Modern history

Chapter 18


If I had heard the sound of the sledge dogs announcing the start of the patrol now, I think I might have been physically sick. We ran the few yards to the outer fence . . . we were probably making little noise, but it seemed to me that the commotion was deafening . . . In a final mad scramble we leapt and tumbled over the last lot of barbed wire at the foot of the outer fence, picked ourselves up, breathlessly inquired if everyone was all right, and, with one accord, started to run.

—Slavomir Rawicz, The Long Walk1

AMONG THE MANY MYTHS about the Gulag, the myth of the impossibility of escape looms among the largest. Escape from Stalin’s camps, wrote Solzhenitsyn, was “an enterprise for giants among men—but for doomed giants.” 2 According to Anatoly Zhigulin, “Escape from Kolyma was impossible.” 3 Varlam Shalamov, with characteristic gloom, wrote that “convicts who try to escape are almost always newcomers, serving their first year, men in whose hearts freedom and vanity had not yet been annhilated.” 4Nikolai Abakumov, the former deputy commander of the Norilsk garrison, dismissed the idea of successful escape: “Some people got out of the camps, but no one managed to reach the ‘mainland’”—by which he meant central Russia.5

Gustav Herling recounts the story of a fellow inmate who tried to escape and failed: after months of careful planning, a successful breakout, and seven days of hungry wandering in the forest, he found himself only eight miles from the camp, and, starving, voluntarily turned himself in. “Freedom isn’t for us,” the man concluded, whenever he told the story of his escape attempt to his fellow prisoners. “We’re chained to this place for the rest of our lives, even though we aren’t wearing chains. We can escape, we can wander about, but in the end we’ll come back.”6

Camps were, of course, constructed to prevent breakouts: ultimately, that was what the walls, barbed wire, watchtowers, and carefully raked noman’s-land were for. But in many camps, barbed wire was hardly necessary to keep prisoners inside. The weather worked against escape—ten months of the year, the temperature was below freezing—as did the geography, a fact it is impossible to appreciate until one has actually seen the location of some of the more distant camps for oneself.

It is, for example, fair to describe Vorkuta, the city which sprang up beside the coal mines of Vorkutlag, not only as isolated but also as virtually inaccessible. There is no road that leads to Vorkuta, which lies beyond the Arctic Circle: the city and its mines can only be reached by rail or by plane. In winter, anyone crossing the open, treeless tundra would be a moving target. In summer, the same landscape turns into an equally open, impenetrable swamp.

In the more southerly camps, distances were a problem too. Even if a prisoner did climb over the barbed wire, or slip away from his workplace in the forest—given the slovenliness of the guards, this was not so difficult— he then found himself miles from a road or a railway track, and sometimes miles from anything resembling a town or village. There was no food, no shelter, and sometimes very little water.

More to the point, there were sentries everywhere: the whole of the Kolyma region—hundreds and hundreds of square miles of taiga—was really a vast prison, after all, as was the entire Komi Republic, large swathes of the Kazakh desert, and northern Siberia. In such places, there were few ordinary villages, and few ordinary inhabitants. Anyone walking alone without proper identity documents would have immediately been identified as a runaway, and either shot, or beaten up and returned to his camp. One prisoner decided against joining a group of escaping inmates for this reason: “Where could I go without papers or money in a territory packed with concentration camps and therefore scattered with control points?”7

The escaping prisoner was not likely to find much help from those local people who were not guards or prisoners, either, even if he encountered any. In Czarist Siberia, there had been a tradition of sympathy for runaway convicts and serfs, for whom bowls of bread and milk were placed on doorsteps at night. An old, pre-revolutionary prisoners’ song describes the attitude:

The peasant women provided me milk
The young lads supplied tobacco.

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, the mood was different. Most people would have been inclined to turn in an escaped “enemy,” and even more inclined to turn in a criminal “recidivist.” This was not only because they believed, or half believed, the propaganda about the prisoners, but also because those who failed to turn in a runaway risked being given long prison sentences themselves.9 Not that their fears needed to be specific, given the paranoid climate of daily life:

As for the local population, nobody saved us and hid us, the way others saved and hid those who escaped from the German concentration camps. It was because for so many years, all had lived in constant fear and suspicion, from minute to minute awaiting some new misfortune, even being afraid of each other . . . In a place where everyone, from the smallest to the most important, was terrified of spies, it was impossible to count on a successful escape.10

