coming from Mukatshevo, working in Prague. Others were even judged by military tribunals. Vladimir Juskiv and Stanislav Jurko were arrested by the national security in Košice in 1949, then transferred to Prague and handed over to the Soviet authorities of MGB (former Soviet intelligence and counter-intelligence agency). They interned them into the USSR and sentenced them to ten years for joining the international bourgeoisie.

The persecution and internment of the Russian and Ukrainian emigrants took the longest time when we talk about all groups of prisoners deported to the camps in the USSR. The Czechoslovak authorities lost their interest in intervening with the Soviet authorities when talking about the persecution of these emigrants. On the contrary, they gave in the pressure of the Soviet party and gradually began to cooperate in their arrests and internment. Even in 1949, the Czechoslovak authorities, at the direction of their Soviet partners, searched for Russian citizens as well as other nationalities from the USSR and encouraged citizens to indicate their place of residence. Of course, the national security had a significant share in their arrests and they handed them over to NKVD. After the OSO trial, the above-mentioned I. Kováč, V. Juskiv, and S. Jurko were deported to Siberia, Karaganda, and Kolym.

Ivan Kováč remembers the camp in Omsk. “There was an old prison in Omsk, from the time of Catherine the Great, where the Decembrists, the Petrashevs and the Revolutionaries of the tsarist times served their sentence there. At the door of one cell, the small board reported that F. M. Dostoevsky served his punishment there, performing penal labour. The prisoners, passing by the cell, took off their hats and paid him a tribute. His impressions from this prison led him to write the Notes from a Dead House. It was also excellently described by A. Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag Archipelago. It was 1950 and the Indian summer of Siberia was exceptionally pleasant. We were sitting and talking all days in the prison courtyard. The prisoners were describing their destiny, and when I, from Czechoslovakia, began to speak, they became silent, listened, and other and other listeners came, and I found out that I was lecturing in front of the audience of the prison courtyard. The prisoners were mostly well-educated people from Moscow and Leningrad, among them the Lenin students who opposed Stalin's dictatorship. They were also prominent people among them, for example, the son of a regional party secretary from Voronezh (Russia), the son of the chairman of the regional committee. These students liked listening about the student movement in our country, about student life, and when I was talking about academic freedom, they were really surprised. We were greatly respected among the prisoners, they respected our democratic experience, they gave us a lot of questions, they wanted democracy to come to Russia, but they knew their desire was hopeless. Solzhenitsyn was one of us, one of the educated ones in the prison. During the war he served in Poland as an artillery officer, he had critical remarks to the conduct of the war. He mentioned them in a letter to a friend, and the letter was discovered by the military censorship so he was brought to court. He was an ordinary prisoner such as the Hungarian János Rózsas, who then published a book of memories about the years in the Stalin’s camps. Solzhenitsyn differed from others by being very intelligent and curious - he liked asking about the system of parliamentary democracy; we spent a lot of time discussing history. He did not know many things, because the Stalinist regime had its own interpretation of history.

But I, at the grammar school in Mukatshevo, had excellent Russian university professors, emigrants, who could not teach at our universities. My class was taken over by professors from Moscow and St. Petersburg, for example Professor Petrov, Malyshev, Bernstein, who was the Chancellor of the Maritime College of Russia, he spoke eight languages, taught Latin, Greek, French; we had such professors at grammar school. So Solzhenitsyn learned a lot in an indirect way. He did not even know that before the Second World War, two brothers, the Solonevich brothers, managed to escape from the camp in Solovki. They were good athletes, and managed to escape from the Nordic camp - on cross-country skis to Finland and further to the west, and later reported all these in their books about the atrocities in the camps. But it was a mistake that nobody took seriously their depiction of the cruelty of the Soviet regime. Solzhenitsyn understood that Europe went through revolutionary transformations that had not affected Russia that democracy had its roots in the West, and once he said in this context: Stalin made two mistakes - he showed his nation to Europe and Europe to his nation. And the nation knew how they lived there. Solzhenitsyn encourages us - remember everything you see and you experience. Mainly you that are from abroad. You will return home and tell everything.” (Ivan Kováč, Košice)


Cecília Kováčová was fortunate. In Vorkuta, she was originally to train to work in the mines but then the situation changed to the benefit of her, and a few years later she could tell her horrible story. “I would not survive this hard work in the mine, I was barely eighteen years old and spent four years in Auschwitz. Fortunately, a Russian doctor noticed me and asked me to write prescriptions in Roman characters. So I became her assistant, clerk as well as nurse. She saved my life and I was extremely grateful to her. When our hell was over, I visited her in Georgia and she visited me here in Košice.”


