Modern history

Chapter 9


I remember Vanino port
And the clamor of the gloomy ship
As we walked along the gangway
Into the cold, murky hold.
The zeks suffered from the rolling of the surf
The deep sea howled all around them—
And in front of them lay Magadan
The capital of the land of Kolyma.
Not cries, but pitiful moans
Emerged from every breast
As they said goodbye to the mainland.
The ship rolled, strained, groaned . . .

—Soviet prisoners’ song

IN 1827, Princess Maria Volkonskaya, the wife of the Decembrist rebel Sergei Volkonsky, left her family, her child, and her safe life in St. Petersburg to join her husband in his Siberian exile. Her biographer described her journey, which was thought, at the time, to have been one of almost unendurable hardship:

Day after day, the sledge raced onwards into the endless horizon. Enclosed as if in a time capsule, Maria was in a state of feverish elation. There was a sense of unreality to the journey: lack of sleep and little food. She stopped only at an occasional relay for a glass of hot lemon tea from the ever-present brass samovar. The intoxicating speed of the sleigh, pulled by three plunging horses, devoured the empty distances at a gallop. “Onward . . . forward!” shouted the drivers, dashing on as great plumes of snow rose from under the horses’ hooves, and harness bells jingled relentlessly, warning of the approach of the vehicle . . .1

More than a century later Evgeniya Ginzburg’s cell mate read a similar description of an aristocrat’s journey across the Urals—and sighed with envy: “And I always thought that the wives of the Decembrists endured the most frightful sufferings . . .”2

No horses and no sleighs drove twentieth-century prisoners with “intoxicating speed” across the Siberian snow, and there were no glasses of hot lemon tea to be had from brass samovars at the relay stations. Princess Volkonskaya may have wept during her journey, but the prisoners who came after her could not even hear the word étap—prison jargon for “transport”—without feeling a jolt of mouth-drying fear, even terror. Every journey was a wrenching leap into the unknown, a move away from familiar cell mates and familiar arrangements, however poor those might be. Worse, the process of moving prisoners from prison to transit prison, from transit prison to camp, and between camps within the system, was physically grueling and openly cruel. In some senses, it was the most inexplicable aspect of life in the Gulag.

For those undergoing the ordeal for the first time, the event was pregnant with symbolism. Arrest and interrogation had been an initiation into the system, but the train journey across Russia represented a geographical break with the prisoners’ former life, and the start of a new one. Emotions always ran high in the trains that left Moscow and Leningrad, headed north and east. Thomas Sgovio, the American who had failed to retrieve his passport, remembered what had happened when his train left for Kolyma: “Our train left Moscow on the evening of June 24th. It was the beginning of an eastward journey which was to last a month. I can never forget the moment. Seventy men . . . began to cry.”3

Most of the time, long transports took place in stages. If they were being held in large city prisons, the zeks were first transported to the trains in trucks whose very design spoke of the NKVD’s obsession with secrecy. From the outside, the “Black Ravens,” as they were nicknamed, appeared to be regular heavy-goods trucks. In the 1930s, they often had the word “bread” painted on the sides, but later more elaborate ruses were used. One prisoner, arrested in 1948, remembered traveling in one truck marked “Moscow Cutlets” and another labeled “Vegetables/Fruits.”4

On the inside, the trucks were sometimes divided into “two rows of tiny, pitch-black, airless cages,” as one prisoner described them.5 According to a design of 1951, others simply had two long benches, upon which prisoners squeezed beside one another.6Peasants, and those being transported at the start of the mass deportations from the Baltic States and eastern Poland, had a rougher time of it. They were often packed into ordinary-goods trucks, as an elderly Lithuanian once described to me, “like sardines”: the first prisoner spread his legs, the second sat between the first’s legs and spread his own legs—and so on, until the truck was full.7 Such arrangements were particularly uncomfortable when there were many people to be collected, and a trip to the station could last all day. During the deportations that took place in the former Polish territories in the winter of February 1940, children froze to death before even reaching the trains, and adults suffered from severe frostbite, from which their arms and legs never recovered.8

In provincial cities, the secrecy rules were laxer and prisoners sometimes marched through towns to the train station, an experience which often provided their last glimpse of civilian life—and one of the civilians’ few glimpses of prisoners. Janusz Bardach recalled his surprise at the reaction of townspeople in Petropavlovsk when they saw prisoners marching through the street:

Most in the entourage were women wrapped in shawls and long heavy coats made out of felt. To my amazement, they began shouting at the guards: “Fascists . . . Murderers . . . Why don’t you go and fight on the front . . .” They began throwing snowballs at the guards. Several shots were fired into the air, and the women backed off several paces but continued cursing and following us. They tossed parcels, bread loaves and potatoes and bacon wrapped in cloth into the column. One woman removed her shawl and winter coat and gave them to a man who had none. I caught a pair of woolen mittens. 9

Such reactions have a long tradition in Russia: Dostoevsky wrote of the housewives who sent “fancy loaves made of the finest flour” to the inmates of Czarist prisons at Christmastime.10 But by the 1940s, they were relatively rare. In many places—Magadan, famously, among them—the sight of prisoners in the street was so commonplace as to evoke no reaction at all.

