Evženie Věsniková-Němečková - Family in the grip of the Gulag and the Gestapo

She received a medal from Stalin, then her husband was executed, her son (who later became the Soviet national artist) was taken away from her, and finally she was imprisoned in a gulag in Soviet Kazakhstan. Evženie Věsnikova (née Němečková) was one of four Czech female prisoners in the brutal women's camp in Akmolinsk. Gulag.cz managed to document her story in detail thanks to search in Kazakhstan. And also with the help of some incredible coincidences.

Evženie wasn't the only one in her family who suffered a bad fate. Her cousin, the legionary writer and diplomat Zdeněk Němeček, also had his share. In the Czech Republic, he was imprisoned by the Gestapo for his participation in the resistance, and after the Bolshevik takeover he had to flee from the Communists across the Atlantic. He also tried to save Evženia's brother Konstantin Němeček from Stalinist repression. He, however, ended up going to the Gulag like his sister instead of going to freedom. For ten years.

Shadows of the East

Writers who have lived adventurous lives usually have no shortage of subjects for their work. Neither did Zdeněk Němeček (1894-1957). Between the world wars, his novels drew on his experience as a legionnaire who had gone through the Russian anabasis and as a diplomat who represented young Czechoslovakia in Spain, West Africa and the United States. During the Second World War he was involved in the resistance activities of the Parsifal group and was responsible for communication with the Czechoslovak government-in-exile in London. In February 1945, however, he was arrested by the Gestapo and held in the prison at Pankrác in Prague until the end of the fighting.

As a convinced democrat, Zdeněk Němeček emigrated to Canada after February 1948 and later to the United States. He summarised his experiences as a man forced to leave his home in his novel Hard Ground, which was first published in his homeland in 2008 by the Torst publishing house.

Throughout his active pro-democracy life, Zdeněk Němeček was accompanied by a hidden but all the more oppressive shadow. It had its source in the Soviet Union, where the second branch of the Němeček family lived - Zdeněk's uncle and cousins. Originally enthusiastic communists, they quickly became Gulag prisoners.

The Gulag.cz association managed to reconstruct their story during recent expedition to Kazachstan. Much of the family's turbulent fate took place in female camp Alzhir near Astana, notorious for its appalling conditions. Zdeněk's cousin, Evženie (in Russian, Yevgenia) Věsniková, née Němečková, mentioned in the introduction, spent eight years there.

Relatives must be punished too

"Evženie was my grandmother. I remember how she used to sing Czech songs to me when I was a child in Moscow after she returned from exile in the 1960s, such as 'Tancuj, tancuj vykrúcaj', " says Anton Věsnik. He still lives in Moscow and it was only by sheer coincidence that we got in touch thanks to the Alzhir camp museum. The Gulag.cz expedition was there in the autumn of 2021, searching for the remains of the camp and fates of four Czech female prisoners, who were imprisoned there, a few months later, Anton tried to find information about his Czech grandmother there.

Alzhir is a common abbreviation for Akmolinsky Camp of the Wives of Traitors of the Nation (Akmolinsky Lager Zhen Izmennikov Rodiny). It was the largest all-female camp in the former Soviet Union. It was founded in 1938, at the height of the Great Terror, during which over one and a half a million completely innocent people were arrested, more than half of them were subsequently executed. Those arrested were workers, peasants, members of national minorities (mostly Germans, Poles, Finns, but also Czechs), and a large part of the elite of the time. Many committed communists, often from high circles, were not spared repression. This is why the Great Terror is sometimes called the Great Purge.

However, the brutal repression did not stop with those directly affected; the regime also targeted their families, mostly wives and children. They were all officially branded as traitors of the Motherland, which was enough to condemn them to the Gulag. This is how thousands of women - wives of until then prominent Soviet officials - ended up in the Akmolinsk camp. Evženie was one of them. Her husband, Jakov Věsnik, was one of the leading Bolshevik officials who were crushed by the Great Terror.