If ideology and fear did not impel the locals to turn in escaped prisoners, greed did. Fairly or unfairly, many memoirists believe that local tribal peoples—the Eskimos of the far north, the Kazakhs to the south—were constantly on the lookout for runaways. Some became professional bounty-hunters, searching for prisoners in return for a kilogram of tea or a bag of wheat. 11 In Kolyma, a local inhabitant who brought in the right hand of a runaway—or, by some accounts, the runaway’s head—received a 250-ruble prize, and the prizes seem to have been similar elsewhere.12 In one recorded case, a local man recognized an escaped prisoner masquerading as a free man, and reported his presence to the police. He received 250 rubles. His son, who had gone to the police station, received 150 as well. In another case, a man who reported the location of a runaway to a camp chief was given the princely sum of 300 rubles.13

For those who were caught, the punishments were extreme. Many were shot instantly. The bodies of dead runaways had their propaganda uses as well:

As we approached the gate, I thought for a moment that I must be having a bad dream: a naked corpse was suspended from the gatepost. Its hands and feet were bound with wire, its head was sunk to one side, the rigid eyes were half open. Above the head was a board with the inscription: “This is the fate of all those who try to escape from Norilsk.”14

Zhigulin remembers the dead bodies of men who had attempted escape lying in the center of his Kolyma lagpunkt, sometimes for as long as a month.15 The practice was in fact an old one, dating back to Solovetsky. By the 1940s, it was nearly universal.16

And yet—prisoners did try to escape. Indeed, to judge by the official statistics, and by the angry correspondence on the subject in the Gulag archives, both attempted and successful escapes were more common than most memoirists concede. There are, for example, records of punishments meted out following successful escapes. In 1945, following several group escapes from the camps surrounding “NKVD Construction Site 500”—a railroad across eastern Siberia—officers in the armed guards received five- or ten-day prison sentences, with their pay docked 50 percent for every day behind bars. In other instances, guards were put on trial following prominent escapes, while camp bosses sometimes lost their jobs.17

There are also records of guards who foiled escapes. A 300-ruble prize was awarded to a prison guard who sounded the alarm after escaping prisoners had suffocated a night watchman. His boss received 200 rubles, as did another prison chief, and the soldiers involved received 100 rubles apiece. 18

No camp was completely secure. Solovetsky, with its remote location, was thought to be impregnable. Yet a pair of White Guards, S. A. Malsagov and Yuri Bessonov, escaped from one of the SLON mainland camps in May 1925. After attacking their guards, they walked for thirty-five days to the Finnish border. Both later wrote books about their experiences, among the first about Solovetsky to appear in the West.19 There was another famous breakout from Solovetsky in 1928, in which half-a-dozen prisoners attacked their guards and broke through the gates of the camp. Most got away, probably escaping over the Finnish border too.20 Two particularly spectacular escapes, also from Solovetsky, occurred in 1934. One involved four “spies”; the other concerned “one spy and two bandits.” Both parties had managed to steal boats, and had escaped by water, presumably to Finland. As a result, the camp boss was fired, and others were reprimanded. 21

As the SLON camps expanded onto the Karelian mainland in the late 1920s, opportunities for escape multiplied—and Vladimir Tchernavin took advantage of them. Tchernavin was a fisheries expert who had bravely tried to inject some realism into the Murmansk Fishing Trust’s Five-Year Plan. His criticism of the project won him a conviction for “wrecking.” He received a five-year sentence and was sent to Solovetsky. SLON eventually put him to work as prisoner expert in northern Karelia, where he was meant to design new fishing enterprises.

Tchernavin bided his time. Over many months he won the trust of his superiors, who even granted permission for his wife and fifteen-year-old son, Andrei, to pay him a visit. One day during their visit, in the summer of 1933, the family headed off on a “picnic” across the local bay. When they reached the western edge, Tchernavin and his wife told Andrei that they were leaving the USSR—on foot. “Without compass or map, we walked over wild mountains, through forests and across swamps, to Finland and freedom,” wrote Tchernavin.22 Decades later, Andrei remembered that his father had believed he could change the world’s view of Soviet Russia if he wrote a book about his experiences. He did. It did not.23

But Tchernavin’s experience may not have been unique: indeed, the period of the Gulag’s early expansion might well have been the golden age of escape. The number of prisoners was multiplying rapidly, the number of guards was insufficient, the camps were relatively near to Finland. In 1930, 1,174 escaped convicts were captured on the Finnish border. By 1932, 7,202 had been found—and it may well be that the number of successful attempts also went up proportionately.24 According to the Gulag’s own statistics— which may not, of course, be accurate—in 1933, 45,755 people escaped from camps, of which only just over half—28,370—were captured. 25 The local population was reported to be terrorized by the huge number of convicts on the loose, and camp commanders submitted constant requests for reinforcements, as did the border guards and the local OGPU.26