Whether on foot or by truck, prisoners eventually reached the train stations. Sometimes these were ordinary stations, sometimes they were special stations—“a piece of land surrounded by barbed wire,” in the memory of Leonid Finkelstein. He also remembered that prisoners were subjected to a series of special rituals before they were allowed to board:

There is a huge column of prisoners, you are counted, re-counted, recounted. The train is there . . . then there is the travel order: “On your knees!” During loading, it was a sensitive time, someone could start running. So they make sure that everybody is kneeling. But you better not get up, because at that point they are trigger-happy. Then they count, they put people onto the car, and lock them up. Then the train never moves—you just stand there for hours on end—then suddenly “We’re off!” and you start going.11

From the outside, the train cars often looked perfectly ordinary—except that they were better protected than most. Edward Buca, who had been arrested in Poland, surveyed his carriage with the careful eye of a man who hoped to escape. He recalled that “each wagon was wound with several strands of barbed wire, there were wooden platforms outside for the guards, electric lights had been installed at the top and bottom of each wagon, and their small windows were protected by thick iron bars.” Later, Buca checked beneath the wagon to see if there were iron spikes along the bottom too. There were.12 Finkelstein also remembered that “every morning you hear this hammering—the guards have wooden hammers, and they always hammer up the trains, to make sure that nobody tried to break out, to make a hole.”13

Very rarely, exceptional arrangements were made for special prisoners. Anna Larina, the wife of the Soviet leader Nikolai Bukharin, did not travel with other prisoners, but was instead placed in the guards’ compartment of the train.14 But the vast majority of prisoners and exiles traveled together, in one of two types of train. The first were the Stolypinki , or “Stolypin wagons” (named, ironically, after one of the more vigorous, reforming Czarist prime ministers of the early twentieth century, who is alleged to have introduced them). These were ordinary carriages that had been refitted for prisoners. They could be linked together in an enormous transport, or attached, one or two at a time, to ordinary trains. One former passenger described them:

A Stolypinka resembles an ordinary Russian third-class carriage except that it has a great many iron bars and grillwork. The windows are, of course, barred. The individual compartments are separated by steel netting instead of walls, like cages, and a long iron fence separates the compartments from the corridor. This arrangement enables the guards constantly to keep an eye on all prisoners in the car.15

The Stolypin wagons were also very, very crowded:

On each of the two top bunks two men lay head by foot. On the two middle ones were seven with their heads towards the door and one crosswise at their feet. Under each of the two bottom bunks there was one man, with fourteen more perched upon the bunks and on the bundles of belongings jammed in the floor space between the bunks and door. At night all those at the lower level somehow managed to lie down alongside one another.16

But there was another, more important disadvantage. Inside the Stolypin wagons, guards could watch the prisoners at all times, and were therefore able to control what prisoners ate, to hear their conversations— and to decide when and where they would be able to relieve themselves. As a result, virtually every memoirist who describes the trains mentions the horrors associated with urination and defecation. Once, or sometimes twice a day, or sometimes not at all, the guards took prisoners to the toilet, or else stopped the train to let the passengers out: “The worst happens when, after a long haggle with the guards, we are allowed off the cars and everybody looks for a spot somewhere under the boxcar to relieve himself or herself, not worrying about the audience watching from all directions.” 17

However embarrassing such stops could be, the prisoners with stomach ailments or other medical problems were in a much worse position, as one remembered: “Prisoners who could not hold themselves would whimperingly foul their pants and often also the prisoners next to them. Even in the community of hardship, it was difficult for some prisoners not to hate the unfortunates who did this.”18

It was for that reason that some prisoners actually preferred the other form of prisoner transport, the cattle wagons. These were what they sound like: empty wagons, not necessarily fitted out for human beings, sometimes with a small stove in the center for heating, sometimes with bunks. Although more primitive than the Stolypin wagons, the cattle wagons were not divided into sections, and there was more room to move about. They also had “toilets”—holes in the floor of the wagon—alleviating the need to beg and plead with the guards.19

The open wagons had their special torments too, though. Sometimes, for example, the holes in the floor of the wagon became blocked. On Buca’s train, the hole froze over. “So what did we do? We pissed through a crack between the floor and the door and shat into a piece of cloth, making a small neat parcel and hoping that somewhere they would stop the train and open the door so that we could throw it out.”20 On the trains full of deported exiles, in which men, women, and children were all thrown together, the holes in the floor caused different problems. One former deportee, exiled as the daughter of a kulak in the early 1930s, remembered people being “horribly embarrassed” at having to urinate in front of one another, and was thankful that she was able to do it “behind my mother’s skirts.” 21

Yet the real torment was not the crowding or the toilets or the embarrassment, but the lack of food—and especially the lack of water. Sometimes, depending on the route and the type of train, prisoners were served hot food during the trip. Sometimes they were not. Usually, a prisoner’s “dry rations” for a transport consisted of bread, which could be distributed either in small chunks of 300 grams a day, or else in larger quantities—2 kilograms or so— meant to last a thirty-four-day journey.

Along with the bread, prisoners were usually given salted fish—the effect of which was to make them extremely thirsty.22 Nevertheless, they were rarely given more than one mug of water per day, even in the summer. So prevalent was this practice that stories of the terrible thirst experienced by traveling prisoners appear again and again. “Once, for three days we didn’t get water, and on New Year’s Eve of 1939, somewhere near Lake Baikal, we had to lick the black icicles which hung from the train carriages,” wrote one ex-zek.23 In a twenty-eight-day trip, another remembers being given water three times, with the train occasionally stopping “to take the corpses off.”24

Even those who did receive that one cup a day were tormented. Evgeniya Ginzburg recalled the excruciating decision prisoners had to make: whether to drink their whole cup in the morning, or try to save it. “Those who took occasional sips and made it last all day never had a moment’s peace. They watched their mugs like hawks from morning until night.”25 If, that is, they were lucky enough to have mugs: one prisoner remembered to the end of her life the tragic moment when her teapot, which she had managed to keep with her, was stolen. The teapot had held water without spilling, enabling her to sip throughout the day. Without it she had nothing to hold water in at all, and was tormented by thirst. 26

Worse were the recollections of Nina Gagen-Torn, who was on a transport train that stopped for three days outside of Novosibirsk in midsummer. The city’s transit prison was full: “It was July. Very hot. The roofs of the Stolypin wagons began to glow, and we lay on the bunks like buns in an oven.” Her car determined to go on a hunger strike, although the guards threatened them with new, longer sentences. “We don’t want to get dysentery,” the women shouted back at them. “For four days we are lying in our own shit.” Reluctantly, the guards finally allowed them to drink a little bit, and to wash.27