Ivan Kováč said about the situation in Ekibaztus the following: “The camps were controlled by Mafia. One of them consisted of murderers and criminals. They had a privileged position and they did not work - letting others work for themselves. They were “bitches”, it means prisoners without conscience. They did not mind murders or violence. It happened that when they were playing cards and some of them did not have money, they placed a bet to a guard or a co-prisoner. When he lost, he had to kill him. In my brigade, I had two of these. I needed them to get bread and materials; they made sure and protected me not to be robbed by another Mafia. Therefore they did not work; the standard was fulfilled by others. There was also something like camp honour; this was the proud of the other group of thieves - “blatniya”. These criminals did not work because they did not want to support the Communist regime. They did not inform, they did not collaborate. There was a merciless fight to death and when a fight broke out there cold be ten dead people. At that time, even the guards were afraid of them. Another Mafia was the Georgian one. They won the fight for the kitchen and for the ladle. Those who have the ladle - live. The Georgians gradually took over the food storeroom and the snack bar. They black-marketed with tangerines, tea, and hot pepper. But because of Stalin, no one liked them, and when the father of the nation died in 1953, the hatred of the prisoners turned against them. One morning after Stalin’s death, six of them were stabbed with steel rods ...”

“In the camp I had a large lawyer’s office, six Soviet lawyers worked for me, I had good reputation because of one sergeant,” said Dr. Kováč. “They imprisoned him for 25 years because, in front of his unit, he had told that the Studebaker was better than ZIS, because when the ZIS sank into the mud, they had to pull it out with a tank. They condemned him for humiliating the Soviet technology and exaggerating the bourgeoisie one. The sergeant came to see me, he had heard that Zhukov had spoken in Uralmash that we had to produce better machines, and lighter, stronger liken America. They were applauded to Zhukov and I got 25 years, he said. I went to KVČ[1], where the manager was a governor from the times of the tsar Russia, he had a French name - Sarpantié. He got the death penalty, then they changed it to life sentence because he behaved well to the political prisoners from the times of tsar Russia. After the liberation, he remained as a freelancer and worked in KVČ. He did not want to live in poverty in freedom, rather he stayed among the educated people in the camp. I got along with him and he found me the newspaper where they wrote about the Zhukov’s visit to Ural. He cut his speech for me and I wrote an appeal and a request for release. I sent it to Zhukov and to ÚV KSSZ. Almost a month later, a telegram came from Moscow to release the sergeant immediately. Thanks to this, I acquired great reputation - Vot advokat Czechoslovak! - they praised me. Suddenly there was a lot of work, everybody wanted something, and everybody needed something. That’s why the six helpers started to work too. They paid us with bread and also money, the thieves with vodka, who knows where they got it from. The thieves instructed me how to write their requests, they were angry, they dictated letters full of vulgar expressions and insults; if I had listened to them, I would have surely got more years in the camp, and they too.

Dr. Ivan Kováč, deported from Prague in 1948, survived harsh camps. In one of them, he was a bit fortunate and he got some work outside the guarded area of the camp. He said: “I was a brigadier, I had an office for different accounting work. Writing in the camp was very dangerous, and there were also such examinations that they looked even into one’s rectum. In the office, however, it was possible to write, so I started to write down all the events, but also to write letters home and the complaints to the General Prosecutor's Office. Our manager of construction works was a former prisoner and his father-in-law worked at the Ministry of the Interior Affairs in Moscow. We collected some roubles and his wife travelled to Moscow with our mail and brought messages from the Ministry. In this way, I smuggled out all my memories into Mukatshevo, 850 pages, later from Mukatshevo to Košice and then to the West. I was able to fulfil Solzhenitsyn's will to inform the world about the events in the Soviet camps, but also to make contact with the family. I started to receive packets from home and the life was more tolerable then. I always called my friends, of course, the future writer too, and we shared every bit. We had to build the Irtysh - Karaganda Canal (Kazakhstan). Under our feet, there was somewhere in the depths of the earth. You just needed to put your head on the ground. Artesian wells should have to be bored there, but the weather was so hot that the bulldozers started to burn and blood run out of our noses. We built shafts in Ekibastuz, they were also building the cosmodrome in Baykonur, which we were told that it would be a meat processing plant. At that time, Solzhenitsyn was working in a mechanical brigade, and I was so exhausted after a year that I and some other exhausted prisoners were sent into the camp in Spassko. We did not know that they sent the sick, weak and paralyzed prisoners to die in Spassko. But we were fortunate. In Karaganda, I met my classmate from Mukatshevo. It was a Jew who had left Hungary, he did not want to die in a concentration camp, and he ended up in a Russian camp in Siberia. He advised me not go to Spassko, from there no one has ever returned alive. Stay here, we need experts. All of a sudden, in our group we had carpenters, bricklayers, joiners, so they left us in Karaganda.”