In response, the OGPU instituted tighter controls. At about this time, the local population were actively recruited to help: one OGPU order called for the creation of a 16- to 19-mile belt around each camp, within which the local population would “actively fight escapes.” Those in charge of trains and boats in the vicinity of camps were also enlisted. An order was issued forbidding guards to take prisoners out of their cells after sundown.27 Local officials begged for more resources, and especially for more guards to prevent escapes.28 New laws mandated extra prison sentences for escapees. Guards knew that if they shot a prisoner in the course of an escape, they might even be rewarded.29

Nevertheless, the numbers did not fall so quickly. In 1930s Kolyma, group escapes were more common than they became later. Criminal prisoners, camping out in the forests, would organize themselves into bands, steal weapons, and even attack local residents, geological parties, and native villages. After no less than twenty-two such incidents, a special camp division was set up for 1,500 “especially dangerous elements”—prisoners likely to escape—in 1936.30 Later, in January 1938, at the height of the Great Terror, one of the deputy chiefs of the NKVD sent out a circular to all the camps across the Soviet Union, noting that “despite a series of orders on conducting a decisive war against prisoners’ escapes from camps . . . serious improvements in this matter have yet to be made.”31

In the early days of the Second World War, the number of escapes rose sharply again, thanks to opportunities created by the evacuation of camps in the western part of the country, and the general chaos.32 In July 1941, fifteen prisoners escaped from Pechorlag, one of the more remote camps in the Komi Republic. In August of that same year, eight former sailors, led by a former senior lieutenant of the Northern Fleet, managed to get away from a distant outpost of Vorkuta itself.33

The numbers did start to go down later in the war, but they never vanished altogether. In 1947, when escapes reached their postwar height, 10,440 prisoners attempted escape, of whom only 2,894 were caught.34 This is, perhaps, a small percentage of the millions who were in the camps at the time, but it nevertheless suggests that escapes were not as impossible as some remember. It may even be that their frequency helps to explain the harshening of camp regimes, and the higher levels of security, which characterized life in the Gulag during the last half-decade of its existence.

Generally, memoirists agree that the overwhelming majority of would-be runaways were professional criminals. Criminal slang reflects this, even referring to the coming of spring as the arrival of the “green prosecutor” (as in “Vasya was released by the green prosecutor”) since spring was when summer escapes were most often contemplated: “A trip through the taiga is possible only during the summer, when it is possible to eat grass, mushrooms, berries, roots, or pancakes baked from moss flour, to catch fieldmice, chipmunks, squirrels, jays, rabbits ...” 35 In the very far north, the optimum time to escape was the winter, which criminals there referred to as the “white prosecutor”: only then would the swamps and mud of the tundra be passable.36

In fact, professional criminals were more successful at escaping because once they had gone “under the wire” they stood a far better chance of surviving. If they made it to a major city, they could melt into the local criminal world, forge documents, and find hiding places. With few aspirations to return to the “free” world, criminals also escaped simply for the fun of it, just to be “out” for a little while. If they were caught, and managed to survive, what was another ten-year sentence to someone who already had two twenty-five-year sentences, or more? One ex-zek remembers a woman criminal who escaped merely to have a rendezvous with a man. She returned “filled with delight,” although she was immediately sentenced to the punishment cell.37

Political prisoners escaped much less often. Not only did they lack the network and the expertise, but they were also pursued with greater fervor. Tchernavin—who gave these issues much thought before escaping himself—explained the difference:

The guards did not take the escape of criminals very seriously and did not exert much effort in pursuing them: they would be caught when they came out to the railroad or reached a town. But for the pursuit of political prisoners, posses would be organized at once: sometimes all neighboring villages would be mobilized and the frontier guards called to assist. The political prisoner always tried to escape abroad—in his motherland he had no refuge.38

Most runaways were men, but not all of them. Margarete Buber-Neumann was in a camp from which a Gypsy girl escaped, running away with the camp cook. An older Gypsy woman, hearing the story, nodded knowingly: “She’s got an idea there’s a tabor [a Gypsy encampment] somewhere in the neighborhood. If she can get to that, she’s safe.”39 Usually, escapes were planned in advance, but they could be spontaneous too: Solzhenitsyn tells the story of a prisoner who jumped over a barbed-wire fence during a dust storm in Kazakhstan.40 Escape attempts were often launched from the more loosely guarded camp work sites, but that was not always the case either. In the randomly selected month of September 1945, for example, 51 percent of recorded escape attempts took place in the working zone; 27 percent took place from the living zone; and 11 percent took place during transport.41 Edward Buca planned an escape from a prisoner transport train bound for Siberia, along with a group of young Ukrainians:

With my hacksaw blade, we would try to cut through four or five planks, working only at night and concealing the marks with a mixture of bread and horse dung from the floor of the car. When the opening was ready, we would wait until the train stopped in the forest and then push out the planks and leap from the wagon—as many of us as possible, scattering in all directions to confuse the guard. Some of us would be shot at, but most of us could get away.42

They had to give up the plan when the escape attempt was suspected. Others did try to escape from the trains, however: in June 1940, two criminal prisoners actually got out through a hole in a wagon.43 In that same year, Janusz Bardach slipped through some rotten boards in a wagon too. He neglected to fix them back in place, however, and was immediately caught, tracked down by dogs, and badly beaten—but allowed to live.44

Some escapes had their origins, as Solzhenitsyn puts it, “not in despairing impulse but in technical calculations and the love of fine workmanship.” 45 False walls were built into railway boxcars; prisoners hammered themselves into boxes and had themselves shipped out of the camp.46 Once, twenty-six criminal prisoners dug their way under a wall. All made it out, although—according to the officer who led the search—they were also all captured again within the year.47

Others, like Tchernavin, used their special positions within the camp to organize their escape. Archives record the story of a prisoner who deliberately caused an accident on a goods train and escaped amid the confusion. 48 In another recorded case, prisoners who had been assigned to bury bodies in the camp cemetery shot their convoy guard and placed him in the mass grave, so that his corpse would not be immediately noticed.49 Escape was also easier for “unguarded” prisoners who had passes allowing them to move about between camps.

Disguise was used as well. Varlam Shalamov tells the story of a prisoner who escaped and managed to spend two years in freedom, wandering through Siberia, pretending to be a geologist. At one point, regional authorities, proud to have such an expert in their midst, asked him very respectfully to give a lecture. “Krivoshei smiled, quoted Shakespeare in English, sketched something on the blackboard, and ran through dozens of foreign names.” He was caught, in the end, because he sent money to his wife.50 His story might possibly be apocryphal—but the archives do record similar tales. In one such episode, a Kolyma prisoner stole some documents, smuggled himself onto a plane, and flew to Yakutsk. There he was found, comfortably installed in a hotel, with 200 grams of gold in his pocket.51

Not all escapes involved clever flights of fancy. Many—probably the majority—criminal escapes involved violence. Runaways attacked, shot, and suffocated armed guards, as well as free workers and local residents. 52 They did not spare their fellow inmates either. One of the standard methods of criminal escape involved cannibalism. Pairs of criminals would agree in advance to escape along with a third man (the “meat”), who was destined to become the sustenance for the other two on their journey. Buca also describes the trial of a professional thief and murderer, who, along with a colleague, escaped with the camp cook, their “walking supply”:

They weren’t the first to get this idea. When you have a huge community of people who dream of nothing but escape, it is inevitable that every possible means of doing so will be discussed. A “walking supply” is, in fact, a fat prisoner. If you have to, you can kill him and eat him. And until you need him, he is carrying the “food” himself.

The two men did as planned—they killed and ate the cook—but they had not bargained on the length of the journey. They began to get hungry again:

Both knew in their hearts that the first to fall asleep would be killed by the other. So both pretended they weren’t tired and spent the night telling stories, each watching the other closely. Their old friendship made it impossible for either to make an open attack on the other, or to confess their mutual suspicions.

Finally, one fell asleep. The other slit his throat. He was caught, Buca claims, two days later, with pieces of raw flesh still in his sack. 53

Although there is no way of knowing how often this type of escape occurred, there are enough similar stories, told by a wide enough range of prisoners, from camps from the early 1930s to the late 1940s, to be certain that they did take place, at least from time to time. 54 Thomas Sgovio heard the death sentence pronounced on two such escapees—they had taken a boy prisoner, and salted his flesh after murdering him—when he was in Kolyma.55 Vatslav Dvorzhetsky was told a similar story in Karelia, in the mid-1930s.56

There are also to be found, in the oral tradition of the Gulag, some truly extraordinary tales of escape and of escapees—many, again, quite possibly apocryphal. Solzhenitsyn relates the saga of Georgy Tenno, an Estonian political who escaped from camps over and over again, on one occasion traveling 300 miles by horse, boat, bicycle, very nearly making it to the central Siberian city of Omsk. While some of Tenno’s stories are probably true—he later befriended another Gulag survivor and memoirist, Alexander Dolgun, whom he also introduced to Solzhenitsyn—some of his other, more spectacular tales of escape are harder to verify.57 One English anthology contains the story of an Estonian, a preacher, who managed to escape from a camp, forge papers, and walk over the border to Afghanistan with his companions. The same anthology tells of a Spanish prisoner who escaped by pretending to be dead after an earthquake wrecked his camp. Later, he says, he slipped over the border to Iran.58

