Modern history

Chapter 15


. . . the prisoner who was our barrack orderly greeted me with a cry: “Run and see what’s under your pillow!” My heart leaped: perhaps I’d got my bread ration after all! I ran to my bed and threw off the pillow. Under it lay three letters from home, three whole letters! It was six months since I’d received anything at all.My first reaction on seeing them was acute disappointment. And then—horror. What had become of me if a piece of bread was worth more to me now than letters from my mother, my father, my children. . . . I forgot all about the bread and wept.

—Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, My Journey1

THEY MET the same work norms and they ate the same watery soup. They lived in the same sort of barracks and traveled in the same cattle trains. Their clothes were almost identical, their shoes equally inadequate. They were treated no differently under interrogation. And yet—men’s and women’s camp experiences were not quite the same.

Certainly many women survivors are convinced that there were great advantages to being female within the camp system. Women were better at taking care of themselves, better at keeping their clothes patched and their hair clean. They seemed better able to subsist on low amounts of food, and did not succumb so easily to pellagra and the other diseases of starvation.2 They formed powerful friendships, and helped one another in ways that male prisoners did not. Margarete Buber-Neumann records that one of the women arrested with her in Butyrka prison had been picked up in a light summer dress which had turned to rags. The cell determined to make her a new dress:

They clubbed together and bought half-a-dozen towels of rough, unbleached Russian linen. But how was the dress to be cut without a pair of scissors? A little ingenuity solved the problem. The “cut” was marked with the burnt ends of matches, the material was folded along the marked lines, and a lighted match was run backwards and forwards for a moment or two along the fold. Then the material was unfolded again and the line was burnt through. The cotton for sewing was obtained by carefully withdrawing threads from other clothing . . .

The towel dress—it was made for a fat Lettish woman—went from hand to hand and was beautifully embroidered at the neck, the sleeves, and round the bottom of the skirt. When it was finally finished it was dampened down and carefully folded. The fortunate possessor slept on it at night. Believe it or not, but when it was produced in the morning, it was really delightful; it would not have disgraced the window of a fashionable dress shop.3

Nevertheless, among many male ex-prisoners the opposite point of view prevails: that women deteriorated, morally, more rapidly than men. Thanks to their sex they had special opportunities to obtain a better work classification, an easier job, and with it superior status in the camp. As a result, they became disoriented, losing their bearings in the harsh world of the camp. Gustav Herling writes, for example, of a “black-haired singer of the Moscow Opera,” who was arrested for “espionage.” Because of the severity of her sentence, she was assigned immediately to work in the forest upon her arrival in Kargopollag:

Unfortunately for her, she was desired by Vanya, the short urka in charge of her brigade, and she was put to work clearing felled fir trees of bark with a huge axe she could hardly lift. Lagging several yards behind the hefty foresters, she arrived in the zone in the evening with hardly enough strength left to crawl to the kitchen and collect her “first cauldron” [the lowest-level soup ration] . . . it was obvious that she had a high temperature, but the medical orderly was a friend of Vanya’s and would not free her from work . . .

Eventually, she gave in, first to Vanya, then finally to “some camp chief” who “dragged her out by the hair from the rubbish heap and placed her behind a table in the camp accountant’s office.” 4

There were worse fates too, as Herling also describes. He gives, for example, an account of a young Polish girl, whom an “informal jury of urkas” rated very highly. At first, she walked out to work with her head raised proudly, and repulsed any man who ventured near her, with darting, angry looks. In the evenings she returned from work rather more humbly, but still untouchable and modestly haughty. She went straight from the guard-house to the kitchen for her portion of soup, and did not leave the women’s barracks again during the night. Therefore it looked as if she would not quickly fall a victim to the night hunts of the camp zone.

But these early efforts were in vain. After weeks of being carefully watched by her supervisor, who forbade her to steal a single carrot or rotten potato from the food warehouse where she worked, the girl gave in. One evening, the man came into Herling’s barracks and “without a word threw a torn pair of knickers on my bunk.” It was the beginning of her transformation:

From that time the girl underwent a complete change. She never hurried to get her soup from the kitchen as before, but after her return from work wandered about the camp zone till late at night like a cat in heat. Whoever wanted to could have her, on a bunk, under the bunk, in the separate cubicles of the technical experts, or in the clothing store. Whenever she met me, she turned her head aside, and tightened her lips convulsively. Once, entering the potato store at the center, I found her on a pile of potatoes with the brigadier of the 56th, the hunchbacked half-breed Levkovich; she burst into a spasmodic fit of weeping, and as she returned to the camp zone in the evening she held back her tears with two tiny fists . . .5

That is Herling’s version of a frequently told story—one which, it must be said, always sounds somewhat different when told from the woman’s point of view. Another version, for example, is recounted by Tamara Ruzhnevits, whose camp “romance” began with a letter, a “standard love letter, a pure camp letter,” from Sasha, a young man whose cushy cobbler’s job made him a part of the camp aristocracy. It was a short, blunt letter: “Let’s live together, and I’ll help you.” A few days after sending it, Sasha pulled Ruzhnevits aside, wanting to know the answer. “Will you live with me or not?” he asked. She said no. He beat her up with a metal stave. Then he carried her to the hospital (where his special cobbler’s status gave him influence) and instructed the staff to take good care of her. There she remained, recovering from her wounds, for several days. Upon release, having had plenty of time to think about it, she then returned to Sasha. Otherwise, he would have beaten her up again.

“Thus began my family life,” wrote Ruzhnevits. The benefits were immediate: “I got healthier, walked about in nice shoes, no longer wore the devil knows what kind of rags: I had a new jacket, new trousers . . . I even had a new hat.” Many decades later, Ruzhnevits described Sasha as “my first, genuine true love.” Unfortunately, he was soon sent away to another camp, and she never saw him again. Worse, the man responsible for Sasha’s transfer also desired her. As there was “no way out,” she began sleeping with him too. While she does not write of feeling any love for him, she does recall that there were benefits to this arrangement as well: she was given a pass to travel unguarded, and a horse of her own.6 Ruzhnevits’s story, like the one Herling tells, could be described as a tale of moral degradation. Alternatively, it could be called a story of survival.