A Polish prisoner also found herself on a train which had ground to a halt—but in the rain. Naturally, the prisoners tried to catch the water coming off the roof. But “when we held our mugs between the bars of the windows, the guard who was sitting on the roof cried that he would shoot, for such behavior was forbidden.”28

Winter journeys were not necessarily better. Another Polish deportee remembered having nothing but “frozen bread and water in the form of ice” during her train journey east.29 Summer or winter, other deportees experienced special torments. When one exile train stopped, unusually, at an ordinary station, the prisoners dashed out to buy food from local people. “Our Jews made a dash for the eggs,” recalled a Polish passenger. “They would rather starve than eat non-kosher food.” 30

The very old and the very young suffered the most. Barbara Armonas, a Lithuanian who had married an American, was deported along with a large group of Lithuanians, men, women, and children. Among them was a woman who had given birth four hours earlier, as well as a paralyzed eighty-three-year-old who could not be kept clean—“very soon everything around her was stinking and she was covered by open sores.” There were also three babies:

Their parents had great problems with diapers since it was impossible to wash them regularly. Sometimes when the train stopped after a rain the mothers would jump out to wash diapers in the ditches. There were fights over these water ditches because some wanted to wash dishes, some to wash their faces, while others wanted to wash dirty diapers, all at the same time . . . the parents made every effort to keep their children clean. Used diapers were dried and shaken out. Sheets and shirts were torn up to improvise diapers and sometimes the men tied the wet diapers around their waists in an effort to dry them more quickly.

Small children fared no better:

Some days were very hot, and the heavy smell in the cars was unbearable and a number of people fell sick. In our car, one two-year-old boy ran a high fever and cried constantly because of pain. The only help his parents could get was a little aspirin which someone gave to them. He grew worse and worse and finally died. At the next stop in an unknown forest the soldiers took his body from the train and presumably buried him. The sorrow and helpless rage of his parents was heartbreaking. Under normal conditions and with medical attention he would not have died. Now, no one even knew for sure where he was buried.31

For arrested enemies, as opposed to deportees, special arrangements were sometimes made, which did not necessarily improve matters. Mariya Sandratskaya was arrested when her child was two months old, and was actually put on a transport train filled with nursing mothers. For eighteen days, sixty-five women and sixty-five infants traveled in two cattle cars, unheated except for two very small, very smoky stoves. There were no special rations, and no hot water to bathe the children or to wash the diapers, which subsequently turned “green with filth.” Two of the women killed themselves, slitting their throats with glass. Another lost her mind. Their three babies were taken over by the other mothers. Sandratskaya herself “adopted” one of them. To the end of her life, she remained convinced that breast milk alone had saved her own child, who contracted pneumonia. There had, of course, been no medicine available.

Upon arrival at the Tomsk transit prison, the situation hardly improved. More of the children grew ill. Two died. Two more mothers attempted suicide, but were prevented from succeeding. Others went on hunger strike. On the fifth day of the strike, the women were visited by an NKVD commission: one of the women threw her baby at them. Only upon their arrival at Temlag—the women’s camp, mostly for arrested “wives”—did Sandratskaya manage to organize a children’s kindergarten, eventually persuading relatives to come and take her child away.32

Bizarre and inhuman though her story may sound, Sandratskaya’s experience was not unique. One former camp doctor has also described being sent along on a “children’s transport,” along with fifteen nursing mothers and babies, plus twenty-five other children and two “nannies.” All had been marched to the station under convoy, placed not on an ordinary train but in a Stolypin wagon with barred windows, and deprived of proper food.33

From time to time, all transport trains made stops, but these stops did not necessarily offer much respite. Prisoners were loaded off the trains, loaded back into trucks, and marched off to transit prisons. The regime in such places was similar to that in interrogation prisons, except that the jailers had even less interest in the welfare of their charges, whom they were never likely to see again. As a result, the transport prison regime was wholly unpredictable.

Karol Harenczyk, a Pole who was transported from western Ukraine to Kolyma at the start of the Second World War, recorded the relative merits of the many transit prisons where he had stayed. In a questionnaire he filled out at the request of the Polish army, he noted that the Lvov prison had been dry, with “good showers” and “rather clean.” By contrast, the prison in Kiev was “crowded, dirty beyond description,” and filled with lice. In Kharkov, his 96-square-meter cell had been crammed with 387 people, and thousands of lice. In Aremovsk, the prison was “almost completely dark,” with no walks allowed: “the cement floor is not cleaned, the remains of fish are on the floor. The dirt and smell and lack of air gives people headaches, dizziness,” so much so that prisoners went about on all fours. In Voroshilovgrad, the prison was again “rather clean,” and prisoners were allowed to relieve themselves outside of the cell, twice a day. In the transit camp at Starobelsk, prisoners were allowed walks only once a week, for half an hour.34

Probably the most primitive transit prisons were those on the Pacific coast, where prisoners stayed before being put on the boats to Kolyma. In the 1930s, there was only one: Vtoraya Rechka, near Vladivostok. So overcrowded was Vtoraya Rechka, however, that two more transit camps were built in 1938: Bukhta Nakhodka and Vanino. Even then there were not enough barracks for the thousands of inmates awaiting ships.35 One prisoner found himself in Bukhta Nakhodka in late July 1947: “Under the open sky they kept 20,000 people. Not a word was spoken about buildings—they sat, lay down, and lived, right there on the ground.”36

Nor was the water situation much improved from what it had been on the trains, despite the fact that the prisoners were still existing largely on salt fish, in high summer: “All over the camp signs were posted, ‘Do not drink unboiled water.’ And two epidemics were raging amongst us—typhus and dysentery. And the prisoners did not heed the signs and drank water which trickled here and there on the grounds of the compound . . . anyone can understand how desperate we became for a drink of water to quench our thirst.”37