Finally, there is the curious case of Slavomir Rawicz, whose memoir, The Long Walk, contains the most spectacular and moving description of an escape in all of Gulag literature. According to his account, Rawicz was captured after the Soviet invasion of Poland, and deported to a camp in northern Siberia. He claims to have escaped, with the connivance of a camp commander’s wife, in the company of six other prisoners, one of them an American. Along with a Polish girl, a deportee whom they picked up along the way, they made their way out of the Soviet Union.

During what would have been an extraordinary journey—if it ever took place—they walked around Lake Baikal, over the border into Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, over the Himalayas and Tibet, and into India. Along the way, four of the prisoners died; the rest suffered extremes of privation. Unfortunately, several attempts to verify this story—which bears a distinct resemblance to a Rudyard Kipling short story, “The Man Who Was”—have come to nothing.59 The Long Walk is a superbly told story, even if it never happened. Its convincing realism may well serve as a lesson to all of us who try to write a factual history of escapes from the Gulag.

For, in fact, fantasy about escape played an important part in many prisoners’ lives. Even for the many thousands of prisoners who never would attempt it, the thought of escape—the dream of escape—remained an important psychological prop. A Kolyma survivor told me that “one of the most obvious forms of opposition to the regime was to escape.” Young male prisoners in particular planned, discussed, and argued about the best ways of escape. For some, this discussion itself was a way of fighting the sensation of powerlessness, as Gustav Herling writes:

We would often meet in one of the barracks, an intimate group of Poles, to discuss the details of the plan; we collected scraps of metal found at work, old boxes and fragments of glass which we deluded ourselves could be made into an improvised compass; we gathered information about the surrounding countryside, and the distances, climatic conditions and geographical peculiarities of the north . . .

In the nightmare land to which we had been brought from the West on hundreds of goods trains, every grasp at our own private day-dreams gave us fresh life. After all, if membership of a non-existent terrorist organization can be a crime punished by ten years in a labor camp, then why should a sharpened nail not be a compass-needle, a piece of wood a ski, and a scrap of paper, covered with scribbled dots and lines, a map?

Herling suspects that everyone involved in these discussions believed, deep down, that their preparations were futile. Nevertheless, the exercise served its purpose:

I remember a junior officer of the Polish cavalry who, during the worst periods of hunger in the camp, found enough strength of will to cut a thin slice of bread from his daily ration, dry it over the fire, and save these scraps in a sack which he concealed in some mysterious hiding-place in the barrack. Years later, we met again in the Iraqi desert, and as we recalled prison days over a bottle in an army tent, I made fun of his “plan” of escape. But he answered gravely: “You shouldn’t laugh at that. I survived the camp thanks to hope of escape, and I survived the mortuary thanks to my store of bread. A man can’t live if he doesn’t know what he’s living for.”60

If escapes from the camp were impossible in the folk memory of most survivors, rebellion was unthinkable. The caricature of the downtrodden, defeated, and dehumanized zek, desperate to collaborate with the authorities, incapable even of thinking ill of the Soviet regime—let alone organizing against it—appears in many memoirs, not least those of two of the Russian survivor community’s greatest literary figures: Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov. And it may well be that, throughout much of the Gulag’s history, this image was not far off the mark. The system of internal spying and informers did make prisoners suspicious of one another. The grinding inevitability of the work and the dominance of the thieves-in-law did make it difficult for other prisoners to think of organized opposition. The humiliating experience of interrogation, prison, and deportation had robbed many of the will to live, let alone the will to oppose the authorities. Herling, who organized a hunger strike with a group of other Polish prisoners, describes the reaction of his Russian friends:

They were excited and fascinated by the very fact that we had dared to lift a hand against the unalterable law of slavery, which had never before been disturbed by one gesture of rebellion. On the other hand, there was the instinctive fear, which they had retained from their former lives, that they might be involved in something dangerous, perhaps a case threatened by a war tribunal. Who was to know whether the hearings would not reveal the “rebel’s” conversations in the barracks immediately after committing the offense?61

Once again, however, archives tell a different story, revealing the existence of many minor camp protests and work stoppages. Criminal bosses in particular seemed to have conducted frequent, brief, apolitical workplace strikes if they wanted something from the camp authorities, who treated such incidents as nothing more than an annoyance. Particularly in the late 1930s and early 1940s, professional criminals’ privileged position would have made them less afraid of punishment, and would have given them more opportunities to organize these minor rebellions.62

