Modern history

Chapter 24

THE ZEKS’ REVOLUTION

I cannot sleep. Blizzards are howling From some unknown, forgotten time. And the colored tents of Tamburlaine Are out there on the steppe . . . blazing bonfires, blazing bonfires

I shall become a Mongol princess
Galloping deep into the past
And lash to the tail of my horse
My loved ones, and my enemies . . .
And then, at one of the battles
In an unthinkable orgy of blood
At the moment of utter defeat
I will throw myself on my sword . . .

—Anna Barkova, “In the Prison Camp Barracks” 1

IN THE WAKE OF STALIN’S DEATH, the special camps, like the rest of the country, were awash with rumors. Beria would take over; Beria was dead. Marshal Zhukov and Admiral Kuznetsov had marched into Moscow and were attacking the Kremlin with tanks; Khrushchev and Molotov had been murdered. All prisoners would be freed; all prisoners would be executed; the camps had been surrounded by armed MVD troops, ready to put down any sign of rebellion. Prisoners repeated these stories in whispers and shouts, hoping and speculating.2

At the same time, the national organizations in the special camps were growing stronger, the links between them steadier. Typical of this era are the experiences of Viktor Bulgakov, who was arrested in the spring of 1953—on the night of Stalin’s death, in fact—and accused of participating in an anti-Stalinist student political circle. Soon after, he arrived in Minlag, the special camp in the coal-mining Inta complex, north of the Arctic Circle.

Bulgakov’s description of the atmosphere in Minlag contrasts sharply with the memoirs of prisoners of an earlier era. A teenager at the time of his arrest, he walked into a well-organized, anti-Stalinist, anti-Soviet community. Strikes and protests occurred “with regularity.” The prisoners had sorted themselves into several very distinct national groupings, each with its own character. The Balts had a “tight organization, but without a well-run hierarchy.” The Ukrainians, mostly ex-partisans, were “extremely well-organized, as their leaders had been partisan leaders prior to captivity, they all knew each other, and their structure appeared almost automatically.”

The camp also contained prisoners who believed in communism, although they had sorted themselves into two groups: those who merely toed the Party line; and those who considered themselves communists out of faith or conviction—and believed in the reform of the Soviet Union. Finally, it had become possible to be an anti-Soviet Marxist, something unthinkable in earlier years. Bulgakov himself belonged to the People’s Workers’ Union—the Narodno-Trudovoi Soyuz, or NTS—an anti-Stalinist opposition movement, which would gain a great deal of notoriety a decade or two later, as the paranoid authorities began to see signs of its influence everywhere.

Bulgakov’s preoccupations in camp would have stunned an earlier generation of prisoners too. In Minlag, the prisoners managed to put out a secret underground newspaper, written by hand and distributed around the camps. They intimidated the pridurki, who “became afraid of the prisoners” as a result. They kept tabs on camp informers too—as did other prisoners in special camps. Dmitri Panin has also described the increasingly deadly war against informers:

Retribution was carried out systematically. During the course of eight months forty-five informers were done away with. Operations against them were directed from a clandestine center . . . We saw how a number of stoolie prisoners, unable to stand the threat of liquidation that hung over them, sought to escape their fate by getting themselves put in the camp jail—the only place they could hide from certain retaliation. They were all kept in the same cell, which was dubbed the “funk hole.” 3

One camp historian has written that murders of informers became “such an ordinary occurrence that no one was surprised or interested,” and notes that the informers “died out quickly.”4 Once again, life inside the camps mirrored and amplified life on the outside. The anti-Soviet partisan organizations in western Ukraine had also tried intensely to destroy informers, and their leaders brought the obsession with them to the camps.5 Perhaps cognizant of this, the authorities in Panin’s camp separated the Ukrainian prisoners from the others, since the Ukrainians were thought to be responsible for the deaths of informers. This only increased their solidarity and their anger.6

By 1953, Bulgakov’s comrades in Minlag were also making a systematic attempt to keep track of their own numbers and living conditions, and to transmit this information to the West, using cooperative guards and other techniques that would be perfected in the dissident camps of the 1970s and 1980s, as we shall see. Bulgakov himself took on responsibility for hiding these documents, as well as copies of songs and poetry composed by the prisoners. Leonid Sitko did the same job in Steplag, using the basement of a building that camp workers were constructing as a place to hide documents. Among them were “short descriptions of individual lives, the letters of dead inmates, a short document signed by a doctor, Galina Mishkina, on the inhuman conditions in the camps (including statistics on deaths, levels of starvation, and so on), an account of the organization and growth of the camps of Kazakhstan, a more detailed account of the history of Steplag—and poems.” 7

Both Sitko and Bulgakov believed, simply, that someday the camps would be shut, the barracks would be burned down, and that the information could be retrieved again. Twenty years earlier, no one had dared to think such a thing, let alone act upon it.

Very quickly, the tactics and strategy of conspiracy spread throughout the special camp system, thanks to the Gulag administration itself. In the past, prisoners who were suspected of hatching conspiracies had simply been split up. The central authorities had moved prisoners from camp to camp, destroying rebel networks before they began. Within the more specific climate of the special camps, however, this tactic backfired. Instead, the frequent movements of prisoners became an excellent means of spreading rebellion.8

North of the Arctic Circle, the summers are very short, and very hot. Toward the end of May, the ice on the rivers begins to break up. The days grow longer, until night vanishes altogether. At some point in June—in some years as late as July—the sun suddenly begins to shine with real ferocity, sometimes for a month, sometimes two. From one day to the next, the Arctic wildflowers suddenly begin to bloom, and for a few short weeks, the tundra is awash with color. For human beings, who have been locked inside for nine months, the summer brings an overwhelming desire to go outdoors, to be free. During the few hot summer days that I spent in Vorkuta, the inhabitants of the city seemed to spend virtually all of their days and all of their white nights outside, strolling the streets, sitting in the parks, talking to one another on the doorsteps of their houses. It is no accident that springtime was the season for prisoners to attempt escape. Nor is it an accident that the Gulag’s three most important, most dangerous, and most famous uprisings all took place in northern camps in the spring.

In Gorlag, the special camp in the Norilsk complex, the mood was particularly angry in the spring of 1953. The previous autumn, a large group of prisoners, about 1,200 in all, had been transferred to Gorlag from Karaganda, where many seem to have been involved in the armed escape attempts and protests that had taken place there a few months earlier. All had been imprisoned for “revolutionary activity in the western Ukraine and Baltic States.” They had, according to the MVD’s records, started organizing a “revolutionary committee” even while still in transit to Norilsk.

According to prisoners’ accounts, they also murdered four camp informers—with pickaxes—within a few days of their arrival.9 By the spring of 1953, deeply angered by the amnesty which had passed them by, this group had created what the MVD described as an “anti-Soviet organization” in the camp, which probably means that they had strengthened the national organizations already in place.

Unrest percolated throughout the month of May. On May 25, convoy guards shot a prisoner on his way to work. On the following morning, two of the camp’s divisions went on strike in protest. A few days later, guards opened fire on prisoners who were throwing messages over the wall that separated the male and the female camps. Some were wounded. Then, on June 4 , a group of prisoners broke down the wooden barrier which divided their camp’s punishment barrack from the rest of the zona, and freed twenty-four prisoners. They also captured a member of the camp administration, took him into the zona, and made him hostage. The guards opened fire, killing five prisoners and wounding fourteen others. Four more camp divisions joined the protest. By June 5, 16,379 prisoners were on strike. Soldiers surrounded the camps, and all of the exits were blocked.10

At about the same time, a similar process was taking place in Rechlag, the special camp in the Vorkuta coal-mining complex. Prisoners had attempted to organize mass strikes in Rechlag as early as 1951, and the administration would later claim to have uncovered no less than five “revolutionary organizations” in the camp in 1951 and 1952.11 When Stalin died, the prisoners of Rechlag were also particularly well-equipped to follow world events. Not only were they organized into national groups, as in Minlag and elsewhere, but they had also designated particular prisoners to follow Western radio transmissions on stolen or borrowed radios, and to write up the news in the form of bulletins, with commentary, which they carefully distributed among other prisoners. Thus did they learn not only of Stalin’s death and Beria’s arrest, but also of the mass strikes in East Berlin, which took place on June 17, 1953, and were put down by Soviet tanks.12

This piece of news appears to have galvanized the prisoners: if the Berliners could strike, so could they. John Noble, the American arrested in Dresden just after the war, recalled that “their spirit inspired us and we discussed nothing else for days afterwards . . . The next month we were cocky slaves. The long summer sun had melted the snow and its warmth was renewing our energy and courage. We discussed the chance of striking for our freedom, but no one knew what to do.”13

By June 30, the inmates of the Kapitalnaya mine were distributing leaflets, calling on prisoners to “Stop delivery of coal.” On the same day, someone wrote a slogan on the walls of mine No. 40: “No deliveries of coal until there’s an amnesty.” The trucks themselves were empty: the prisoners had stopped digging coal.14 On July 17, the authorities at Kapitalnaya mine had even greater cause for alarm: on that day, a group of prisoners beat up one of the foremen, allegedly because he had told them to “stop the sabotage.” When it came time for the second shift to begin, the next foreman refused to go down the mine shaft.

Just as the prisoners of Rechlag were absorbing news of these events, a large contingent of prisoners arrived—again from Karaganda. All had been promised better living conditions and a re-examination of their cases. When they arrived at work in Vorkuta’s mine No. 7, they found not an improvement, but the harshest conditions in the entire camp system. On the following day—July 19—350 of them went on strike. 15

Other strikes followed—thanks, in part, to the geography of Vorkuta itself. Vorkutlag lies at the center of a vast coal basin—one of the largest in the world. To exploit the coal, a series of mines were set up in a wide circle around the basin. Between the mines lay other enterprises—electric power stations, brick and cement factories—each one connected to a camp, as well as the city of Vorkuta and the smaller settlement of Yur-Shor. A railway line ran between all of these sites. The trains, like everything else in Vorkuta, were run by prisoners—which is how the rebellion spread: along with the coal and other supplies that they carried from one lagpunkt to the next, the prisoners manning the engines passed on news of the strike in camp No. 7. As the trains traveled around the great circle, thousands of prisoners heard the whispered accounts, thousands more saw the slogans painted on the trains’ sides: “To hell with your coal. We want freedom.” 16 One camp after another joined the strike until, by July 29, 1953, six of the seventeen divisions of Rechlag—15,604 people—were on strike.17

