Modern history

Chapter 16


What does it mean—exhaustion? What does it mean—fatigue? Every movement is terrifying, Every movement of your painful arms and legs Terrible hunger—Raving over bread “Bread, bread,” the heart beats. Far away in the gloomy sky, The indifferent sun turns. Your breath is a thin whistle It’s minus fifty degreesWhat does it mean—dying? The mountains look on, and remain silent.

—Nina Gagen-Torn, Memoria1

THROUGHOUT THE GULAG’S EXISTENCE, the prisoners always reserved a place at the very bottom of the camp hierarchy for the dying—or rather, for the living dead. A whole sub-dialect of camp slang was invented to describe them. Sometimes, the dying were called fitili, or “wicks,” as in the wick of a candle, soon to be blown out. They were also known as gavnoedy “shit-eaters” or pomoechniki “slop-swillers.” Most often they were called dokhodyagi, from the Russian verb dokhodit, “to reach” or “to attain,” a word usually translated as “goners.” Jacques Rossi, in his GulagHandbook, claims the expression was a sarcastic one: the dying were at last “reaching socialism.”2 Others, more prosaically, say the expression meant they were reaching not socialism, but the end of their lives.

Put simply, the dokhodyagi were starving to death, and they suffered from the diseases of starvation and vitamin deficiency: scurvy, pellagra, various forms of diarrhea. In the early stages, these diseases manifested themselves in the form of loosened teeth and skin sores, symptoms which sometimes even afflicted the camp guards.3 In later stages, prisoners would lose their ability to see in the dark. Gustav Herling remembered “the sight of the night-blind, walking slowly through the zone in the early mornings and evenings, their hands fluttering in front of them.”4

The starving also experienced stomach problems, dizziness, and grotesque swelling of the legs. Thomas Sgovio, who came to the brink of starvation before recovering, woke up one morning to discover that one of his legs was “purple, twice the size of the other leg. It itched. There were blotches all over it.” Soon, “the blotches turned into huge boils. Blood and pus trickled from them. When I pressed a finger into the purple flesh—an indentation remained for a long time.” When Sgovio found his legs could not fit into his boots, he was told to slit the boots.5

In the final stages of starvation, the dokhodyagi took on a bizarre and inhuman appearance, becoming the physical fulfillment of the dehumanizing rhetoric used by the state: in their dying days, enemies of the people ceased, in other words, to be people at all. They became demented, often ranting and raving for hours. Their skin was loose and dry. Their eyes had a strange gleam. They ate anything they could get their hands on—birds, dogs, garbage. They moved slowly, and could not control their bowels or their bladders, as a result of which they emitted a terrible odor. Tamara Petkevich describes the first time she saw them:

There behind the barbed wire was a row of creatures, distantly reminiscent of human beings . . . there were ten of them, skeletons of various sizes covered with brown, parchment-like skin, all stripped to the waist, with shaved heads and pendulous withered breasts. Their only clothing was some pathetic dirty underpants, and their shinbones projected from concave circles of emptiness. Women! Hunger, heat and hard toil had transformed them into dried specimens that still, unaccountably, clung to the last vestiges of life.6

Varlam Shalamov has also left an unforgettable poetic description of the dokhodyagi, invoking their similarity to one another, their loss of identifying, humanizing characteristics, and their anonymity, which was part of the horror they inspired:

I raise my glass to a road in the forest
To those who fall on their way
To those who can’t drag themselves farther
But are forced to drag on

To their bluish hard lips
To their identical faces
To their torn, frost-covered coats
To their hands without gloves

To the water they sip, from an old tin can
To the scurvy which sticks to their teeth.
To the teeth of fattened gray dogs
Which awake them in the morning

To the sullen sun,
Which regards them without interest
To the snow-white tombstones,
The work of clever snowstorms

To the ration of raw, sticky bread
Swallowed quickly
To the pale, too-high sky
To the Ayan-Yuryakh river!