Němeček family from Hradec and Zhitomir

To understand the whole story, it is necessary to start in the second half of the 19th century, when two brothers, Alois and Emanuel Němeček, were born in Hradec Králové. The former later moved to Josefov (now part of Jaroměř), owned a newsagent's shop and in 1894 his son Zdeněk, a future diplomat and writer, was born. Alois' brother Emmanuel's was destined to go much further. After studying at Charles University, he went with his wife to Tsarist Russia, where he settled with other Czech settlers on the Ukrainian plains around Zhitomir. He embraced Orthodoxy and was involved, for example, in the Russian collection for the construction of the Orthodox Church of Peter and Paul in Karlovy Vary. Later he even became a clergyman and with his wife Anna they brought five children into the world. Olga and Boris (they died young due to illness), Ludmila, Konstantin and in 1897 Evženia.

The families of both Alois and Emanuel maintained close contact, cousins visited each other regularly and wrote to each other until the Second World War. Sometime around 1910, Zdeněk Němeček also went to Russia to vhis relatives and he found a job in the Moscow branch of Laurin and Klement company. There he was also caught up in the beginning of the Great War, after which he joined the Czechoslovak legions and returned to Czechoslovakia in 1919. In the same year, Emanuel and his children reportedly wanted to board one of the Legion's steamships in Vladivostok, but for reasons that are unclear, this eventually did not happen - and he died shortly afterwards in Tambov, Russia, probably as a result of the Bolshevik campaign against church dignitaries.

Emanuel's youngest daughter Ludmila soon moved to Czechoslovakia, where she married a White Guard emigrant, Molodkin. Her sister Evženie, on the other hand, had a great love affair with the Red Commissar Věsnik in Bolshevik Russia, and her brother Konstantin began to study painting in Moscow.

Comrade served, comrade may die

Jakov Věsnik came from a Belarusian-Jewish family, he commanded Bolshevik troops in Transcaucasia during the Civil War and was severely wounded during one of the battles near Baku in 1921. It was then that he met Evženie Němečková, who came to those places as a nurse. According to family legend, Jakov was in danger of having both his legs amputated, but she pledged her love for him at all times.

Věsnik's legs were spared, but he suffered great pain. He eventually became a prominent Bolshevik official, and in the 1920s he and his wife, Evženie, resided in the United States, Germany, and Sweden as representatives of Soviet business. In New York, during the Great Depression, they allegedly bought all the factory equipment for the Soviet Union and lured many American workers there. Most of those who agreed later ended up in the Gulag or on death row.

In 1923, Jakov and Evženie had a son, Jevgenij, and eight years later the family was transferred to Krivyi Rih in Soviet Ukraine. There, Věsnik was assigned the task of managing the construction of a giant foundry and steelworks, which is still the largest enterprise of its kind in Ukraine today - employing 30,000 people. The Věsnik family, in short, were among the elite of the Bolshevik hierarchy in their time. Until the Great Terror.

"In June 1937, my father went to Moscow to try to reclaim his deputy, who had been arrested earlier. But he himself never returned to Krivyi Rih. He too was arrested, " Jevgenij Věsnik, who became a famous actor during Soviet times, told the Russian Express in 1996. "When my father disappeared, my mother and I also went to Moscow, where we had a four-room apartment on Donskaya Street. We were looking for my father, trying to find any trace of him. In vain. "

Jakov Věsnik was accused of preparing the assassination of the leading Georgian Bolshevik, Sergo Ordzhonikidze (who had died under unclear circumstances in February 1937), and he was executed on 17 November 1937. However, the information about his fate was strictly kept secret by the Soviet authorities at the time, and the family learned everything only decades later. Before that, Evženie and her son Jevgenij - as the closest relatives of a prominent "traitor" - had to fight for their own lives.