Dr. Ivan Kováč was not able to reconcile with his deportation to the USSR. He wrote letters everywhere and explained his situation. Uselessly. When the regime in the camp in Karaganda near Saran weakened over the time, he organized a strike against the so-called winter coefficients:[2] “I wrote a letter to the prosecutor about our situation and he, on the basis of my appeal, orders an inspection. The firms, the leadership of the camp, the brigadiers and me, who started the strike, met at the workplace.  We went out to the courtyard and the prosecutor talked about my appeal. I told them that everything was true, there are the brigadiers and two and a half thousand people standing outside that can confirm this. He told the leaders of the camp and the firms - I give you one hour, then I will come back. If the work sheets and coefficients are not signed, then Kováč will be released and you will go to “tjurma” (prison). Because you have sabotaged and have not paid the prisoners. In an hour everything was signed and my brigade got extra five thousand hours to keep me silent. Then he asked me to tell the people to start working. I went outside, the prisoners were sitting there and waiting for the result. I told them we had won and that they had paid the work sheets, the coefficients as well as the downtime for the time we did not work. There was a hurray, they were throwing me up and it was the happiest day of my life in the camp. On the basis of the UN decision, we were moved - all the foreigners who were deported to the USSR had to be returned home. So the Russian emigrants had to be returned too. We got into a camp for foreigners and there were 32 nations. Every nation elected their representative and I was elected an elder. I had to get in touch with the leadership and the Government of the USSR. This was the greatest honour for me. And not only for me, bit also for Czechoslovakia that a Czechoslovak person was chosen to be its representative. They called me Hammarskjöld [3]. In the UN he was elected by 56 national representatives, I was elected by 32, that’s why they called me “small”.

But the atmosphere in the camps was different. When I ordered the strike, some said I went insane when I began to fight against ČK and the Soviet Government. The second group thought I was an agent that I wanted the rebellion because I wanted them to have more years, to have them shot. The third group, the smallest one, said - this guy was quick on the update, he is foreseeing, he is a foreigner, he must be trusted. And the fourth group - they did not care at all. When we won, then everyone started to believe me. When I think about it today, it seems to me that those were right who thought I was insane. But I had good information about what’s happening in the world, I was listening to Radios Free Europe and the Voice of America. Just imagine, in the camp! It was possible because the people were “prorabami” - [4] educated in our camp. One of them was called Prochorov. They imprisoned him because somebody had found the attendance list from a Trotsky’s lecture from thirty-five years ago, and he - as a student - was signed there too. Trotsky was already dead, but Prochorov was in prison because of this lecture. Prochorov brought a radio. I hid him in the “zemlyanka” (earth house) and secretly listened to it. I learned that the UN had decided that the deported people had to be returned home. So we had very good information, better than the leadership of the camp. That’s why I made bold to demand our rights. Then they issued the memorable Ukaz.[5] On the basis of this order they released the prisoners from the camp after they had served two thirds of their punishment. I made a request but they did not release me, they said this did not apply to foreigners. But again, I faced it out and we achieved what we wanted. So we, ordinary prisoners, contributed to the fight against totalitarianism a little bit.”

Kidnapping of Dr. Ivan Kováč

The following story is totally atypical for our narrative. JUDr. Ivan Kováč was displaced to the USSR with the help of the Czechoslovak secret police, his story is not very similar to the stories of the thousands interned people. In his case, it is very ordinary state terror committed against a citizen of his own state. Dr. Kováč was kidnapped by the state security officers and was handed over to NKVD.