But the term dokhodyaga, as it was used in the Soviet camps, did not merely describe a physical state. The “goners,” as Sgovio has explained, were not just ill: they were prisoners who had reached a level of starvation so intense that they no longer looked after themselves. This deterioration usually progressed in stages, as prisoners stopped washing themselves, stopped controlling their bowels, stopped having normal human reactions to insults—until they became, quite literally, insane with hunger. Sgovio was deeply shocked the first time he met someone in this state, an American communist named Eisenstein, a man who had been an acquaintance in Moscow:

At first I did not recognize my friend. Eisenstein did not answer when I greeted him. His face wore the blank expression of the dokhodyaga. He looked through me as if I were not there. Eisenstein didn’t seem to see anyone. There was no expression at all in his eyes. Gathering the empty plates from the mess tables, he scanned each one of them for leftover food particles. He ran his fingers around the inside of the plates and then licked them.

Eisenstein, wrote Sgovio, had become like the other “wicks,” in that he had lost all sense of personal dignity:

They neglected themselves, did not wash—even when they had the opportunity to do so. Nor did the wicks bother to search for and kill the lice that sucked their blood. The dokhodyagi did not wipe the dribble off the ends of their noses with the sleeves of theirbushlats . . . the wick was oblivious to blows. When set upon by fellow zeks , he would cover his head to ward off the punches. He would fall to the floor and when left alone, his condition permitting, he would get up and go off whimpering as if nothing had happened. After work the dokhodyaga could be seen hanging around the kitchen begging for scraps. For amusement, the cook would throw a dipperful of soup in his face. On such occasions, the poor soul would hurriedly pass his fingers over his wet whiskers and lick them . . . The wicks stood around the tables, waiting for someone to leave some soup or gruel. When that happened, the nearest lunged for the leavings. In the ensuing scramble they often spilled the soup. And then, on hands and knees, they fought and scraped until the last bit of precious food was stuffed into their mouths.8

A few prisoners who became dokhodyagi, and who recovered and survived, have tried to explain, not wholly successfully, what it felt like to be one of the living dead. Janusz Bardach remembered that after eight months in Kolyma, “I felt dizzy upon awakening, and my mind was foggy. It took more time and effort to pull myself together and go to the mess hall in the morning.”9 Yakov Éfrussi became a dokhodyaga after first having his glasses stolen—“to anyone near-sighted it will be perfectly clear what life is like without glasses, everything around you seems to be in a cloud”—and then losing the fingers of his left hand to frostbite. He described his feelings like this:

Constant hunger destroys the human psyche. It is impossible to stop thinking about food, you think about food all of the time. To your physical incapability is added moral weakness, as constant hunger removes your sense of self-respect, your sense of self-worth. All of your thoughts run in one direction: how to get more food? That’s why on the garbage pit, near the dining hall, at the entrance to the kitchen, the dokhodyagi were always milling about. They wait to see if someone won’t possibly throw something edible out of the kitchen, for instance some scraps of cabbage.10

The attraction to the kitchen and the obsession with food blinded many to almost all other considerations, as Gustav Herling has also tried to describe:

There is no limit to the physical effects of hunger beyond which tottering human dignity might still keep its uncertain but independent balance. Many times I flattened my pale face against the frosted-glass pane of the kitchen window, to beg with a dumb look for another ladleful of thin soup from the Leningrad thief Fyedka who was in charge. And I remember that my best friend, the engineer Sadovski, once, on the empty platform by the kitchen, snatched from my hand a canful of soup and, running away with it, did not even wait until he reached the latrine but on the way there drank up the hot mess with feverish lips. If God exists, let him punish mercilessly those who break others with hunger.11

Yehoshua Gilboa, a Polish Zionist arrested in 1940, eloquently describes the deceptions which prisoners used to convince themselves that they were eating more than they were:

We attempted to deceive the stomach by crumbling the bread until it was almost like flour and mixing it with salt and large quantities of water. This delicacy was called “bread sauce.” The salty water took on something of the color and taste of bread. You drank it and the bread pap remained. You poured more water on it until the final drop of bread flavor was squeezed out of it. If you ate this bread sauce for dessert after you had filled up on bread water, as it were, it had no taste at all but you created an illusion for yourself by stretching several hundred grams.

Gilboa also writes that he soaked salt fish in water as well. The resulting liquid “could be used for making bread sauce and then you really had a delicacy fit for a king.”12

Once a prisoner was spending all of his time hanging around the kitchen, picking up scraps, he was usually close to death, and could in fact die at any time: in bed at night, on the way to work, walking across the zona, eating his dinner. Janusz Bardach once saw a prisoner fall during roll call at the end of the day.

