Modern history

Chapter 13


To the Chekists
A great and responsible task
Was placed upon you by Ilyich,
The face of a Chekist is worn with cares
Which no one else can comprehend.
On the face of a Chekist is valor,
He is ready to fight, even today,
For the good of all, and their well-being,
He stands up for the working people.
Many, many in battle have fallen,
Many of our brothers’ tombs have arisen.
But there still remain many,
Honest and vigorous fighters.
Tremble, tremble, enemies!
Soon, soon, your end will come!
You, Chekist, stand always on guard
And in battle you will lead the throng!

—Poem by Mikhail Panchenko, an inspector in the Soviet prison system, preserved in the same personal file that describes his expulsion from the Party and from the NKVD1

STRANGE THOUGH IT may sound, not all of the rules in the camps were written by the camp commanders. There were also unwritten rules—about how to attain status, how to gain privileges, how to live a little better than everyone else—as well as an informal hierarchy. Those who mastered these unwritten rules, and learned how to climb the hierarchy, found it much easier to survive.

At the top of the camp hierarchy were the commanders, the overseers, the warders, the jailers, and the guards. I deliberately write “at the top of” rather than “above” or “outside” the camp hierarchy, for in the Gulag the administrators and guards were not a separate caste, apart and aloof from the prisoners. Unlike the SS guards in German concentration camps, they were not considered immutably, racially superior to the prisoners, whose ethnicity they often shared. There were, for example, many hundreds of thousands of Ukranian prisoners in the camps after the Second World War. There were also, in the same time period, a notable number of Ukrainian guards.2

Nor did the guards and prisoners inhabit entirely separate social spheres. Some guards and administrators had elaborate black-market dealings with prisoners. Some got drunk with prisoners. Many “co-habited” with prisoners, to use the Gulag’s euphemism for sexual relations.3 More to the point, many were former prisoners themselves. In the early 1930s, it was considered perfectly normal for well-behaved prisoners to “graduate” to the status of camp guards—and some even went higher.4 Naftaly Frenkel’s career represented perhaps the most outstanding transformation, but there were others.

Yakov Kuperman’s career was less exalted than Frenkel’s, for example, but more typical. Kuperman—who later donated his unpublished memoirs to the Memorial Society in Moscow—was arrested in 1930 and given a ten-year sentence. He spent time in Kem, the Solovetsky transit prison, and then went to work in the planning division of the White Sea Canal. In 1932, his case was re-examined and his status was changed from prisoner to exile. Eventually, he was freed, and took up a job on the Baikal–Amur Railway— BAMlag—an experience he remembered “with satisfaction” until the end of his life.5 His decision was not an unusual one. In 1938, more than half of the administrators and nearly half of the armed guards in Belbaltlag, the camp that ran the White Sea Canal, were former or actual prisoners.6

Status could be lost as well as gained, however. Just as it was relatively easy for a prisoner to become a jailer, so too was it relatively easy for a jailer to become a prisoner. Gulag administrators and camp commanders figured among the thousands of NKVD men arrested in the purge years of 1937 and 1938. In later years, top Gulag guards and Gulag employees were regularly arrested by their suspicious colleagues. In the isolated lagpunkts, gossip and backbiting were rife: whole files of the Gulag’s archives are devoted to denunciations and counter-denunciations, furious letters about camp deficiencies, lack of support from the center, poor working conditions—and subsequent calls for arrests of the guilty, or of the disliked.7

Armed guards and administrators were regularly arrested for desertion, drinking, stealing, losing their weapons, even for mistreating prisoners. 8 The records of the Vanino port transit camp, for example, contain descriptions of V. N. Sadovnikov, an armed guard who murdered a camp nurse, having meant to murder his wife; of I. M. Soboleev, who stole 300 rubles from a group of prisoners, and then got drunk and lost his Party membership card; of V. D. Suvorov, who organized a group drinking session and picked a fight with a group of officers—as well as others who “drank themselves into unconsciousness,” or who were too drunk to man their posts.9 The personal papers of Georgi Malenkov, one of Stalin’s henchman, contain a report on the case of two camp administrators who murdered two colleagues in the course of a drunken binge, among them a woman doctor with two small children.10 So boring was life in the more distant camp outposts, one camp administrator complained in a letter to Moscow, that lack of entertainment “pushes many of the boys into desertion, violations of discipline, drunkenness, and cardplaying—all of which regularly ends with a court sentence.”11

It was even possible, indeed rather common, for some to make the full circle: for NKVD officers to become prisoners, and then to become jailers again, making second careers in the Gulag administration. Certainly many former prisoners have written of the speed with which disgraced NKVD officers would find their feet in the camps, and go on to obtain positions of real power. In his memoirs, Lev Razgon records an encounter with one Korabelnikov, a low-level NKVD employee whom he met during the journey from Moscow. Korabelnikov told Razgon he had been arrested because he “blabbed to my best mate . . . about one of the bosses’ women . . . got five years as a Socially Dangerous Element—and into a transport with the rest.” But he was not quite like the rest. Some months later, Razgon met him again. This time he was wearing a clean, well-made camp uniform. He had wormed his way into a “good” job, running the punishment camp in Ustvymlag. 12

Razgon’s story reflects a reality which is recorded in archives. Many, many Gulag officers had criminal records, in fact. Indeed, it seems as if the Gulag administration openly functioned within the NKVD as a place of exile, a last resort for disgraced secret police.13 Once sent to the outer reaches of the Gulag’s empire, officers were rarely allowed to return to any other branch of the NKVD, let alone to Moscow. As a sign of their different status, the Gulag’s employees wore distinct uniforms, and had a slightly altered system of badges and ranks.14 At Party conferences, Gulag officers complained about their inferior status. “The Gulag is seen as an administration from which everything can be demanded and nothing given in return,” griped one officer: “This excessively modest way of thinking—that we are worse than everyone else—is wrong, and it allows inequities in pay, in housing, and so on, to continue.” 15 Later, in 1946, when the NKVD was divided and renamed once again, the Gulag fell under the control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) while almost all of the NKVD’s more exciting functions, particularly intelligence and counter-intelligence, were moved to the more prestigious Ministry of State Security (MGB, later KGB). The MVD, which ran the prison system until the end of the Soviet Union, would remain a less influential bureaucracy. 16