For prisoners who had been traveling for many weeks—and memoirists report train journeys to Bukhta Nakhodka of up to forty-seven days38 —the conditions in the transit camps on the Pacific coast were almost unbearable. One records that by the time his transport arrived at Bukhta Nakhodka, 70 percent of his comrades had night blindness, a side effect of scurvy, as well as diarrhea.39 Nor was much medical assistance available. With no drugs or proper care, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam died in Vtoraya Rechka in December 1938, paranoid and raving.40

For those not too incapacitated, it was possible to earn a little bit of extra bread in the Pacific transit camps. Prisoners could carry cement buckets, unload goods wagons, and dig latrines.41 In fact, Bukhta Nakhodka is remembered by some as the “only camp where prisoners begged to work.” One Polish woman remembered that “They feed only those who work, but because there are more prisoners than work, some die of hunger . . . Prostitution flowers, like irises on Siberian meadows.” 42

Still others, remembered Thomas Sgovio, survived by trading:

There was one large, open space called the bazaar. Prisoners gathered there and bartered . . . Currency was of no value. Greatest in demand were bread, tobacco, and bits of newspaper which we used for smoking. There were non-politicals serving time as maintenance and service men. They exchanged bread and tobacco for the clothes of fresh arrivees, then resold our clothes to citizens on the outside for rubles, thus accumulating a sum for the day they would be let out into the Soviet world. The bazaar was the most populated spot in the camp during the daytime. There, in that communist hell-hole, I witnessed what was in reality the crudest form of a free enterprise system. 43

Yet for these prisoners, the horrors of the journey did not end with the trains and the transit camps. Their journey to Kolyma had to be completed by boat—just like the prisoners traveling up the Yenisei River, from Krasnoyarsk to Norilsk, or on barges, in the early days, across the White Sea from Arkhangelsk to Ukhta. It was a rare prisoner boarding the ships to Kolyma, in particular, who did not feel that he was undertaking a journey into the abyss, sailing across the Styx away from the known world. Many had never been on a boat before at all.44

The boats themselves were nothing out of the ordinary. Old Dutch, Swedish, English, and American cargo steamers—boats never built to carry passengers—plied the route to Kolyma. The ships were redesigned to fit their new role, but the changes were largely cosmetic. The letters D.S. (for Dalstroi) were painted on their smokestacks, machine-gun nests were placed on the decks, and crude wooden bunks were constructed in the hold, sections of which were blocked off from one another with an iron grille. The largest of Dalstroi’s fleet, originally designed to carry huge lengths of cable, was initially christened the Nikolai Yezhov. After Yezhov’s fall from grace, it was renamed the Feliks Dzerzhinsky—an alteration which required a costly change in international shipping registration.45

Few other concessions were made to the ships’ human cargo, who were forcibly kept below deck for the first part of the voyage, when the ships passed close to the coast of Japan. During these few days, the hatch leading from the deck to the hold would remain firmly shut, lest a stray Japanese fishing boat come into sight.46 So secret were these voyages considered to be, in fact, that when the Indigirka, a Dalstroi ship containing 1,500 passengers—mostly prisoners returning to the mainland—hit a reef off the Japanese island of Hokkaido in 1939, the ship’s crew chose to let most of the passengers die rather than seek aid. Of course, there were no life-saving devices aboard the ship, and the crew still not wanting to reveal the true contents of their “cargo boat,” did not call upon other boats in the area to help, although many were available. A few Japanese fishermen came to assist the ship of their own accord, but to no avail: more than 1,000 people died in the disaster.47

But even when there was no catastrophe, prisoners suffered from the secrecy, which mandated forced confinement. The guards threw their food down into the hold, and they were left to scramble for it. They received their water in buckets, lowered down from the deck. Both food and water were therefore in short supply—as was air. Elinor Olitskaya, the Anarchist, remembered that people began to vomit immediately on embarking.48 Descending into the hold, Evgeniya Ginzburg became instantly ill as well: “If I remained on my feet it was only because there was no room to fall.” Once inside the hold, “It was impossible to move, our legs grew numb, hunger and the sea air made us dizzy, and all of us were seasick . . . packed tightly in our hundreds we could hardly breathe; we sat or lay on the dirty floor or on one another, spreading out our legs to make room for the person in front.”49

Once past the Japanese coast, prisoners were sometimes allowed up onto the deck in order to use the ship’s few toilets, which were hardly adequate for thousands of prisoners. Memoirists variously recall waiting “2 hours,” “7 or 8 hours,” and “all day” for these toilets.50 Sgovio described them:

A box-like makeshift contraption of boards was attached to the side of the ship . . . it was rather tricky to climb from the deck of the rolling ship over the railing, and into the box. The older prisoners and those who had never been at sea were afraid to enter. A prod from the guard and the necessity to relieve themselves finally made them overcome their reluctance. A long line was on the stairway day and night throughout the voyage. Only two men at a time were allowed in the box.51

Yet the physical torments of life on the ships were surpassed by the tortures invented by the prisoners themselves—or rather the criminal element among them. This was particularly true in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the criminal influence in the camp system was at its height and the political and criminal prisoners were mixed indiscriminately. Some politicals had already encountered criminals on the trains. Aino Kuusinen remembered that “the worst feature of the journey were the juveniles [young criminals] who were given the upper berths and perpetrated all kinds of indecencies—spitting, uttering obscene abuse and even urinating on the adult prisoners.” 52

On the boats, the situation was worse. Elinor Lipper, who made the journey to Kolyma in the late 1930s, described how the politicals “lay squeezed together on the tarred floor of the hold because the criminals had taken possession of the plank platform. If one of us dared to raise her head, she was greeted by a rain of fish heads and entrails from above. When any of the seasick criminals threw up, the vomit came straight down upon us.” 53