Dr. Kováč comes from Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, he was born near Mukatsevo in 1912. His oldest brother, Štefan, was the personal interpreter of the General Asmolovov and as a paratrooper he organized SNP (Slovak National Uprising) in the Slovak mountains. He was also the commander of a partisan group. Ivan was an interpreter in the Second Ukrainian front in the team of Marshal Malinovsky; his younger brother, Vasilij was an interpreter in the Fourth Ukrainian front for Marshal Yevlyomenko. The youngest brother, Aleksander, was a student and instead of going to the Hungarian army he joined the partisans. Dr. Ivan Kováč told his story as follows: “I was arrested after the February events (1948!) right on the street. It was in Northern Bohemia in Jeníkov, and neither me nor my family were explained the cause of the arrest. I spent a year in various prisons in Prague and my closest people did not know where I was and what happened to me. Interestingly, the investigators did not want anything from me, except for my CV. One day they got me to Leteňská pláň where the hostel for the Carpathian students was located. There was the sign Welcome, and who once visited this place because of foolishness or violently, he went straight to Siberia.. About ten of us were taken to a truck and headed for the Austrian border. We knew this was bad. At the border, the car did not even stop and we got to Baden, the seat of the Russian Counter-Intelligence Service. I finally learned what I was guilty of. I was said I betrayed because I served in the Hungarian army. My activity in it was that I negotiated the transfer of the entire company to the partisans. Later I became an interpreter in the Second Ukrainian front, we liberated Slovakia and Bratislava. It was clear they wanted to catch me. they told I was a Whiteguardist and a counter-revolutionist. Fortunately, I had my identity card and I proved to them that I was born in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and when Lenin made the revolution, I was only 5 years old. They confiscated my watch, I did not have anything else as a student. In Kiev, I spent another year in the detention pending trial with torture methods. Then Moscow where I got the judicial decision. Of course, me, and the former Member of the National Assembly of Czechoslovakia, Vasil Ščerecký, were sentenced (without an action in court!) to long imprisonment in a camp in Siberia where our co-prisoner was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author of the novel Gulag Archipelago. I knew that they were acting against me illegally, I defended myself, but they laughed at me - you will go to Siberia...”

Dr. Kováč was fortunate. He survived in the harsh labour camps in the USSR and, after Stalin’ s death, he returned to ČSR (Czechoslovakia Socialist Republic). For years he asked for explanations at the highest places, of course - the answers were indirect and evasive. Only after the establishment of the Office of Documentation and Investigation of Crimes of Communism in the Czech Republic, based on the archival documents, it was found out that this was a “mistake” of the Czechoslovak security authorities. But the mistake was made by particular people, and “his person” was the major of the State Security Service, Veselý, who ordered his arrest. This agent committed suicide in 1964... The arrest, the hand-over to the foreign security element and the deportation of the citizen Kováč abroad has not been closed definitely yet.

There were various hard punishment for attempts to note, write or draw something, or to own a certificate, document, depending on the strictness of the camp. From ordinary beating to fatal beating. Solzhenitsyn  solved the impossibility of recording anything on a piece of paper in such a way that the events he wanted to record permanently in his memory were put into verses and he learned them by heart. The great heroes are then those who wrote their memoirs and dairies directly in the camps. The greatest work written with admirable courage was created by Dr. Ivan Kováč from Košice when he wrote down his findings on 850 pages. It was only possible because of his work in the construction office outside the camp zone, but also thanks to his courage to write and cleverness to be able hide the writings hide from curious the wardens and the informers. Today, these records are in the Solzhenitsyn’s archive. The copy is at the son of I. Kováč, ready to be published in the USA, another one is in the museum in Karaganda. In Slovakia, we have only some fragments, unfortunately.

Getting home did not mean that the story of persecution is over, at least for some “interesting cadres”. Also Dr. Ivan Kováč was among them. We mentioned that he had been kidnapped from Czechoslovakia only in February 1948, and he returned back on September 20, 1956, it means a long period of time. But he was not released from the train, he was put directly in the prison in Ruzyne, Prague. “There, the prosecutor asked me why I was judged and intervened. I told him that this was a question for him, and how it was possible that our authorities handed me over to a foreign security service in 1948. But he could not answer this. I got a record that the reasons for my detention were over, and therefore they released me. What were these reason that were over - I have never found out. I was finally released on June 1, 1956.” According to V. Bystrov, a lot of citizens, former Russian emigrants, were helpless, when they returned home after they had spent distressful time in the Soviet camps.

Especially the citizens of the ČSR have to be mentioned - the Russian post-revolutionary emigrants as well as the politicians and public officials of the Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia who remained in the territory of the ČSR after the end of the war. NKVD searched for them and, in cooperation with the Czechoslovak security service, arrested them until 1948 in the territory of a sovereign state! The testimony of Ivan Kováč mentions the night executions in the villa garden in Juliska, Prague, where these unfortunates were gathered. Miloš Krno remarked on this topic: “It is not true that the post-war Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the ČSR did not care about our citizens. More actions ended successfully. It was more difficult with several Russian emigrants from Bohemia, whom the Soviets considered to be their citizens and collaborators with the Nazis.”