Spontaneous criminal protests sometimes also occurred on the long train rides to the east, when there was no water available and no food except salted herring. To force the guards to give them water, the criminal prisoners would agree to “set up a cry and clamor together,” creating a noise that the guards hated, as one prisoner remembered: “Once, the Roman legion wept at the sound of the ancient Germans’ shriek, it was so terrifying. The same terror was felt by the sadists of the Gulag ...” 63 This tradition lasted through the 1980s, when, as the poet and dissident Irina Ratushinskaya recalled, prisoners on a transport, if dissatisfied with their treatment, would carry the protest one step further:

“Hey, fellas! Start ’er rocking!” comes a male voice.

The prisoners bodily start to rock the carriage. All together, in unison, throwing themselves first against one wall of their enclosures, then against the opposite one. The carriage is so packed that the results can be felt immediately. In this manner, the carriage can be tipped off the tracks, derailing the whole train.64

Overcrowding and poor food could also produce protests of a sort best described as semi-organized outbreaks of hysteria. A witness described one such scene, lead by a group of female criminals:

About 200 women, as if by command, suddenly undressed and ran completely naked into the yard. In rude poses, they crowded around the guards and shouted, screeched, laughed and swore, fell on the ground in terrifying convulsions, tore at their hair, scratched blood from their faces, fell again on the ground and again stood up and ran to the gate.

“A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-gy!” howled the crowd. 65

Aside from these moments of madness and spontaneity, there was another, older tradition of protest used, the hunger strike, one whose goals and methods were inherited directly from the earliest politicals (who in turn had inherited them from pre-revolutionary Russia), the Social Democrats, Anarchists, and Mensheviks who were imprisoned in the early 1920s. This group of prisoners kept up their tradition of hunger strikes—inherited from pre-revolutionary Russia—after they were sent to isolator prisons, away from Solovetsky, in 1925. Aleksandr Fedodeev, one of the leaders of the Social Revolutionaries, went on conducting hunger strikes in Suzdal prison, demanding the right to correspond with his relatives, right up to the moment of his execution in 1937.66

But even after they had been moved on again, from the prisons back to camps, some still tried to keep the tradition going. In the mid-1930s, the socialists were joined in their hunger strikes by some of the genuine Trotskyites. In October of 1936, hundreds of Trotskyites, Anarchists, and other political prisoners in one Vorkuta lagpunkt began a hunger strike that was to last, according to records, 132 days. Without question, their purpose was political: the strikers demanded that they be separated from criminal prisoners, that their working day be limited to eight hours, that they should be fed regardless of their work—and that their sentences should be annulled. In another Vorkuta lagpunkt, an even larger strike—joined, in this case, by a handful of professional criminals—was to last 115 days. In March 1937, the Gulag administration decreed that the strikers’ demands were to be met. By the end of 1938, however, most had been murdered in the mass executions of that year.67

At about the same time, another group of Trotskyites went on strike in the Vladivostok transit camp, while awaiting transit to Kolyma. While in the camp, they held organizational meetings and elected a leader. He demanded the right to examine the boat that they would be transported in. The request was refused. Still, as they got on the boat, they sang revolutionary songs and even—if the reports of the NKVD’s informers are to be believed—unfurled posters with slogans such as “Hooray for Trotsky, Revolutionary Genius!” and “Down with Stalin!” When the steamer reached Kolyma, the prisoners again began making demands: everyone should receive work according to his speciality, everyone must be paid for his work, spouses must not be divided, all prisoners have a right to send and receive mail without restriction. In due course, they called a series of hunger strikes, one of which lasted 100 days. A contemporary observer wrote that “The leadership of the Trotskyite prisoners at Kolyma had entered a fantasy realm, and ignored the real power relationships.” In due course, they too were all sentenced and shot.68 Yet their suffering made an impact. Years later, a former Kolyma prosecutor remembered the events very well:

Everything that happened afterwards made such a strong impression on me and my comrades, that for several days I myself wandered around as if in a fog, and in front of me seemed to walk a row of sentenced Trotskyite fanatics, fearlessly departing this life with their slogans on their lips . . .69

In response, perhaps, to these incidents of rebellion, the NKVD began to treat political hunger strikes and work strikes with more seriousness. From the late 1930s on, perpetrators of such disruptions received additional prison sentences, even death sentences. Hunger strikes were taken seriously, but work refusals were taken most seriously of all: they ran counter to the entire ethos of the camp. The prisoner who would not work was not only a disciplinary problem; he was a serious obstacle to the camp’s economic goals as well. After 1938 in particular, strikers were severely punished, as one ex-prisoner described:

Some of the prisoners refused to go out to work . . . something about the food being rotten. The administration of course acted with vigor. Fourteen of the ringleaders, twelve men and two women, were shot. The executions took place in the camp, with all the prisoners lined up to see the show. Then details from every barrack helped dig the graves, just outside the barbed-wire fence. Not much chance for another riot as long as the memory of this one remains fresh . . .70

But even the prospect of certain punishment—and the awareness of certain death—could not eliminate every prisoner’s urge to rebel altogether, and later, following Stalin’s death, some of them would do so en masse. Yet even during Stalin’s lifetime, even during the toughest, most difficult war years, the spirit of rebellion lived on—as the remarkable story of the Ust-Usa uprising of January 1942 well illustrates.

In the annals of the Gulag, the Ust-Usa rebellion was, as far as we know, unique. If there were other mass breakouts while Stalin was alive, we do not yet know about them. About Ust-Usa we know quite a lot: garbled versions of the story have long been part of the Gulag’s oral history, but in recent years it has been carefully documented as well.71

Oddly enough, this rebellion was led not by a prisoner, but by a free worker. Mark Retyunin was, at that time, the chief administrator of the Lesoreid lagpunkt, a small logging camp within the Vorkutlag complex. The lagpunkt held about 200 prisoners, more than half of whom were politicals. Retyunin had had much experience in the camp system by 1942: like many minor camp bosses, he was a former prisoner, having served ten years for alleged bank robbery. Nevertheless, he was trusted by the camp administration, one of whom described him as a man “prepared to sacrifice his life for the productive interests of the camp.” Others have remembered him variously as a drinker and a cardplayer—testimony, perhaps, to his criminal origins. Still others describe him as a poetry-lover and as a “strong character” with a tendency to boasting and brawling—testimony, perhaps, to the legend he left in his wake.

Retyunin’s precise motives remain unclear. It seems that he was deeply shocked when, following the outbreak of war in June 1941, the NKVD passed an edict forbidding all political prisoners from leaving their camp, even those whose sentences had expired. Afanasy Yashkin, the only one of the original co-conspirators to survive the rebellion, told his NKVD interrogators that Retyunin had believed that all of the lagpunkt’s inhabitants, prisoners and nonprisoners alike, would be executed when the Germans began advancing deeper into the Soviet Union. “What do we have to lose, even if they kill us,” he had urged them. “What’s the difference: we drop dead tomorrow, or we die today as rebels . . . the camp authorities are going to shoot all of those with counter-revolutionary sentences, even us, the free workers who are being held here until the end of the war.” This was not a completely paranoid sentiment: having himself been an inmate of Vorkutlag in 1938, he would have known that mass murder was well within the capabilities of the NKVD. And despite his high status as boss of an entire lagpunkt, he had only recently been refused permission to return home on a holiday.

No other details of the preparations are known. Not surprisingly, Retyunin left behind no written documentation. Nevertheless, it is clear from the events themselves that the rebellion was carefully planned. The rebels made their first move on the afternoon of January 24, 1942. This was a Saturday, and the day on which the camp’s armed guard planned to use the camp baths. They dutifully filed in. The camp bath attendant, a Chinese inmate named Lu Fa—who was in on the conspiracy—quickly locked the doors behind them. Immediately, the rest of the conspirators disarmed the remaining guards, who had been left standing sentry at the vakhta. Two of them fought back. One was killed, and the other wounded. All of their weapons fell into the hands of the rebels, twelve machine guns and four revolvers in all.

Quickly, a group of the rebels opened the camp storerooms and began distributing high-quality clothing and boots to the prisoners. These had been specially stockpiled by Retyunin, who called on the prisoners to join his uprising. Not all of them did. Some were afraid, some saw the hopeless-ness of the situation, some even tried to talk the rebels out of continuing altogether. Others agreed. By about five o’clock that afternoon, an hour or so after the rebellion had begun, a group of 100 men were marching in a column toward Ust-Usa, the neighboring town.

At first, the townspeople, thrown by the well-dressed appearance of the prisoners, did not understand what was happening. Then the rebels, by now split into two groups, attacked the town post office and the town jail. Both attacks were successful. The rebels opened up the jail cells, and twelve more prisoners joined their ranks. At the post office, they cut off communication links with the outside world. Ust-Usa had fallen under prisoner control.