From the administration’s point of view, none of this was supposed to happen. In principle, men and women were not supposed to be held in camps together at all, and there are prisoners who speak of having not laid eyes on a member of the opposite sex for years and years. Nor did camp commanders particularly want women prisoners. Physically weaker, they were liable to become a drag on camp production output, as a result of which some camp administrators tried to turn them away. At one point, in February 1941, the Gulag administration even sent out a letter to the entire NKVD leadership and all camp commanders, sternly instructing them to accept convoys of women prisoners, and listing all the jobs which women could usefully do. The letter mentions light industry and textile factories; woodwork and metalwork; certain types of forestry jobs; loading and unloading freight.7

Perhaps because of the camp commanders’ objections, the numbers of women who were actually sent to camps always remained relatively low (as did the number of women executed during the 1937–38 purge). According to the official statistics, for example, only about 13 percent of Gulag prisoners in the year 1942 were women. This went up to 30 percent in 1945, due in part to the enormous number of male prisoners drafted and sent to the front, and also to the laws forbidding workers to leave their factory—laws which led to the arrest of many young women.8 In 1948 it was 22 percent, falling again to 17 percent in 1951 and 1952.9 Still, even these numbers fail to reflect the true situation, as women were far more likely to be assigned to serve their sentences in the light-regime “colonies.” In the large, industrial camps of the far north, they were even fewer, their presence even rarer.

Their low numbers meant, however, that women were—like food, clothing, and other possessions—almost always in shortage. So although they might have had little value to those compiling the camp production statistics, they had another sort of value to the male prisoners, the guards, and the camp free workers. In those camps where there were more or less open contacts between male and female prisoners—or where, in practice, certain men were allowed access to women’s camps—they were frequently propositioned, accosted, and, most commonly, offered food and easy work in exchange for sex. This was not, perhaps, a feature of life unique to the Gulag. A 1999 Amnesty International report on women prisoners in the United States, for example, uncovered cases of male guards and male prisoners raping female prisoners; of male inmates bribing guards for access to women prisoners; of women being strip-searched and frisked by male guards.10 Nevertheless, the strange social hierarchies of the Soviet camp system meant that women were tortured and humiliated to an extent unusual even for a prison system.

From the start, a woman’s fate depended greatly on her status and position within the various camp clans. Within the criminal world, women were subject to a system of elaborate rules and rituals, and received very little respect. According to Varlam Shalamov, “A third or fourth generation criminal learns contempt for women from childhood . . . woman, an inferior being, has been created only to satisfy the criminal’s animal craving, to be the butt of his crude jokes and the victim of public beatings when her thug decides to ‘whoop it up.’” Women prostitutes effectively “belonged” to leading male criminals, and could be traded or bartered, or even inherited by a brother or friend, if the man were transferred to a different camp or killed. When an exchange occurred, “usually the parties concerned do not come to blows, and the prostitute submits to sleeping with her new master. There are no ménages à trois in the criminal world, with two men sharing one woman. Nor is it possible for a female thief to live with a non-criminal.”11

Women were not the only targets either. Among the professional criminals, homosexual sex appears to have been organized according to equally brutal rules. Some criminal bosses had young male homosexuals in their entourages, along with or instead of camp “wives.” Thomas Sgovio writes of one brigadier who had a male “wife”—a young man who received extra food in exchange for sexual favors.12 It is hard to describe the rules governing male homosexuality in camps, however, because memoirists so rarely mention the subject. This may be because homosexuality remains, in Russian culture, partly taboo, and people prefer not to write about it. Male homosexuality in the camps also seems to have been largely confined to the criminal world—and criminals left few memoirs.

Nevertheless, we do know that by the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet criminals did develop extremely complicated rules of homosexual etiquette. “Passive” male homosexuals were ostracized from the rest of prison society, ate at separate tables, and did not speak to the other men.13 Although rarely described, similar rules seem to have existed in some quarters as early as the late 1930s, when Pyotr Yakir, age fifteen, witnessed an analagous phenomenon in a cell for juvenile criminals. At first, he was shocked to hear the other boys speaking of their sexual experiences, and believed them to be embellished, but I was mistaken. One of the kids had hung on to his bread ration until evening when he asked Mashka, who had had nothing to eat all day. “Do you want a bite?”

“Yes,” Mashka replied.

“Then take your trousers down.”

It took place in a corner, into which it was difficult to see from the spy-hole, but in full view of everybody in the cell. It surprised no one and I pretended not to be surprised by it. There were many other instances while I was in that cell; it was always the same boys who played the passive partner. They were treated like pariahs, were not allowed to drink from the common cup, and were the objects of humiliation.14

Curiously, lesbianism in the camps was more open, or at least it is more frequently described. Among the women criminals, it was also heavily ritualized. Lesbians were referred to by the Russian neutral pronoun, ono, and they divided themselves into more feminine “mares” and more masculine “husbands.” The former were sometimes “genuine slaves,” according to one account, cleaning and caring for their “husbands.” The latter took on male nicknames, and almost always smoked.15 They spoke openly about lesbianism, even sang songs about it

O thank you Stalin You’ve made of me a baronness I am both a cow and a bull A woman and a man.16

They also identified themselves by what they wore, and by their behavior. One Polish woman wrote later that

Pairs of such women are known to everybody, and they make no attempt to conceal their habits. Those who play the part of the man are generally dressed in men’s clothes, their hair is short and they hold their hands in their pockets. When such a pair of lovers are suddenly seized by a wave of passion, they jump up from their seats, leave their sewing machines, and chase after each other, then amid frantic kisses they fall to the ground. 17

Valery Frid writes of criminal women prisoners who, dressed as men, passed themselves off as hermaphrodites. One was “short-haired, pretty, in officer’s trousers”; another did seem to have a genuine genital deformation.18 Another prisoner described lesbian “rape”: she witnessed one lesbian pair chase a “modest, quiet girl” beneath the bunks, where they broke her hymen.19 In intellectual circles, lesbianism seems to have been less kindly regarded. One ex–political prisoner remembered it as “a most revolting practice.”20 Still, although it was usually more hidden among politicals, it did exist among them too, often occurring among women who had husbands and children in freedom. Susanna Pechora told me that in Minlag, a largely political camp, lesbian relationships “helped some people to survive.”21

