PULA, Croatia – It’s often said that the purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with information they need to make good decisions about their lives and communities. Along the way, this journalism can be interesting, tragic, even entertaining.
Journalism, I recently learned – perhaps I am naive for not realizing this sooner – is capable of reconnecting people whose lives history has conspired to tear apart.
About 18 months ago, USA TODAY published a story about how a forbidden love affair in Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union resulted in the imprisonment of Lyudmila Khachatryan.
Khachatryan was sent to one of the dictator's notorious forced labor camps, known as Gulags, in 1947. Millions died from exposure, disease and starvation in these camps.
Many of those imprisoned were innocent of any wrongdoing, and the episode remains a significant blight on Russia’s unambiguously violent and blight-prone history.
Khachatryan’s only "crime" was that she fell in love with, and then secretly married, a Yugoslavian military officer who was studying in Moscow. She was 17. As part of her arrest and then punishment in a subarctic climate in Siberia, Khachatryan endured horrible indignities. She also never saw her husband, Radojica Cukeric, again.
When Khachatryan was finally released from the Gulag after Stalin's death in 1953 she did not know what had become of her "Yugloslav" as she likes to call Cukeric; nor he, her. For more than 70 years that was mostly the end of their story, such as it was.
Then, in the late spring of this year, journalism the connector, as I learned, intervened.
A grandchild of Cukeric’s, the result of another marriage that produced a daughter, was alerted to a sad tale published in a major U.S. newspaper of a woman who sounded a lot like the “Lyudmila” who they grew up hearing about from their grandfather.
(Cukeric had died more than a decade before in a car crash.)
"We just want to tell Lyudmila that our grandfather never stopped loving her and that even we know the story about his love for her," this grandchild wrote to me in a Facebook message, from Croatia, a country that was previously part of Yugoslavia until a series of political crises caused that nation to break apart in the early 1990s.
A few weeks later there was a more formal request. Could I pass along a letter from Cukeric’s daughter to her? It was addressed to "Dearest Lyudmila."
It read: "I was a child, but very close to my father. ... He told me a lot about you ... that you were a great and beautiful ice skater. … It is very important for me to let you know he had never forgotten you. … I have always considered you a part of my family."
The Cukeric family produced photos and documents to substantiate their claims. USA TODAY also visited with them in London and at their home in Pula, in northwest Croatia.
Khachatryan's immediate reaction was one of shock.
Today, 89, she lives alone in a drab apartment block on the outskirts of Moscow. Her life got no easier when she was released from the Gulag at 24. A second marriage ended in a premature death, and so did a small child, taken by leukemia.
Foremost, she remains haunted by her labor camp experiences. She thought often of Cukeric and the life they could have had and is traumatized by the sudden end to their time together. One of the last things he said to her was that the snow had smudged her mascara. This has been hard to forget. Had he too been imprisoned? Was he dead?
A number of years ago a chance encounter with the grandchild of a military officer who claimed to know Cukeric told her that he had gone on to have a distinguished military career and that he was already dead. But she had never quite believed him. After a while, at this grandchild's urging, she wrote Cukeric a letter. She was told it arrived.
It never did, according to Cukeric's family.
Well, now she has her answer. She feels it has changed her life. She has certainty. She has even been asked to speak to Russian schoolchildren about her story, and now his.
Yet the revelation is bittersweet.
"I thought there is nothing that could be worse than prison and the Gulag camp in the world. But now I know, it can be. It is possible to kill a person twice," she wrote in reply to the letter from Cukeric's daughter, referring to confirmation of his death years earlier.
"It is to kill me a third time," Khachatryan added in that letter.
Cukeric's daughter told Khachatryan her father had abandoned his search for his wife with the smudged mascara – but only because he thought she was already dead.
Journalism the connector. Journalism the tearer-apart.