At this point, the townspeople began to fight back. A few took up arms at the town militia building. Some rushed to defend the small airfield, where two small planes happened to be on the runway. Others sought help: one of the town policemen leaped on his horse and rode to the nearbylagpunktof Polya-Kurya. There, panic broke out. The camp boss, convinced that the Germans had arrived, immediately ordered all prisoners to remove their shoes, so that they could not escape. Fifteen armed guards began marching from Polya-Kurya to Ust-Usa, thinking they were heading off to defend the motherland.

By this time, open fighting had broken out in the center of Ust-Usa. The rebels had disarmed some of the town policemen, and had procured more weapons. They failed, however, to reckon with the spirited defenders of the militia building. The subsequent battle raged all night, and by early morning the rebels’ losses were serious. Nine were dead, and one was wounded. Forty had been captured. Those who remained alive resolved upon a new tactic: they would leave Ust-Usa, and head for another town, Kozhva. They did not know, however, that the Ust-Usa authorities had already wired for help, using a hidden radio transmitter in the forest. All of the roads leading in every direction were slowly filling up with armed militiamen.

Still, they had some initial luck. Almost immediately, the rebels came upon a village where they met no real resistance. There, they harangued the local collective farmers in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade them to join them. At the post office, they listened in on an open line and realized that the militia were heading in their direction. They left the main road, and headed into the tundra, hiding, initially, at a reindeer farm. On the morning of January 28, they were discovered there: another battle broke out, with heavy casualties on both sides. By nightfall, however, the remaining rebels had escaped—about thirty were still alive—and holed up inside a hunter’s shelter on a nearby mountain. Some determined to remain there and fight, although by now, having run out of ammunition, they had no chance. Others set off into the woods where, in the dead of winter, in open country, they stood no chance either.

The final showdown took place on January 31, and lasted a day and a night. As the militia closed in, some of the rebels, including Retyunin, shot themselves. The NKVD hunted down the rest in the woods, picking them off one by one. The bodies were placed in a heap: the militia, in a frenzy of hatred, mutilated them, and then photographed them. The pictures, preserved in the regional archives, show tormented, twisted bodies, covered in snow and blood. There is no record of where the corpses were buried. Local legend has it that the militia men burned them on the spot.

In the aftermath, the rebels captured earlier were flown to Syktyvkar, the regional capital, and immediately put under investigation. After more than six months of questioning and torture, nineteen received new camp sentences, and forty-nine were executed on August 9, 1942.

The death toll among the defenders of Soviet order was high. But it was not just the loss of a few dozen guards and civilians that worried the NKVD. According to the recorded testimony, Yashkin also went on to “confess” that Retyunin’s ultimate goal was the overthrow of the regional authorities, the imposition of a fascist regime, and, naturally, an alliance with Nazi Germany. Knowing what we know about Soviet methods of interrogation, it is fairly safe to discount these motives.

Still, the rebellion was far more than a typical criminal rebellion: it was clearly politically motivated, and openly anti-Soviet. Nor did the participants fit the profile of the typical, criminal runaway: the majority were political prisoners. Rumors of the rebellion would, the NKVD knew, travel quickly around the many nearby camps, which had an unusually high number of politicals during the war years. Some, then and later, suspected that the Germans knew about the Vorkuta camps, and planned to use them as a fifth column, should their march into Russia ever get that far. Rumors that German spies really did parachute into the region persist to this day.

Moscow feared a repeat performance, and took action. On August 20, 1942, all of the bosses of all of the camps in the system received a memorandum: “On the Increase in Counter-Revolutionary Activities in NKVD Corrective-Labor Camps.” It demanded that they eliminate the “counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet element” in their camps within two weeks. The resulting series of investigations, carried out across the Soviet Union, “uncovered” a massive number of alleged conspiracies, ranging from the “Committee of People’s Liberation” in Vorkuta, to the “Russian Society for Vengeance Against the Bolsheviks” in Omsk. A report published in 1944 declared that 603 insurgency groups operating within the camps had been uncovered in the years 1941 to 1944, with a total of 4,640 participants. 72

Doubtless, the vast majority of these groups were fictitious, created in order to prove that the camps’ internal informer networks were actually doing something. Nevertheless, the authorities were right to be afraid: the Ust-Usa rebellion really would prove to be a harbinger of the future. Although it was defeated, it was not forgotten: neither were the sufferings of the executed socialists and Trotskyites. A decade later, a new generation of prisoners would re-invent the political strike, picking up where the rebels and the hunger strikers had left off, altering their tactics for a new era.

Properly speaking, however, their story belongs to subsequent chapters. They are not part of the history of life in the camps at the height of the Gulag’s reign, but rather part of a later saga: the history of how the Gulag came to an end.

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