"Sometime around 5th November, they came for my mother. A search of the house. Things and documents were flying around the room like scared birds. By some miracle, my mother managed to tuck a deposit book into my shorts. Thank God they didn't make me take off my underwear. They sealed up three rooms and left me one tiny one of twelve square meters, where I could carry my books, my father's things, a bed, a chair and dishes, " Jevgenij Věsnik recalled. "I remember that I had shivers all over my body. My mother kissed me and said, 'Remember, Zhenya, that your parents are honest people, and no matter what happens, no one will be able to tarnish their names!' Then they took her away, the radio had just announced six o'clock with the regular slogan 'Morning draws in soft colours on the walls of the ancient Kremlin'. So in 1937 I suddenly lost my father and mother. My father forever and my mother for 18 years. I was 14. "

But for Jevgenij, the autumn drama of 1937 was far from over. "They came back for me two days later. Two people, one in civilian clothes, with a pistol sticking out from under his jacket, and the other our house manager, Tatar, obviously in the role of a witness. They ordered me to pack a spare pair of underwear, a shirt, a hat, a towel and something to eat. Saying that I would not return, they took me out into the street, where a truck with a tarpaulin over the back was parked at the gate to our yard, " Jevgenij recounts his further fate. In the truck, he said, there were several similar unfortunates, children and teenagers, who were taken to an unknown destination. Jevgenij was loaded in between them and the car set off into the streets of Moscow. You could see through the tarpaulin where they were going. "As we passed the Don Monastery, I noticed that its side gate was open. Taking advantage of the guard's lack of attention, as well as the truck's reduced speed in the curve, I discreetly lowered myself and my small bag from the top of the truck and like a mouse nimbly entered the open monastery gate. I am grateful to my fellow passengers at the time that no one gave me away. God knows what happened to them afterwards... "

Jevgenij's further fate would make for an adventure novel. He tried to get as quickly as possible to Kiev railway station in Moscow, where, coincidentally, a train to Kharkov was leaving at that time. He admitted truthfully to the conductor in one of the cars that he was on the run and needed to get to his Kharkov friends. The stewardess hid him on a shelf behind a pile of sheets and gave him a few apples to eat. Jevgenij then spent a month in Kharkov with a family acquaintance, a former assistant to his father who worked as a company lawyer at the Krivyi Rih steelworks.

Through various contacts, he managed to get in touch with Mikhail Kalinin, who, as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, was formally the head of the entire Soviet Union and who allegedly tried to save some high-ranking officials during the Great Terror. In 1938, however, Stalin also had his wife imprisoned for eight years. Fortunately, Kalinin was still able to help the young Jevgenij Věsnikov.

He knew his father from the time when they both worked as locksmiths in a factory in Saint Petersburg. "I returned to Moscow and went straight from the railway station to Mochova Street, directly to the waiting room of the Supreme Soviet office. There I asked them to announce that Jakov Věsnik's son had arrived. I can imagine the surprise of the others present when the secretary of the chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee led a dirty boy into Kalinin's office. He had known me since I was a child. He greeted me and immediately lowered his voice: Did they take your mother too? I nodded. Kalinin asked if I had any relatives in Moscow, and when he found out that I did, he wished me success at school, gave me some money and promised that no one would lay a hand on me. Then he shook my hand and had me driven me home to our Moscow apartment. A man rode with me, he brought me to the house manager and pointed to an entry in the house book: The minor Jevgenij Jakovlevich Věsnik, a high school student, has permission by order of M. I. Kalinin to live in a room of 12 square meters in house No. 42 on Donskaya Street. "

Jevgenij was incredibly lucky. Thousands of other Soviet children in a similar situation did not escape their tragic fates in orphanages or special Gulag camps. And neither did his mother, Evženie.

First the medal, then the warrant

In 1936, great fame awaited her. She received an award from Stalin himself - the Order of the Red Banner of Labour for her organisational skills within the Women's Engineering and Technical Workers' Movement. As the wife of a high-ranking Bolshevik official, she could afford not to work, but instead, as a skilled organizer, she was involved, for example, in the construction of the poultry farm in Krivyi Rih. She was also significant in the construction of a network of children's health camps, gaining fame throughout the Soviet Union.