Polish and Baltic prisoners, who had better clothes and more valuable possessions than their Soviet counterparts, were a particular target. On one occasion, a group of criminal prisoners turned out the ship lights and attacked a group of Polish prisoners, killing some and robbing the rest. “Those of the Poles who were there and remained alive,” wrote one survivor, “would know for the rest of their lives that they had been in hell.”54

The consequences of the mixing of male and female prisoners could be far worse even than the mixing of criminals and politicals. Technically, this was forbidden: men and women were kept separately on the boats. In practice, guards could be bribed to let men into the women’s hold, with drastic consequences. The “Kolyma tram”—the shipboard gang rapes—were discussed throughout the camp system. Elena Glink, a survivor, described them:

They raped according to the command of the tram “conductor” . . . then, on the command “konchai bazar” [“stop the fun”] heaved off, reluctantly, giving up their place to the next man, who was standing in full readiness . . . dead women were pulled by their legs to the door, and stacked over the threshold. Those who remained were brought back to consciousness— water was thrown at them—and the line began again. In May 1951, on board the Minsk [famous throughout Kolyma for its “big tram”] the corpses of women were thrown overboard. The guards didn’t even write down the names of the dead . . .55

To Glink’s knowledge, no one was ever punished for rape on board these ships. Janusz Bardach, a Polish teenager who found himself aboard a ship to Kolyma in 1942, concurred. He was present as a group of criminals planned a raid on the women’s hold, and watched them chop a hole in the iron grille that separated the sexes:

As soon as the women appeared through the hole, the men tore off their clothing. Several men attacked each woman at once. I could see the victims’ white bodies twisting, their legs kicking forcefully, their hands clawing the men’s faces. The women bit, cried and wailed. The rapists smacked them back . . . when the rapists ran out of women, some of the bulkier men turned to the bed boards and hunted for young men. These adolescents were added to the carnage, lying still on their stomachs, bleeding and crying on the floor.

None of the other prisoners tried to stop the rapists: “hundreds of men hung from the bed boards to view the scene, but not a single one tried to intervene.” The attack only ended, Bardach wrote, when the guards on the upper deck blasted the hold with water. Several dead and injured women were dragged out afterward. No one was punished.56

“Anyone,” wrote one surviving prisoner, “who has seen Dante’s hell would say that it was nothing beside what went on in that ship.”57

There are many more stories of transports, some so tragic they hardly bear repeating. So horrific were these journeys, in fact, that they have become, in the collective memory of the survivors, a puzzle almost as hard to understand as the camps themselves. By applying more or less normal human psychology, it is possible to explain the cruelty of camp commanders, who were themselves under pressure to meet norms and fulfill plans, as we shall see. It is even possible to explain the actions of interrogators, whose lives depended on their success at extracting confessions, and who had sometimes been selected for their sadism. It is far more difficult, however, to explain why an ordinary convoy guard would refuse to give water to prisoners dying of thirst, to give aspirin to a child with fever, or to protect women from being gang-raped to death.

Certainly there is no evidence that convoy guards were explicitly instructed to torture prisoners being transported. On the contrary, there were elaborate rules about how to protect prisoner transports, and much official anger when these rules were frequently broken. A decree of December 1941, “on improving the organization of the transport of prisoners,” heatedly described the “irresponsibility” and sometimes “criminal” behavior of some of the convoy guards and employees of the Gulag: “This has resulted in prisoners arriving at the designated place in a state of starvation, as a result of which they cannot be put to work for some time.” 58

An indignant official order, of February 25, 1940, complained not only that sick and incapacitated prisoners had been put on trains to the northern camps—which was in itself forbidden—but also that many more had not been fed or given water, had not been given clothes appropriate to the season en route, and had not been accompanied by their personal files, which had therefore gone missing. Prisoners arrived in camps, in other words, where no one knew their crime or their sentence. Out of 1,900 prisoners sent in one transport to the far north in 1939, 590 were of “limited work capacity” upon arrival, being either too weak or too ill. Some had only a few months left to serve of their sentences, and some had finished them altogether. Most were without warm clothes and “poorly shod.” In November 1939, another 272 prisoners, none of whom had winter coats, were driven a distance of 500 kilometers in open trucks, as a result of which many fell ill and some later died. All of these facts were reported with suitable outrage and anger, and negligent guards were punished.59

Numerous instructions regulated the affairs of the transit prisons as well. On July 26, 1940, for example, an order described the organization of transit prisons, explicitly demanding their commanders to construct baths, parasite disinfection systems, and working kitchens.60 No less important were the safety and security of Dalstroi’s prison fleet. When, in December 1947, dynamite exploded on two of the ships moored in Magadan’s harbor, resulting in 97 deaths and 224 hospitalizations, Moscow accused the port of “criminally negligent behavior.” Those held responsible were tried and received criminal sentences.61

The Gulag’s bosses in Moscow were well aware of the horrors of prisoner boat travel. A report by the prosecutors’ office inspectorate in Norilsk in 1943 complained that prisoners who arrived by boat—they came up the Yenisei River on barges—were “frequently in poor physical condition . . . of the 14,125 prisoners who arrived in Norilsk in 1943, about 500 were hospitalized in Dudinka [the Norilsk port] on the first or second day after their arrival; up to 1,000 were temporarily unable to work, as they had been deprived of food.”62

Despite all of the bluster, the transport system changed very little over time. Orders were sent out, complaints were made. Yet on December 24, 1944, a convoy arrived at Komsomolsk station in the far east in what even the deputy prosecutor of the Gulag system thought was an execrable condition. His official account of the fate of “echelon SK 950,” a train composed of fifty-one wagons, must stand as some kind of low point, even in the nightmarish history of Gulag transport:

The prisoners arrived in unheated wagons which had not been prepared for prisoner transport. In each wagon, there were between 10–12 bunks, on which no more than 18 people could fit, yet there were up to 48 people in each wagon. The wagons were not supplied with enough cannisters for water, as a result of which there were interruptions in water supply, sometimes for whole days and nights. The prisoners were given frozen bread, and for 10 days got none at all. The prisoners arrived dressed in summer uniforms, dirty, covered in lice, with obvious signs of frostbite . . . the sick prisoners had been rolled onto the wagon floors, without medical help, and had died there and then. Corpses were kept in the wagons for long periods . . .