I was visiting the Kováč family in Košice for several years. The result of the discussions with Dr. Ivan Kováč were a few recordings and some film footage. After his death, Mrs. Cecilia Kováčová gave me her husband’s archives as he wanted it before his death. It was a great surprise for me to find a reference to a certain Cecilia deported to Vorkuta who recorded the text of a galley slave song. I asked her why, during the long co-operation with her husband, she did not mention their common fate in the gulag. She said: “I met my husband on the train on the way to Moscow. I spent four years in the concentration camp in Auschwitz and ten years in the camp in Vorkuta. My husband was kidnapped to Bohemia, his family was smashed, he himself suffered in Siberia for eight years. Our common destiny and unexampled suffering joined us. When we returned to Czechoslovakia, we married and we said we would never talk about our experience from the gulag. My husband broke this promise in 1968 when foreign as well as domestic journalists came to see him. We said, well, his experience was made public but mine would be kept in secret forever. How could I have met my friends if they had known I had spent ten years in a Soviet prison? Even for nothing?” And she insisted on keeping her secret about the Auschwitz and Vorkuta drama until her death.

JUDr. Ivan Kováč, who became famous for the struggle with the Soviet power and the robbers in the camp, tried the impossible after his return home. He asked the Soviet state power to return his Omega watch and the cash that they had confiscated at the interment. And indeed, after years, he received 1,077 Kčs (Czechoslovak crowns) for the withdrawn money and watch. His juridical consistency achieved a unique success.



I was not able to retell al the stories, to remember all the deported people who would deserve it, to meet al the deported people and to tell his or her story. All the stories are dramatic and unrepeatable, they are the proof of the stunning ill-natured regime and its actors as well as the great effort to survive. New and new facts are coming to light, new and new fates, documents, while living witnesses are dying, only few of them are alive today. Despite this, I was glad to see how some fates crossed each other, met and left and they finally reached the readers.

I was particularly pleased with the people who, in terrible conditions of the camps, managed to resist their philosophy and think mainly of others. They were priests who supported the living and dying slaves, they did not leave the sufferers in their last moments, secretly buried their dead brothers with Christian dignity.

Everyone must also be delighted with true physicians without borders who have often treated people with their bare hands and good words, herbs, sugar cubes, crumbs of bread ... Or the daredevils who risked their lives and wrote down their records so that the world can learn about the immense suffering. Also the lawyer JUDr. Ivan Kováč who, with great courage, organized a strike of the robbed slaves in the camp, and recorded their everyday life on hundreds of pages. We must appreciate the mysterious fish sellers looking for Raul Wahlenberg in the white hell of Kamtschatka, and thanks to them it was possible to free completely different deported people who were imprisoned by the Soviet power in a strictly secret regime in the most remote wasteland of Asia, for example, Pavol Tunák from Kysuce. And many, many others, thousands of anonymous martyrs from half the world, from Vladivostok to Lisbon, who suffered and died in the name of undeclared guilt in the red trapdoor of civilization.

Many of them were afraid to talk about it even after years, others wanted to forget this forever and did not remember the terrible tragedy, others wrote encouraging and thankful letters. After years, many of them wanted to know what happened to their loved ones. They asked about them in letters, looking for help. The victims of the post-war siege, scattered over the broad Soviet land, were concealed for years. Their spoiled lives cannot be returned or replaced. The results of their devastating work in the mines, forests, factories, and field were wasted by the self-eating regime. As it turned out after its fall, the inheritance of the Communist regime is terrible not only in the economical life, but especially in people’s thinking and mainly in the spiritual field. The regime reduce education with educators, arts with artists, work with workers to nothing, it did not evaluate even the free labour force. How could it assume the right to rule over the whole world?





[1] KVČ - a cultural and educational room

[2] coefficients - when working in freezing weather - minus 25 degrees Celsius, one working day was counted for two or three days, depending on the temperature and performance (12% of the performance - two days, more than 125% - three days)

[3] Hammarskjöld, Dag Hjalmar, Agne Carl – Swedish diplomat, General Secretary of the UN, Nobel Peace Prize

[4] prorab – abbreviation for “proizvoditeľ rabot”, a worker after he has served his punishment with forced residence in a dedicated place

[5] ukaz – in Russian: an order