In fact, she was one of the authors of the concept of pioneer camps. When Stalin awarded her a medal of honour in the Kremlin for this, he may have known that in a year's time he would unleash another wave of hell that would wash over the decorated Czech and her husband...After her arrest in November 1937, Evženie was sent to Moscow's infamous Butyrka prison. At that time she was already 40 years old and several months of cruel interrogations and prison hardships were ahead of her. Regular humiliating searches of every orifice of her body, days spent in solitary confinement where one could only stand, and pressure from interrogators to give up her husband, the traitor Jakov Věsnik.

None of this broke Evženie, she did not give up her husband, and in July 1938 she was sentenced as a "member of the family of a traitor " (this was her only offence) to eight years in a labour camp and a subsequent exile of ten years. In spite of everything, according to the testimony in Butyrka, she encouraged her cellmates, kept her spirits high, and, according to her surviving memories, used to say of herself, for the amusement of others, "First the medal, then the warrant " (in Russian "sperva ordyen, potom ordyer ").

After the verdict, Evženie was sent to a newly created camp near Akmolinsk, Kazakhstan (which was one of the five names of today's Astana over the last 80 years - in addition to Celinograd, Akmola and Nur-sultan). The camp fell under the giant Karlag complex of camps, but soon earned - as mentioned - the unofficial name of Alzhir. During the 15 years of its existence (1938-1953), over 18,000 women of many nationalities (including at least four Czechs) went through its depressing complexes, 8,000 of whom spent their entire sentences there. Evženie Věsniková was one of them.

Women with children under the age of three came there with their children, and more than 1,500 more children were born there - the vast majority of them as a result of rape by the guards. This alone speaks of the conditions on the remote Kazakh steppes. When the children reached the age of three, they were taken away from their mothers and sent to orphanages in remote parts of the Soviet Union. Often the mothers were never reunited with them later, and there was no way to trace where they had ended up. The removal of the children was one of the most traumatic moments of their time in the camp, more painful than the hunger, the cold, the regular searches of the most intimate places, and the ban on correspondence with loved ones.

Czech songs for geese in Alzhir

On the outskirts of the town of Akmol, where the camp was located - and where in the 1960s a settlement was established for young Komsomol members who replaced the gradually released female prisoners in the local economy - the skeletal remains were discovered in the early 1990s. It turned out that this was probably a burial site dating back to the Alzhir camp, where more than 600 women were buried who were either executed on the spot or died as a result of starvation, cold weather and disease. The town now houses the local Gulag museum and, as we discovered during our recent expedition, the original camp barracks - baths or offices - can be found on the shores of the local lake, Zhalanash. These buildings have not yet been thoroughly documented.

The reservoir played an important role in the lives of the female prisoners. Thanks to the reeds growing abundantly on its shores, they had something to heat their camp barracks in winter. Unfortunately, reeds burned too quickly and could only heat the rooms to a few degrees above zero. Winters in steppe Kazakhstan are long and harsh, with frosts that can reach up to 40 degrees below zero.

The women were tasked with starting up the local economy, establishing crop and livestock production. Evženie Věsniková used her previous experience and was put in charge of poultry. "When she went out to the pasture with her flock of geese, she waved her wand and sang Czech national songs to them, " another prisoner, Anna Kagan-Patrunova, whose memoirs are preserved in the archives of the Memorial Association, later recalled her years in Alzhir. Thanks to other memories preserved in this way, we also know that Evženie ran an embroidery brigade in Alzhir and even organised exhibitions of handicrafts. Her grandson Anton still has several of his grandmother's embroidered tablecloths and quilts.


Evženie herself did not write down any memories of the camp life and she completely tabooed this period for herself. According to her grandson Anton, she burned all the documents from that time and tried to forget them. She served a full eight years, and for the next ten years she had to live in the small town of Kimry, near Moscow, because as a result of her sentence she was forbidden to enter the capital for the entire time. Yet she is said to have believed that Stalin was not to blame and that it was some huge mistake.