In fact, camp commanders had had relatively low status right from the beginning. In a letter smuggled out of Solovetsky in the early 1920s, one prisoner wrote that the camp administration consisted entirely of disgraced Chekists who “have been convicted of speculation or extortion or assault or some other offense against the ordinary penal code.”17 In the 1930s and 1940s, the Gulag became the ultimate destination of NKVD officials whose biographies did not match requirements: those whose social origins were not proletariat enough, or whose Polish, Jewish, or Baltic nationality made them suspect during eras when those ethnic groups were being actively repressed. The Gulag was also the last refuge for those who were simply stupid, incompetent, or drunk. In 1937, the then-chief of the Gulag, Izrail Pliner, complained that

We get the leftovers from other sections; they send us people based on the principle “you can take what we do not need.” The cream of the crop are the hopeless drunkards; once a man goes over to drink he’s dumped on to the Gulag . . . From the point of view of the NKVD apparatus, if someone commits an offense, the greatest punishment is to send him to work in a camp.18

In 1939, another Gulag official described camp guards as “not second-class but fourth-class people, the very dregs.”19 In 1945, Vasily Chernyshev, at the time the Gulag boss, sent out a memorandum to all camp commanders and regional NKVD chiefs expressing horror at the low quality of the camp armed guards, among whom had been discovered high levels of “suicide, desertion, loss and theft of weapons, drunkenness, and other amoral acts,” as well as frequent “violation of revolutionary laws.”20 As late as 1952, when corruption was discovered at the highest levels of the secret police, Stalin’s first response was to “exile” one of the main pepetrators, who promptly became deputy commander of the Bazhenovsky camp in the Urals.21

The Gulag’s own archives also confirm the belief, delicately expressed by one former prisoner, that both guards and administrators were “more often than not, very limited people.”22 Of the eleven men who held the title “Commander of the Gulag,” for example—the administrator of the entire camp system—between 1930 and 1960, only five had had any kind of higher education, while three had never got any farther than primary school. Those who held this job rarely did so for long: over a thirty-year period, only two men, Matvei Berman and Viktor Nasedkin, held it for longer than five years. Izrail Pliner lasted only a year (1937–38), while Gleb Filaretov lasted only three months (1938–39).23

On the bottom of the NKVD hierarchy, on the other hand, personal files of the employees of the prison service from the 1940s show that even the most elite jailers—Party members and those applying for Party membership—came almost entirely from peasant backgrounds, having received minimal education. Few had completed even five years of school, and some had completed only three.24 As of April 1945, nearly three-quarters of the Gulag’s administrators had received no education beyond primary school, a percentage nearly double that in the rest of the NKVD.25

The camp armed guards—the voenizirovannaya okhrana, usually known, thanks to the Soviet mania for acronyms, as VOKhR—were even less educated. These were the men who walked around the perimeter of the camps, who marched prisoners to work, who manned the trains taking them east, often with only the dimmest idea of why they were doing it. According to one report from Kargopollag, “it appears that the guards don’t know the names of members of the Politburo, or leaders of the Party.”26 Another document lists a series of incidents involving guards who misused their weapons. One of them wounded three prisoners “as the result of not knowing how his gun worked.” Another, “at his post in a drunken state, wounded citizen Timofeev.”27

Division commanders complained at meetings that “The guards do not know how to oil, clean and take care of their weapons . . . A female guard stands on duty with her rifle barrel stuffed with a rag . . . Some guards take other people’s rifles out on duty, leaving their own back at home because they’re too lazy to clean them each time.”28 There were constant missives back and forth from Moscow to the camps urging local commanders to spend more time on “cultural-educational work” among the guards.29

Yet even the “leftovers” and “hopeless drunkards” from other departments of the NKVD managed to fill the Gulag’s demands for employees. Most Soviet institutions suffered from chronic lack of personnel, and the Gulag suffered particularly badly. Even the NKVD could not produce enough delinquent employees to fulfill the demand for an eighteenfold increase in staff between 1930 and 1939, or for the 150,000 people who had to be hired between 1939 and 1941, or for the enormous postwar expansion. In 1947, with 157,000 people serving just in the camp armed guards brigades, the Gulag still reckoned itself to be 40,000 guards short.30

Right up until the system was finally disbanded, this dilemma never ceased to plague the Gulag administration. With the exception of the very top jobs, work in the camps was not considered to be prestigious or attractive, and living conditions were hardly guaranteed to be comfortable, particularly in the smaller, more distant outposts of the far north. General food shortages meant that guards and administrators received rationed food in quantities distributed according to the rank of the recipient.31 Returning from a tour of inspection of the northern camps of the Vorkuta region, one Gulag inspector complained about the poor living conditions of the armed guards, who worked fourteen- to sixteen-hour days in “difficult northern climatic conditions,” did not always have proper shoes and clothes, and lived in dirty barracks. Some suffered from scurvy, pellagra, and other vitamin-deficiency diseases, just as prisoners did.32 Another wrote that in Kargopollag, twenty-six members of the VOKhR had been given criminal sentences, many for falling asleep at their posts. In the summer, they worked thirteen-hour days—and when they were not at work they had no forms of entertainment. Those with families were in particularly poor condition, as they often did not have apartments and were forced to live in barracks.33