Whether voluntary or forced, homosexual or heterosexual, most sexual relationships in the camps shared in the generally brutal atmosphere. Of necessity, they were conducted with an openness that many prisoners found shocking. Couples would “crawl under the barbed wire and make love next to the toilet, on the ground,” one former prisoner told me.22 “A multiple bunk curtained off with rags from the neighboring women was a classic camp scene,” wrote Solzhenitsyn. 23 Isaak Filshtinsky once awoke in the middle of the night and found a woman lying in the bed next to his. She had snuck over the wall to make love to the camp cook: “Other than myself, no one had slept that night, but with rapt attention listened to the proceedings.”24 Hava Volovich wrote that “things that a free person might have thought about a hundred times before doing happened here as simply as they would between stray cats.”25 Another prisoner remembered that love, particularly among the thieves, was “animal-like.”26

Indeed, sex was so public that it was treated with a certain amount of apathy: rape and prostitution became, for some, part of a daily routine. Edward Buca was once working beside a woman’s brigade in a sawmill. A group of criminal prisoners arrived. They “grabbed the women they wanted and laid them down in the snow, or had them up against a pile of logs. The women seemed used to it and offered no resistance. They had their own brigade-chief, but she didn’t object to these interruptions, in fact, they almost seemed to be just another part of the job.”27 Lev Razgon also tells the story of a very young, fair-haired girl whom he happened to encounter sweeping the courtyard of a camp medical unit. He was a free worker by then, visiting a doctor acquaintance, and although not hungry, was offered a generous lunch. He gave it to the girl, who “ate quietly and neatly and one could tell that she had been brought up in a family.” She reminded Razgon, in fact, of his own daughter:

The girl finished eating, and neatly piled the plates on the wooden tray. Then she lifted her dress, pulled off her pants and, holding them in her hand, turned her unsmiling face in my direction.

“Lying down or what?” she asked.

At first not understanding, and then scared by my response, she said in self-justification, again without a smile, “People don’t feed me without it . . .”28

It also happened, in some camps, that certain women’s barracks became little more than open brothels. Solzhenitsyn described one which was incomparably filthy and rundown, and there was an oppressive smell in it, and the bunks were without bedding. There was an official prohibition against men entering it, but this prohibition was ignored and no one enforced it. Not only men went there, but juveniles too, boys from twelve to thirteen, who flocked in to learn . . . Everything took place very naturally, as in nature, in full view, and in several places at once. Obvious old age and obvious ugliness were the only defenses for women there—nothing else. 29

And yet—running directly counter to the tales of brutal sex and vulgarity, there are, in many memoirs, equally improbable tales of camp love, some of which began simply out of women’s desire for self-protection. According to the idiosyncratic rules of camp life, women who adopted a “camp husband” were usually left alone by other men, a system which Herling calls the “peculiar ius primae noctis of the camp.”30 These were not necessarily “marriages” of equals: respectable women sometimes lived with thieves.31Nor, as Ruzhnevits described, were they necessarily freely chosen. Nevertheless, it would not be strictly correct to describe them as prostitution either. Rather, writes Valery Frid, they were “braki po raschetu” “calculated marriages”—“which were also sometimes marriages for love.” Even if they had begun for purely practical reasons, prisoners took these relationships seriously. “About his more or less permanent lover, a zek would say ‘my wife,’” wrote Frid, “And she would say of him ‘my husband.’ It was not said in jest: camp relationships humanized our lives.”32

And, strange though it may sound, prisoners who were not too exhausted or emaciated really did look for love. Anatoly Zhigulin’s memoirs include a description of a love affair he managed to conduct with a German woman, a political prisoner, the “happy, good, grey-eyed, golden-haired Marta.” He later learned that she had a baby, whom she named Anatolii. (That was in the autumn of 1951, and, as Stalin’s death was followed by a general amnesty for foreign prisoners, he assumed that “Marta and the child, supposing no bad luck had occurred, returned home.”33) The memoirs of the camp doctor Isaac Vogelfanger at times read like a romantic novel, whose hero had to tread carefully between the perils of an affair with the wife of a camp boss, and the joys of real love.34

So desperately did people deprived of everything long for sentimental relationships that some became deeply involved in Platonic love affairs, conducted by letter. This was particularly the case in the late 1940s, in the special camps for political prisoners, where male and female prisoners were kept strictly apart. In Minlag, one such camp, men and women prisoners sent notes to one another via their colleagues in the camp hospital, which was shared by both sexes. Prisoners also organized a secret “mailbox” in the railway work zone where the women’s brigades labored. Every few days, a woman working on the railroad would pretend to have forgotten a coat, or other object, go to the mailbox, pick up what letters had been sent, and leave letters in return. One of the men would pick them up later.35 There were other methods too: “At a specific time, a chosen person in one of the zones would throw letters from men to women or women to men. This was the ‘postal service.’”36


Hunger for Love: male prisoners peering over the fence into the women’s zone—a drawing by Yula-Imar Sooster, Karaganda, 1950

Such letters, remembered Leonid Sitko, were written on tiny pieces of paper, with tiny letters. Everyone signed them with false names: his was “Hamlet,” his girlfriend’s was “Marsianka.” They had been “introduced” through other women, who had told him she was extremely depressed, having had her small baby taken away from her after her arrest. He began to write to her, and they even managed to meet once, inside an abandoned mine.37

Others developed even more surreal methods in their quest for some kind of intimacy. In the Kengir special camp, there were prisoners—almost all politicals, deprived of all contact with their families, their friends, and the wives and husbands they had left back home—who developed elaborate relationships with people they had never met.38 Some actually married one another across the wall that divided the men’s and women’s camps, without ever meeting in person. The woman stood on one side, the man on the other; vows were said, and a prisoner priest recorded the ceremony on a piece of paper.

This kind of love persisted, even when the camp administration raised the wall, covered it with barbed wire, and forbade prisoners to go near it. In describing these blind marriages even Solzhenitsyn momentarily drops the cynicism he applies to almost all other camp relationships: “In this marriage with an unknown person on the other side of a wall . . . I hear a choir of angels. It is like the unselfish, pure contemplation of heavenly bodies. It is too lofty for this age of self-interested calculation and hopping-up-and-down jazz . . .”39

If love, sex, rape, and prostitution were a part of camp life, so too, it followed, were pregnancy and childbirth. Along with mines and construction sites, forestry brigades and punishment cells, barracks and cattle trains, there were maternity hospitals and maternity camps in the Gulag too—as well as nurseries for babies and small children.

