Vera Golubeva spent six years in a Stalinist labour camp for telling a joke. In 1951 she was labelled an enemy of the people and sent to Siberia.
“It sounds ridiculous,” the former history teacher smiles. “But that’s the only ‘evidence’ they had on me.”
Now almost 98, Vera walks slowly, leaning on a stick. But this woman was once forced to lay railway sleepers made of cement in temperatures that plunged to minus 56 degrees Celsius.
“Everyone was exhausted and got sick,” she recalls, as we talk on a bench in the yard of her Moscow apartment block. “The hardest part for me was chopping wood. I was a city girl and not very good at it. So my food ration was cut to 300 grams. That’s nothing!” she says.
“It was psychologically tough, too. Many people went out of their minds. They couldn’t cope,” she says.
Now Russia is preparing to pay its respects to millions of people like Vera.
Just alongside Moscow’s central ring road, the pieces of a vast bronze sculpture are being slotted into place. It is Russia’s first ever national memorial to the millions deported, imprisoned and executed in Soviet times.
Most were victims of Joseph Stalin’s brutal, paranoid rule.