Those who wanted to leave did not find it easy, even at the higher levels. The NKVD archives contain a plaintive letter from the prosecutor of Norilsk, begging to be removed from work in the “Arctic zone,” on the grounds of ill health and overwork: “If it isn’t possible to move me to a prosecutor’s job in another corrective-labor camp, then I would like to be put in a territorial job or else removed from the procuracy altogether.” In response, he was offered a transfer to Krasnoyarsk, which he turned down, as the conditions there—Krasnoyarsk lies to the south of Norilsk, but is still in northern Siberia—were almost the same.34

Since the death of Stalin, former camp officials have often defended their past livelihoods by describing the difficulties and hardships of the work. When I met her, Olga Vasileeva, a former inspector of camps for the road-building division of the Gulag, regaled me with tales of the hard life of a Gulag employee. During our conversation—held at her unusually spacious Moscow apartment, the gift of a grateful Party—Vasileeva told me that once, when visiting a distant camp, she was invited to sleep in the home of a camp commander, in his son’s bed. At night she became hot and itchy. Thinking perhaps she was ill, she switched on the light: “His gray soldier’s blanket was alive, swarming with lice. It wasn’t only prisoners who had lice, the bosses had them too.” As a rule, when she returned home from an inspection trip, she would remove all of her clothes before entering the front door, to avoid bringing parasites into her house.

As Vasileeva saw it, the job of camp commander was extremely difficult: “It isn’t a joke, you are in charge of hundreds, thousands of prisoners, there were recidivists and murderers, those convicted of serious crimes, from them you could expect anything. That meant you have to be on guard the whole time.” Commanders, although under pressure to work as efficiently as possible, found themselves needing to solve all kinds of other problems as well:

The head of a building project, he was also the head of a camp, and spent at least 60 percent of his time not on the building works, making engineering decisions, and solving building problems, but dealing with the camp. Someone was ill, an epidemic might have broken out, or some kind of accident had happened which means someone has to be taken to the hospital, someone needs a car or a horse and cart.

Vasileeva also said that the “bosses” did not necessarily eat well in Moscow either, especially during the war. In the canteen at Gulag headquarters, there was cabbage, soup, and kasha: “I don’t remember meat, I never saw any.” During Stalin’s lifetime, employees of the Gulag in Moscow worked from nine o’clock in the morning until two or three o’clock the next morning every day. Vasileeva saw her child only on Sundays. After Stalin died, however, things improved. S. N. Kruglov, then the head of the NKVD, issued an order granting ordinary employees of the NKVD central administration a one-hour lunch break, and NKVD officers a two-hour lunch break. In 1963, Vasileeva and her husband also received a very large apartment in central Moscow, the same one she was living in when I met her in 1998. 35

In Stalin’s lifetime, though, work in the Gulag was less well-rewarded, leaving the central camp administration to address the problem of the job’s essential unattractiveness in different ways. In 1930, when the system was still perceived as part of the economic expansion of the time, the OGPU conducted internal advertising campaigns, asking for enthusiasts to work in what were then the new camps of the far north:

The enthusiasm and energy of Chekists created and strengthened the Solovetsky camps, playing a large, positive role in the industrial and cultural development of the far northern European part of our country. The new camps, like Solovetsky, must play a reforming role in the economy and culture of the outer regions. For this responsibility . . . we need especially tough Chekists, volunteers desiring hard work . . .

The volunteers were offered, among other things, up to 50 percent extra pay, a two-month holiday every year, and a bonus, after three years, of three months’ salary and a three-month holiday. In addition, the top administrators would receive monthly ration packages for free, and access to “radio, sporting facilities, and cultural facilities.”36

Later on, as any genuine enthusiasm disappeared altogether (if it had ever existed), the inducements became more systematic. Camps were ranked according to their distance and their harshness. The more distant and the more harsh, the more NKVD officers would be paid to work in them. Some made a point of organizing sporting and other activities for their employees. In addition, the NKVD built special sanitoriums by the Black Sea, in Sochi and Kislovodsk, so that the highest-ranking officers could spend their long vacations in comfort and warmth.37

The central administration also created schools where Gulag officers could improve their qualifications and their rank. One, for example, established in Kharkov, taught courses not only in the obligatory “History of the Party” and “History of the NKVD,” but also criminal law, camp policies, administration, management, accounting, and military subjects. 38 Those willing to work at Dalstroi, in distant Kolyma, could even have their children reclassified as “children of workers”: this qualified them for preferential acceptance at institutes of higher education, and proved a highly popular inducement.39

The money and benefits were certainly enough to attract some employees at the lowest levels too. Many simply saw the Gulag as the best of all possible bad options. In Stalin’s Soviet Union—a country of war, famine, starvation—employment as a prison guard or warder could signify an immeasurable social advance. Susanna Pechora, a prisoner in the early 1950s, recalled meeting one female warder who was working in a camp because it was the only way to escape from the dire poverty of the collective farm where she had been born: “she fed her seven brothers and sisters on her camp salary.”40 Another memoirist tells the story of Maria Ivanova, a young woman who came voluntarily to work in a camp in 1948. Hoping to escape life on a collective farm, and hoping even more to find a husband, Maria Ivanova instead became the mistress of a series of officials of ever-declining rank. She wound up living with her two illegitimate children and her mother in a single room.41

But even the prospects of high salaries, long vacations, and social advance were still not always enough to bring workers into the system, particularly at the lower levels. At times of great demand, Soviet labor boards would simply send workers where they were needed, not even necessarily telling them where they were going. One former Gulag nurse, Zoya Eremenko, was sent straight from nursing school to work on what she had been told would be a construction site. When she arrived, she discovered that it was a prison camp, Krasnoyarsk-26. “We were surprised, frightened, but when we got to know the place, we found that ‘there,’ the people were the same and the medical work was the same as what we had been led to expect from our studies,” she recalled.42