Not all of the children who found their way into these institutions were born in the camps. Some were “arrested” along with their mothers. Rules governing this practice were always unclear. The operational order of 1937, which mandated the arrests of wives and children of “enemies of the people,” explicitly forbade the arrest of pregnant women and women nursing babies.40 A 1940 order, on the other hand, said that children could stay with their mothers for a year and a half, “until they cease to need mother’s milk,” at which point they had to be put in orphanages or given to relatives.41

In practice, both pregnant and nursing women were regularly arrested. Upon carrying out routine examinations of a newly arrived prisoner convoy, one camp doctor discovered a woman having labor contractions. She had been arrested in her seventh month of pregnancy.42 Another woman, Natalya Zaporozhets, was sent on a transport when she was eight months pregnant: after being knocked around on trains and in the back of trucks, she gave birth to a dead baby.43 The artist and memoirist Evfrosiniya Kersnovskaya helped deliver a baby who was actually born on a convoy train.44

Small children were “arrested” along with their parents too. One woman prisoner, arrested in the 1920s, wrote an acid letter of complaint to Dzerzhinsky, thanking him for “arresting” her three-year-old son: prison, she said, was preferable to a children’s home, which she called a “factory for making angels.”45 Hundreds of thousands of children were effectively arrested, along with their parents, during the two great waves of deportation, the first of the kulaks in the early 1930s, the second of “enemy” ethnic and national groups during and after the Second World War.

For these children, the shock of the new situation would remain with them all of their lives. One Polish prisoner remembered that a woman in her jail cell had been accompanied by her three-year-old son: “The child was well-behaved, but delicate and silent. We amused him as well as we could with stories and fairy tales, but he interrupted us from time to time, saying, ‘We’re in prison, aren’t we?’”46

Many years later, a child of deported kulaks recalled his ordeal on the cattle trains: “People became wild . . . How many days we traveled, I have no idea. In the wagon, seven people died of hunger. We got to Tomsk and they took us out, several families. They also unloaded several corpses, children, young people, and the elderly.”47

Despite the hardships, there were also women who deliberately, even cynically, became pregnant while in the camps. These were usually criminal women or those convicted of petty crimes who wanted to be pregnant so as to be excused from hard work, to receive slightly better food, and to benefit, possibly, from the periodic amnesties given to women with small children. Such amnesties—there was one in 1945, for example, and another in 1948—did not usually apply to women sentenced for counter-revolutionary crimes. 48 “You could ease your life by getting pregnant,” Lyudmila Khachatryan told me, as a way of explaining why women happily slept with their jailers.49

Another woman recalled hearing a rumor that all women with babies mamki, in prison slang—would be released. She deliberately became pregnant afterward.50 Nadezhda Joffe, a prisoner who had become pregnant after being allowed to meet with her husband, wrote that her fellow inmates at the Magadan “wet nurse barracks” simply “didn’t have any maternal instincts,” and left their babies behind as soon as they were able.51

Perhaps not surprisingly, not all of the women who found they had become pregnant while in a camp wanted to remain that way. The Gulag administration seemed to be ambivalent about whether women should be allowed to have abortions or not, sometimes permitting them, sometimes slapping second sentences on those who attempted them.52 Nor is it at all clear how frequent they were, because they are so rarely described: in dozens of interviews and memoirs, I have read or heard only two accounts. In an interview, Anna Andreeva told me of a woman who “stuffed nails into herself, sat down and began to work on her sewing machine. Eventually she began to bleed heavily.” 53 Another woman described how a camp doctor attempted to terminate her pregnancy:

Imagine the picture. It is night. It is dark . . . Andrei Andreevich is trying to cause me to abort, using his hands, covered in iodine, without instruments. But he is so nervous that nothing comes of it. I can’t breathe from the pain, but I endure it without a sound, so that no one will hear. “Stop!” I finally shout from unbearable pain, and the whole procedure is stopped for two days. In the end, everything came out—the fetus, with a great deal of blood. That is why I never became a mother.54

But there were women who wanted their children, and tragedy was often their lot too. Against everything that has been written about the selfishness, the venality of the women who bore children in the camps, stands the story of Hava Volovich. A political arrested in 1937, she was extremely lonely in the camps, and deliberately sought to give birth to a child. Although Hava had no special love for the father, Eleonora was born in 1942, in a camp without special facilities for mothers:

There were three mothers there, and we were given a tiny room to ourselves in the barracks. Bedbugs poured down like sand from the ceiling and walls; we spent the whole night brushing them off the children. During the daytime we had to go out to work and leave the infants with any old woman who we could find who had been excused from work; these women would calmly help themselves to the food we had left for the children.

Nevertheless, wrote Volovich,

Every night for a whole year, I stood at my child’s cot, picking off the bedbugs and praying. I prayed that God would prolong my torment for a hundred years if it meant that I wouldn’t be parted from my daughter. I prayed that I might be released with her, even if only as a beggar or a cripple. I prayed that I might be able to raise her to adulthood, even if I had to grovel at people’s feet and beg for alms to do it. But God did not answer my prayer. My baby had barely started walking, I had hardly heard her first words, the wonderful heartwarming word “Mama,” when we were dressed in rags despite the winter chill, bundled into a freight car, and transferred to the “mothers’ camp.” And here my pudgy little angel with the golden curls soon turned into a pale ghost with blue shadows under her eyes and sores all over her lips.

Volovich was put first into a forestry brigade, then sent to work at a sawmill. In the evenings, she took home a small bundle of firewood which she gave to the nurses in the children’s home. In return she was sometimes allowed to see her daughter outside normal visiting hours.

I saw the nurses getting the children up in the mornings. They would force them out of their cold beds with shoves and kicks . . . pushing the children with their fists and swearing at them roughly, they took off their night-clothes and washed them in ice-cold water. The babies didn’t even dare cry. They made little sniffing noises like old men and let out low hoots.

This awful hooting noise would come from the cots for days at a time. Children already old enough to be sitting up or crawling would lie on their backs, their knees pressed to their stomachs, making these strange noises, like the muffled cooing of pigeons.

One nurse was assigned to seventeen children, which meant she had barely enough time to keep all of the babies changed and fed, let alone cared for properly:

The nurse brought a steaming bowl of porridge from the kitchen, and portioned it out into separate dishes. She grabbed the nearest baby, forced its arms back, tied them in place with a towel, and began cramming spoonful after spoonful of hot porridge down its throat, not leaving it enough time to swallow, exactly as if she were feeding a turkey chick.