Within most of the striking Vorkuta and Norilsk lagpunkts, strike committees took charge of what was clearly a dangerous situation. Terrified administrators had vacated the camps, and the potential for anarchy was great. In some cases, these committees found themselves organizing the prisoners’ food. In others, they tried to persuade inmates not to take out their aggression on the now completely defenseless informers. In the case of both Rechlag and Gorlag, memoirs and archives agree that those in charge (to the extent that anyone was in charge) were almost always western Ukrainians, Poles, and Balts. The MVD later fingered a Ukrainian named Herman Stepanyuk as the leader in Norilsk, and a Pole named Kendzerski—a “former captain in the Polish army”—as one of the leaders in Vorkuta. In his account of the rebellion, Edward Buca, another Pole, also claimed to have led the strike in Vorkuta’s mine No. 29. Although he was clearly in that camp at the time, there are reasons to doubt his account, not least because so many of the real strike leaders were later shot.18

Years afterward, Ukrainian nationalists would claim that all of the major Gulag strikes had been planned and executed by their secret organizations, which hid behind multinational strike committees: “The average prisoner, and we are referring in particular to the prisoners from the West and to the Russian prisoners, was unable either to participate in the decisions or to comprehend the mechanism of the movement.” As evidence, they cited the two “Karaganda étaps,” the contingents of Ukrainians who arrived in both camps, just in advance of the strikes. 19

The same evidence has led others to conclude that the strikes were provoked by elements within the MVD itself. Perhaps members of the security services feared that Khrushchev was about to shut down the camps altogether—and dismiss all of the camp authorities. As a result, they fomented rebellions in order to put them down, and thereby to prove how very necessary they all still were. Simeon Vilensky, an ex-zek and publisher, who subsequently organized two conferences on the subject of opposition in the camps, puts it best: “Who was running the camps? Thousands of people, who don’t have a civilian profession, people who are used to complete lawlessness, used to owning the prisoners, being able to do what they want with them. These are people who, compared with other working citizens, get paid rather well.”

Vilensky remains convinced that he witnessed a provocation in his special camp in Kolyma, in 1953. Suddenly, he says, a group of newcomers arrived in the camp. One of them began openly to organize the younger people in the camp into a rebellious group. They spoke of strikes, wrote leaflets, drew in other prisoners. They even used the camp metal workshop to make knives. Their behavior was so open and so provocative that Vilensky found it suspect: the camp administration could not be tolerating such activity by accident. He led the opposition to the newcomers until, finally, he was moved to another camp.20

In principle, these theses are compatible. It is possible that elements within the MVD brought rebellious Ukrainians into the camps in order to cause trouble of some kind. It is also possible that the Ukrainian strike leaders believed themselves to be acting of their own volition. From both official and eyewitness accounts, however, it seems more likely that the strikes gained momentum only thanks to the cooperation among the different national groups. Where the national groups competed more openly with one another, or did not have warm relationships—as in Minlag—strikes were much harder to organize.21

Outside the camps, the strikes received no support to speak of. The Gorlag strikers, whose camps lay very close to the city of Norilsk, did try to attract attention to their cause with a banner: “Comrades, inhabitants of Norilsk! Help us in our struggle.”22 As most of Norilsk’s population were former prisoners, they were almost certainly too afraid to respond. Despite their bureaucratic language, the MVD reports written a few weeks after the events convey very well the terror that the strikes generated among prisoners and free workers alike. One of Gorlag’s accountants swore to the MVD that “if the strikers get out of the zona, we will fight against them, as we would fight against enemies.”

Another free worker told the MVD about his accidental meeting with the strikers: “I had stayed past the end of the shift, in order to finish drilling at the coal-face. A group of prisoners came up to me. Grabbing my electric drill, they ordered me to stop working, threatening punishment. I took fright, and stopped working . . . ” Fortunately for him, the prisoners shone a lantern on his face, recognized him as a free worker, and left him in peace.23 Alone, in the dark of the mine, surrounded by hostile, angry, coal-stained strikers, he must have been very frightened indeed.

Local camp bosses were intimidated too. Sensing this, strikers in both Gorlag and Rechlag demanded meetings with representatives from the Soviet government and the Communist Party—from Moscow. They argued that local commanders could not decide anything without Moscow’s permission anyway, which was perfectly true.

And Moscow came. That is, on several occasions, representatives of “Moscow commissions” met with committees of prisoners in Gorlag and Rechlag, to listen, and to discuss, their demands. I could describe these meetings as a break with precedent, but that hardly conveys the extent of their novelty. Never before had prisoners’ demands been met with anything other than brute force. In this new, post-Stalinist era, however, Khrushchev seemed willing to try, at least, to win the prisoners over with genuine concessions.

He, or rather his representatives, did not succeed. Four days into the Vorkuta strike, a Moscow commission, led by a senior officer, General I. I. Maslennikov, presented the prisoners with a new list of privileges: a nine-hour working day, the removal of numbers from uniforms, permission to have meetings with relatives, permission to receive letters and money from home. As the official report puts it, many of the strike leaders received this news with “hostility,” and remained on strike. The same reaction had followed a similar offer in Gorlag. The prisoners, it seems, wanted amnesty, not just an improvement in their living conditions.

Although this was not 1938, however, it was not 1989 either. Stalin was dead, but his legacy lived on. The first step might have been negotiations— but the second step was brute force.

In Norilsk, the authorities first promised that they would “look into the prisoners’ demands.” Instead, as the MVD report explains, “the commission of the MVD of the USSR decided to liquidate the strikes.” This decision, almost certainly taken by Khrushchev himself, had immediate, dramatic effects on the ground. Soldiers surrounded the striking camps. Lagpunkt by lagpunkt, they emptied the camps, arrested the strike leaders, and sent the other prisoners away on transports.

