Modern history

Chapter 20

“STRANGERS”

Willows are willows everywhere

Alma-Ata willow, how beautiful you are, draped in glowing white frost. But should I forget you, my withered willow in Warsaw’s Rozbrat Street, Let my hand wither as well!

Mountains are mountains everywhere Tian Shan, before my eyes, sails upward into a purple sky . . . But should I forget you, the Tatra peaks I left so far behind, The Bialy brook, where my son and I daydreamed colorful sea voyages . . . Let me turn into Tian Shan stone. If I forget you
If I forget my hometown . . .

—Alexander Wat, “Willow Trees in Alma-Ata,” January 1942 1

FROM THE GULAG’S INCEPTION, its camps had always contained a notable number of foreign prisoners. These were, for the most part, Western communists and Comintern members, although there were also a handful of British or French wives of Soviet citizens, as well as the odd expatriate businessman. They were treated as rarities, as curiosities, yet nevertheless their communist origins and their previous experience of Soviet life seemed to help them fit in with other prisoners. As Lev Razgon wrote:

They were all “ours” because they had either been born or grown up in the country or else come to live there of their own free will. Even when they spoke Russian very badly or did not speak it at all, they were ours. And in the melting pot of the camps they quickly ceased to stand out or appear in any way different. Those of them who survived the first year or two of camp life could thereafter only be distinguished among “us” by their poor Russian.2

Quite different were the foreigners who appeared after 1939. With no warning, the NKVD had plucked these newcomers—Poles, Balts, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Moldavians—out of their bourgeois or peasant worlds after the Soviet invasion of multiethnic eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and the Baltic states, and then dumped them, in large numbers, into the Gulag and the exile villages. Contrasting them with “our” foreigners, Razgon called them “strangers.” Having been “swept from their own country to the far north of Russia by an alien and hostile historical force which they could not comprehend,” they were instantly recognizable by the quality of their possessions: “We were always alerted to their arrival in Ustvymlag by the appearance of exotic items of clothing among our criminal inmates: the shaggy tall hats and colored sashes of Moldavia and, from Bukovina, embroidered fur waistcoats and fashionable close-fitting jackets with high, padded shoulders.”3

Arrests in the newly occupied territories had begun immediately after the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland, in September 1939, and continued after the subsequent invasions of Romania and the Baltic states. The NKVD’s goal was both security—they wanted to prevent rebellion and the emergence of fifth columns—and Sovietization, and they therefore targeted people whom they thought most likely to oppose the Soviet regime. This included not only members of the former Polish administration, but also traders and merchants, poets and writers, wealthy peasants and farmers— anyone whose arrest seemed likely to contribute to the psychological breakdown of the inhabitants of eastern Poland.4 They also targeted refugees from German-occupied western Poland, among them thousands of Jews fleeing Hitler.

Later, the criteria for arrest became more precise, or, at least, as precise as any Soviet criteria for arrest ever became. One document of May 1941, concerning the expulsion of “socially foreign” elements from the Baltic states, occupied Romania, and occupied Poland, demanded, among other things, the arrest of “active members of counter-revolutionary organizations”—meaning political parties; former members of the police or the prison service; important capitalists and bourgeoisie; former officers of the national armies; family members of all of the above; anyone repatriated from Germany; refugees from “former Poland”; as well as thieves and prostitutes.5

Another set of instructions, issued by the commissar of newly Sovietized Lithuania in November 1940, said deportees should include, along with the categories above, those frequently traveling abroad, involved in overseas correspondence or coming into contact with representatives of foreign states; Esperantists; philatelists; those working with the Red Cross; refugees; smugglers; those expelled from the Communist Party; priests and active members of religious congregations; the nobility, landowners, wealthy merchants, bankers, industrialists, hotel and restaurant owners.6

Anyone who broke Soviet law, including the laws prohibiting “speculation”—any form of trade—could be arrested, as could anyone who attempted to cross the Soviet border to escape into Hungary or Romania.

Because of the scale of arrests, the Soviet occupation authorities quickly had to suspend even the fiction of legality. Very few of those seized by the NKVD in the new western territories were actually put on trial, jailed, or sentenced. Instead, the war once again brought about a revival of “administrative deportation”—the same procedure, instigated by the Czars, that had been used against the kulaks. “Administrative deportation” is a fancy name for a simple procedure. It meant that NKVD troops or convoy guards arrived at a household and told its inhabitants to leave. Sometimes they had a day to prepare, sometimes a few minutes. Then trucks arrived, took them to train stations, and off they went. There was no arrest, no trial, no formal procedure at all.

The numbers involved were enormous. The historian Alexander Guryanov estimates that 108,000 people in the territories of eastern Poland were arrested and sent to the camps of the Gulag, while 320,000 were deported to exile villages—some of which had been founded by kulaks—in the far north and Kazakhstan. 7 To this must be added the 96,000 prisoners arrested and the 160,000 deported from the Baltic states, as well as 36,000 Moldavians.8 The combined effect of the deportations and the war on the demographics of the Baltic states was shocking: between 1939 and 1945, the Estonian population declined by 25 percent.9

The history of these deportations, like the history of the deportations of the kulaks, is distinct from the history of the Gulag itself, and, as I have said, the full story of this wholesale movement of families cannot be told in the context of this book. Yet it is not completely separate either. Why the NKVD chose to deport one person, sending him to live in an exile village, and why they chose to arrest another person, sending him to live in a camp, is often difficult to understand, as the backgrounds of the deportees and the arrestees were interchangeable. Sometimes, if a man was sent to a camp, then his wife and children were deported. Or if a son was arrested, then his parents were deported. Some arrestees served camp sentences, and afterward went to live in an exile village, sometimes with their previously deported family members.

Aside from their punitive function, the deportations fit neatly into Stalin’s grand plan to populate the northern regions of Russia. Like the Gulag, the exile villages were deliberately placed in remote areas, and they appeared to be permanent. Certainly NKVD officers told many of the exiles that they would never return, even making speeches as the exiles boarded the trains, congratulating the “new citizens” on their permanent emigration to the Soviet Union.10 In the exile villages, local commandants frequently reminded the new arrivals that Poland, now divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, would never exist again. One Russian teacher told a Polish schoolgirl that Poland’s revival was about as likely “as it is that hair will grow out of your hands.”11 Meanwhile, in the cities and villages they had left, the new Soviet officials confiscated and redistributed the exiles’ property. They converted their houses into public buildings—schools, hospitals, maternity homes—and gave their household goods (whatever had not been stolen by the neighbors or the NKVD) to children’s homes and nurseries.12

The deportees suffered just as much as their countrymen who had been sent to labor camps, if not more so. At least those in camps had a daily bread ration and a place to sleep. Exiles often had neither. Instead, the authorities dumped them in virgin forest or in tiny villages—in northern Russia, in Kazakhstan, and in central Asia—and left them to fend for themselves, sometimes without the means to do so. In the first wave of deportations, convoy guards forbade many to take anything with them, no kitchen goods, no clothes, no tools. Only in November 1940 did the administrative body of the Soviet convoy guards meet and reverse this decision: even the Soviet authorities realized that the deportees’ lack of possessions was leading to high death rates, and they ordered guards to warn deportees, as noted earlier, to take enough warm clothes to last for three years.13

Even so, many of the deportees were mentally and physically unprepared for lives as foresters or kolkhoz farmers. The landscape itself seemed alien and terrifying. One woman described it in her diary, as she first saw it from the train: “We are being carried through this endless space; such a flat and huge land with only a few scattered human settlements here and there. Invariably, we see squalid mud huts with thatched roofs and small windows, dirty and dilapidated, with no fences and no trees ...” 14

Upon arrival, the situation usually worsened. Many of the exiles had been lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers, and merchants, accustomed to living in cities or towns of relative sophistication. By contrast, an archival report, dated December 1941, describes exiles from the “new” western territories living in overcrowded barracks: “The buildings are dirty, as a result of which there is a high incidence of disease and death, especially among children . . . most exiles have no warm clothes and are unused to cold weather.”15

The suffering, in the months and years that followed, only grew, as one unusual set of records testifies. After the war, what was then the Polish government-in-exile commissioned and preserved a collection of children’s “memoirs” of the deportations. They illustrate, better than any adult account could, both the culture shock and the physical deprivation experienced by the deportees. One Polish boy, age thirteen at the time of his “arrest,” wrote the following account of his months in deportation:

There was nothing to eat. People ate nettle and swelled up from it and they left for the other world. They rushed us to the Russian school compulsively because they didn’t give bread when you didn’t go to school. They taught us not to pray to God that there is no God and when after the lesson was over we all got up and started praying, then the commander of the settlement locked me up in the tyurma [prison]. 16

Other children’s stories reflect their parents’ trauma. “Mama wanted to take her own life and ours so as not to live in such torment, but when I told Mama that I want to see Dad and I want to return to Poland, Mama’s spirit rose again,” wrote another boy, age eight at the time of his arrest.17 But not all women’s spirits did rise again. Another child, age fourteen at the time of his deportation, described his mother’s attempted suicide:

Mommy came to the barracks, took a rope, a little bread, and went into the woods. I held my Mommy back in her grief she hit me with the rope and went away. A few hours later they found Mommy on a spruce tree, Mommy had a rope around her neck. Under the tree stood some girls, Mommy thought it was my sisters and wanted to say something but the girls raised up a rumpus to the commandant who had taken an axe in his belt and he chopped down the spruce . . . Mommy already crazy grabbed the commandant’s axe and struck him in the back, the commandant fell to the floor . . .

On the next day they took Mommy to a jail 200 miles away from me. I understood that I had to work and I continued to haul timber. I had a horse that was falling over together with me. I hauled timber for one month and then I got sick and could not work. The commandant notified the seller that he should not give us bread but the seller had an understanding for children and he gave us bread secretly . . . soon Mommy came from jail her feet frozen her face wrinkled ...18

But not all mothers survived either—as another child wrote:

We came to the settlement and on the second day they drove us to work we had to work from dawn to night. When payday came for 15 days 10 rubles was the top pay so that in two days it was not even enough for bread. People were dying from hunger. They ate dead horses. This is how my mommy worked and got a cold because she had no warm clothing she got pneumonia and was sick for 5 months she got sick December 3. April 3 she went to the hospital. In the hospital they did not treat her at all if she had not gone to the hospital maybe she would still be alive she came to the barracks at the settlement and died there was nothing to eat and so she died of hunger April 30, 1941. My mommy was dying and I and my sister were at home. Daddy was not there he was at work and my mommy died when Daddy came home from work then mommy died and so my Mommy died of hunger. And then the amnesty came and we got out of that hell.19

Bruno Bettelheim, commenting upon this particular collection of stories, unusual in their number and nature, tried to describe the special despair that they convey:

Since they were written soon after the children had reached freedom and security, it would seem reasonable for them to have spoken of their hope for liberation, if they had any. The absence of such statements suggests that they had none. These children were robbed of the freedom to vent deep and normal feelings, forced to repress them in order to survive for barely another day. A child who has been deprived of any hope for the future is a child dwelling in hell ...20

No less cruel was the fate of another group of exiles, who were to join the Poles and the Balts during the course of the war. These were the Soviet minority groups, whom Stalin either targeted early in the war as a potential fifth column, or else fingered as German “collaborators” later on. The “fifth columnists” were the Volga Germans, people whose German ancestors had been invited to live in Russia at the time of Catherine the Great (another Russian ruler who cared deeply about populating her nation’s great empty spaces) and the Finnish-speaking minority who had inhabited the Soviet republic of Karelia. Although not all of the Volga Germans even spoke German anymore, nor all of the Karelian Finns Finnish, they did live in distinct communities, and had different customs from their Russian neighbors. That was enough, in the context of war with Finland and Germany, to make them figures of suspicion. In a leap of reasoning which was convoluted even by Soviet standards, the entire Volga German people were condemned, in September 1941, on a charge of “concealing enemies”:

According to trustworthy information received by the military authorities, there are, among the German population living in the Volga area, thousands and tens of thousands of diversionists and spies who, on a signal being given from Germany, are to carry out sabotage in the area inhabited by the Germans of the Volga . . . [However] none of the Germans of the Volga area have reported to the Soviet authorities the existence of such a large number of diversionists and spies among the Volga Germans; consequently the German population of the Volga area conceals enemies of the Soviet people and of Soviet authority in its midst.21

The Soviet authorities had “trustworthy information” that there were thousands of spies, yet no spies had been reported. Ergo, everybody was guilty of hiding the enemy.

The “collaborators” included several small Caucasian nations—the Karachai, the Balkars, the Kalmyks, the Chechens, and the Ingush—as well as the Crimean Tartars and some other small minority groups: Meskhetian Turks, Kurds, and Khemshils, as well as even smaller groups of Greeks, Bulgarians, and Armenians.22 Of these, only the Chechen and Tartar deportations were ever made public in Stalin’s lifetime. Their exile, although actually carried out in 1944, was announced in the newspaper Izvestiya as having taken place in June 1946:

During the Great Patriotic War, when the peoples of the USSR were heroically defending the honor and independence of the Motherland in the struggle against the German-Fascist invaders, many Chechen and Crimean Tartars, at the instigation of German agents, joined volunteer units organized by the Germans . . . In connection with this, the Chechens and Crimean Tartars were resettled in other regions of the USSR.23

In fact, there is no evidence of massive Chechen or Tartar collaboration, although the Germans did actively recruit Chechens and Tartars, whereas they did not actively recruit Russians. German forces stopped to the west of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and no more than a few hundred Chechens crossed the front line.24 An NKVD report from the time speaks of only 335 “bandits” in the republic.25 Similarly, although the Germans did occupy Crimea, did co-opt Tartars into the occupation regime, and did draft Tartars into the Wehrmacht—just as they drafted the French and the Dutch—there is no evidence that Tartars collaborated any more or less than did people from other occupied regions of the Soviet Union (or of Europe), or that the Tartars participated in the murder of Crimea’s Jews. One historian has pointed out, in fact, that more Tartars fought against Nazi Germany in the Red Army than fought with the Wehrmacht.26

In fact, Stalin’s aim, at least in deporting the Caucasians and the Tartars, was probably not revenge for collaboration. He seems, rather, to have used the war as a form of cover story, as an excuse to carry out long-planned ethnic-cleansing operations. The Czars had dreamed of a Crimea free of the Tartars ever since Catherine the Great had incorporated the Crimean peninsula into the Russian Empire. The Chechens had also plagued Russia’s Czars, and had caused even worse trouble for the Soviet Union as well. A series of anti-Russian and anti-Soviet uprisings had taken place in Chechnya, some following the Revolution, others after collectivization in 1929. Another rebellion had occurred as recently as 1940. All the evidence seems to indicate that Stalin simply wanted to wipe his hands of this troublesome, deeply anti-Soviet people.27

Like the deportations from Poland, the Volga German, Caucasian, and Crimean deportations were very large. There were, by the war’s end, 1.2 million deported Soviet Germans, 90,000 Kalmyks, 70,000 Karachai, 390,000 Chechens, 90,000 Ingush, 40,000 Balkars, and 180,000 Crimean Tartars as well as 9,000 Finns and others.28

Given the numbers, the speed of these deportations was remarkable, surpassing even the rapidity of the Polish and Baltic deportations. Perhaps this was because the NKVD had, by now, a great deal of experience: this time around, there was no indecisiveness about who should be allowed to take what, who should be arrested, or what the procedure should be. In May 1944, 31,000 NKVD officers, soldiers, and operatives completed the entire deportation of 200,000 Tartars in three days, using 100 jeeps, 250 trucks, and 67 trains. Special orders, prepared in advance, limited the amount of baggage that each family could bring. As they were allowed only fifteen to twenty minutes to pack, most did not take even half of that. The vast majority of the Tartars were packed on trains and sent to Uzbekistan—men, women, children, and old people. Between 6,000 and 8,000 died before arriving.29

If anything, the Chechen operation was crueler still. Many observers remember that the NKVD used American-made Studebakers in the Chechen deportations, recently purchased through the Lend-Lease program, and shipped over the border from Iran. Many have also described how the Chechens were taken off the Studebakers, and placed into sealed trains: they were not only deprived of water, like “ordinary” prisoners, but also of food. Up to 78,000 Chechens may have died on the transport trains alone.30

Upon their arrival in their designated place of exile—Kazakhstan, central Asia, northern Russia—those deportees who had not been arrested separately and sent to the Gulag were placed in special villages, just like those that the Poles and the Balts had settled, and were told that an escape attempt would bring a twenty-year camp sentence. Their experiences were similar too. Disoriented, removed from their tribal and village societies, many failed to adjust. Usually despised by the local population, frequently unemployed, they rapidly grew weak and sick. Perhaps the shock of the new climate was greater: “When we arrived in Kazakhstan,” one Chechen deportee remembered, “the ground was frozen hard, and we thought we would all die.”31 By 1949, hundreds of thousands of the Caucasians, and between a third and a half of the Crimean Tartars were dead.32

But from Moscow’s point of view, there was one important difference between the wartime waves of arrest and deportation, and those that had happened earlier: the choice of target was new. For the first time, Stalin had decided to eliminate not just members of particular, suspect nationalities, or categories of political “enemies,” but entire nations—men, women, children, grandparents—and wipe them off the map.

Perhaps “genocide” is not the proper term for these deportations, since there were no mass executions. In later years, Stalin would also seek collaborators and allies among these “enemy” groups, so his hatred was not purely racial. “Cultural genocide,” however, is not inappropriate. After they had gone, the names of all of the deported peoples were eliminated from official documents—even from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. The authorities wiped their homelands off the map, abolishing the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, the Volga-German Autonomous Republic, the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Republic, and the Karachai Autonomous Province. The Crimean Autonomous Republic was also liquidated, and Crimea simply became another Soviet province. Regional authorities destroyed cemeteries, renamed towns and villages, and removed the former inhabitants from the history books.33

In their new homes, all of the Muslim deportees—Chechen, Ingush, Balkar, Karachai, and Tartar—were forced to send their children to Russian-language primary schools. All of them were discouraged from using their own languages, from practicing their religions, from remembering their past. Without a doubt, the Chechens, the Tartars, the Volga Germans, the smaller Caucasian nations—and, over a longer period, the Balts and the Poles—were meant to vanish, to be absorbed into the Russian-speaking Soviet world. In the end, these nations did “reappear” after the death of Stalin, albeit slowly. Although the Chechens were allowed to return home in 1957, the Tartars could not do so until the Gorbachev era. They received their Crimean “citizenship”—their legal right to residence— only in 1994.

Given the climate of the time, the cruelty of the war, and the presence, a few thousand kilometers to the west, of another planned genocide, some have wondered why Stalin did not simply murder the ethnic groups he so despised. My guess is that the destruction of the cultures, but not of the peoples, suited his purposes better. The operation rid the USSR of what he thought of as “enemy” social structures: bourgeois, religious, and national institutions that might resist him; educated people who might oppose him. At the same time, it also preserved more “units of labor” for future use.

But the story of the foreigners in the camps does not end with the Chechens and the Poles. There were other ways for outsiders to end up in the Soviet camp system—and by far the largest numbers entered as prisoners of war.

Technically, the Red Army set up the first Soviet POW camps in 1939, following the occupation of eastern Poland. The first wartime decree on prisoner-of-war camps was issued on September 19 of that year, two days after Soviet tanks rolled across the border.34By the end of September, the Red Army held 230,000 Polish soldiers and officers in captivity. 35 Many were released, particularly younger soldiers of lower rank, although some— those considered potential partisans—eventually made their way either into the Gulag, or into one of the 100 or so POW camps deeper in the USSR. Following the German invasion, these camps were evacuated, along with other prisons, to camps in the east.36

Infamously, not all of the Polish POWs even made it to these eastern camps. In April 1940, the NKVD secretly murdered more than 20,000 of the captured Polish officers, shooting each one in the back of the head, following Stalin’s direct orders.37 Stalin murdered the officers for the same reason he had ordered the arrests of Polish priests and schoolteachers—his intention was to eliminate the Polish elite—and then he covered it up. Despite enormous efforts, the Polish government-in-exile was unable to discover what had become of the officers—until the Germans found them. In the spring of 1943, the German occupying regime uncovered 4,000 of the bodies in Katyn forest.38 Although the Soviet Union denied responsibility for the Katyn massacre, as it later came to be known, and although the Allies sided with this interpretation—even citing the Katyn massacre as a German crime in the indictment at the Nuremberg Tribunal—the Poles knew from their own sources that the NKVD was responsible. The affair would undermine the Polish-Soviet “alliance” not only during the war but also for the subsequent fifty years. Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted Soviet responsibility for the massacre only in 1991. 39

Although Polish war prisoners continued to turn up in forced-labor battalions and in Gulag camps throughout the war, the first labor camps built on a truly massive scale were not constructed for the Poles. As the Soviet Union’s war fortunes began to turn, the Red Army quite suddenly, and seemingly unexpectedly, began to capture large numbers of German and Axis prisoners. The authorities were utterly, tragically unprepared. In the wake of the German surrender following the Battle of Stalingrad—often remembered as the turning point of the war—the Red Army captured 91,000 enemy soldiers, for whom no facilities and no rations were provided whatsoever. After three or four days, the food that did arrive was hardly sufficient: “a loaf of bread between ten men, plus some soup made from water with a few millet seeds and salted fish.”40

Conditions in the first few weeks of captivity were hardly much better, and not just for the survivors of Stalingrad. As the Red Army advanced to the west, captured soldiers were routinely herded into open fields and left there with minimal food and no medicine, when they were not shot outright. Lacking shelter, prisoners slept in one another’s arms, huddled in the snow, and awoke to find themselves clutching corpses.41 In the first few months of 1943, death rates among captured POWs hovered near to 60 percent, and about 570,000 are officially listed as having died in captivity, of hunger, disease, and untreated wounds.42 The real totals may be even higher, as many prisoners must have died before anyone even managed to count them. Similar death rates prevailed among Soviet soldiers in German captivity: the Nazi-Soviet war was truly a fight to the death.

From March 1944, however, the NKVD undertook to “improve” the situation, and set up a new department of forced-labor camps, specially designed for the POWs. Although they were under the jurisdiction of the secret police, these new camps were not technically part of the Gulag, but rather belonged first to the NKVD’s Administration of War Prisoners (UPV) and, after 1945, to its Main Administration of War Prisoners and Internees (GUPVI).43

The new bureaucracy did not necessarily bring better treatment. Japanese authorities, for example, reckon that the winter of 1945–46—after the war had ended—was the hardest for Japanese prisoners, one in ten of whom died in Soviet captivity. Although they were hardly in a position to pass on useful military information, harsh restrictions on their letters to relatives remained firmly in place: prisoners of war were allowed to write home only after 1946, and then using special forms marked “letter of a POW.” Special censor offices, staffed by censors with foreign-language training, were set up to read their mail.44

Nor did overcrowding cease. Throughout the last year of the war, and even afterward, the numbers of people in these new camps continued to grow, reaching staggering levels. According to official statistics, the Soviet Union took 2,388,000 German prisoners of war between 1941 and 1945. Another 1,097,000 other European soldiers fighting for the Axis also fell into Soviet hands—mostly Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, and Austrians, as well as some French, Dutch, and Belgians—and about 600,000 Japanese, a stunning number, considering that the Soviet Union was at war with Japan relatively briefly. By the time of the armistice, the total number of captured soldiers had surpassed four million.45

This figure, large as it is, does not include all the foreigners swept into Soviet camps during the Red Army’s march across Europe. The NKVD, trailing in the army’s wake, were also looking for other types of prisoners: anyone accused of war crimes, anyone thought to be a spy (even for an Allied government), anyone thought to be anti-Soviet for any reason, anyone to whom any secret police took a personal dislike. Their scope ranged particularly wide in those central European countries where they intended to remain after the war’s end. In Budapest, for example, they quickly picked up some 75,000 Hungarian civilians, sending them first to temporary camps in Hungary, and then to the Gulag—along with the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian war prisoners who were already there.46

Just about anyone could be arrested. Among the Hungarians picked up in Budapest, for example, was George Bien, age sixteen. He was arrested, along with his father, because they owned a radio.47 At the other end of the social spectrum, NKVD officers also arrested Raul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who had singlehandedly saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from deportation to Nazi concentration camps. In the course of his negotiations Wallenberg had had many dealings with both fascist authorities and Western leaders. He also came from a prominent, and wealthy, Swedish family. For the NKVD, those were sufficient reasons for suspicion. They arrested him in Budapest in January 1945, along with his chauffeur. Both men disappeared into Soviet prisons—Wallenberg was registered there as a “prisoner of war”—and were never heard from again. Throughout the 1990s, the Swedish government searched for clues as to Wallenberg’s ultimate fate, to no avail. It is now widely assumed that he died under interrogation, or was executed soon after his arrest.48

In Poland, the NKVD set its sights on the remaining leaders of the Polish Home Army. This partisan army had, up until 1944, actually fought alongside Soviet troops against the Germans. As soon as the Red Army crossed the old Polish border, however, NKVD troops captured and disarmed Home Army partisan units, and arrested Home Army leaders. Some hid in Poland’s forests, and continued fighting until the mid-1940s. Others were executed. The rest were deported. Thus did tens of thousands of Polish citizens, both partisans and suspect civilians, wind up in the Gulag and the exile villages after the war.49

But no occupied country was exempt. The Baltic states and Ukraine were, as I’ve said, subjected to vast postwar repressions, as were Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and, most of all, Germany and Austria. The NKVD hauled everyone who was discovered in Hitler’s bunker at the time of the Red Army’s advance on Berlin back to Moscow for interrogation. They picked up several of Hitler’s distant relations in Austria too. Among them were a cousin, Maria Koopensteiner, to whom Hitler had once sent some money, as well as her husband, her brothers, and one of the brother’s sons. None, not even Maria, had laid eyes on Hitler since 1906. They were all to die in the USSR.50

In Dresden, the NKVD also picked up an American citizen, John Noble, who had been stranded in Nazi Germany and kept under house arrest during the war, along with his German-born father, a naturalized American. Noble finally returned to the United States more than nine years later, having spent much of the interim in Vorkuta, where his fellow prisoners nicknamed him “Amerikanets.” 51

The vast majority of those swept up in the melee eventually found their way into camps, either in the POW labor camps or the Gulag itself. The distinction between the two types of camps was never clear. Although they technically belonged to different bureaucracies, the administration of the prisoner-of-war camps soon came to approximate that of the forced-labor camps—so much so that in tracing the history of the POW camps and the history of the Gulag, it becomes difficult to keep the two separate. Sometimes, Gulag camps set up special lagpunkts just for POWs, and the two types of prisoner worked side by side.52 For no clearly discernible reason, the NKVD also sometimes sent POWs directly into the Gulag system.53

By the end of the war, the food rations of war prisoners and criminal prisoners were nearly the same, as were the barracks they inhabited and the work they did. Like zeks, POWs worked in construction, in mines, in manufacturing, in road and railway building.54Like zeks, some of the better-educated POWs found their way into the sharashki, where they designed new military aircraft for the Red Army.55 To this day, residents of certain districts of Moscow speak with pride of the apartment blocks they inhabit, supposedly finished to a higher standard by meticulous German prisoners of war.

Also like zeks, the war prisoners eventually became the recipients of a Soviet-style “political education.” In 1943, the NKVD began organizing “anti-fascist” schools and courses in the POW camps. The courses were intended to persuade the participants to “conduct the battle for the ‘democratic’ reconstruction of their countries and uproot the remains of fascism” on returning home to Germany, Romania, or Hungary—and, of course, to prepare the way for Soviet domination.56 Many former German POWs did indeed wind up working in the new police force of communist East Germany.57

But even for those who demonstrated their new loyalty, the return home would not come quickly. Although the USSR repatriated a group of 225,000 prisoners, mostly sick or injured privates, as early as June 1945, and although others continued steadily to return home after that, complete repatriation of the Soviet Union’s POWs took more than a decade: 20,000 remained in the USSR in 1953, when Stalin died.58 Stalin, still convinced of the efficacy of state slavery, looked upon the prisoners’ labor as a form of reparation, and considered their long captivity to be wholly justified. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s—and indeed after, as the Wallenberg case illustrates—Soviet authorities continued to cloak the issue of captive foreigners in confusion, propaganda, and counter-propaganda, releasing people when it suited them, denying all knowledge of their existence when it did not. In October 1945, for example, Beria wrote to Stalin asking him to authorize the release of Hungarian war prisoners in the run-up to Hungarian elections: the Americans and British had released their war prisoners, he added, implying that the Soviet Union looked bad for not having done so.59

The fog persisted for decades. In the first few years following the war, envoys from all over the world kept pressing Moscow with lists of their citizens who had disappeared during the Red Army’s occupation of Europe, or had, for one reason or another, fallen into POW or Gulag camps. Answers were not always easy to come by, since the NKVD itself did not necessarily know of these prisoners’ whereabouts. Eventually, the Soviet authorities set up special commissions to find out how many foreigners were still in captivity in the USSR, and to examine the case for releasing them.60

Complex cases could take years to resolve. Jacques Rossi, a French communist born in Lyon, sent to the camps after a few years of teaching in Moscow, was still trying to get home in 1958. At first refused an exit visa to France, he tried to get one to Poland, where, he told the authorities, his brother and sister lived. That too was refused.61 On the other hand, the authorities did also sometimes abruptly lift all of their objections, and unexpectedly allowed foreigners to go home. At one point in 1947, at the height of the postwar famine, the NKVD unexpectedly released several hundred thousand war prisoners. There was no political explanation: the Soviet leadership reckoned, simply, that it did not have enough food to keep them all alive. 62

Repatriation did not flow in only one direction. If large numbers of West Europeans found themselves in Russia at the end of the war, equally large numbers of Russians found themselves in Western Europe. In the spring of 1945, more than 5.5 million Soviet citizens were outside the borders of the Soviet Union. Some of them were soldiers, captured and imprisoned in Nazi POW camps. Others had been drafted into slave-labor camps in Germany and Austria. A few had collaborated during the German occupation of their country, and had retreated with the German army. Up to 150,000 were “Vlasovites,” Soviet soldiers who had fought—or, more often, had been forced to fight—against the Red Army under the command of General Andrei Vlasov, a captured Russian officer who had turned against Stalin and fought with Hitler, or in other pro-Hitler, anti-Stalin Wehrmacht brigades. Some, strange though it sounds, were not Soviet citizens at all. Scattered throughout Europe, most notably in Yugoslavia, there were also anti-communist émigrés: White Russians, that is, who had lost their fight against the Bolsheviks and settled in the West. Stalin wanted them back too: no one was to be allowed to escape Bolshevik retribution.

In the end, he got them. Among the many controversial decisions they made at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin agreed that all Soviet citizens, whatever their individual history, must be returned to the Soviet Union. Although the protocols signed at Yalta did not explicity command the Allies to return Soviet citizens against their will, that, in effect, is what happened.

Some wanted to return home. Leonid Sitko, a Red Army soldier who had spent time in a Nazi prison camp, and was later to spend more time in a Soviet camp, remembered making the choice to go home. Later, he put his feelings about his decision into verse:

There were four roads—there were four countries. In three of them were peace and comfort. In the fourth, I knew, they destroy poets’ lyres And me, most likely, they will kill.

And what happened? To the three countries I said: to hell with you! And I chose my Fatherland.63

Others, frightened by what might await them, were nevertheless convinced to return by the NKVD officers who traveled to the POW and displaced persons camps scattered all over Europe. The officers trawled the camps, looking for Russians, offering them smiling visions of a bright future. All would be forgiven, they claimed: “You are now considered by us as true Soviet citizens, regardless of the fact that you were forced to join the German army ...”64

Some, particularly those who had fallen on the wrong side of Soviet justice before, naturally did not want to go back at all. “There is enough room in the Motherland for everyone,” the Soviet military attaché in Britain told a group of Soviet soldiers living in Yorkshire POW camps. “We know what sort of room there will be for us,” one prisoner replied. 65 Allied officers were nevertheless under orders to send them—and so they did. In Fort Dix, New Jersey, 145 Soviet prisoners, captured wearing German uniforms, barricaded themselves inside their barracks to avoid being sent home. When American soldiers threw tear gas into the building, those who had not already committed suicide rushed out with kitchen knives and clubs, injuring some of the Americans. Afterward, they said they had wanted to incite the Americans to shoot them.66

Worse were the incidents that involved women and children. In May 1945, British troops, under what they were told were direct orders from Churchill, undertook to repatriate more than 20,000 Cossacks, then living in Austria. These were former anti-Bolshevik partisans, some of whom had joined Hitler as a way of fighting Stalin, many of whom had left the USSR after the Revolution, and most of whom no longer held Soviet passports. After many days of promising them good treatment, the British tricked them. They invited the Cossack officers to a “conference,” handed them over to Soviet troops, and rounded up their families the following day. In one particularly ugly incident at a camp near Lienz, Austria, British soldiers used bayonets and rifle butts to force thousands of women and children onto trains which would take them to the USSR. Rather than go back, women threw their babies over bridges, and then jumped themselves. One man killed his wife and his children, laid their bodies neatly on the grass, and then killed himself. The Cossacks knew, of course, what would await them upon their return to the Soviet Union: firing squads—or the Gulag.67

Even those who returned home of their own accord could fall under suspicion. Whether they had left the Soviet Union voluntarily or by force, whether they had collaborated or been captured, whether they had returned willingly or been forced onto cattle cars, all were asked, at the border, to fill out a form which asked whether they had collaborated. Those who confessed (and some did) and those who seemed suspicious—including many Soviet POWs, despite the torments they had suffered in German camps— were kept for further questioning in filtration camps. These camps, set up early in the war, looked, and felt, similar to Gulag camps. Ringed by barbed wire, those inside were forced laborers in all but name.

In fact, the NKVD deliberately set up many of the filtration camps near industrial centers, so that the “suspects” could contribute free labor to the Soviet Union while the authorities investigated their cases. 68 Between December 27, 1941, and October 1, 1944, the NKVD investigated 421,199 detainees in filtration camps. In May 1945, more than 160,000 detainees were still living in them, engaged in forced labor. More than half were digging coal.69 In January 1946, the NKVD abolished the camps and repatriated another 228,000 to the USSR for further investigation. 70 Many, it is assumed, wound up in the Gulag.