A group formed around him. “I get the hat,” one man said. Others grabbed the victim’s boots, foot rags, coat and pants. A fight broke out over his undergarments.

No sooner had the fallen prisoner been stripped naked than he moved his head, raised his hand, and stated weakly but clearly, “It’s so cold.” But his head flopped back into the snow and a glazed look came over his eyes. The ring of scavengers turned away with whatever scraps they had, unaffected. In those few minutes after being stripped, he probably died of exposure.13

Starvation was not, however, the only way in which prisoners died. Many died at work, in the unsafe conditions of the mines and factories. Some, weakened by hunger, succumbed easily to other diseases and epidemics as well. I have mentioned the typhus epidemics already, but weak and hungry prisoners were susceptible to many other diseases. In Siblag, in the first quarter of 1941, for example, 8,029 people were hospitalized, 746 with tuberculosis, of which 109 died; 72 with pneumonia, of which 22 died; 36 with dysentery, of which 9 died; 177 with frostbite, of which 5 died; 302 with stomach ailments, of which 7 died; 210 who had accidents at work, of which 7 died; and 912 with circulation problems, of which 123 died.14

Although it is a curiously taboo subject, prisoners did also commit suicide. How many took this route it is difficult to say. There are no official statistics. Nor, strangely, is there much consensus among survivors about how many suicides there were. Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the poet, wrote that people in the camps did not commit suicide, so hard were they struggling to live, and her belief has been echoed by others.15 Evgeny Gnedin wrote that although he thought of killing himself in prison, and later in exile, during his eight years in camps, “the thought of suicide never came into my head. Every day was a fight for life: how, in such a battle, was it possible to think about leaving life? There was a goal—to get out of that suffering—and hope: to meet with the people one loved.”16

The historian Catherine Merridale puts forward a different theory. During her research, she met two Moscow-based psychologists who had studied or worked in the Gulag system. Like Mandelstam and Gnedin, they insisted that suicide and mental illness were rare: “They were surprised— and modestly offended” when she cited evidence to the contrary. She attributes this curious insistence to the “myth of stoicism” in Russia, but it may have other sources as well.17 The literary critic Tzvetan Todorov guesses that witnesses write of the strange absence of suicide because they want to emphasize the uniqueness of their experience. It was so awful no one even took the “normal” route of suicide: “the survivor aims above all to convey the otherness of the camps.” 18

In fact, the anecdotal evidence of suicide is great, and many memoirists remember them. One describes the suicide of a boy whose sexual favors were “won” by a criminal prisoner in a card game.19 Another tells of a suicide of a Soviet citizen of German origins, who left a note for Stalin: “My death is a conscious act of protest against the violence and lawlessness directed against us, Soviet Germans, by the organs of the NKVD.” 20 One Kolyma survivor has written that in the 1930s, it became relatively common for prisoners to walk, quickly and purposefully, toward the “death zone,” the no-man’s-land beside the camp fence, and then to stand there, waiting to be shot.21

Evgeniya Ginzburg herself cut the rope from which her friend Polina Melnikova hung, and wrote admiringly of her: “She had asserted her rights to be a person by acting as she had, and she had made an efficient job of it.”22 Todorov again also writes that many survivors of both the Gulag and of the Nazi camps saw suicide as an opportunity to exercise free will: “By committing suicide, one alters the course of events—if only for the last time in one’s life—instead of simply reacting to them. Suicides of this kind are acts of defiance, not desperation.” 23

To the camp administration, it was all the same how prisoners died. What mattered to most was keeping the death rates secret, or at least semi-secret: Lagpunkt commanders whose death rates were found to be “too high” risked punishment. Although the rules were irregularly enforced, and although some did advocate the view that more prisoners ought to die, commanders of some particularly lethal camps did occasionally lose their jobs.24 This was why, as some ex-prisoners have described, doctors were known to physically conceal corpses from camp inspectors, and why in some camps it was common practice to release dying prisoners early. That way, they did not appear in the camp’s mortality statistics. 25