Of the 1,402 people sent on echelon SK 950, 1,291 arrived: 53 had died en route, 66 had been left in hospitals along the way. On arrival, a further 335 were hospitalized with third- or fourth-degree frostbite, pneumonia, and other diseases. The convoy had, it seemed, traveled for sixty days, twenty-four of which they had spent not moving, sitting on side tracks “due to poor organization.” Yet in this extreme case, the leader of the echelon—one Comrade Khabarov—received nothing more than a “censure with warnings.”63

Many survivors of similar transports have tried to explain this grotesque mistreatment of prisoners at the hands of young, inexperienced convoy guards, who were far from being the trained killers deployed in the prison system. Nina Gagen-Torn speculated that “it wasn’t evidence of evil, just the complete indifference of the convoy. They didn’t look at us as people. We were living cargo.”64 Antoni Ekart, a Pole arrested after the Soviet invasion of 1939, also thought that the lack of water was not deliberately to torture us but because the escort had to put in extra work to bring it and would not do so without an order. The commander of the escort was not at all interested in this matter and the guards were unwilling to escort the prisoners several times a day to the wells or water taps at stations owing to the risk of escape. 65

Yet some prisoners reported more than indifference: “In the morning, the boss of the convoy came into the corridor . . . he stood with his face to the window, his back to us, and shouted insults, swear words: ‘I’m bored of you!’”66

Boredom—or, rather, boredom mixed with anger at having to carry out such a degrading job—was also Solzhenitsyn’s explanation for this otherwise inexplicable phenomenon. He even tried to think himself into the minds of the convoy guards. Here they were, so busy and understaffed, and then to have “to go carry water in pails—it has to be hauled a long way, too, and it’s insulting: why should a Soviet soldier have to carry water like a donkey for enemies of the people?” Worse, he went on,

It takes a long time to dole out that water. The zeks don’t have their own mugs. Whoever did have one has had it taken away from him—so what it adds up to is that they have to be given the two government issue mugs to drink out of, and while they are drinking up you have to keep standing there and standing, and dipping it out and dipping it out some more and handing it to them . . .

But the convoy could have borne with all that, hauled the water, and doled it out, if only those pigs, after slurping up the water, didn’t ask to go to the toilet. So here’s the way it works out: if you don’t give them water for a day, then they don’t ask to go to the toilet. Give them water once, and they go to the toilet once; take pity on them and give them water twice—and they go to the toilet twice. So it’s pure and simple common sense: just don’t give them anything to drink.67

Whatever their motivation—indifference, boredom, anger, injured pride—the effect on the prisoners was devastating. As a rule, they arrived at their camps not only disoriented and degraded by their experience of prison and interrogation, but physically depleted—and ripe for the next stage of their journey into the Gulag system: entry into the camp.

If it was not dark, if they were not ill, and if they were interested enough to look up, the first thing the prisoners saw on arrival was their camp’s gate. More often than not, the gate displayed a slogan. On the entrance into one of the Kolyma lagpunkts “hung a plywood rainbow with a banner draped over it which read: ‘Labor in the USSR is a Matter of Honesty, Glory, Valor and Heroism!’”68 Barbara Armonas was welcomed to a labor colony in the suburbs of Irkutsk with the banner: “With Just Work I Will Pay My Debt to the Fatherland.”69 Arriving in Solovetsky in 1933—it had by then become a high-security prison—another prisoner saw a sign reading: “With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness!”70 Yuri Chirkov, arrested at age fourteen, was also confronted with a sign at Solovetsky which read “Through Labor—Freedom!”—a slogan which is about as uncomfortably close as it is possible to get to the slogan that hung over the gates of Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei—“Work Makes You Free.”71

Like the arrival in prison, the arrival of a new étap in camp was also attended by rituals: prison inmates, exhausted by transport, now had to be turned into working zeks. “On arrival at the camp,” remembered Karol Colonna-Czosnowski, a Polish prisoner,

[w]e spent a long time being counted . . . That particular evening there seemed no end to it. Innumerable times we had to form five abreast and each row was told to advance three paces which several worried-looking NKVD officials would call aloud, “odin, dva, tri . . .” and laboriously write down each number on to their large clipboards. Presumably the number of those alive, added to the numbers of those who had been shot en route, did not produce the expected total.72

Following the count both men and women were taken to the baths and shaved—over their entire bodies. This procedure, carried out under official orders for the sake of hygiene73—it was assumed, usually correctly, that prisoners arriving from Soviet jails would be covered with lice—nevertheless had an important ritual significance as well. Women describe it with particular horror and distaste, and no wonder. Often, they had to remove their clothes and then wait naked, under the full gaze of male soldiers, for their turn to be shaved. “For the first time,” recalled Elinor Olitskaya, who was a participant in this ceremony on her arrival in Kolyma, “I heard wails of protest: Women remain women . . .”74 Olga Adamova-Sliozberg had suffered the same experience in a transit prison:

We undressed and handed over our clothes for treatment and were about to go upstairs to the washroom when we realized that the staircase was lined from top to bottom with guards. Blushing, we hung our heads and huddled together. Then I looked up, and my eyes met those of the officer in charge. He gave me a sullen look. “Come on, come on,” he shouted. “Get a move on!”