Particularly tragic were the cases of those forced to work in the camps after the Second World War. Thousands of ex–Red Army soldiers who had fought their way across Germany, as well as civilians who had lived “abroad” during the war, as deportees or refugees, were effectively arrested upon crossing the border back into the Soviet Union, and confined to “filtration camps,” where they were carefully cross-examined. Those who were not arrested were sometimes immediately sent to work in the prison guard service. By the beginning of 1946, there were 31,000 such people, and in some camps they accounted for up to 80 percent of the guard service.43 Nor could they easily leave. Many had been deprived of their documents—passports, residence permits, military service certificates. Without them, they were unable to leave the camps, let alone search for new jobs. Between 300 and 400 every year committed suicide. One who attempted to do so, explained why: “I’ve been in the service for a very long time now, and I still have not been given a residence permit, and nearly every day a policeman comes round with an order to vacate the apartment, and this leads to quarrels in my family every single day.” 44

Others simply degenerated. Karlo Stajner, a Yugoslav communist and a prisoner in Norilsk during and after the war, remembered such guards as being “notably different from those who hadn’t fought in the war”:

There were definite signs of demoralization, for one. You could see it in their willingness to be bribed by the female prisoners or to become clients of the prettier ones, or to allow criminals to leave the brigade in order to break into some apartment, and share the loot with them later. They weren’t afraid of the severe punishments they would be subject to if their superiors found out about these misdeeds.45

A very, very few protested. The archives record, for example, the case of one unwilling recruit, Danilyuk, who categorically refused to serve in the armed guards service, on the grounds that “I don’t want to serve in the organs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs at all.” Danilyuk kept up this stance despite what the archives call “processing sessions,” undoubtedly long periods of browbeating, perhaps actual beatings. He was, in the end, released from service. At least in his case, consistent and persistent refusal to work for the Gulag found its reward.46

In the end, though, the system did reward its luckiest and most loyal members, some of whom received far more than a mere social advance or better rations: those who delivered large quantities of gold or timber to the state with their prisoner laborers would, eventually, receive their rewards. And while the average logging lagpunkt was never a nice place to live, even for those running it, the headquarters of some of the bigger camps did over time became very comfortable indeed.

By the 1940s, the cities that stood at the center of the larger camp complexes—Magadan, Vorkuta, Norilsk, Ukhta—were large, bustling places, with shops, theaters, and parks. The opportunities for living the good life had increased enormously since the Gulag’s pioneering early days. Top commanders in the bigger camps got higher salaries, better bonuses, and longer vacations than those in the ordinary working world. They had better access to food and to consumer goods that were in short supply elsewhere. “Life in Norilsk was better than anywhere else in the Soviet Union,” remembered Andrei Cheburkin, a foreman in Norilsk and later a local bureaucrat:

In the first place, all the bosses had maids, prisoner maids. Then the food was amazing. There were all sorts of fish. You could go and catch it in the lakes. And if in the rest of the Union there were ration cards, here we lived virtually without cards. Meat. Butter. If you wanted champagne you had to take a crab as well, there were so many. Caviar . . . barrels of the stuff lay around. I’m talking about bosses, of course. I am not talking about the workers. But then the workers were prisoners . . .

The pay was good . . . say you were a brigadier, you’d get 6,000–8,000 rubles. In central Russia you would get no more than 1,200. I came to Norilsk to work as a work supervisor in a special directorate of the NKVD, which was looking for uranium. I was given a supervisor’s salary: 2,100 rubles I received from the first, and then each six months I got a 10 percent rise, about five times more than they got in normal civilian life.47

Cheburkin’s first point—“all the bosses had maids”—was a key one, for it applied, in fact, not just to the bosses but to everyone. Technically, the use of prisoners as domestics was forbidden. But it was very widespread, as the authorities well knew, and despite frequent attempts to stop the practice, it continued.48 In Vorkuta, Konstantin Rokossovsky, a Red Army officer who later became a general, then a marshall, then Defense Minister of Stalinist Poland, worked as a servant to a “loutish warder named Buchko, his duties consisting of fetching the man’s meals, tidying and heating his cottage and so forth.”49 In Magadan, Evgeniya Ginzburg worked, for a time, as a laundress for the wife of a camp administrator.50

Thomas Sgovio also worked as a personal orderly to a senior camp guard in Kolyma, preparing his food and trying to procure alcohol for him. The man came to trust him. “Thomas, my boy,” he would say, “remember one thing. Take care of my Party membership card. Whenever I’m drunk— see that I don’t lose it. You’re my servant—and if I ever lose it, I’ll have to shoot you like a dog . . . and I don’t want to do that.” 51

But for the really big bosses, servants were only the beginning. Ivan Nikishov, who became the boss of Dalstroi in 1939, in the wake of the purges, and held the post until 1948, became infamous for accumulating riches in the middle of desperate poverty. Nikishov was a different generation from his predecessor, Berzin—a generation far removed from the lean and more fervent years of the Revolution and the civil war. Perhaps as a result, Nikishov had no compunction about using his position to live well. He equipped himself with a “large personal security force, luxury automobiles, sweeping offices and a magnificent dacha overlooking the Pacific Ocean.” 52 The latter, according to prisoner accounts, was said to be equipped with oriental carpets, bearskins, and crystal chandeliers. In the luxurious dining room, he and his second wife—a young, ambitious camp commander named Gridasova—were said to dine on roast bear, wine from the Caucasus, fruits and berries flown in from the south, as well as fresh tomatoes and cucumbers from private greenhouses.53

Nikishov was not alone in enjoying a life of luxury either. Lev Razgon, in his unforgettable description of Colonel Tarasyuk, the wartime commander of Ustvymlag, records similar excesses:

He lived like a Roman who has been appointed governor of some barbarous newly conquered province. Vegetables and fruit, and flowers quite alien to the North, were grown for him in special hot-houses and orangeries. The best cabinet-makers were found to make his furniture. The most famous couturiers of the recent past dressed his capricious and willful wife. When he felt unwell he was not examined by some freely hired little doctor who had sold himself to the Gulag as a medical student. No, Tarasyuk was treated by professors who had headed the biggest Moscow clinics and were now serving their long sentences in the medical barracks of remote forest camps.54