Even among the POWs, however, there were special cases. Perhaps because the NKVD was handing out sentences to Soviet slave laborers and POWs— people who had, in fact, committed no crime whatsoever—the authorities invented a new kind of sentence for actual war criminals: people who had allegedly committed real crimes. As early as April 1943, the Supreme Soviet declared that the Red Army, in the course of liberating Soviet territory, had uncovered “acts of unheard beastliness and horrific violence, carried out by German, Italian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Finnish fascist monsters, Hitlerite agents, as well as by spies and traitors among Soviet citizens.” 71 In response, the NKVD declared that sentenced war criminals would receive fifteen-, twenty-, or even twenty-five-year sentences, to be spent in specially designed lagpunkts. The lagpunkts were duly built in Norilsk, Vorkuta, and Kolyma, the three harshest northern camps. 72

With a curious linguistic flourish, and an ironic sense of history that may well reflect the involvement of Stalin himself, the NKVD named these lagpunktsusing a term taken from the penal history of Czarist Russia: katorga. The choice of this word would not have been accidental. Its resurrection, which echoed the resurrection of Czarist terminology in other spheres of Soviet life (military schools for officers’ children, for example), must have been intended to distinguish a new sort of punishment for a new sort of un-reformable, dangerous prisoner. Unlike the ordinary criminals condemned to ordinary punishment in the corrective labor camps of the Gulag, katorga prisoners could never hope to be reformed or redeemed, even in theory.

The revival of the word certainly seems to have caused some consternation. The Bolsheviks had fought against katorga but now they were reinstating it like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, who forbade animals to drink alcohol, and then began drinking whiskey themselves. Katorgawas also reinvented just as the world was beginning to discover the truth about the Nazi concentration camps. The use of the word eerily suggested that Soviet camps resembled “capitalist” camps a bit more than the Soviet authorities let on.

Perhaps this is why General Nasedkin, the Gulag’s wartime boss, commissioned, at this time, a history of Czarist katorga, and passed it on to Beria, at his request. Among other “explanatory notes,” the history painstakingly attempts to explain the difference between Bolshevik katorga, Czaristkatorga, and other forms of punishment in the West: in the conditions of the Soviet Socialist state, katorga— exile with forced labor—as a punishment method is based on a different principle than it was in the past. In Czarist Russia and in bourgeois countries this harsh criminal punishment was inflicted upon the most progressive elements in the society . . . in our conditions, katorga allows us to cut down on the high number of death sentences, and focuses on especially dangerous enemies...73

Reading the instructions issued to describe the new regime, one wonders whether some of those assigned to katorga might not have preferred the death sentence after all. Katorga convicts were separated from other prisoners by high fences. They received distinct, striped uniforms, with numbers sewn on to the back. They were locked into their barracks at night, and the windows of the barracks were barred. They worked longer hours than ordinary prisoners, had fewer rest days, and were forbidden from carrying out any sort of work other than hard labor, at least for the first two years of imprisonment. They were carefully guarded: each group of ten prisoners was assigned two convoy guards, and each camp was told to deploy a minimum of five dogs. Katorga prisoners could not even be moved from one camp to another without the specific agreement of the Gulag administration in Moscow.74

Katorga prisoners also seem to have become the mainstay of a brand-new Soviet industry. In 1944, the NKVD claimed, in a list of its economic achievements, to have produced 100 percent of the Soviet Union’s uranium. “It is not difficult,” writes the historian Galina Ivanova, “to deduce who it was that mined and processed the radioactive ore.” 75 Prisoners and soldiers would also build the first Soviet nuclear reactor in Chelyabinsk, after the war. “At that time, the whole building site was a camp of sorts,” remembered one worker. On the site, special “Finnish” cottages would be built for the German specialists who were also drafted to work on the project.76

Without a doubt, the katorga prisoners included many genuine Nazi collaborators and war criminals, including those responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews. With such people in mind, Simeon Vilensky, a Kolyma survivor, once warned me not to be too convinced of the innocence of everyone who was in the Gulag: “These were people who would have been in prison, should have been in prison, under any regime.” As a rule, other prisoners shunned convicted war criminals, and were even known to attack and beat them.77

Nevertheless, of the 60,000 prisoners condemned to katorga by 1947, quite a few had been sentenced on more ambiguous grounds.78 Among them, for example, were thousands of Polish, Baltic, and Ukrainian anti-Soviet partisans, many of whom had fought against the Nazis before turning around to fight against the Red Army. By doing so, all of them believed they were fighting for their own national liberation. According to a document on underage katorga prisoners, sent to Beria in 1945, these partisans included Andrei Levchuk, accused of joining the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), one of the two main anti-Soviet partisan groupings in Ukraine. While in their service he allegedly “took part in the murder of innocent citizens and the disarming of Red Army soldiers and the appropriation of their possessions.” At the time of his arrest in 1945, Levchuk was fifteen years old.

Yaroslava Krutigolova was another such “war criminal.” Also a member of an OUN partisan group—she served as a nurse—she had been arrested at the age of sixteen.79 The NKVD also picked up a woman of German origin who had worked as a German translator for Soviet partisans. Hearing that she had been arrested for “aiding and abetting the enemy,” the leader of her partisan brigade made a special journey, away from the front lines, to testify on her behalf. Thanks to him, she received a ten-year katorga instead of twenty-five.80

Finally, the ranks of katorga prisoners included Alexander Klein, a Red Army officer who was captured by the Germans, yet managed to escape and make his way back to a Soviet division. Upon his return, he was interrogated, as he later recounted:

Suddenly the Major raised himself sharply, and asked, “Can you prove that you are Jewish?”

I smiled, embarrassed, and said that I could—by taking off my trousers.

The Major looked at Sorokin, and then again turned to me.

“And you are saying that the Germans didn’t know that you are a Jew?”

“If they had known, believe me, I wouldn’t be standing here.”

“Ach, you yid mug!” exclaimed the dandy, and kicked me in the lower stomach so hard that I suddenly gasped hard for breath and fell.

“What are these lies? Tell us, you motherfucker, with what mission were you sent here? Who are you involved with? When did you sell yourself? For how much? How much did you give yourself for, you creature for sale? What is your code name?”

As a result of this interrogation, Klein was first sentenced to death. He was then reprieved—and given a twenty-year katorga. 81

“There were all kinds of people in the camps, especially after the war,” wrote Hava Volovich later. “But we were all tormented just the same: the good, the bad, the guilty, and the innocent.” 82

If, during the war years, millions of foreigners entered the Gulag against their will, at least one foreigner arrived voluntarily. The war may have provoked new paroxysms of anti-foreigner paranoia among the Soviet leadership; but it was also thanks to the war that a senior American politician visited the Gulag, for the first and only time. Henry Wallace, Vice President of the United States, made a trip to Kolyma in May 1944—and never even knew that he was visiting a prison.