I suddenly felt relieved and the situation even seemed quite comic.

“To hell with them,” I thought. “They’re no more men to me than Vaska the bull who frightened me when I was a child.” 75

Once the prisoners were washed and shaved, the second step in the process of turning men and women into anonymous zeks was the distribution of clothing. The rules changed, from era to era as well as from camp to camp, as to whether or not prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes. The decision seems, in practice, to have been left to the whim of local camp officials: “In one lagpunkt you could wear your own clothes, in another not,” remembered Galina Smirnova, a prisoner in Ozerlag in the early 1950s.76 It did not always matter: by the time they reached the camp, many prisoners’ own clothes were in rags, if they had not been stolen.

Those without clothes had to wear the camp-issue uniforms, which were invariably old, ripped, ill-made, and ill-fitting. To some, particularly women, it sometimes seemed as if the clothes they were given were part of a deliberate attempt to humiliate them. Anna Andreeva, wife of the writer and spiritualist Danil Andreev, was at first sent to a camp where prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes. Later, in 1948, she was moved into a camp where they were not. She found the change truly offensive: “They had deprived us of everything, they deprived us of our names, of everything that is part of a person’s personality, and dressed us, I can’t even describe it, in a shapeless dress . . .”77

No effort was made to ensure that sizes matched the prisoners. “Each of us received long underwear,” wrote Janusz Bardach, as well as “a black tunic, quilted pants, a long quilted outer jacket, a felt hat with ear-flaps, rubber-soled boots, and fleece-lined mittens. These items were handed out indiscriminately, and it was up to us to find the right sizes. Everything I was given was much too big, and I spent hours trading for a better fit.”78

Equally scathing about camp fashions, another female prisoner wrote that they were given “short padded coats, padded stockings up to our knees, and birch-bark shoes. We looked like uncanny monsters. We had scarcely anything of our own left. Everything had been sold to the convict women, or, more correctly, exchanged for bread. Silk stockings and scarves elicited such admiration that we were obliged to sell them. It would have been too dangerous to refuse.”79

Because the ripped clothes seemed designed to rob them of dignity, many prisoners would later go to great lengths to improve them. One woman prisoner recalled that she did not care, at first, about the “very old and ruined” clothes she was given. Later, though, she began to sew up the holes, make pockets, and improve the clothes, “as other women did,” thus making herself feel less degraded.80 In general, women who were able to sew or to quilt were able to earn extra bread rations, so coveted were even the slightest improvements to the standard uniform: the ability to distinguish oneself, to look slightly better than others, would become, as we shall see, associated with higher rank, better health, greater privilege. Varlam Shalamov well understood the significance of these minor changes:

In camp there is “individual” and “common” underwear; such are the verbal pearls found in official speech. “Individual” underwear is newer and somewhat better and is reserved for “trusties,” convict foremen, and other privileged persons . . . “common” underwear is underwear for anyone. It’s handed out in the bathhouse right after bathing in exchange for dirty underwear, which is gathered and counted separately beforehand. There’s no opportunity to select anything according to size. Clean underwear is a pure lottery, and I felt a strange and terrible pity at seeing adult men cry over the injustice of receiving worn-out clean underwear in exchange for dirty good underwear. Nothing can take the mind of a human being off the unpleasantnesses that comprise life . . .81

Still, the shock of being washed, shaved, and dressed as zeks was only the first stage in a long initiation. Immediately afterward, the prisoners underwent one of the most critical procedures in their lives as inmates: selection— and segregation into categories of worker. This selection process would affect everything from a prisoner’s status in camp, to the type of barrack he lived in, to the type of work he would be assigned to do. All of which might, in turn, determine whether he would live or die.

I have not, it must be noted, found any memoirs describing “selections” of the sort that took place in German death camps. That is, I have not read of regular selections which ended in weak prisoners being taken aside and shot. Such atrocities surely took place—one Solovetsky memoirist claims to have survived one such occasion82—but the usual practice, at least by the end of the 1930s and the early 1940s, was different. Weak prisoners were not murdered upon arrival in some of the farther-flung camps, but rather given a period of “quarantine,” both to ensure that any illnesses they were carrying would not spread, and to allow them to “fatten up,” to recover their health after long months in prison and terrible journeys. Camp bosses appear to have taken this practice seriously, and prisoners concur.83

Alexander Weissberg, for example, was given good food and allowed to rest before he was sent to the mines.84 After a long transport to Ukhtizhemlag, Jerzy Gliksman—the Polish socialist who had once so enjoyed the performance of Pogodin’s Aristokraty in Moscow—was given a three-day rest, during which he and his fellow new arrivals were treated as “guests.”85 Pyotr Yakir, the son of the Soviet general, was put in quarantine for fourteen days at Sevurallag. 86 Evgeniya Ginzburg remembered her first few days in Magadan, the main city of Kolyma, as a “whirl of pain, blackouts of memory, and a dark abyss of unconsciousness.” She, like others, had been taken directly off the SS Dzhurma and placed in a hospital, where after two months she fully recovered her health. Some were skeptical. “A lamb for the slaughter,” said Liza Sheveleva, another prisoner. “Whom are you recovering for, may I ask? As soon as you get out of here, you’ll go straight on to forced labor, and in a week you’ll be the same sort of corpse that you were on board the Dzhurma . . .”87

Once recovered, if they had been allowed to do so, and once dressed, if they had been allowed new clothes, the selection and segregation began in earnest. In principle, this was a heavily regulated process. As early as 1930, the Gulag issued very strict, complicated orders on the classification of prisoners. Theoretically, prisoners’ work assignments were meant to reflect two sets of criteria: their “social origin” and sentence, and their health. In these early days, prisoners were put into three categories: “working-class” prisoners, not convicted of counter-revolutionary crimes, with sentences not longer than five years; “working-class” prisoners, not convicted of counter-revolutionary crimes, with sentences above five years; and those sentenced to counter-revolutionary crimes.