In a few cases, this “liquidation” went relatively smoothly. Arriving at the first camp division, troops caught the prisoners by surprise. Over the camp loudspeaker, the Norilsk chief prosecutor, Babilov, told the prisoners to leave the zona, assuring them that those who walked away peacefully would not be punished for their part in the “sabotage.” According to the official report, most of the prisoners did leave. Seeing that they were isolated, the ringleaders left as well. Out in the taiga, soldiers and camp bosses sorted the prisoners into groups. Trucks were waiting to take away those suspected of instigating the strike, and the “innocent” were allowed to return to the camp.

Some of the subsequent “liquidations” went less smoothly. When the authorities followed the same procedure on the following day in another lagpunkt, the strike leaders first threatened those wanting to leave—and then locked themselves into one of the barracks, from which they had to be forcibly removed. In the women’s camp, the prisoners formed a human circle and hung a black flag—a symbol of unjustly murdered comrades—in the center, and began to scream and shout slogans. After five hours of this, the guards began spraying them with powerful hoses. Only then did the circle break up sufficiently for the guards to drag the women out of the camp.

In lagpunkt No. 5, as many as 1,400 prisoners, mostly Ukrainians and Balts, refused to leave the zona. Instead, they hung black flags from their barracks, conducting themselves, in the words of an MVD bureaucrat, with “extreme aggression.” Then, when the camp guards, assisted by forty soldiers, attempted to rope off the barracks and protect the camp’s food supplies, a crowd of 500 prisoners attacked. They shouted curses and cheers, threw rocks, hit the soldiers with clubs and picks, tried to knock their guns out of their arms. The official report describes what happened next: “At the most critical moment of their attack on the guards, the soldiers opened fire on the prisoners. After the conclusion of the shooting, the prisoners were forced to lie on the ground. After this, the prisoners began to fulfill all of the orders of the guards and of the camp administration.”24

According to the same report, twenty-three prisoners died that day. According to eyewitnesses, several hundred prisoners died over several days in Norilsk, in a series of similar incidents.

The authorities put down the Vorkuta strike in a similar manner. Lagpunkt by lagpunkt, soldiers and police troops forced the prisoners out of the camps, sorted them into groups of 100, and put them through a “filtration” process, separating the presumed strike leaders from the other prisoners. In order to get the prisoners to leave peacefully, the Moscow commission also loudly promised all of the prisoners that their cases would be reviewed, and that the strike leaders would not be shot. The ruse worked: thanks to General Maslennikov’s “fatherly” attitude, “we believed him,” one of the participants later explained.25

In one camp, however—the lagpunkt beside mine No. 29—the prisoners did not believe the general—and when Maslennikov told them to return to work, they refused. Soldiers arrived, bringing a fire engine with them, intending to use water hoses to break up the crowd:

But before the hoses could be unwound and turned on us, Ripetsky waved the prisoners forward and a wall of them advanced, turning the vehicle out of the gate as if it had been a toy . . . There was a salvo of shots from the guards, straight into the mass of prisoners. But we were standing with our arms linked, and at first no one fell, though many were dead and wounded. Only Ihnatowicz, a little in front of the line, was standing alone. He seemed to stand for a moment in astonishment, then turned round to face us. His lips moved, but no words came out. He stretched out an arm, then fell.

As he fell, there came a second salvo, then a third, and a fourth. Then the heavy machine-guns opened fire.

Again, the estimates of those killed in mine No. 29 vary widely. The official documents speak of 42 dead and 135 wounded. Eyewitnesses again speak of “hundreds” of casualties.26

The strikes were over. But neither camp was ever truly pacified. Throughout the rest of 1953 and 1954, protests broke out sporadically in Vorkuta and Norilsk, in the other special camps, and in the ordinary camps as well. “A triumphant spirit, buoyed up by the wage increase we had won, was the strike’s heritage,” wrote Noble. When he was transferred into mine No. 29, scene of the massacre, prisoners who had survived proudly showed him their scars from that day.27

As the prisoners grew bolder, practically no camp was unaffected. In November 1953, for example, 530 prisoners refused to work in Vyatlag. They demanded better pay, and an end to “abnormalities” in clothing distribution and living conditions. The camp administration agreed to meet their demands, but the following day the prisoners went on strike again. This time, they demanded to be included in Beria’s amnesty. The strike ended when the organizers were arrested and imprisoned.28 In March 1954, a group of “bandits” took over one lagpunkt of Kargopollag, threatening to riot unless they were given better food—and vodka. 29 In July 1954, 900 prisoners in Minlag staged a weeklong hunger strike, protesting the death of a prisoner who had been burned alive when a punishment block caught fire. The prisoners distributed leaflets around the camp and in the nearby village, explaining the reasons for the strike, stopping only when a Moscow commission arrived and met their demands for better treatment. Elsewhere in Minlag, strikes became a permanent part of life, sometimes carried out by individual brigades, sometimes by whole mines.30

More unrest was planned, as the authorities knew. In June 1954, the MVD sent an informer’s report directly to Kruglov, the Interior Minister. The report contained an account of a conversation between a group of Ukrainian prisoners whom the informer had met in Sverdlovsk transit prison. The prisoners were from Gorlag, and had taken part in the strike there. Now they were being transported elsewhere—but they were preparing for next time:

Everyone in the cell was made to explain to Pavlishin and Stepanyuk what they did during the strike, including myself . . . In my presence, Morushko reported to Stepanyuk about an incident on the barge from Norilsk to Krasnoyarsk. On this barge he conducted a filtration of prisoners, and those who were not useful, he destroyed. Stepanyuk told Pavlishin, “The mission you were given has been fulfilled, now our deeds will be part of the history of Ukraine.” He then hugged Morushko, and said,

“Pan Morushko, you have done great service to our organization . . . for this you will receive a medal, and after the collapse of Soviet power you will occupy an important post.”31

Although it is perfectly possible that the informer who filed this report did hear a conversation somewhat like this one, he elaborated as well: later in his report, he went on to accuse the Ukrainians of organizing a most unlikely plot to kill Khrushchev. Still, the fact that such dubious information was sent straight to Kruglov itself indicates how seriously the authorities now took the threat of further rebellion. Both of the commissions sent to investigate the situation in Rechlag and Gorlag had concluded that it was necessary to increase the number of guards, to toughen the regime, and above all to increase the number of informers.32

As it turned out, they were right to worry. The most dangerous uprising was still to come.

Like its two predecessors, the uprising that Solzhenitsyn christened “The Forty Days of Kengir” was not abrupt or unexpected.33 It emerged slowly, in the spring of 1954, out of a series of incidents at the Steplag special camp, which was located beside the village of Kengir, in Kazakhstan.

Like their counterparts in Rechlag and Gorlag, the commanders of Steplag were, in the wake of Stalin’s death, unable to cope with their prisoners. One of the historians of the strike, having studied the camp’s archives from the year 1953, concludes that the administration had “totally lost control.” In the run-up to the strike, Steplag’s commanders periodically sent reports to Moscow, describing the underground organizations in the camp, the incidents of unrest, and the “crisis” afflicting the system of informers, by now almost completely incapacitated. Moscow wrote back, ordering the camp to isolate the Ukrainians and Balts from the other prisoners. But the administration either would not or could not do so. At that time, nearly half of the 20,000 prisoners in the camp were Ukrainians, and a quarter were Balts and Poles; perhaps the facilities to separate them did not exist. As a result, the prisoners kept on breaking the rules, staging intermittent strikes and protests.34

Unable to cow the prisoners with threats of punishments, the guards resorted to actual violence. Some—including Solzhenitsyn—believe that these incidents also were provocations, designed to spark the revolt that followed. Whether or not this is true—and there are so far no records either way—camp guards did several times open fire on uncooperative prisoners during the winter of 1953 and the spring of 1954, killing several people.

Then, perhaps in a desperate attempt to reassert control, the camp administration shipped a group of criminals into the camps, and openly instructed them to provoke fights with the politicals in lagpunkt No. 3—the most rebellious of the Steplag lagpunkts. The plan backfired. “And here,” writes Solzhenitsyn, “we see how unpredictable is the course of human emotions and of social movements! Injecting in Kengir no. 3 a mammoth dose of tested ptomaine, the bosses obtained not a pacified camp but the biggest mutiny in the history of the Gulag Archipelago.” 35 Instead of fighting, the two groups agreed to cooperate.

As in other camps, the prisoners of Steplag were organized by nationality. Steplag’s Ukrainians, however, appear to have taken their organization a few steps farther into conspiracy. Instead of openly choosing leaders, the Ukrainians formed a conspiratorial “Center,” a secret group whose membership never became publicly known, and probably contained representatives of all of the camp’s nationalities. By the time the thieves arrived in the camp, the Center had already started to produce weapons—makeshift knives, clubs, and picks—in the camp workshops, and were in contact with the prisoners of the two neighboring lagpunkts, No. 1—a zona for women— and No. 2. Perhaps these tough politicals impressed the thieves with their handiwork, or perhaps they terrified them. In any case, all agree that at a midnight meeting, representatives of both groups, criminal and political, shook hands and agreed to unite.

On May 16, this cooperation bore its first fruit. That afternoon, a large group of prisoners in lagpunkt No. 3 began to destroy the stone wall which separated their camp from the other two neighboring camps, and from the service yard, which contained both the camp workshops and the warehouses. In an earlier era, their aim would have been rape. Now, with Ukrainian nationalist partisans, male and female, on both sides of the wall, the men believed themselves to be coming to the aid of their women—their relatives, friends, or even spouses.

The destruction of the wall continued through the night. In response, the camp guards opened fire, killing thirteen prisoners and wounding forty-three, and beat up other prisoners, including women. The following day, infuriated by the killings, the prisoners oflagpunkt No. 3 staged a massive protest, and wrote anti-Soviet slogans on the walls of their dining hall. That night, groups of prisoners broke into the punishment isolator—literally taking it apart with their hands—and freed the 252 prisoners locked inside. They took full control of the camp warehouses, the camp kitchen and bakery, and the camp workshops, which they immediately turned over to the production of knives and clubs. By the morning of May 19, most of the prisoners were on strike.

Neither Moscow nor the local camp leadership seemed to know what to do next. The camp commander promptly informed Kruglov, the MVD boss, of what had happened. Equally promptly, Kruglov ordered Gubin, the head of the Kazakh MVD, to investigate. Gubin then turned around and asked the Gulag to send a commission from Moscow. A commission arrived. Negotiations ensued—and the commission, playing for time, promised the prisoners it would investigate the unlawful shootings, leave open the walls between the camps, and even speed up the process of re-examining prisoners’ cases.

The prisoners believed them. On May 23, they returned to work. When the day shift returned home, however, they saw that at least one of the promises had been broken: the walls between the lagpunkts had been rebuilt. By May 25, the boss of Kengir, V. M. Bochkov, was again telegramming frantically for permission to impose a “strict regime” on the prisoners: no letters, no meetings, no money orders, no re-examinations of cases. In addition, he removed about 420 criminal prisoners from the camp, and sent them to another lagpunkt, where they went on striking.

The result: within forty-eight hours, the prisoners had chased all of the camp authorities out of the zona, having threatened them with their newly produced weapons. Although the authorities had guns, they were outnumbered. More than 5,000 prisoners lived in the three camp divisions, and most of them had joined the uprising. Those who had not joined were too intimidated to protest. Those who felt neutral were soon caught up in the spirit of the forty-day uprising. On the first morning of the strike, remembered one prisoner with wonder, “we weren’t woken up by the guards, we weren’t greeted by shouts and cries.”

The camp authorities seem, at first, to have expected the strike to fall apart of its own accord. Sooner or later, they reckoned, the thieves and the politicals would fall out. The prisoners would wallow in anarchy and debauchery, the women would be raped, the food would be stolen. But although the prisoners’ behavior during the strike should not be idealized, it is true to say that nearly the opposite occurred: the camp began to run itself with a surprising degree of harmony.

Very quickly, the prisoners chose a strike committee, charged with the task of negotiations, as well as the organization of the daily life of the camp. Accounts of the origins of this committee differ radically. The official record of events claims that the authorities were holding general negotiations with groups of prisoners, when suddenly a group of people claiming to be the strike committee burst in on the scene, and denied anyone else the right to speak. A number of witnesses, however, have said that it was the authorities themselves who suggested to the prisoners that they form a strike committee, which was subsequently chosen by democratic vote.

The true relationship of the strike committee to the “real” leadership of the uprising also remains hazy, as it probably was at the time. Even if they had not exactly planned it step by step, the Ukrainian-led Center was clearly the motivating force behind the strike, and played a decisive role in the “democratic” election of the strike committee. The Ukrainians seem to have insisted on a multinational committee: they did not want the strike to seem too anti-Russian or anti-Soviet, and they wanted the strike to have a Russian leader.

That Russian was Colonel Kapiton Kuznetsov, who stands out, even in the murky tale of Kengir, as a notably ambiguous figure. An ex–Red Army officer, Kuznetsov had been captured by the Nazis during the war, and placed in a POW camp. In 1948, he was arrested and accused of having collaborated with the Nazi administration of the POW camp, and even accused of joining the battle against Soviet partisans. If these accusations are true, they help explain his behavior during the strike. Having played the part of turncoat once, he would have been well prepared to play a double role once again.

Apparently, the Ukrainians chose Kuznetsov in the hope that he would give a “Soviet” face to the uprising, depriving the authorities of an excuse to crush the prisoners. This he certainly did—perhaps going to extremes. At Kuznetsov’s urging, the striking prisoners hung banners around the camp: “Long live the Soviet constitution!” “Long live the Soviet regime!” “Down with the murdering Beriaites!” He harangued the prisoners, arguing that they should stop writing leaflets, that “counter-revolutionary” agitation would only harm their cause. He assiduously courted the “Soviet” prisoners, the inmates who had maintained their faith in the Party, and persuaded them to help keep order.

And although the Ukrainians had helped elect him, Kuznetsov certainly did not repay their faith. In the long, carefully detailed, written confession that he composed after the strike had come to its inevitable bloody end, Kuznetsov claimed he had always considered the Center to be illegitimate, and had fought against its secret edicts throughout the strike. But the Ukrainians never really trusted Kuznetsov either. Throughout the strike, two armed Ukrainian guards followed him everywhere. Ostensibly, this was for his protection. In reality, it was probably to ensure that he did not slip out of the camp at night, betraying the cause.

The Ukrainians may have been right to fear Kuznetsov’s escape, for another member of the strike committee, Aleksei Makeev, eventually did leave the camp, slipping out a few weeks into the strike. Later, Makeev read speeches over the camp radio, urging the prisoners to return to work. Perhaps he had understood early on that the strike was doomed to failure— or perhaps he had been a tool of the administration from the beginning.

Yet not all of the strike committee were people of doubtful committment. Kuznetsov himself would later claim that at least three committee members—“Gleb” Sluchenkov, Gersh Keller, and Yuri Knopmus—were in fact representatives of the secret Center. Camp authorities also later described one of them, Gersh Keller, as a representative of the secret Ukrainian conspiracy, and indeed his biography would seem to match this picture. Listed in the camp records as a Jew, Keller was in fact an ethnic Ukrainian—his real surname was Pendrak—who had managed to conceal his ethnicity from the MVD during his arrest. Keller put himself in charge of the strike’s “military” division, organizing the prisoners to fight back in case the guards attacked the camp. It was he who had begun the mass production of weapons—knives, staves, picks, clubs—in the camp workshops, and he who had set up a “laboratory” to build makeshift grenades, Molotov cocktails, and other “hot” weapons. Keller also supervised the building of barricades, and arranged for every barrack to keep a barrel of ground glass by its door—to be thrown in the eyes of the soldiers, if and when they should arrive.

If Keller represented the Ukrainians, Gleb Sluchenkov was linked, rather, to the camp’s criminals. Kuznetsov himself described him as a “representative of the criminal world,” and Ukrainian nationalist sources also describe Sluchenkov as the leader of the thieves. During the uprising, Sluchenkov ran the strike committee’s “counter-intelligence” operation. He had his own “police,” who patrolled the camp, kept the peace, and imprisoned potential turncoats and informers. Sluchenkov organized all the camps into divisions, and put a “commander” in charge of each one. Later, Kuznetsov would complain that the names of these commanders were kept secret, and were known only to Sluchenkov and Keller.

