Comrade Stalin Stole My Skis

The year I was six I knew I would get a pair of skis for Christmas. In Estonia you start school at the age of seven. Because of Estonia’s hard winters, children travelled to school on skis, and mine had been ordered and were being made, so that I could learn to ski after Christmas. Up till then I could go out only when pushed by Mother or extremely unwilling older Sister in a chair-on-skis contraption (see Snow Bunny and Mother, above).

I was very excited. Wow! My own skis! I would be A BIG GIRL, and not the Boogernose Sister called me.

But life is rarely straightforward. Comrade Stalin – or Uncle Joe, as he was also known – had taken our little country in 1939 and done some extremely nasty things to us. this included sending some 40,000 of our relatives, friends and neighbours to slave labour camps in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Driven back into Soviet Russia by the advancing Nazi troops, Uncle Joe licked his wounds and resentments and waited for the Russian cold to send the Germans retreating, tail between their legs.

In 1944 Uncle Joe’s armies recommenced their advance and we knew that, if we did not want to live in slavery, we would have to escape. We fled one week after my sixth birthday, in September. (I’ll give more details in future posts.)

By storming in again, Comrade Stalin made sure that I didn’t get my skis – or any present – that Christmas. I never learnt to ski. And who knows? Maybe this would have been THE sport I would have excelled in. I could have worn sleek ski suits and flown elegantly down mountain slopes, instead of freezing my butt off in a thin blue Greek tunic and bottle-green knickers on the netball court, failing to catch the ball or net a goal.

There are many, many millions of deaths to lay at Comrade Stalin’s door, and a pair of skis is just a pair of skis. But Comrade Stalin stole mine. So there.


BOOK: INTO EXILE by Elin Toona Gottschalk (available from My friend Elin – we first met in a post-war refugee camp – recently wrote the story of her refugee and post-refugee days. Our stories are similar, and yet diametrically different. Elin writes poetically and beautifully. I cannot recommend this memoir enough. It was selected as one of the top memoirs by The Economist a couple of years ago.




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