Each of these three categories of workers was then assigned one of three categories of prison regime: privileged, light, and “first-order,” or heavy. Then they were meant to be examined by a medical commission, which determined whether they were able to carry out heavy work or light work. After taking into account all of these criteria, the camp administration would then assign each prisoner a job. According to how well they fulfilled the norms of that particular job, each prisoner would then be assigned one of four levels of food rations: basic, working, “reinforced,” or “punishment.”88 All of these categories would change many times. Beria’s orders of 1939, for example, divided prisoners into “heavy-work-capable,” “light-work-capable,” and “invalid” categories (sometimes called groups A, B, and C), the numbers of which were regularly monitored by the central administration in Moscow, which heavily disapproved of camps which had too many “invalid” prisoners.89

The process was far from orderly. It had both formal aspects—imposed by the camp commanders—and informal aspects, as prisoners made adjustments and bargained among themselves. For most, their first experience of the camp classification process was relatively crude. George Bien, a young Hungarian picked up in Budapest at the end of the Second World War, compared the selection process he went through in 1946 to a slave market:

Everyone was ordered to the courtyard and told to strip. When your name was called you appeared before a medical team for a health inspection. The exam consisted of pulling the skin of your buttocks to determine the amount of muscle. They determined your condition of strength by the muscle content, and if you passed you were accepted and your documents were put in a separate pile. This was done by women in white coats, and they had little choice from this group of living dead. They chose the younger prisoners, regardless of muscle.90

Jerzy Gliksman also used the expression “slave market” to describe the segregation process that took place in Kotlas, the transit camp that supplied prisoners to the camps north of Arkhangelsk. There, guards awoke prisoners during the night and told them to assemble, with all of their belongings, on the following morning. Every prisoner was forced to attend, even the seriously ill. Then, all were marched out of the camp, into the forest. An hour later, they arrived at a large clearing, where they were formed into columns, sixteen men abreast:

All day long I noticed unknown officials, both uniformed and in civilian clothes, wandering among the prisoners, ordering some to remove their fufaykas[jackets], feeling their arms, their legs, looking over the palms, commanding others to bend over. Sometimes they would order a prisoner to open his mouth and peered at his teeth, like horse traders at a county fair . . . some were looking for engineers and experienced locksmiths or lathe operators; others might require construction carpenters; and all were always in need of physically strong men for work as lumberjacks, in agriculture, in coal-mining, and in the oil wells.

The most important consideration of those doing the inspecting, Gliksman realized, was “not to let themselves be duped into inadvertently acquiring cripples, invalids, or the sick—in short, persons who were good only for eating up bread for nothing. This was the reason that special agents were dispatched from time to time to select the proper prisoner material.” 91

Right from the start, it was also clear that rules were there to be broken. Nina Gagen-Torn went through a particularly humiliating selection at the Temnikovsky camp in 1947, which nevertheless had a positive result. Upon arriving in the camp, her convoy was immediately sent to the showers, their clothes put in the disinfection chamber. They were then marched into a room, still dripping wet and naked: there was to be “a health inspection,” they were told. “Doctors” were going to examine them, and so they did— along with the camp production manager and guards:

The major walked along the line, quickly examining the bodies. He was choosing goods—to production, to the sewing factory! To the collective farm! To the zone! To the hospital! The production manager wrote down the surnames.

But when he heard her surname, the Major looked at her and asked,

—“What relation are you to Professor Gagen-Torn?”


—“Put her in the hospital, she has scabies, she has red marks on her stomach.”

As she did not have red marks on her stomach, Gagen-Torn assumed, correctly as it turned out, that the man had once known and admired her father, and was saving her, at least temporarily, from hard work.92

Prisoners’ behavior in the first few days of their camp life, during and after this selection process, could have a profound effect on their fate. During his three-day period of rest upon arrival at Kargopollag, for example, the Polish novelist Gustav Herling took stock of his situation and “sold my high officer’s boots for 900 grams of bread to an urka [a criminal prisoner] from the railway porters’ brigade.” In recompense, the criminal prisoner used his connections in the camp administration to help Herling secure a job as a porter at the food supply center. This was hard work, Herling was told, but at least he would be able to steal extra rations—as proved to be the case. And right away he was granted a “privilege.” The camp commander told him to report at the camp store to draw out a bushlat [a long-sleeved jerkin lined with wadding], a cap with ear-flaps, wadded trousers, waterproof gloves made of sailcloth, and valenki [felt boots] of best quality, i.e., new or worn only a little—a full set of clothing such as is usually issued only to the best “Stakhanovite” brigades of prisoners. 93

Wheeling and dealing took other forms as well. Upon arriving at Ukhtizhemlag, Gliksman immediately realized that the “specialist” title he had been handed in the Kotlas transit camp—he was classified as a trained economist—had no meaning in the concentration camp itself. Meanwhile, he noticed that during the first few days in the camp, his savvier Russian acquaintances did not bother with official formalities:

Most of the “specialists” utilized the three free days to visit the offices and bureaus of the camp, seeking old acquaintances wherever they went and conducting suspicious negotiations with some of the camp officials. They were all excited and preoccupied. Every one of them had secrets of his own and was fearful lest another spoil his chances and grab the more comfortable work each coveted. In no time at all the majority of these people knew where to go, at whose door to knock, and what to say.

As a result, a genuinely qualified Polish doctor was sent to cut trees in the forest, while a former pimp was given an office job as an accountant, “although he had not the slightest notion of accounting and was altogether half illiterate.” 94

Those prisoners who thus managed to avoid physical labor had indeed concocted the beginnings of a survival strategy—but only the beginnings. Now, they had to learn the strange rules that governed daily life in the camps.

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