Often, prisoners were required to help indulge these whims. Isaac Vogelfanger, a camp doctor, found himself constantly short of medicinal alcohol because his pharmacist used it to make brandy. The camp boss then used the brandy to entertain visiting dignitaries: “The more alcohol they consume, the better their opinion of work in Sevurallag.” Vogelfanger also witnessed a camp cook prepare a “banquet” for visitors, using things he had saved up for the occasion: “caviar, smoked eel, hot rolls made from french dough with mushrooms, Arctic char in lemon aspic, baked goose and baked piglet.”55

It was also in this period, the 1940s, that bosses like Nikishov began to see themselves as more than mere jailers. Some even began to compete with one another, in a fantastic version of keeping up with the Jones’s. They vied to produce the best prisoner theatrical groups, the best prisoner orchestras, the best prisoner artists. Lev Kopelev was in Unzhlag in 1946, at a time when its commander would select, straight from prison, “the best performers, musicians and artists, to whom he gave the best trusty jobs, working as cleaners and caretakers in the hospital.” The camp became known as an “asylum for artists.”56 Dalstroi also boasted an inmate troupe called the Sevvostlag Club, which performed in Magadan and in some of the outlying camps of the mining zone, benefiting from the many well-known singers and dancers incarcerated in Kolyma.57 Lev Razgon describes too the commander of Ukhtizhemlag, who “maintained a real opera troupe in Ukhta,” directed by a famous Soviet actor. He also “employed” a famous Bolshoi ballerina, as well as well-known singers and musicians:

Sometimes the head of Ukhtizhemlag would pay his neighboring colleagues a visit. Although the official purpose was to “share experience,” this flat description belies the elaborate preparations and protocol which more resembled a visit by a foreign head of state. The bosses were accompanied by a large entourage of section heads, special hotel accommodation was prepared for them, routes were carefully planned and presents were brought in . . . The Ukhtizhemlag boss also brought his best performers with him so that his hosts could see that the arts were just as flourishing there, if not more so.58

To this day, the former Ukhtizhemlag theater—a vast, white, columned building, with theatrical symbols on its pediment—is one of the most substantial buildings in the city of Ukhta. It stands within walking distance of the former camp commander’s residence, a spacious wooden house on the edge of a park.

But it was not just those with artistic tastes who indulged their whims. Those who preferred sport also had an opportunity to try their hand at founding their own soccer teams, which competed with one another quite fiercely. Nikolai Starostin—the star player who was arrested because his team had the misfortune to beat Beria’s—was also sent to Ukhta, where his transport was met right at the train station. He was taken to meet the local soccer manager, who addressed him politely and told him that the camp boss had specially requested his presence: “the General’s soul is in soccer. He was the one who got you here.” Starostin was to spend much of his camp career managing soccer teams for the NKVD, moving from place to place according to whichever commander wanted him as trainer.59

Occasionally, just occasionally, word of such excesses sparked alarm, or at least interest, in Moscow. Perhaps responding to complaints, Beria once commissioned a secret investigation into Nikishov’s luxurious lifestyle. The resulting report confirms, among other things, that on one occasion Nikishov spent 15,000 rubles, a huge sum at that time, on a banquet given to commemorate the visit of the Khabarovsk Operetta Company.60 The report also condemns the “atmosphere of sycophancy” around Nikishov and his wife, Gridasova: “The influence of Gridasova is so great, that even the deputies of Nikishov testify that they can work in their positions only so long as she looks kindly upon them.”61 No steps were taken, however. Gridasova and Nikishov continued to reign in peace.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to point out that, contrary to their postwar protestations, few Germans were ever forced to work in concentration camps or killing squads. One scholar recently claimed that most had done so voluntarily—a view which has caused some controversy.62 In the case of Russia and the other post-Soviet states, the issue has to be examined differently. Very often, camp employees—like most other Soviet citizens— had few options. A labor committee simply assigned them a place of work, and they had to go there. Lack of choice was built right into the Soviet economic system.

Nevertheless, it is not quite right to describe the NKVD officers and armed guards as “no better off than the prisoners they commanded,” or as victims of the same system, as some have tried to do. For although they might have preferred to work elsewhere, once they were inside the system, the employees of the Gulag did have choices, far more than their Nazi counterparts, whose work was more rigidly defined. They could choose to behave brutally, or they could choose to be kind. They could choose to work their prisoners to death, or they could choose to keep as many alive as possible. They could choose to sympathize with the prisoners whose fate they might have once shared, and might share again, or they could choose to take advantage of their temporary stretch of luck, and lord it over their former and future comrades in suffering.

Nothing in their past history necessarily indicated what path they would take, for both Gulag administrators and ordinary camp guards came from as many different ethnic and social backgrounds as did the prisoners. Indeed, when asked to describe the character of their guards, Gulag survivors almost always reply that they varied enormously. I put that question to Galina Smirnova, who remembered that “they were, like everyone, all different.” 63 Anna Andreeva told me that “there were sick sadists, and there were completely normal, good people.” Andreeva also recalled the day, soon after Stalin’s death, when the chief accountant in her camp suddenly rushed into the accounting office where prisoners were working, cheered, hugged them, and shouted, “Take off your numbers, girls, they’re giving you back your own clothes!”64

Irena Arginskaya also told me that her guards were not only “very different sorts of people,” but also people who changed over time. The conscript soldiers in particular acted “like beasts” when they were new on the job, as they had been pumped full of propaganda, but “after a time they began to understand—not all of them, but a large part—and they often changed.”65

True, the authorities exerted some pressure on both guards and administrators, discouraging them from showing prisoners any kindness. The archive of the Gulag’s inspectorate records the case of Levin, the boss of the supply division for a section of Dmitlag in 1937, who was actively investigated for his lenience. His crime was to have allowed a prisoner to meet with his brother: normally, relatives within the prison system were kept far apart. Levin was also accused of being too friendly to zeks in general, and especially so to a group of zeks said to be Mensheviks. Levin—himself a former prisoner on the White Sea Canal—claimed, in return, that he had not known they were Mensheviks. Given that this was 1937, he was convicted anyway. 66