Kuznetsov was less vitriolic about Knopmus, an ethnic German born in St. Petersburg, who ran the uprising’s “propaganda” division. Yet in retrospect, Knopmus’s activities during the uprising were the most revolutionary, and the most anti-Soviet, of all. Knopmus’s “propaganda” included the production of leaflets—distributed to the local population outside the camp—the printing of a camp “wall newspaper” for the benefit of striking prisoners, and, most extraordinarily, the building of a makeshift radio station.

Given that the authorities had cut off the camp’s electricity in the first days of the strike, this radio station was not just a piece of bravado, but a great technical achievement. First, the zeks put together a “hydroelectric” power station—using a water tap. A motor was converted into a generator, and enough electricity was made to power the camp telephone system, as well as the radio. The radio, in turn, was put together using parts from the camp’s portable film projectors.

Within days, the camp had news announcers and regular news programs, designed for the prisoners as well as the local population outside the camp, including the guards and soldiers. Camp stenographers recorded the text of one of the radio addresses, made after the uprising had lasted a month, when food supplies were beginning to run out. Directed at the soldiers who now stood on guard outside the camp, the stenograph made its way into the MVD files:

Comrade Soldiers! We are not afraid of you and we ask you not to come into our zona. Don’t shoot at us, don’t buckle under the will of the Beriaites. We are not afraid of them, just as we are not afraid of death. We would rather die of hunger in this camp, than give up to the Beriaite band. Don’t soil your hands with the same dirty blood which your officers have on their hands . . .36

Kuznetsov, meanwhile, organized the distribution of food, which was prepared and cooked by the camp women. Each prisoner received the same ration—there were no extra portions for pridurki—which slowly grew smaller, as the weeks went by and the stores decreased. Voluntary details also cleaned the barracks, washed clothes, and stood guard. One inmate remembered that “order and cleanliness” reigned in the dining hall, which had often been filthy and chaotic in the past. The camp baths worked as usual, as did the hospital, although the camp authorities refused to hand over necessary medicines and supplies.

Prisoners organized their own “entertainments” as well. According to one memoir, a Polish aristocrat named Count Bobrinski opened a “café” in the camp, where he served “coffee”: “He threw something in the water, boiled it, and prisoners in the middle of a hot day sipped this drink with satisfaction, laughing.” The count himself sat in the corner of the café, played his guitar, and sang old romantic songs.37 Other prisoners organized lecture series, as well as concerts. A group of self-motivated thespians rehearsed and performed a play. One of the religious sects, its male and female members reunited by the destruction of the walls, claimed that their prophet had predicted they would now all be taken to heaven, alive. For several days, they sat on their mattresses in the main square, in the center of the zona, waiting to be taken to heaven. Alas, nothing happened.

Large numbers of newlyweds also appeared, united by the many prisoner priests who had been arrested along with their Baltic or Ukrainian flocks. Among them were some of those who had been married while standing on opposite sides of the camp walls, and were now meeting face-to-face for the first time. But although men and women mingled freely, all descriptions of the strike agree that women were never molested, and certainly not attacked or raped, as they were so often in ordinary camps.

Songs were written, of course. Someone composed a Ukrainian hymn, which at times all 13,500 striking prisoners would sing at once. The refrain went like this:

We will not, we will not be slaves

We will not carry the yoke any longer . . .

Another verse spoke of:

Brothers in blood, of Vorkuta and Norilsk, of Kolyma and Kengir . . .

“It was a wonderful time,” remembered Irena Arginskaya, forty-five years later. “I had not before then, and have not since, felt such a sense of freedom as I did then.” Others felt more foreboding. Lyuba Bershadskaya recalls that we “did everything without any awareness: none of us knew or even thought about what was waiting for us.”

Negotiations with the authorities continued. By May 27, the MVD commission delegated to deal with the strike had held its first meeting with the prisoners. Among what Solzhenitsyn calls the “golden-epaulted personages” on the commission were Sergei Yegorov, the deputy chief of the MVD; Ivan Dolgikh, then the commander of the Gulag system; and Vavilov, the deputy state prosecutor responsible for overseeing the Gulag. They were met by a gathering of 2,000 prisoners, led by Kuznetsov, who presented them with a list of demands.

By the time the strike was in full swing, these demands would include both the imposition of criminal charges on guards who had shot prisoners— which the prisoners had demanded from the beginning—as well as more clearly political demands. Among these were the reduction of all twentyfive-year sentences; the review of all political prisoners’ cases; the liquidation of the punishment cells and punishment barracks; more freedom for prisoners to communicate with relatives; the removal of the requirement of forced eternal exile for freed prisoners; easier living conditions for women prisoners; and a permanent reuniting of the men’s and women’s camps.

The prisoners also demanded a meeting with a member of the Communist Party Central Committee. They continued to make this demand until the very end, on the grounds that they could not trust either the Steplag authorities or the MVD to abide by any promises made. “And who could have inspired in you such hatred for the MVD?” the MVD deputy chief Yegorov reportedly asked them in response.

