Andriy Mastrienko still remembers the day when he had to leave forever the house where his family lived for generations, near the Dnieper River, in Soviet Ukraine. They told us we had to go and leave the walls alone,” he told the.
His people, like 200 others in Ukraine and hundreds of others throughout the Soviet Union, were flooded by orders from Stalin for the construction of some socialist mega-project, be it a hydroelectric plant, a canal, or a dam. And it is that as part of the Soviet efforts to demonstrate the superiority of the socialist system over capitalism, the USSR designed an ambitious agenda to achieve an advanced industrial economy. The memory of forced resettlement and the destruction of their homes haunts the survivors 70 years later. The authorities did not explain much why people had to be relocated. There was only one message it is necessary for the development of the economy,” Svetlana Sliusarenkio, who was a girl when her parents had to leave their village.
Many of those who lived through it have already died, but throughout Russia and in many former Soviet republics there are still church towers, walls, or abandoned buildings that jut out like masts over a bed of water. They are the last vestige of a dark age of authoritarianism and repression, the last stone testimonies of what has been called the “Soviet Atlantis” (about the mythical submerged city). Stalin’s industrialization since the late 1930s, the Stalin government devised a new conception of the “Soviet model” of communism that sought to demonstrate by all possible means the greatness of the system against its fierce opponent, capitalism.
They gave way to what some historians have over time called “gigantomastia,” an obsession to build colossal buildings that account in and out of the “glory of the Soviet Union” and its “power over nature,” sometimes at a cost. of the lives of thousands of people. In 1935, shortly after the collectivization of the Soviet Union left one of the worst famines in history, the State Planning Committee approved the creation of the largest dam that had been built in the world to date. In April 1941, the Volga and Sheksna rivers were blocked for the creation of the Uglich reservoir.5,000 square kilometers of land were flooded and more than 660 villages and the town of Mologa, founded in the 12th century, were completely underwater. In all, some 130,000 people had to be relocated and large tracts of agricultural land and forests were destroyed along the Volga River.
The chain of reservoirs that continued to be built continued to flood towns and became what was also for years the largest hydroelectric power station on the planet (which is still the largest in Europe): the Volga GES. Files declassified after the end of Stalinism show that the construction was carried out mainly by prisoners from the Volzhsky prison camp, where those who refused to relocate were also sent. The scenes were repeated throughout the Soviet Union. The great projects of communism end of the Second World War marked the beginning of the Soviet economic recovery and also the beginning of the Cold War.
It was then that Stalin devised a plan known as the “Great Building Projects of Communism,” which encompassed a series of hydroelectric plants and risk canals throughout the Soviet Union. Some, like the Turkmenistan Main Canal, were never completed, but others still stand. The Kremenchuk power station, for which the Mastrienko and Sliusarenkio families were displaced, was inaugurated in 1960. An area three times the size of the city of Chicago was flooded for these purposes and more than 130,000 people were displaced. If someone refused, they would send bulldozers on the date set for the departure to demolish the houses,” recalls Sliusarenkio.
They had no alternative, nobody could question anything. It was an order and had to be carried out. Floods According to Sliusarenkio, a year before the planned flood, the authorities began to visit the villages to tell them that they had to go and appraised the houses, they paid a little more for the older ones. The houses were later marked with paint on the facades, they wrote in large letters and numbers the date on which their inhabitants had to leave it forever. Authorities provided transportation for families, but livestock had to move on foot, often for distances of hundreds of kilometers. My wife was milking cows and she had to do the whole journey on foot with the animals,” says Mastrienko.
Sliusarenkio, for his part, recalls that the inhabitants were allowed to remove the remains of their dead from the cemeteries of the towns that would be flooded and take them with them wherever they went. If they could not or did not want to unearth their dead, they asked them to remove the crosses and they passed the bulldozers to level the vaults with the ground so that the remains would not float when the graves were underwater,” he says. The official history of Russia does not include the names of the hundreds of people estimated to have drowned because they refused to leave their homes before they were flooded.
The memory of “Soviet Atlantis” and the hundreds of towns and villages that formed it have also faded as the last witnesses of those years die and due to the scant interest of the Russian authorities to delve into a past that could damage even more so, the image of a Soviet leader that Putin admires. However, with the passing of the years, the seasons, and the droughts, the headlines of new remnants of submerged villages surfacing sporadically appear in the Russian press. And new tourism companies make yacht excursions and cruises to Atlantis a new destination of nostalgia.