Wallace’s visit took place at the height of Soviet-American wartime friendship, the warmest moment of the alliance, when the American press was wont to describe Stalin as “Uncle Joe.” Perhaps for that reason, Wallace was inclined to look kindly upon the Soviet Union even before he arrived. In Kolyma, he saw all of his prejudices confirmed. As soon as he arrived, he saw the many parallels between Russia and the United States: both were great “new” countries, carrying none of the aristocratic baggage of the European past. He believed, as he told his hosts, that “Soviet Asia” was in fact the “Wild West of Russia.” He thought that there were “no other two countries more alike than the Soviet Union and the United States”: “The vast expanses of your country, her virgin forests, wide rivers and large lakes, all kinds of climate—from tropical to polar—her inexhaustible wealth, remind me of my homeland.” 83

If the landscape pleased him, so too did what he took to be the nation’s industrial strength. Nikishov, the notoriously corrupt, high-living Dalstroi boss, escorted Wallace around Magadan, the main city of Kolyma. Wallace, in turn, imagined Nikishov, a senior NKVD officer, to be the rough equivalent of an American capitalist: “He runs everything around here. With Dalstroi’s resources at his command, he’s a millionaire.” Wallace enjoyed the company of his new friend “Ivan,” and watched as he “gamboled about” in the taiga, “enjoying the wonderful air immensely.” He also listened closely to “Ivan’s” account of Dalstroi’s origins: “We had to dig hard to get this place going. Twelve years ago the first settlers arrived and put up eight pre-fabricated houses. Today Magadan has 40,000 inhabitants and all are well-housed.”

Nikishov failed to mention, of course, that the “first settlers” were prisoners, and that most of the 40,000 inhabitants were exiles, forbidden to leave. Wallace was equally ignorant of the status of the contemporary workers—nearly all prisoners—and went on to write approvingly of the Kolyma gold miners. They were, he recalled, “big, husky young men,” free workers who were far harder-working than the political prisoners whom he supposed had inhabited the far north in Czarist times: “The people of Siberia are a hardy, vigorous race, but not because they are whipped into submission.”84

This, of course, is precisely what the Dalstroi bosses wanted Wallace to think. According to the report which Nikishov himself later wrote for Beria, Wallace did ask to see a prison camp, but was kept away. Nikishov also assured his bosses that the only workers Wallace encountered were free workers rather than prisoners. Many of them may have even been members of the Komsomol, the Communist Youth league, who had been handed miners’ clothing and rubber boots only minutes before Wallace’s arrival, and would know what to say if asked questions. “I spoke with some of them,” Wallace noted later. “They were keen on winning the war.”85

Later, Wallace did encounter real prisoners, although he did not know it: these were the singers and musicians, many of them arrested opera performers from Moscow and Leningrad, who performed for him in the Magadan theater. Told they were members of a “nonprofessional Red Army choir” stationed in the city, he marveled that amateurs could achieve such artistic heights. In fact, each one had been warned that “one word or sign that we were prisoners would be considered an act of treason.”86

Wallace also saw some prisoner handiwork, although again he did not know that either. Nikishov took him to an exhibition of embroidery, and told him the works on display had been made by a group of “local women who gathered regularly during the severe winter to study needlework.” Prisoners, of course, had done the work, in preparation for Wallace’s visit. When Wallace stopped before one of the works, in clear admiration, Nikishov took it off the wall and handed it to him. Much to his (pleasurable) surprise, Nikishov’s wife, the much-feared Gridasova, modestly let it be known that she herself was the artist. Later, a prisoner, Vera Ustieva, learned that her picture was one of two which had been given to the Vice President as a memento of his trip. “Our boss received a letter from the wife of the Vice President, thanking her for the present and saying that the pictures hung in her hall,” she wrote later.87 In his memoirs Wallace also described the gifts: “These two wall paintings now convey to my visitors at my home in Washington rich impressions of the beauty of Russia’s rural landscape.”88

Wallace’s visit coincided, approximately, with the arrival of the “American gifts” in Kolyma. The American Lend-Lease program, which was meant to send weapons and military equipment to assist U.S. allies in their defense against Germany, brought American tractors, trucks, steam shovels, and tools to Kolyma, which was not quite the American government’s intention. It also brought a breath of air from the outside world. Machine parts arrived wrapped in old newspapers, and from them, Thomas Sgovio learned of the existence of the war in the Pacific. Until then, he, like most prisoners, had thought that the Soviet army was doing all of the fighting, with America providing nothing but supplies.89 Wallace himself had noticed that Kolyma miners (or the Kolyma Komsomol members pretending to be miners) were wearing American boots, also the fruits of Lend-Lease. When he asked about this—Lend-Lease gifts were not meant to be used in the operation of gold mines—his hosts claimed to have purchased the boots with cash. 90

The vast majority of the clothing sent by the United States wound up on the backs of the camp administration and their wives, although some of the clothing did end up being used by camp theatrical productions, and some of the canned pork did make its way to the prisoners. They ate it with relish: many had never seen canned meat before. Better still, they used the empty cans to make drinking cups, oil lamps, pots, pans, stovepipes, and even buttons—hardly imagining the surprise such ingenuity would have occasioned in the country where the cans had originated.91

Before Wallace left, Nikishov gave an elaborate banquet in his honor. Extravagant dishes, their ingredients carved out of prisoners’ rations, were served; toasts were made to Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. Wallace himself made a speech, which included the following memorable words:

Both the Russians and the Americans, in their different ways, are groping for a way of life that will enable the common man everywhere in the world to get the most good out of modern technology. There is nothing irreconcilable in our aims and purposes. Those who so proclaim are wittingly or unwittingly looking for war—and that, in my opinion, is criminal.92

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!