Had the strike taken place a few years earlier, there would, of course, have been no negotiations at all. But by 1954, the re-examination of politicals’ cases had in fact begun, albeit slowly. During the course of the strike, it even happened that individual prisoners were summoned to leave the camp in order to attend meetings of the tribunal re-investigating their cases. Knowing that many prisoners had already died, and apparently wanting a peaceful and rapid conclusion to events, Dolgikh almost immediately began to concede to some of the prisoners’ minor demands, calling for bars to be removed from barrack windows, for the establishment of an eight-hour workday, even for the transfer of certain particularly hated camp guards and officials out of Kengir. Under direct orders from Moscow, Dolgikh at first refrained from using force. He did try to break the prisoners’ resistance, however, actively urging them to leave the camp, and forbidding any new shipments of food or medicine.

As time went on, however, Moscow lost patience. In a telegram sent on June 15, Kruglov lashed out at his deputy, Yegorov, for filling his reports with pointless statistics—such as how many pigeons had been released from the camp carrying leaflets—and informed him that an echelon of troops, accompanied by five T-34 tanks, was on their way.

The last ten days of the strike were very tense indeed. The MVD commission issued stern warnings via the camp loudspeaker system. In response, the prisoners broadcast messages from their makeshift radio station, telling the world that they were starving to death. Kuznetsov made a speech, in which he spoke of the fate of his family, which had been destroyed by his arrest. “Many of us had also lost relatives, and listening to him we strengthened our resolve, deciding to stick it out until the end,” one prisoner remembered.

Just before dawn, at half past three on the morning of June 26, the MVD struck. The previous evening, Kruglov had telegrammed Yegorov, advising him to use “all possible resources,” and he complied: no less than 1,700 soldiers, ninety-eight dogs, and the five T-34 tanks surrounded the camp. At first, the soldiers sent flares soaring into the sky above the barracks, and fired blanks. Urgent warnings began to sound over the camp loudspeakers: “Soldiers are entering the camps. Prisoners who want to cooperate are asked to leave the camp quietly. Prisoners who resist will be shot . . .”

As the disoriented prisoners rushed around the camp, the tanks entered the gates. Armed troops, dressed in full battle gear, followed behind them. By some accounts, both the soldiers driving the tanks and those on the ground were drunk. While this may be a legend which grew up in the wake of the raid, it is true that both the Red Army and the secret police traditionally gave vodka to soldiers who were being asked to do dirty work: empty bottles are almost always found inside mass graves.

Drunk or not, the tank drivers had no qualms about running straight over those prisoners who advanced to meet them. “I stood in the middle,” recalled Lyubov Bershadskaya, “and all around me tanks crushed living people.” They ran straight over a group of women, who had locked arms together and stood in their path, not believing that the tanks would dare kill them. They ran over one newlywed couple who, holding on to one another tightly, deliberately threw themselves in their path. They destroyed barracks, with people sleeping inside. They resisted the homemade grenades, the stones, the picks, and other metal objects that the prisoners threw at them. Surprisingly quickly—within an hour and a half, according to the report filed later—the soldiers had pacified the camp, removed those prisoners who had agreed to go quietly, and put the rest in handcuffs.

According to the official documents, thirty-seven prisoners died outright that day. Nine more died later of their wounds. Another 106 were wounded, along with forty soldiers. Again, all of these numbers are much lower than those recorded by the prisoners themselves. Bershadskaya, who helped the camp doctor, Julian Fuster, take care of the wounded, writes of 500 dead:

Fuster told me to put on a white cap and a surgeon’s gauze mask (which I keep to this day) and asked me to stand by the operating table and write down the names of those who could still give their names. Unfortunately, almost nobody could. Most of the wounded died on the table, and, looking at us with departing eyes, said, “Write to my mother . . . to my husband . . . to my children,” and so on.

When it became too hot and stuffy to bear, I took off the cap and looked at myself in the mirror. I had a completely white head. At first, I thought that there must have been powder inside the cap for some reason. I didn’t realize that while standing in the center of that unbelievable slaughter, observing all that took place, all of my hair had turned gray within fifteen minutes.

Fuster stood for thirteen hours on his feet, saving whoever he could. Finally, that resilient, talented surgeon couldn’t take it anymore himself. He lost consciousness, fell into a faint, and the operations finished ...38

In the wake of the battle, all of the living who were not in hospital were marched out of the camp, and led out into the taiga. Soldiers with machine guns made them lie facedown, arms spread to the side—as if crucified—for many hours. Working from the photographs they had taken at the public meetings and from what few informers’ reports they had, the camp authorities picked through the prisoners and arrested 436 people, including all of the members of the strike commission. Six of them would be executed, including Keller, Sluchenkov, and Knopmus. Kuznetsov, who presented the authorities with a long, elaborate, written confession within forty-eight hours of his arrest, was sentenced to death—and then spared. He was moved to Karlag, and released in 1960. Another thousand prisoners—500 men and 500 women—were accused of supporting the rebellion, and were shipped off to other camps, to Ozerlag and Kolyma. They, too, it seems, were mostly released by the end of the decade.

During the uprising, the authorities appear to have had no idea that there was any organizing force within the camp other than the official strike committee. Afterward, they began to piece together the whole story, probably thanks to Kuznetsov’s elaborate account. They identified five representatives of the Center—the Lithuanian Kondratas; the Ukrainians Keller, Sunichuk, and Vakhaev; and the thief known by the underworld pseudonym “Mustache.” They even made a chart, showing the lines of command flowing out from the Center, through the strike committee, toward the departments of propaganda, defense, and counter-intelligence. They knew about the brigades that had been organized to defend each barrack, about the radio station and the makeshift generator.

But they never did identify all of the members of the Center, the real organizers of the uprising. According to one account, many of the “true activists” remained in the camp, quietly serving out their sentences, awaiting amnesty. Their names are unknown—and will probably remain so.

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