Slowly, Eleonora began to fade.

On some of my visits I found bruises on her little body. I shall never forget how she grabbed my neck with her skinny hands and moaned, “Mama, want home!” She had not forgotten the bug-ridden slum where she first saw the light of day, and where she’d been with her mother all of the time . . .

Little Eleonora, who was now fifteen months old, soon realized that her pleas for “home” were in vain. She stopped reaching out for me when I visited her; she would turn away in silence. On the last day of her life, when I picked her up (they allowed me to breast-feed her) she stared wide-eyed somewhere off into the distance, then started to beat her weak little fists on my face, clawing at my breast, and biting it. Then she pointed down at her bed.

In the evening, when I came back with my bundle of firewood, her cot was empty. I found her lying naked in the morgue among the corpses of the adult prisoners. She had spent one year and four months in this world, and died on 3 March 1944 . . . That is the story of how, in giving birth to my only child, I committed the worst crime there is.55

In the archives of the Gulag, photographs of the type of camp nursery Volovich described have been preserved. One such album begins with the following introduction:

The sun shines in their Stalinist fatherland. The nation is filled with love for the leaders and our wonderful children are happy just as the whole young country is happy. Here, in wide and warm beds, sleep the new citizens of our country. Having eaten, they sleep sweetly and are certainly dreaming happy dreams . . .

The accompanying photographs belie the captions. In one, a row of nursing mothers, white masks covering their faces—proof of the hygienic practices of the camp—sits solemn-eyed and unsmiling on a bench, holding their babies. In another, the children are all going for their evening walk. Lined up in a row, they look no more spontaneous than their mothers. In many pictures, the children have shaved heads, presumably to prevent lice, which has the effect of making them look like the tiny prisoners they were in fact considered to be.56 “The children’s home was also part of the camp compound,” wrote Evgeniya Ginzburg. “It had its own guardhouse, its own gates, its own huts and its own barbed wire.” 57

At some level, the Gulag administration in Moscow must have known how terrible life in the camps was for children who lived in them. We know, at least, that the camp inspectors passed on the information: a 1949 report on the condition of women in the camps noted disapprovingly that of the 503,000 women then in the Gulag system, 9,300 were pregnant while another 23,790 had small children with them. “Taking into account the negative influence on the health and education of children,” the report argued for their mothers’ early release, as well as the early release of those women who had children at home, a total—when exceptions were made for recidivists and counter-revolutionary political prisoners—of about 70,000. 58

From time to time such amnesties were carried out. But few improvements were made in the lives of those children who remained. On the contrary, because they contributed nothing to the productivity of the camp, their health and well-being ranked very low on most camp commanders’ list of priorities, and they invariably lived in the poorest, coldest, oldest buildings. One inspector determined that the temperature in one camp children’s home never rose higher than 52 degrees Fahrenheit; another found a childrens’ home with peeling paint and no light at all, not even kerosene lamps.59 A 1933 report from Siblag said the camp lacked 800 pairs of children’s shoes, 700 children’s overcoats, and 900 sets of cutlery.60 Nor were those working in them necessarily qualified. On the contrary, nursery jobs were “trusty” jobs, and as such usually went to professional criminals. Joffe writes that “For hours on end, they would stand under the stairway with their ‘husbands,’ or they would simply leave, while the children, unfed and unattended, would get sick and begin dying.”61

Nor were mothers, whose pregnancies had already cost the camp a great deal, usually allowed to make up for this neglect—assuming that they cared to do so. They were made to return to work as soon as possible, and only grudgingly allowed time off from work to breast-feed. Usually, they would simply be released from work every four hours, given fifteen minutes with the child—still wearing their dirty work clothes—and then sent back again, meaning that the children went hungry. Sometimes they were not allowed even that. One camp inspector cited the case of a woman who arrived a few minutes late to nurse her baby, thanks to work obligations, and was refused access to him.62 In an interview, a former supervisor of a camp nursery told me—dismissively—that children who could not drink their fill in what she said was the half hour allowed, were given the rest out of a bottle by one of the nurses.

This same woman also confirmed prisoners’ descriptions of another form of cruelty: once breast-feeding ended, women were often forbidden any further contact with their child. In her camp, she said, she had personally forbidden all mothers to go on walks with their children, on the grounds that convict mothers would harm their children. She claimed to have seen one mother giving her child sugar mixed with tobacco to eat, in order to poison him. Another, she said, had deliberately taken off her child’s shoes in the snow. “I was responsible for the death rates of children in the camps,” she told me, explaining why she had taken steps to keep the mothers away. “These children were unnecessary to their mothers, and the mothers wanted to kill them.”63 This same logic might have led other camp commanders to forbid mothers from seeing their children. It is equally possible, however, that such rules were another product of the unthinking cruelty of the camp administration: it was inconvenient to arrange for mothers to see children, so the practice was banned.

The consequences of separating parents from children at such a young age were predictable. Infant epidemics were legion. Infant death rates were extremely high—so high that they were, as the inspectors’ reports also record, often deliberately covered up.64 But even those children who survived infancy had little chance at a normal life inside the camp nurseries. Some might be lucky enough to be cared for by the kinder sort of female prisoner nurse. Some might not. Ginzburg herself worked in a camp nursery, and found, upon arrival, that even the older children could not yet speak:

Only certain of the four-year-olds could produce a few odd, unconnected words. Inarticulate howls, mimicry and blows were the main means of communication. “How can they be expected to speak? Who was there to teach them?” explained Anya dispassionately. “In the infants’ group they spend their whole time just lying on their cots. Nobody will pick them up, even if they cry their lungs out. It’s not allowed, except to change wet diapers—when there are dry ones available, of course.”

When Ginzburg tried to teach her new charges, she found that only one or two, those who had maintained some contact with their mothers, were able to learn anything. And even their experience was very limited:

“Look,” I said to Anastas, showing him the little house I had drawn. “What’s this?”

“Barrack,” the little boy replied quite distinctly.

With a few pencil strokes I put a cat alongside the house. But no one recognized it, not even Anastas. They had never seen this rare animal. Then I drew a traditional rustic fence around the house.

“And what’s this?”