Yet such strictures were not rigorously applied. Indeed, several top commanders actually became renowned for their kindness to prisoners. In Let History Judge, his denunciation of Stalinism, the dissident historian and publicist Roy Medvedev describes one camp commander, V. A. Kundush, who took seriously the demands for increased production during wartime. He placed the better-educated political prisoners in clerical jobs, and set about treating his prisoners well, even securing some of them early release. His enterprise received the “Red Banner for Management” during the war. But when the war ended, he too was arrested, perhaps for the very humanity that had transformed his production.67 Lev Razgon describes an unusual transit prison in Georgievsk, which both he and his second wife, Rika, passed through:

The cells were not only swept but washed, both the floors and the bed boards. The food was so filling that the constant hunger of prisoners in transit disappeared. You could really get clean in the bath-house. There was even a special and fully equipped room (and this amazed Rika more than anything else) where the women could primp and perk...68

And there were others. At one point during his camp career, Genrikh Gorchakov, a Russian Jew arrested in 1945, was assigned to an invalids’ camp within the Siblag complex. The camp had recently been taken over by a new commander, a former frontline officer who could not find any other work after the war. Taking his job seriously, the commander built new barracks, saw to it that prisoners had mattresses and even sheets, and reorganized the work system, completely transforming the camp.69

Yet another ex-zek, Aleksei Pryadilov, arrested at sixteen, was sent to a farming camp in the Altai. There the camp boss “ran the camp like an economic organization, and behaved toward prisoners not as if they were criminals and enemies, whom it was necessary to ‘re-educate,’ but as though they were workers. He was convinced that there was no point in trying to get good work out of hungry people.”70 Even Gulag inspectors sometimes uncovered good commanders. One visited Birlag in 1942, and found that “the prisoners of this factory worked excellently because their conditions were excellent.” Their barracks were clean, each prisoner had his or her own sheets and blankets, good clothes and shoes.71

There were also more direct forms of kindness. The memoirist Galina Levinson recalled one camp commander who talked a woman prisoner out of having an abortion. “When you leave the camp you will be alone,” he told her. “Think how good it will be to have a child.” To the end of her life, the woman was grateful to him. 72 Anatoly Zhigulin wrote too of a “good” camp boss, who “saved hundreds from death,” called his charges “comrade prisoners” in defiance of the rules, and ordered the cook to feed them better. Clearly, noted Zhigulin, he “didn’t know the rules yet.” Mariya Sandratskaya, arrested for being the wife of an “enemy,” also describes a camp boss who paid special attention to the mothers in the camp, making sure the nursery was well run, that nursing women had enough to eat, and that mothers did not work too hard.73

In fact, kindness was possible: at all levels, there were always a few who resisted the propaganda describing all prisoners as enemies, a few who understood the true state of affairs. And a startling number of memoirists do note a single experience of kindness from a prison guard, or a single instance of consideration. “I don’t doubt,” wrote Evgeny Gnedin, “that in the enormous army of camp administrators, there were honest workers who were distressed by their role as overseers to completely innocent people.” 74 Yet at the same time, most memoirists also marvel at how exceptional such understanding was. For despite the few counter-examples, clean prisons were not the norm, many camps were lethal—and the majority of guards treated their charges with indifference at best, outright cruelty at worst.

Nowhere, I repeat, was cruelty actually required. On the contrary: deliberate cruelty was officially frowned upon by the central administration. Camp guards and administrators who were unnecessarily harsh to prisoners could be punished, and often were. The archives of Vyatlag contain reports of guards punished for “systematically beating up zeks,” for stealing prisoners’ belongings, and for raping women prisoners. 75 The archives of Dmitlag record the criminal sentences handed out to camp administrators accused of beating prisoners while drunk. The Gulag’s central archives also record punishments for prison camp commanders who beat up prisoners, who tortured them during investigations, or who sent them on transports without proper winter clothes.76

Yet cruelty persisted. Sometimes it was genuinely sadistic. Viktor Bulgakov, a prisoner in the 1950s, recalled one of his guards, an illiterate Kazakh, who appeared to derive pleasure from forcing prisoners to stand, slowly freezing, in the snow, and another who liked to “show off his strength and beat prisoners” for no particular reason.77 The Gulag’s archives also contain, among many other similar records, a description of the chief of one of the lagpunkts at Volgostroi during the war, Comrade Reshetov, who put zeks in freezing cold cells as punishment, and ordered sick prisoners to work in severe frost, as a result of which many died on the job.78

More often, cruelty was not so much sadism as self-interest. Guards who shot escaping prisoners received monetary rewards, and could even be granted a vacation at home. Guards were therefore tempted to encourage such “escapes.” Zhigulin described the result:

The guard would shout at someone in the column, “Hey, bring me that plank!”

“But it’s across the fence . . .”

“Doesn’t matter. Go!”

The prisoner would go, and a line of machine-gun fire would follow him.79

Such incidents were common—as archives show. In 1938, four VOKhR guards working in Vyatlag were sentenced for killing two prisoners whom they had “provoked” to escape. In the aftermath, it emerged that the division commander and his assistant had helped themselves to the prisoners’ belongings as well.80 The writer Boris Dyakov also mentions the practice of provoking escapes in his “pro-Soviet” Gulag memoir, published in the USSR in 1964.81

As on the convoy trains, the cruelty in camps seemed, at times, to derive from anger or boredom at having to do a menial job. While working as a nurse in a Kolyma hospital, the Dutch communist Elinor Lipper sat up in the night beside a patient with pleurisy and high fever. He also had a carbuncle on his back which had burst, thanks to the guard who had brought him to the hospital:

In painful gasps, he told me that the guard had wanted to get the uncomfortable march over with as soon as possible, and so he had driven the sick, feverish prisoner on for hours with the blows of a club. At the end of the march he had threatened to break every bone in the prisoner’s body if the man reported at the hospital that the guard had beaten him.