A Dying Zek: a portrait by Sergei Reikhenberg, Magadan, date unknown

Even when deaths were recorded, the records were not always honest. One way or another, camp commanders made sure that doctors writing out prisoner death certificates did not write “starvation” as the primary cause of death. The surgeon Isaac Vogelfanger was, for example, explicitly ordered to write “failure of the heart muscle” no matter what the real cause of a prisoner’s death.26 This could backfire: in one camp, the doctors listed so many cases of “heart attack” that the inspectorate became suspicious. The prosecutors forced the doctors to dig up the corpses, establishing that they had, in fact, died of pellagra. 27 Not all such chaos was deliberate: in another camp, the records were in such disarray that an inspector complained that “the dead are counted as living prisoners, escapees as imprisoned and vice versa.” 28

Prisoners were often kept deliberately ignorant of the facts of death as well. Although death could not be hidden altogether—one prisoner spoke of corpses lying “in a pile by the fence until the thaw” 29—it could be shrouded in other ways. In many camps, corpses were removed at night, and taken to secret locations. It was only by accident that Edward Buca, forced to stay working late to meet his norm, saw what happened to corpses at Vorkuta:

After they had been stacked like timber in an open-sided shed until enough had accumulated for a mass burial in the camp cemetery, they were loaded, naked, on to sledges, heads on the outside, feet inside. Each body bore a wooden tag, a birka, tied to the big toe of the right foot, bearing its name and number. Before each sledge left the camp gate, the nadziratel, an NKVD officer, took a pickaxe and smashed in each head. This was to ensure that no one got out alive. Once outside the camp, the bodies were dumped into atranseya, one of several broad ditches dug during summer for this purpose. But as the number of dead mounted, the procedure for making certain they were really dead changed. Instead of smashing heads with a pickaxe, the guards used a szompol, a thick wire with a sharpened point, which they stuck into each body. Apparently this was easier than swinging the pick.30

Mass burials may have also been kept secret because they too were technically forbidden—which is not to say they were uncommon. Former camp sites all over Russia contain evidence of what were clearly mass graves, and from time to time, the graves even re-emerge: the far northern permafrost not only preserves bodies, sometimes in eerily pristine condition, but it also shifts and moves with the annual freezes and thaws, as Varlam Shalamov writes: “The north resisted with all its strength this work of man, not accepting the corpses into its bowels . . . the earth opened, bearing its subterranean storerooms, for they contained not only gold and lead, tungsten and uranium, but also undecaying human bodies.”31

Nevertheless, they were not supposed to be there and in 1946, the Gulag administration sent out an order to all camp commanders, instructing them to bury corpses separately, in funeral linen, and in graves which were no less than 1.5 meters deep. The location of the bodies was also meant to be marked not with a name, but with a number. Only the camp’s record-keepers were supposed to know who was buried where.32

All of which sounds very civilized—except that another order gave camps permission to remove the dead prisoners’ gold teeth. These removals were meant to take place under the aegis of a commission, containing representatives of the camp medical services, the camp administration, and the camp financial department. The gold was then supposed to be taken to the nearest state bank. It is hard to imagine, however, that such commissions met very frequently. The more straightforward theft of gold teeth was simply too easy to carry out, too easy to hide, in a world where there were too many corpses. 33

For there were too many corpses—and this, finally, was the terrifying thing about a prison death, as Herling wrote:

Death in the camp possessed another terror: its anonymity. We had no idea where the dead were buried, or whether, after a prisoner’s death, any kind of death certificate was ever written . . . The certainty that no one would ever learn of their death, that no one would ever know where they had been buried, was one of the prisoners’ greatest psychological torments . . .

The barrack walls were covered with names of prisoners scratched in the plaster, and friends were asked to complete the data after their death by adding a cross and a date; every prisoner wrote to his family at strictly regular intervals, so that a sudden break in the correspondence would give them the approximate date of his death.34

Despite prisoners’ efforts, many, many deaths went unmarked, unremembered, and unrecorded. Forms were not filled out; relatives were not notified; wooden markers disintegrated. Walking around old camp sites in the far north, one sees the evidence of mass graves: the uneven, mottled ground, the young pine trees, the long grass covering burial pits half a century old. Sometimes, a local group has put up a monument. More often, there is no marking at all. The names, the lives, the individual stories, the family connections, the history—all were lost.

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