“Zona!” Vera cried out delightedly.65

Usually, children were transferred out of the camp nurseries and into regular orphanages at the age of two. Some mothers welcomed this, as a chance for the children to escape from the camp. Others protested, knowing that they might be deliberately or accidentally transferred to different camps, away from their children, whose names might then be changed or forgotten, making it impossible to establish a relationship or even contact.66 This sometimes happened to children in ordinary children’s homes. Valentina Yurganova, the daughter of Volga German kulaks, was put into a children’s home where some of the wards were too small to remember their names, and the authorities were too disorganized to remember them. One child, she told me, was simply renamed “Kashtanova” (“Chestnut”) because there were so many chestnut trees in the park behind the orphanage.

Years later, another such child wrote a heartbreaking description of her unsuccessful, lifelong search to find the real names of her parents: there was no record of any child being born in her region under the surname that appeared on her passport, and she had been too small to know their real names. Nevertheless, she remembered fragments of her past: “Mama at a sewing machine. Me asking her for a needle and thread . . . Myself in a garden . . . Then later . . . The room is dark, the bed on the right is empty, something has happened. Somehow I am alone. I am terrified.”67

No wonder some mothers “cried and screamed and some even went crazy and were locked in bunkers until they quieted down” when their children were taken away. Once they were gone, the chances of a reunion were slim.68

Outside, life for children born in camps did not necessarily improve. Instead, they joined the massed ranks of the children who had been transferred directly to children’s homes following the arrests of their parents— another category of child victim. As a rule, state orphanages were vastly overcrowded, dirty, understaffed, and often lethal. A former prisoner recalled the emotions and high hopes with which her camp sent a group of prisoners’ children into a city orphanage—and the horror they felt on hearing that all eleven had died in an epidemic.69 As early as 1931, at the height of collectivization, the heads of children’s homes in the Urals wrote desperate letters to regional authorities, begging for help in caring for the thousands of newly orphaned kulak children:

In a room 12 square meters, there are 30 boys. For 38 children there are seven beds, on which the “recidivists” sleep. Two eighteen-year-olds have destroyed the electrical installations, robbed the shop, and drink with the director . . . children sleep on the dirty floor, play cards which they have made from torn-up pictures of the “Leader,” smoke, break the bars on the windows and climb over the walls intending to escape. 70

In another home for kulaks’ children:

Children sleep on the floor, and don’t have enough shoes . . . sometimes there is no water for several days. They eat badly; aside from water and potatoes, they have no lunch. There are no plates and bowls, they eat out of ladles. For 140 people there is one cup, and not enough spoons; they eat in turns, or by hand. There is no light, only one lamp for the whole home, and it has no kerosene.71

In 1933, a children’s home near Smolensk sent the following telegram to the Moscow children’s commission: “Food supply of the home has been cut. One hundred children are starving. The organization refuses to give rations. There is no help. Take urgent measures.”72

Nor did much change over time. A 1938 NKVD order describes one children’s home in which two eight-year-old girls were raped by some of the older boys, and another in which 212 children shared twelve spoons and twenty plates, and slept in their clothes and shoes for lack of nightclothes.73 In 1940, Natalya Savelyeva was “kidnapped” from her children’s home— her parents had been arrested—and adopted by a family who wanted to use her as a house servant. She was thus separated from her sister, whom she never found again.74

Children of arrested politicals had a particularly hard time in such homes, and were often treated worse than the ordinary orphans they shared them with. They were told, as was Svetlana Kogteva, age ten, to “forget their parents, since they were enemies of the people.”75 NKVD officers responsible for such homes were ordered to maintain special vigilance, and to single out the children of counter-revolutionaries, to ensure that they did not receive privileged treatment of any kind.76 Thanks to this rule, Pyotr Yakir lasted precisely three days in one of these orphanages, following his parents’ arrest. During that time, he “managed to get a name as a ringleader of the ‘traitors’ children” and was immediately arrested, at age fourteen. He was transferred into a prison, and eventually sent to a camp.77

More often, the children of politicals suffered teasing and exclusion. One prisoner remembered that upon arrival at the orphanage, children of “enemies” had their fingerprints taken, like criminals. The teachers and caretakers were all afraid to show them too much affection, not wanting to be accused of having sympathy with “enemies.”78 The children of arrested parents were teased mercilessly about their “enemy” status, according to Yurganova, who deliberately forgot the German language she had spoken in her youth as a result.79

In these surroundings, even the children of educated parents soon learned criminal habits. Vladimir Glebov, the son of the leading Bolshevik Lev Kamenev, was one such child. At the age of four, his father was arrested, and Glebov was “exiled” to a special children’s orphanage in western Siberia. About 40 percent of the children there were children of “enemies,” about 40 percent were juvenile delinquents, and about 20 percent were Gypsy children, arrested for the crime of nomadism. As Glebov explained to the writer Adam Hochschild, there were advantages, even for the children of politicals, to having early contact with young criminals:

My buddy taught me some things which helped me a lot in later life, about protecting myself. Here I have one scar, and here another . . . when people are attacking you with a knife, you need to know how to fight back. The main principle is to respond in advance, not to let them hit you. That was our happy Soviet childhood!80

Some children, however, were permanently damaged by their orphanage experiences. One mother returned from exile, and was reunited with her young daughter. The child, at the age of eight, could still barely talk, grabbed at food, and behaved like the wild animal that the orphanage had taught her to be.81 Another mother released after an eight-year sentence, went to get her children from the orphanage, only to find that they refused to go with her. They had been taught that their parents were “enemies of the people” who deserved no love and no affection. They had been specifically instructed to refuse to leave, “if your mother ever comes to get you,” and they never wanted to live with their parents again. 82

Not surprisingly, children ran away from such orphanages—in large numbers. Once they found themselves on the streets, they fell very quickly into the criminal netherworld. And once they were part of the criminal netherworld, the vicious cycle continued. Sooner or later, they would probably be arrested too.

At first glance, the 1944–45 annual NKVD report from one particular group of eight camps in Ukraine show nothing out of the ordinary. The report lists which of the camps met the Five-Year Plan, and which did not. It praises inmate shock-workers. It notes sternly that in most of the camps the food was very poor and monotonous. It notes more approvingly that an epidemic had broken out in only one camp, during the time period surveyed— and that that was after five inmates had been transferred there from the overcrowded Kharkov prison.

A few of the report’s details, however, serve to illustrate the precise nature of these eight Ukrainian camps. An inspector complains, for example, that one of the camps is short of “textbooks, pens, notebooks, pencils.” There is also a strict note about the propensity of certain inmates to gamble their food away, sometimes losing their bread rations for many months in advance: the younger denizens of the camp were, it seems, too inexperienced to play cards with the older ones.83

The eight camps in question were the eight children’s colonies of Ukraine. For not all of the children who fell under the jurisdiction of the Gulag belonged to arrested parents. A portion of them found their way into the camp system by themselves. They committed crimes, were arrested, and were sent to special camps for juveniles. These were run by the same bureaucrats who ran the adult camps, and they resembled the adult camps in many ways.

Originally, these “children’s camps” were organized for the besprizornye, the orphans, waifs, and dirty street children who had gotten lost or run away from their parents during the years of civil war, famine, collectivization, and mass arrest. These street children had become, by the early 1930s, a common sight in the train stations and public parks of Soviet cities. The Russian writer Victor Serge described them:

I saw them in Leningrad and in Moscow, living in sewers, in billboard kiosks, in the vaults of cemeteries where they were the undisturbed masters; holding conferences at night in urinals; traveling on the roofs of trains or on the rods below. They would emerge, pestiferous, black with sweat, to ask a few kopecks from travelers and to lie in wait for the chance to steal a valise ...84

So numerous and so problematic were these children that in 1934 the Gulag set up the first children’s nurseries within the adult camps, in order to prevent the children of arrested parents from roaming the streets. 85 Slightly later, in 1935, the Gulag decided to set up special children’s colonies as well. Children were picked up off the streets in mass raids, and sent to the colonies to be educated and prepared to join the workforce.

In 1935, the Soviet authorities also passed a notorious law making children as young as twelve liable to be charged as adults. Afterward, peasant girls arrested for stealing a few grains of wheat, and children of “enemies” suspected of collaborating with their parents, found their way into juvenile prison alongside the underage prostitutes, young pickpockets, street children, and others.86 According to an internal report, NKVD agents in the 1930s picked up a twelve-year-old Tartar girl who spoke no Russian and had been separated from her mother at a train station. They deported her, alone, to the far north.87 So numerous were the Soviet Union’s child criminals that the NKVD created children’s homes with a “special regime” in 1937, for children who systematically broke the rules in the ordinary children’s homes. By 1939, mere orphans were no longer sent to the children’s camps at all. Instead, these were now reserved for child criminals who had actually been sentenced by courts or by the osoboe soveshchanie, the “special commission.”88

Despite the threat of harsher punishment, the number of juvenile delinquents continued to grow. The war produced not only orphans but runaways as well, unsupervised children whose fathers were at the front, and whose mothers were working twelve-hour days in factories, as well as whole new categories of child criminals: underage workers who had run away from their factory jobs—sometimes after the factories had been evacuated, away from the children’s families—thereby violating the wartime law “On Unauthorized Departure from Work at Military Enterprises.” 89According to the NKVD’s own statistics, children’s “reception centers” collected an extraordinary 842,144 homeless children in the years 1943 to 1945. Most were sent back to their parents, to children’s homes, or to trade schools. But a sizeable number—52,830, according to the records—were assigned to “labor-educational colonies.” The phrase “labor-educational colony” was nothing more than a palatable description of a children’s concentration camp.90

In many ways, the treatment of children in juvenile camps hardly differed from the treatment of their parents. Children were arrested and transported according to the same rules, with two exceptions: they were meant to be kept separately from adults, and were not to be shot in the case of attempted escape. 91 They were kept in the same kind of jail as adults, in separate but equally poor cells. An inspector’s description of one such cell is depressingly familiar: “The walls are dirty; not all prisoners have bunks and mattresses. They don’t have sheets, pillowcases, or blankets. In cell No. 5, the window is covered by a pillow, for lack of a windowpane, and in cell No. 14, one window does not close at all.”92 Another report describes juvenile prisons as “unacceptably unsanitary,” with shortages of hot water and elementary necessities such as mugs, bowls, and stools. 93

Some younger prisoners were also interrogated like adults. After his arrest in an orphanage, fourteen-year-old Pyotr Yakir was first placed in an adult prison, and then subjected to a full adult interrogation. His interrogator accused him of “organizing a band of Anarchist cavalry, whose aim it was to be active behind the lines of the Red Army,” citing as evidence the fact that Yakir was a keen rider. Afterward, Yakir was sentenced for the crime of being a “Socially Dangerous Element.”94 Jerzy Kmiecik, a sixteen-year-old Polish boy who was caught trying to cross the Soviet border into Hungary—this was in 1939, following the Soviet invasion of Poland—was also interrogated like an adult. Kmiecik was kept standing or sitting on a backless stool for hours on end, fed salty soup, and denied water. Among other things, his questioners wanted to know “How much did Mr. Churchill pay you for providing information.” Kmiecik did not know who Churchill was, and asked to have the question explained. 95

Archives have also preserved the interrogation records of Vladimir Moroz, age fifteen, who was accused of conducting “counter-revolutionary activity” in his orphanage. Moroz’s mother and his seventeen-year-old elder brother had already been arrested. His father had been shot. Moroz had kept a diary, which the NKVD found, in which he decried the “lies and slander” all around him: “If someone had fallen into a deep sleep twelve years ago, and suddenly woken up now, he would be shocked by the changes which had taken place here in that time.” Although condemned to serve three years in camp, Moroz died in prison, in 1939.96

These were not isolated incidents. In 1939, when the Soviet press reported a few cases of NKVD officers arrested for extorting false confessions, a Siberian newspaper told the story of one case involving 160 children, mostly between the ages of twelve and fourteen, but some as young as ten. Four officers in the NKVD and the prosecutors’ office received five- to ten-year sentences for interrogating these children. The historian Robert Conquest writes that their confessions were obtained “with comparative ease”: “A ten-year-old broke down after a single night-long interrogation, and admitted to membership in a fascist organization from the age of seven.” 97

Child prisoners were not exempt from the relentless demands of the slave labor system either. Although children’s colonies were not, as a rule, usually located within the tougher northern forestry or mining camps, in the 1940s there was a children’s lagpunkt in the far northern camp of Norilsk. Some of its 1,000 inmates were put to work in the Norilsk brick factory, while the others were put to work clearing snow. Among them were a few children of twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, with the majority fifteen or sixteen, the older juvenile prisoners having already been transferred to the adult camp. Many inspectors complained about the conditions in the Norilsk children’s camp and it was eventually moved to a more southerly part of the USSR—but not before many of its young prisoners fell victim to the same diseases of cold and malnutrition as their adult counterparts. 98

More typical is the Ukrainian report, which explains that children in the Ukrainian children’s labor colonies had been assigned jobs in woodwork, metalwork, and sewing.99 Kmiecik, who was in a children’s colony near Zhitomir, in Ukraine, worked in a furniture factory.100 Still, the colonies observed many of the same practices as the adult camps. There were production targets to be achieved, individual norms to meet, a regime to observe. One NKVD order of 1940 directed children between the ages of twelve and sixteen to work four-hour days, and to spend a further four hours on schoolwork. The same order required children age sixteen to eighteen to work eight-hour days, with two hours devoted to schoolwork. 101 In the Norilsk camp, this regime was not observed, as there was no school at all.102

In Kmiecik’s juvenile camp, there were only evening classes. Among other things, he was taught there that “England is an island in Western Europe . . . It is ruled by lords wearing red robes with white collars. They own the workers who toil for them, paying them little money.” 103 Not that the children were there primarily to be educated: in 1944, Beria proudly informed Stalin that the Gulag’s juvenile camps had contributed impressively to the war effort, producing mines, grenades, and other goods worth a total of 150 million rubles.104

Children were also subjected to the same sort of camp propaganda as adults were. Camp newspapers of the mid-1930s feature child Stakhanovites, and gush with praise for the “35ers,” the street children placed in camps according to the law of 1935, glorifying those who had seen the light and been reformed by physical work. The same newspapers also lambast those children who had not understood that “they must abandon their past, that it is time to start a new life . . . Card games, drunkenness, hooliganism, refusal to work, thievery, etc., are all widespread among them.” 105 To combat this youthful “parasitism,” children were made to take part in the same sorts of cultural-educational concerts as adults, singing the same Stalinist songs.106

Finally, children were subject to the same psychological pressures as adults. Another NKVD directive of 1941 called for the organization of an agenturno-operativnoe obsluzhivanie—a “network of informers”—within NKVD children’s colonies and children’s reception centers. Rumors had spread of counter-revolutionary sentiments among both the staff and the children in the camps, particularly the children of counter-revolutionaries. The children in one camp had even staged a mini-revolt. They took over the dining room, trashed it, and attacked the guards, wounding six of them.107

In only one sense were the children of the juvenile camps lucky: they had not been sent to ordinary camps, to be surrounded by ordinary adult prisoners, as other children were. Indeed, just like ubiquitous pregnant women, the endlessly expanding numbers of juveniles in adult camps provided a perennial headache for camp commanders. In October 1935, Genrikh Yagoda angrily wrote to all camp commanders that “despite my instructions, underaged prisoners are not being sent to work colonies for juveniles, but are being mixed up in prison with adults.” At last count, he stated, there had been 4,305 juveniles still in ordinary prisons. 108 Thirteen years later, in 1948, investigators from the prosecutors’ office were still complaining that there were too many underaged prisoners in adult camps, where they were being corrupted by adult criminals. Even camp authorities noticed when a camp’s reigning criminal boss transformed one eighteen-year-old petty thief into a contract murderer.109

The maloletki—“juveniles”—inspired little sympathy among their fellow inmates. “Hunger and the horror of what had happened had deprived them of all defenses,” wrote Lev Razgon, who observed that the juveniles gravitated naturally toward those who seemed the strongest. These were the professional criminals, who turned the boys into “servants, mute slaves, jesters, hostages, and everything else,” and both boys and girls into prostitutes.110 Their horrifying experiences failed to inspire much pity, however; on the contrary, some of the harshest invective in camp memoir literature is reserved for them. Razgon wrote that whatever their background, child prisoners soon “all displayed a frightening and incorrigibly vengeful cruelty, without restraint or responsibility.” Worse,

They feared nothing and no one. The guards and camp bosses were scared to enter the separate barracks where the juveniles lived. It was there that the vilest, most cynical and cruel acts that took place in the camps occurred. If one of the prisoners’ criminal leaders was gambling, lost everything and had staked his life as well, the boys would kill him for a day’s bread ration or simply “for the fun of it.” The girls boasted that they could satisfy an entire team of tree-fellers. There was nothing human left in these children and it was impossible to imagine that they might return to the normal world and become ordinary human beings again.111

Solzhenitsyn felt the same:

In their consciousness there was no demarcation line between what was permissible and what was not permissible, and no concept of good and evil. For them, everything that they desired was good and everything that hindered them was bad. They acquired their brazen and insolent manner of behavior because it was the most advantageous form of conduct in the camp . . .112

A Dutch prisoner, Johan Wigmans, also writes of the young people who “probably did not really mind having to live in these camps. Officially they were supposed to work, but in practice that was the last thing they ever did. At the same time they had the benefit of regular means and ample opportunity of learning from their cronies.”113

There were exceptions. Alexander Klein tells the story of two thirteen-year-old boys, arrested as partisans, who had received twenty-year camp sentences. The two remained ten years in the camps, managing to stick together by declaring hunger strikes when anyone separated them. Because of their age, people took pity on them, gave them easy work and extra food. Both managed to enroll in camp technical courses, becoming competent engineers before being let out in one of the amnesties that followed Stalin’s death. If it had not been for the camps, wrote Klein, “who would have helped half-literate country boys become educated people, good specialists?”114

Nevertheless, when, in the late 1990s, I began to look around for memoirs of people who had been juvenile prisoners, I found it very difficult to find any. With the exception of Yakir’s, Kmiecik’s, and a handful of others collected by the Memorial Society and other organizations, there are very few.115 Yet there had been tens of thousands of such children, and many should still have been alive. I even suggested to a Russian friend that we advertise in a newspaper, in an attempt to find a few such survivors to interview. “Don’t,” she advised me. “We all know what such people became.” Decades of propaganda, of posters draped across orphanage walls, thanking Stalin “for our happy childhood,” failed to convince the Soviet people that the children of the camps, the children of the streets, and the children of the orphanages had ever become anything but full-fledged members of the Soviet Union’s large and all-embracing criminal class.

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