Frightened to the end, the man refused to repeat the story in the presence of nonprisoners. “We let him die in peace,” wrote Lipper, “and the guard went on beating prisoners undisturbed.”82

Most of the time, however, the cruelty of Soviet camp guards was unthinking, stupid, lazy cruelty, of the sort that might be shown to cattle or sheep. If guards were not explicitly told to mistreat prisoners, neither were they taught to consider prisoners, particularly political prisoners, as fully human either. On the contrary, great effort was put into cultivating hatred for prisoners, who were constantly described as “dangerous criminals, as spies and saboteurs trying to destroy the Soviet people.” Such propaganda had an enormous effect on people who were already embittered by misfortune, by their unwanted jobs, and by poor living conditions.83 It also shaped the views of the camp’s free workers—the local people working in the camp who were not NKVD employees—as much as the armed guards, as one prisoner remembered: “Usually, from the free workers we were cut off by a wall of mutual distrust . . . Our gray shapes, being led under convoy and sometimes with dogs, [were] probably, for them, something very unpleasant, of which it was better not to think.”84

This was true as early as the 1920s, the era when Solovetsky guards were forcing freezing prisoners to jump into rivers at the cry of “Dolphin!” It grew worse, of course, in the late 1930s, with the downgrading of political prisoners to “enemies of the people,” and the harshening of the camp regimes. In 1937, hearing that a large transport of Trotskyites were on their way to Kolyma, the boss of the camp, Eduard Berzin, told a group of co-workers that “If these swine, who are now on their way here, committed sabotage on the mainland, let’s make sure that here in Kolyma they work for the Soviet Union. We have the means to force them to work . . .” 85

Even after the Great Terror ended, however, the propaganda never really let up. Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, prisoners were regularly referred to as war criminals and collaborators, traitors and spies. The Ukrainian nationalists who began pouring into the camps after the Second World War were variously called “snake-like, slavish dogs of the Nazi hangmen,” the “Ukrainian German Fascists,” or the “agents of foreign intelligence services.” Nikita Khrushchev, then the leader of Ukraine, told a Central Committee plenum that the Ukrainian Nationalists had “killed themselves trying to please their master, Hitler, and to get only a small portion of the loot for their doggish service.”86 During the war, guards called almost all political prisoners “fascists” or “Hitlerites” or “Vlasovites” (followers of General Vlasov, who deserted the Red Army and supported Hitler).

This was especially galling for Jews, for veterans who had bravely fought the Germans, and for foreign communists who had fled fascism in their own countries.87 “We’re not fascists, most of us are former Party members,” the Yugoslav communist Karlo Stajner indignantly told a group of jeering criminal prisoners, who had flung the “fascist” insult at a brigade of politicals.88 Margarete Buber-Neumann, a German communist who was released from the Gulag only to be transferred directly into a German concentration camp, Ravensbruck, also wrote that she was repeatedly referred to as “the German Fascist.”89 And when one arrested NKVD officer, Mikhail Shreider, told his interrogator that as a Jew he could hardly be accused of collaborating with Hitler, he was told that he was not a Jew, but rather “a German disguised as a Jew.” 90

This name-calling was not just a pointless juvenile exercise, however. By describing their prisoners as “enemies” or as “subhuman,” guards reassured themselves of the legitimacy of their own actions. In fact, the rhetoric of “enemies” was only a part of the ideology of the Gulag cadres. The other part—call it the rhetoric of “state slavery”—constantly hammered home the importance of work, and of the ever-increasing production figures which were necessary for the continued existence of the Soviet Union. To put it bluntly: anything could be justified if it brought more gold out of the ground. This thesis was beautifully summed up by Aleksei Loginov, a retired former director of production and of prison camps in Norilsk, in an interview he gave to a British documentary filmmaker:

From the beginning we knew perfectly well that the outside world would never leave our Soviet Revolution alone. Not only Stalin realized it— everyone, every ordinary communist, every ordinary person realized that we had not only to build, but to build in the full knowledge that soon we would be at war. So in my area, the search for all sources of raw materials, copper, nickel, aluminum and iron, and so on, was incredibly intense. We had always known of the huge resources in Norilsk—but how to develop them in the Arctic? So the whole venture was put in the hands of the NKVD, the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Who else could have done it? You know how many people had been arrested. And we needed tens of thousands up there . . .91

Loginov was speaking in the 1990s, nearly half a century after Norilsk ceased to be a vast prison complex. But his words echo those written in 1964 by Anna Zakharova, the wife of a camp commander, in a letter to the government newspaper Izvestiya which was never published—but did later appear in the underground press. Like Loginov, Zakharova also spoke of duty and of the sacrifices her husband had made for the greater glory of their country: “His health has already been ruined working with the criminal world, because all the work here wears on your nerves. We would be happy to move on, because my husband has already served his time, but they won’t let him go. He is a Communist and an officer, and he is bound by the duty of his position.”92

Similar views were put to me by a camp administrator who wanted to remain anonymous. With pride she told me of the work her prisoners had done on behalf of the USSR during the war: “Absolutely every prisoner worked and paid his own way, and gave everything to the front that he could.” 93

Within this larger framework of loyalty to the Soviet Union and its economic goals, cruelty carried out in the name of production figures seemed, to the perpetrators, downright admirable. More to the point, the true nature of the cruelty, like the true nature of the camps, could be hidden beneath the jargon of economics. After interviewing a former Karlag administrator in 1991, the American journalist Adam Hochschild complained, “From the colonel’s words you would not have known that it was a prison. Instead, he talked almost entirely about Karlag’s role in the Soviet economy. He sounded like a proud regional Party boss. ‘We had our own agricultural experiment station. Cattle breeding was also advanced. A special breed of cow, Red Steppe, was raised here, also Kazakh whiteheads . . .’”94

At the highest levels, administrators frequently described the prisoners as if they were machines or tools, necessary for completing the job and nothing else. They were openly thought of as convenient, cheap labor—a necessity, simply, just like supplies of cement or steel. Again, Loginov, the Norilsk commander, puts it best:

If we had sent civilians [to Norilsk] we would first have had to build houses for them to live in. And how could civilians live there? With prisoners it is easy—all you need is a barrack, an oven with a chimney, and they survive. And then maybe later somewhere to eat. In short, prisoners were, under the circumstances of that time, the only possible people you could use on such a large scale. If we had had time, we probably wouldn’t have done it that way . . .95

At the same time, economic jargon enabled the camp leadership to justify anything, even death: all was for the greater good. At times, this argument was taken to real extremes. Lev Razgon, for example, gives an account of a conversation between Colonel Tarasyuk, then the commander of Ustvymlag, and a camp doctor, Kogan, who made the mistake of bragging to Tarasyuk about how many patients he had “plucked from the grips of pellagra,” a disease caused by starvation and protein deprivation. According to Razgon, the following dialogue ensued:

Tarasyuk: What are they getting?

Kogan: They are all receiving the anti-pellagra ration established by the Gulag Health and Sanitation Department (and he specified the quantity of proteins in calories).

Tarasyuk: How many of them will go out to work in the forest, and when?

Kogan: Well, none of them will ever go to work in the forest again, of course. But now they’ll survive and it will be possible to use them for light work within the compound.

Tarasyuk: Stop giving them any anti-pellagra rations. Write this down: these rations are to be given to those working in the forest. The other prisoners are to get the disability rations.

Kogan: Comrade Colonel! Obviously I didn’t explain clearly. These people will only survive if they are given a special ration. A disabled prisoner receives 400 grams of bread. On that ration they’ll be dead in ten days. We can’t do that!

Tarasyuk looked at the upset doctor, and there was even a sign of interest in his face. “What’s the matter? Do your medical ethics prevent you from doing this?”

“Of course they do . . .”

“Well, I don’t give a damn for your ethics,” said Tarasyuk calmly, and with no indication whatsoever of anger. “Have you written that down? Let’s move on . . .”

All 246 died within the month.96

Such conversations were not unique, nor apocryphal, as archives show. One inspector, reporting on the conditions of prisoners in Volgostroi during the war, complained that the camp’s administration was “exclusively interested in producing wood . . . and was not even slightly interested in the feeding or clothing of prisoners, sending them out to work without regard to physical fitness, never worrying about whether they were clothed, healthy, and fed.”97 Accounts also record the following comment, made at a meeting of Vyatlag officers in January 1943. Speaking in the purely neutral language of statistics, Comrade Avrutsky made the following proposal: “We have 100 percent of our workforce, but we cannot fulfill our program, since Group B continues to grow. If the food which we gave to Group B were given to another contingent—then we wouldn’t have Group B at all, and we would fulfill the program . . .”98 The phrase “Group B,” of course, referred to weaker prisoners, who would indeed cease to exist if they were not given any food.

If camp commanders had the luxury of making such decisions far removed from the people who would actually be affected, proximity did not necessarily make those lower down the hierarchy feel any more sympathy. One Polish prisoner, Kazimierz Zarod, was in a column of prisoners marching to a new camp site. Given virtually no food, prisoners began to weaken. Finally, one of them fell, and was unable to get up again. A guard raised a gun at him. A second guard threatened to shoot:

“For God’s sake,” I heard the man groan, “if you will only let me rest for a while I can catch up.”

“You walk, or die,” said the first guard . . .

I saw him lift his rifle and take aim—I could not believe that he would shoot. The men in the column behind me had by this time regrouped and my view of what was happening was obscured, but suddenly a shot rang out followed by a second, and I knew the man was dead.

But Zarod also records that not all of those who fell while marching were shot. If they were young, those too exhausted to walk farther were picked up and thrown onto a cart, where they “lay like sacks until they recovered . . . The reasoning, as far as I could see, being that the young would recover and have work left in them, while the old were not worth saving. Certainly those thrown like bundles of old clothes into the provisions carts were not there because of any humanitarian reason. The guards, although young men, had traveled this route before and were apparently devoid of any human feelings.”99

Although there are no memoirs to document it, this attitude surely affected even those who occupied the posts at the very top of the camp system. Throughout the preceding chapters, I have been regularly quoting from reports found in the files of the Gulag inspectorate, a part of the Soviet prosecutors’ office. These reports, filed with great regularity and precision, are remarkable for their honesty. They refer to typhus epidemics, to food shortages, to clothing shortages. They report on camps where death rates are “too high.” They angrily accuse particular camp commanders of providing unsuitable living conditions for prisoners. They estimate numbers of “working days” lost to illness, accidents, death. Reading them, one can have no doubt that the Gulag bosses in Moscow knew—really and truly knew—what life was like in the camps: it is all there, in language no less frank than that used by Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov. 100

Yet although changes were sometimes made, although commanders occasionally were sentenced, what is striking about the reports is their very repetitiveness: they call to mind the absurd culture of phony inspection so beautifully described by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. It is as if the forms were observed, the reports were filed, the ritual anger was expressed—and the real effects on human beings were ignored. Camp commanders were routinely reprimanded for failing to improve living standards, living standards continued to fail to improve, and there the discussion ended.

In the end, nobody forced guards to rescue the young and murder the old. Nobody forced camp commanders to kill off the sick. Nobody forced the Gulag bosses in Moscow to ignore the implications of inspectors’ reports. Yet such decisions were made openly, every day, by guards and administrators apparently convinced they had the right to make them.

Nor was the ideology of state slavery exclusive to the Gulag’s masters. Prisoners too were encouraged to cooperate—and some did.

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