She struggled to find a relationship with her son Jevgenij again, he was meanwhile fighting against Nazi Germany during the war and launching his acting career. Though she saw him occasionally in exile, the 18-year hiatus left a big scar on their relationship. These were exacerbated when Evženie discovered her son's wartime diary entries. She was frightened that he had mentioned her imprisonment and destroyed them. "Like many other similarly afflicted children, my father blamed his parents to some extent for his misfortune. Especially my mother, who survived. He also blamed her for pursuing a career with her husband abroad in the 1920s and 1930s, while he was locked up in boarding schools. But he rather idealised his father, " says Anton Vesnik, Evženie's grandson and Jevgenij's son.

Jevgenij also said he did not want to recall the repression in his family. He kept quiet about it in public during Soviet times and concentrated on his career as a theatre and film actor, which could have been rather damaged by the dark history. It must be added that he was extremely successful in his profession. He was versatile and convincing in both comic and tragic roles. He wrote scripts, directed, starred in more than 120 films, was loved by the people, and eventually achieved the title of National Artist of the Soviet Union. This was said to have been achieved by only two actors who carried the label of "enemy of the people ". In the Czech Republic, viewers may remember him as a math teacher in the series Elektronek or from the 1996 adaptation of The Master and Margarita.

Czech? So Russian!

The Jewish community in Russia was proud of Jevgenij Věsnik and regarded him as one of their own. Although his mother was 100% Czech and his father was half Jewish and half Belarusian, this did not matter to the Soviet authorities. In one of his interviews, Jevgenij told how he was given a Soviet ID card: *"when the militia officer looked at my parents' nationality, he asked - Belarusians are Slavs, right? Yes, I answer. - And Czechs? Slavs too, I say. And so he wrote "Russian nationality" on my passport.

Evženie herself has always been proud of her Czech origin, even though she had conflicts with her closest relatives in Czechoslovakia. She is said to have always fiercely defended Lenin and the revolution - and logically had to argue greatly with her younger sister Ludmila and her husband, the White Guard emigrant mentioned in the introduction. The Soviet regime did not show much gratitude to the Němeček siblings who remained in the USSR. In addition to Evženie, her brother Konstantin Němeček, who was said to have been visited by Ludvík Svoboda, also fell into the clutches of the repressive apparatus. Konstantin studied painting, became an excellent portrait painter and could also take photographs - which proved to be fatal for him.

After the war, he was in contact with his cousin, at that time already a famous writer and diplomat Zdeněk Němeček, who tried to help him leave the Soviet Union and looked for a job for him in Czechoslovakia. They were in contact through the Czechoslovak embassy in Moscow, and Konstantin tried to send Zdeněk a sample of his work through its staff. However, the embassy was already full of Stalinists at that time and, as the archival files show, Konstantin was denounced by the military attaché of the Czechoslovak embassy, Štefan Mačo, who handed over his photographs to the Soviet political police, the NKVD. They then arrested Konstantin in October 1948, turned him into a spy and had him sentenced to ten years in the Gulag.

In the end, he served eight years in the camps in Ukhta, in northern part of European Russia, and in Mordvinsk, where Soviet dissidents were sent from the 1950s and where, among others, Yuri Dmitriev, the historian of the Memorial Association, is being held today. Despite a number of amnesties from the era when Nikita Khrushchev was the head of the Soviet Union, Konstantin Němeček was not released any earlier. Supposedly because, as a painter, he was in great demand in the creation of camp propaganda.

He did not return from the Gulag until 1957, his health severely impaired. In the same year, coincidentally, his cousin Zdeněk Němeček, who had tried to help him without success, died in American emigration. It has not yet been possible to determine how much Zdeněk Němeček's family knew about the details of the fate of their persecuted relatives in the Soviet Union. However, relations between the Russian and Czech branches weakened after the war. Zdenek's emigration, Konstantin and Evženie's stay in the Gulag, as well as her conflict with her sister Ludmila and the complete contradiction in their world view certainly did not help to maintain lively contacts.

Evženie Věsnikova died in Moscow in 1977, and her son Jevgenij in April 2009. His son, Anton, now hopes, despite all the misery and aggression of contemporary Russia, to track down distant relatives in the Czech Republic and the United States and to restore the Němeček family's old contacts. "Old wrongs must be overcome, " he believes.

Štěpán Černoušek, February 2024


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