I was 41 in 2004, when I was first shown this black-and-white picture: four men posing on horseback, one with a baby boy in his arms. It was the first time I'd ever seen my grandfather, Parkizat Sharipzhan. He's the man in his early 30s on the far right, with a briefcase in his hands.
It was an odd way to be introduced to my grandfather, with him looking younger than myself. I pored over every feature of his face, looking for any resemblance to myself, my brothers, and my father. "Hi, Granddad," I said, imagining him returning my greeting.
In my childhood, my parents and my granny had given the same very short answer to my question about my grandfather's whereabouts: "He died in the war." I'd always wondered why we didn't have any pictures of him. But my granny never answered; her eyes just saddened and her lips tightened.
When I was 15, one of my uncles told me that my grandfather was the boss of a collective farm in Eastern Kazakhstan Oblast, part of what was then the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1939 or 1940, it snowed suddenly at the end of August and farmers failed to save their wheat harvests. My grandfather was accused of negligence and sentenced to many years in jail as "an enemy of the Soviet nation."
His only son, my father Toktarkhan, who was 1 or 2 at the time -- he's the baby in the photograph -- never saw him again. When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, my grandfather, like millions of gulag inmates, asked authorities to send him to the front to "cleanse his guilt with his blood."
In 1943, my granny received a letter from Soviet authorities saying that her husband, Parkizat Sharipzhan, was missing in action in Ukraine, during the Lower Dnieper Offensive.
Now I know that all gulag inmates were serving in the "Shtrafbat" (Shtrafnoi Battalion, or Penalty Battalion), and that they were sent as human shields into the deadliest operations during World War II. They preceded Red Army regulars on the battlefield and had virtually no chance of survival.
One of my distant relations -- the one who'd saved the only photograph of my grandfather -- told me that all my grandfather's relatives started getting rid of photos of him after his arrest, since the Soviets had special labor camps for the relatives of "enemies of the Soviet nation." But she had somehow managed to save one photo that was taken about a month before my grandfather's arrest.
"I don't know if he decided to go to war because he loved his country," my aging relative told me, "but I know for sure that he did that to prevent the arrest of your dad and granny, my boy."
Every year, as Victory in Europe Day approaches, I look at the picture again and greet my granddad: "Where is your grave, old boy? What were you thinking when this picture was taken? Thank you for saving my dad and my granny from the gulag so that I can now look you in the face and thank one brave relative who saved this photo for me...."
Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted
with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut
Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Merkhat Sharipzhanov is a former director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service who is now a news editor in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom