Modern history

Chapter 2

“THE FIRST CAMP OF THE GULAG”

There are monks and priests, Prostitutes and thieves. There are princes here, and barons— But their crowns have been taken away . . . On this island, the rich have no home No castles, no palaces . . .

—Anonymous prisoner’s poem written on the Solovetsky Islands, 19261

LOOKING DOWN from the top of the bell tower in the far corner of the old Solovetsky monastery, the outlines of the Solovetsky concentration camp are still visible today. A thick stone wall still surrounds the Solovetsky kremlin, the central collection of monastery buildings and churches, originally built in the fifteenth century, which later housed the main administration of the camp and its central barracks. Just to the west lie the docks, now home to a few fishing boats, once crowded with the prisoners who arrived weekly and sometimes daily here during the short navigation season of the far north. Beyond them stretch the flat expanses of the White Sea. From here, the boat to Kem, the mainland transit camp from which prisoners once embarked for their journey, takes several hours. The ride to Arkhangelsk, the largest White Sea port and the regional capital, requires an overnight journey.

image

The Solovetsky archipelago, in the White Sea

Looking north, it is just possible to see the faintest outlines of Sekirka, the hilltop church whose cellars once contained Solovetsky’s notorious punishment cells. To the east stands the power station built by the prisoners, still very much in use today. Just behind it lies the stretch of land where the botanical garden used to be. There, in the early days of the camp, some of the prisoners grew experimental plants, trying to determine what, if anything, might usefully be harvested in the far north.

Finally, beyond the botanical garden, lie the other islands in the Solovetsky chain. Scattered across the White Sea are Bolshaya Muksalma, where prisoners once bred silver-black foxes for their fur; Anzer, site of special camps for invalids, for women with babies, and for former monks; Zayatsky Ostrov, the location of the women’s punishment camp. 2 Not by accident did Solzhenitsyn choose the metaphor of an “archipelago” to describe the Soviet camp system. Solovetsky, the first Soviet camp to be planned and built with any expectation of permanence, developed on a genuine archipelago, spreading outward island by island, taking over the old churches and buildings of an ancient monastic community as it grew.

The monastery complex had served as a prison before. Solovetsky monks, faithful servants of the Czar, had helped incarcerate his political opponents— wayward priests and the odd rebel aristocrat among them—from the sixteenth century.3 The loneliness, high walls, cold winds, and seagulls that had once attracted a particular breed of solitary monk also appealed to the Bolshevik imagination. As early as May 1920, an article in the Arkhangelsk edition of the government newspaper Izvestiya described the islands as an ideal site for a work camp: “the harsh environment, the work regime, the fight against the forces of nature will be a good school for all criminal elements.” The first handful of prisoners began arriving that summer.4

Others, higher up the chain of command, were interested in the islands as well. Dzerzhinsky himself appears to have persuaded the Soviet government to hand the confiscated monastery property, along with the property of Petrominsk and Kholmogory monasteries, over to the Cheka—by then renamed the GPU, then the OGPU, or Unified State Political Administration—on October 13, 1923. Together they were christened the “camps of special significance.” 5 Later, they would be known as “northern camps of special significance”: Severnye Lagery Osobogo Naznacheniya, or SLON. In Russian, slon means “elephant.” The name was to become a source of humor, of irony, and of menace.

In the survivors’ folklore, Solovetsky was forever after remembered as the “first camp of the Gulag.”6 Although scholars have more recently pointed out that a wide range of other camps and prisons also existed at this time, Solovetsky clearly played a special role not only in survivors’ memories, but also in the memory of the Soviet secret police. 7 Solovetsky may have not been the only prison in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, but it was their prison, the OGPU’s prison, where the OGPU first learned how to use slave labor for profit. In a 1945 lecture on the history of the camp system, Comrade Nasedkin, then the system’s chief administrator, claimed not only that the camp system originated in Solovetsky in 1920, but also that the entire Soviet system of “forced labor as a method of re-education” began there in 1926.8 This statement at first appears odd, considering that forced labor had been a recognized form of punishment in the Soviet Union since 1918. It appears less odd, however, if we look at how the concept of forced labor evolved on Solovetsky itself. For although everyone worked on the island, prisoners were not, in the early days, organized into anything remotely resembling a “system.” Nor is there evidence that their labor was in any way profitable.

To begin with, one of the two main categories of prisoner on Solovetsky did not, at first, work at all. These were the approximately 300 socialist “politicals,” who had actually begun to arrive on the island in June 1923. Sent from the Petrominsk camp, as well as from Butyrka and the other Moscow and Petrograd prisons, they were taken upon arrival immediately to the smaller Savvatyevo monastery, several kilometers north of the main monastery complex. There, the Solovetsky guards could ensure that they were isolated from other prisoners, and could not infect them with their enthusiasm for hunger strikes and protests.

Initially, the socialists were granted the “privileges” of political prisoners that they had so long demanded: newspapers, books, and, within a barbed-wire enclosure, freedom of movement and freedom from work. Each of the major political parties—the Left Social Revolutionaries, the Right Social Revolutionaries, the Anarchists, the Social Democrats, and later the Socialist Zionists—chose its own leader, and occupied rooms in its own wing of the former monastery.9

To Elinor Olitskaya, a young Left Social Revolutionary arrested in 1924, Savvatyevo seemed, at first, “nothing like a prison,” and came as a shock after her months in the dark Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Her room, a former monks’ cell in what had become the women’s section of the Social Revolutionary wing, was light, clean, freshly washed, with two large, wide, open windows. The cell was full of light and air. There were, of course, no bars on the windows. In the middle of the cell stood a small table, covered in a white cloth. Along the wall were four beds, neatly covered with sheets. Beside each one stood a small night table. On the tables lay books, notebooks, and pens.

As she marveled at the surroundings, the tea served in teapots, and the sugar served in a sugar bowl, her cell mates explained that the prisoners had created the pleasant atmosphere on purpose: “we want to live as human beings.”10 Olitsksaya soon learned that although they suffered from tuberculosis and other diseases, and rarely had enough to eat, the Solovetsky politicals were notably well-organized, with the “elder” of each party cell responsible for storing, cooking, and distributing food. Because they still had special “political” status, they were also allowed to receive packages, both from relatives and from the Political Red Cross. Although the Political Red Cross had begun to have difficulties—in 1922 its offices were raided and its property confiscated—Ekaterina Peshkova, its well-connected leader, was personally still allowed to send aid to political prisoners. In 1923, she shipped a whole train wagon full of food to the Savvatyevo political prisoners. A shipment of clothes went north in October of the same year.11

This, then, was the solution to the public relations problem posed by the politicals: give them what they want, more or less, but put them as far away from anyone else as humanly possible. It was a solution that was not to last: the Soviet system would not long tolerate exceptions. In the meantime, the illusion was easy to see through—for there was another, far larger group of prisoners on Solovetsky as well. “Upon landing on the Solovets soil, we all felt we were entering a new and strange phase of life,” wrote one political. “From conversations with the criminals, we learned of the shocking regime which the administration is applying to them . . . ”12

With far less pomp and ceremony, the main barracks of the Solovetsky kremlin were also filling up quickly with prisoners whose status was not so assured. From a few hundred in 1923, the numbers grew to 6,000 by 1925.13 Among them were White Army officers and sympathizers, “speculators,” former aristocrats, sailors who had fought in the Kronstadt rebellion, and genuine common criminals. For these inmates, tea in teapots and sugar in sugar bowls were much harder to come buy. Or, rather, they were hard to come by for some, easier for others; for, above all, what characterized life in the “criminal” barracks of the Solovetsky special camp in these very early years was irrationality, and an unpredictability which began at the moment of arrival. On their first night in the camp, writes the memoirist and former prisoner Boris Shiryaev, he and other new arrivals were greeted by Comrade A. P. Nogtev, Solovetsky’s first camp commander. “I welcome you,” he told them, with what Shiryaev describes as “irony”: “As you know, here, there is no Soviet authority, only Solovestsky authority. Any rights that you had before you can forget. Here we have our own laws.” The phrase “there is no Soviet authority, only Solovetsky authority” would be repeated again and again, as many memoirists attest. 14

Over the next few days and weeks, most of the prisoners would experience “Solovetsky authority” as a combination of criminal neglect and random cruelty. Living conditions in the converted churches and monks’ cells were primitive, and little care was taken to improve them. On his first night in his Solovetsky barracks, the writer Oleg Volkov was given a place on sploshnye nary, bunks that were in fact broad planks (of which we shall hear more later) on which a number of men slept in a row. As he lay down, bedbugs began falling on to him “one after another, like ants. I couldn’t sleep.” He went outside, where he was immediately enveloped by “clouds of mosquitoes . . . I gazed with envy at those who slept soundly, covered in parasites.” 15

Outside the main kremlin compound, things were hardly better. Officially, SLON maintained nine separate camps on the archipelago, each one further divided into battalions. But some prisoners were also kept in even more primitive conditions in the woods, near the forestry work sites.16Dmitri Likhachev, later to become one of Russia’s most celebrated literary critics, felt himself privileged because he had not been assigned to one of the many unnamed camp sites in the forest. He visited one, he wrote, “and became ill with the horror of seeing it: people slept in the trenches which they had dug, sometimes with bare hands, during the day.”17

On the outlying islands, the central camp administration exerted even less control over the behavior of individual guards and camp bosses. In his memoirs, one prisoner, Kiselev, described a camp on Anzer, one of the smaller islands. Commanded by another Chekist, Vanka Potapov, the camp consisted of three barracks and a guards’ headquarters, housed in an old church. The prisoners worked cutting trees, with no breaks, no respite, and little food. Desperate for a few days’ rest, they cut off their hands and feet. According to Kiselev, Potapov kept these “pearls” preserved in a large pile and showed them to visitors, to whom he also bragged that he had personally murdered more than 400 people with his own hands. “No one returned from there,” Kiselev wrote of Anzer. Even if his report exaggerates, it indicates the real terror which the outer camps held for the prisoners.18

All over the islands, disastrous hygienic conditions, overwork, and poor food naturally led to illness, and above all to typhus. Of the 6,000 prisoners held by SLON in 1925, about a quarter died in the winter of 1925–26, in the wake of a particularly vicious epidemic. By some calculations, the numbers stayed this high: from a quarter to one half of the prisoners may have died of typhus, starvation, and other epidemics every year. One document records 25,552 cases of typhus in the (by then much larger) SLON camps in the winter of 1929–30.19

But for some prisoners, Solovetsky meant worse than discomfort and illness. On the islands, prisoners were subjected to the kind of sadism and pointless torture of a sort found more rarely in the Gulag in later years when—as Solzhenitsyn puts it—“slave-driving had become a thought-out system.”20 Although many memoirs describe these acts, the most thorough catalogue is found in the account of an investigating commission sent from Moscow later in the decade. During the course of their investigation, the horrified Moscow officials discovered that Solovetsky guards had regularly left undressed prisoners in the old, unheated cathedral bell towers in the winter, their hands and feet tied behind their backs with a single piece of rope. They had also put prisoners “to the bench,” meaning they were forced to sit on poles for up to eighteen hours without moving, sometimes with weights tied to their legs and their feet not touching the floor, a position guaranteed to leave them crippled. Sometimes, prisoners would be made to go naked to the baths, up to 2 kilometers away, in freezing weather. Or they were deliberately given rotten meat. Or they were refused medical help. At other times, prisoners would be given pointless, unnecessary tasks: to move huge quantities of snow from one place to another, for example, or to jump off bridges into rivers whenever a guard shouted “Dolphin!” 21

Another form of torture specific to the islands, mentioned in both archives and memoirs, was to be sent “to the mosquitoes.” Klinger, a White Army officer who later made one of the few successful escapes from Solovetsky, wrote that he once saw this torture inflicted on a prisoner who complained because a parcel sent to him from home had been requisitioned. Angry prison guards responded by removing all of his clothes, including his underwear, and tying him to a post in the forest, which was, in the northern summer, swarming with mosquitoes. “Within half an hour, his whole unlucky body was covered with swelling from the bites,” wrote Klinger. Eventually, the man fainted from the pain and loss of blood.22

Mass executions seemed to take place almost at random, and many prisoners recall feeling terrified by the prospect of arbitrary death. Likhachev claims to have narrowly escaped execution in one mass murder in late October 1929. Archival documents do indeed indicate that about fifty people (not 300, as he wrote) were executed at that time, having been accused of trying to organize a rebellion.23

Nearly as bad as direct execution was a sentence to Sekirka, the church whose cellars had become the Solovetsky punishment cells. Indeed, although many stories were told about what went on in the church’s cellars, so few men returned from Sekirka that it is difficult to be certain of what conditions there were really like. One witness did see one of the brigades being marched to work: “a line of terrified people, with an inhuman look, some dressed in sacks, all barefoot, surrounded by heavy guard . . .”24

As Solovetsky legend would have it, the long flight of 365 wooden steps which lead down the steep hill from the Sekirka church also played a role in group killings. When, at one point, camp authorities forbade guards from shooting the Sekirka prisoners, they began to arrange “accidents”—and threw them down the steps.25 In recent years, the descendants of Solovetsky prisoners have erected a wooden cross at the bottom of the steps, to mark the spot where these prisoners allegedly died. It is now a peaceful and rather beautiful place—so beautiful that in the late 1990s, the Solovetsky local history museum printed a Christmas card showing Sekirka, the steps, and the cross.

While the reigning spirit of irrationality and unpredictability meant that thousands died in the SLON camps in the early 1920s, the same irrationality and unpredictability also helped others not just to live but—quite literally—to sing and dance. By 1923, a handful of prisoners had already begun organizing the camp’s first theater. At first the “actors,” many of whom spent ten hours a day cutting wood in the forests before coming to rehearsal, did not have scripts, so they played classics from memory. The theater improved greatly in 1924, when a whole group of former professional actors arrived (all sentenced as members of the same “counter-revolutionary” movement). That year, they put on productions of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Gorky’s Children of the Sun.26

Later, operas and operettas were performed in Solovetsky’s theater, which also hosted acrobatic performances and films. One musical evening included an orchestral piece, a quintet performance, a chorus, and arias from a Russian opera.27 The repertoire for March 1924 included a play by the writer Leonid Andreev (whose son Danil, another writer, would later be a Gulag prisoner), a play by Gogol, and an evening dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bernhardt.28

Nor was theater the only form of culture available. Solovetsky also had a library, which eventually numbered 30,000 books, as well as the botanical garden, in which prisoners experimented with Arctic plants. Solovetsky captives, many former St. Petersburg scientists among them, also organized a museum of local flora, fauna, art, and history.29 Some of the more elite prisoners had use of a “club” which—at least in photographs—appears positively bourgeois. The pictures show a piano, parquet floors, and portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Culture Minister, all very cozy-looking.30

Using the monks’ old lithography equipment, the Solovetsky prisoners also produced monthly magazines and newspapers featuring satirical cartoons, extremely homesick poetry, and surprisingly frank fiction. In the December 1925 edition of Solovetskie Ostrova(the name means “Solovetsky Islands”) one short story described a former actress who had arrived on Solovetsky, was forced to work as a washerwoman, and was unable to accustom herself to her new life. The story ends with the sentence “Solovetsky is cursed.”

In another short story, a former aristocrat who had once known “intimate evenings at the Winter Palace” finds comfort in his new situation only by visiting another aristocrat and talking of old times.31 Clearly, the clichés of social realism were not yet mandatory. Not all of the stories have the happy ending which later became obligatory, and not all of the fictional prisoners joyfully adapted to Soviet reality.

Solovetsky journals also contained more learned articles, ranging from Likhachev’s analysis of criminal gambling etiquette, to works on the art and architecture of Solovetsky’s ruined churches. Between 1926 and 1929, the SLON printing house even managed to put out twenty-nine editions of the work of the Solovetsky Society for Local Lore. The society conducted studies of island flora and fauna, focusing on particular species—the northern deer, the local plants—and published articles on brick production, wind currents, useful minerals, and fur farming. So interested did some prisoners become in the latter subject that in 1927, when the economic activity of the island was at its height, a group of them imported some silver-black “breeder” foxes from Finland to improve the quality of the local herds. Among other things, the Society for Local Lore carried out a geological survey, which the director of the island’s local history museum still uses today.32

These more privileged prisoners also participated in the new Soviet rites and celebrations, occasions from which a later generation of camp inmates would be deliberately excluded. An article in the September 1925 edition of Solovetskie Ostrova describes the First of May celebration on the island. Alas, the weather was poor:

On the First of May, flowers are blooming all over the Soviet Union, but in Solovetsky, the sea is still filled with ice, and there is plenty of snow. Nevertheless, we prepare to celebrate the proletarian holiday. From early morning, there is agitation in the barracks. Some are washing. Some are shaving. Someone is repairing his clothes, someone is shining his boots ...33

Even more surprising—from the perspective of later years—was the long persistence of religious ceremonies on the islands. One former prisoner, V. A. Kazachkov, remembered the “grandiose” Easter of 1926:

Not long before the holiday, the new boss of the division demanded that all who wanted to go to church should present him with a declaration. Almost no one did so at first—people were afraid of the consequences. But just before Easter, a huge number made their declarations . . . Along the road to Onufrievskaya church, the cemetery chapel, marched a great procession, people walked in several rows. Of course we didn’t all fit into the chapel. People stood outside, and those who came late couldn’t even hear the service. 34

Even the May 1924 edition of Solovetskoi Lageram, another prison journal, editorialized cautiously but positively on the subject of Easter, “an ancient holiday celebrating the coming of spring,” which “under a Red banner, can still be observed.”35

Along with religious holidays, a small handful of the original monks also continued to survive, to the amazement of many prisoners, well into the latter half of the decade. They functioned as “monk-instructors,” supposedly transmitting to the prisoners the skills needed to run their formerly successful farming and fishing enterprises—Solovetsky herring had once been a feature of the Czar’s table—as well as the secrets of the complex canal system which they had used to link the island churches for centuries. The monks were joined, over the years, by dozens more Soviet priests and members of the Church hierarchy, both Orthodox and Catholic, who had opposed the confiscation of Church wealth, or who had violated the “decree on separation of Church and state.” The clergy, somewhat like the socialist politicals, were allowed to live separately, in one particular barrack of the kremlin, and were also allowed to hold services in the small chapel of the former cemetery right up until 1930–31—a luxury forbidden to other prisoners except on special occasions.

These “privileges” appear to have caused some resentment, and there were occasional tensions between the clergy and the ordinary prisoners. One female prisoner, removed to a special maternal colony on the island of Anzer after giving birth, remembered that the nuns on the island “held themselves away from us unbelievers . . . they were angry, they didn’t like the children, and they hated us.” Other clergy, as many memoirs repeat, took quite the opposite attitude, devoting themselves to active evangelism and social work, among criminals as well as other politicals.36

For those who had it, money could also buy relief from work in the forests, and insurance against torture and death. Solovetsky had a restaurant which could (illegally) serve prisoners. Those who could afford the necessary bribes could import their own food as well.37 The camp administration at one point even set up “shops” on the island, where prisoners could purchase items of clothing, at prices twice as high as in normal Soviet shops.38 One person who allegedly bought his way out of suffering was “Count Violaro,” a swashbuckling figure whose name appears (with a wide variety of spellings) in several memoirs. The Count, usually described as the “Mexican ambassador to Egypt,” had made the mistake of going to visit his wife’s family in Soviet Georgia just after the Revolution. Both he and his wife were arrested, and deported to the far north. Although they were at first imprisoned—and the Countess was put to work doing laundry—camp legend recalls that for the sum of 5,000 rubles, the Count bought the right for both of them to live in a separate house, with a horse and a servant.39 Others recall the presence of a rich Indian merchant from Bombay, who later left with the help of the British consulate in Moscow. His memoirs were later published in the émigré press.40

So striking were these and other examples of wealthy prisoners living well—and leaving early—that in 1926 a group of less privileged prisoners wrote a letter to the Presidium of the Communist Party Central Committee, denouncing the “chaos and violence which rule the Solovetsky concentration camp.” Using phrases designed to appeal to the communist leadership, they complained that “those with money can fix themselves up with the money, thereby placing all of the hardship upon the shoulders of the workers and peasants who have no money.” While the rich bought themselves easier jobs, they wrote, “the poor work 14–16 hours a day.”41 As it turned out, they were not the only ones feeling dissatisfied with the haphazard practices of the Solovetsky camp commanders.

If random violence and unfair treatment bothered the prisoners, those higher up the Soviet hierarchy were disturbed by somewhat different issues. By the middle of the decade, it had become clear that the camps of SLON, like the rest of the “ordinary” prison system, had failed to meet the most important of their stated goals: to become self-supporting. 42 In fact, not only were Soviet concentration camps, both “special” and “ordinary,” failing to make a profit, their commanders were also constantly demanding more money.

In this, Solovetsky resembled the other Soviet prisons of the time. On the island, the extremes of cruelty and comfort were probably starker than elsewhere, due to the special nature of the prisoners and the guards, but the same irregularities would have characterized other camps and prisons across the Soviet Union at this time as well. In theory, the ordinary prison system also consisted of work “colonies” linked to farms, workshops, and factories, and their economic activity too was badly organized and unprofitable. 43 A 1928 inspector’s report on one such camp, in rural Karelia—fifty-nine prisoners, plus seven horses, two pigs, and twenty-one cows—complained that only half the prisoners had blankets; that horses were in poor condition (and one had been sold to a Gypsy, without authorization); that other horses were regularly used to run errands for the camp guards; that when the camp’s prisoner blacksmith was freed, he walked away with all of his tools; that none of the camp’s buildings had heating or even insulation, with the exception of the chief administrator’s residence. Worse, that same chief administrator spent three or four days a week outside the camp; frequently released prisoners early without permission; “stubbornly refused” to teach agronomy to the prisoners; and openly stated his belief in the “uselessness” of prisoner re-education. Some of the prisoners’ wives lived at the camp; other wives came for long visits and disappeared into the woods with their husbands. The guards indulged in “petty quarrels and drunkenness.”44No wonder higher authorities took the local Karelian government to task in 1929 for “failing to understand the importance of forced labor as a measure of social defense and its advantageousness to the state and society.”45

Such camps were clearly unprofitable, and had been from the start, as the records show. As early as July 1919, the leaders of the Cheka in Gomel, Belorussia, sent a letter to Dzerzhinsky demanding an urgent 500,000-ruble subsidy: construction of their local camp had ground to a halt for lack of funding.46 Over the subsequent decade, the different ministries and institutions that vied for the right to control prison camps continued to squabble over funding as well as power. Periodic amnesties were declared to relieve the prison system, culminating in a major amnesty in the autumn of 1927, on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. More than 50,000 people were released from the ordinary prison system, largely because of the need to relieve overcrowding and save money.47

By November 10, 1925, the need to “make better use of prisoners” was recognized at the highest level. At that time, G. L. Pyatakov, a Bolshevik who would hold a series of influential economic positions, wrote to Dzerzhinsky. “I have come to the conclusion,” his letter explained, “that in order to create the most elementary conditions for work culture, compulsory labor settlements will have to be established in certain regions. Such settlements could relieve overcrowding in places of incarceration. The GPU should be instructed to explore these issues.” He then listed four regions which needed urgent development, all of which—the island of Sakhalin in the far east, the land around the mouth of the Yenisei River in the far north, the Kazakh steppe, and the area around the Siberian city of Nerchinsk— later became camps. Dzerzhinsky approved the memo, and sent it on to two other colleagues to develop further.48

At first, nothing happened, perhaps because Dzerzhinsky himself died soon after. Nevertheless, the memo proved a harbinger of change. Up until the middle of the 1920s, the Soviet leadership had not been clear whether its prisons and camps were primarily intended to re-educate prisoners, to punish prisoners, or to make profits for the regime. Now, the many institutions with a stake in the fate of the concentration camps were slowly reaching a consensus: the prisons were to be self-sufficient. By the end of the decade, the messy world of the post-revolutionary Soviet prisons would be transformed, and a new system would emerge from the chaos. Solovetsky would become not just an organized economic concern but also a model camp, an example to be cloned many thousands of times, all across the USSR.

Even if no one was aware of it at the time, the importance of Solovetsky would become clear enough in retrospect. Later, reporting back to a Solovetsky Party meeting in 1930, a local commander named Comrade Uspensky would declare that “the experience of the work of the Solovetsky camp persuaded the Party and the government that the system of prisons across the Soviet Union must be exchanged for a system of corrective-labor camps.”49

Some of these changes were anticipated from the beginning, at the highest level, as the memo to Dzerzhinsky shows. Yet the techniques of the new system—the new methods of running camps, of organizing the prisoners and their work regime—were created on the island itself. Chaos may have ruled on Solovetsky in the mid-1920s, but out of that chaos the future Gulag system emerged.

At least a part of the explanation of how and why SLON changed revolves around the personality of Naftaly Aronovich Frenkel, a prisoner who rose through the ranks to become one of the most influential Solovetsky commanders. On the one hand, Solzhenitsyn claims in The Gulag Archipelago that Frenkel personally invented the plan to feed prisoners according to the quantity of their work. This deadly labor system, which destroyed weaker prisoners within a matter of weeks, would later cause uncounted numbers of deaths, as we shall see. On the other hand, a wide range of Russian and Western historians dispute Frenkel’s importance, and dismiss the many stories of Frenkel’s omnipotence as mere legend.50

In fact, Solzhenitsyn probably did give Frenkel too much credit: prisoners in earlier, pre-Solovetsky Bolshevik camps also mention being given extra food for extra work, and in any case the idea is in some sense obvious, and need not necessarily have been invented by one man.51 Nevertheless, recently opened archives, especially the regional archives of Karelia—the Soviet republic to which Solovetsky then belonged—do make his importance clear. Even if Frenkel did not invent every aspect of the system, he did find a way to turn a prison camp into an apparently profitable economic institution, and he did so at a time, in a place, and in a manner which may well have brought that idea to the attention of Stalin.

But the confusion is not surprising either. Frenkel’s name appears in many of the memoirs written about the early days of the camp system, and from them it is clear that even in his own lifetime the man’s identity was wreathed in myth. Official photographs show a calculatingly sinister-looking man in a leather cap and a carefully trimmed mustache; one memoirist remembers him “dressed as a dandy.”52 One of his OGPU colleagues, who greatly admired him, marveled at his perfect memory, and his ability to do sums in his head: “he never wrote anything down on paper.”53 Soviet propaganda later waxed eloquent about the “incredible capacity of his memory” as well, and spoke of his “excellent knowledge of timber and forest work in general,” his agricultural and engineering expertise, and his extensive general knowledge:

One day, for instance, he got into a conversation with two workers of the trust that manufactures soap, perfumes and cosmetics. He very soon reduced them to silence, as he displayed an enormous knowledge of perfumery, and even turned out to be an expert on the world market and the peculiarities of the olfactory likes and dislikes of the inhabitants of the Malay islands! 54

Others hated and feared him. In a series of special meetings of the Solovetsky Party cell in 1928, Frenkel’s colleagues accused him of organizing his own network of spies, “so he knows everything about everybody earlier than everyone else.”55 As early as 1927, stories about him had reached as far as Paris. In one of the first books about Solovetsky, a French anti-communist wrote of Frenkel that “thanks to his horribly insensitive initiatives, millions of unhappy people are overwhelmed by terrible labor, by atrocious suffering.”56

His contemporaries were also unclear about his origins. Solzhenitsyn called him a “Turkish Jew born in Constantinople.”57 Another described him as a “Hungarian manufacturer.”58 Shiryaev claimed he came from Odessa, while others said he was from Austria, or from Palestine, or that he had worked in the Ford factory in America. 59 The story is somewhat clarified by his prisoner registration card, which states clearly that he was born in 1883 in Haifa, at a time when Palestine was a part of the Ottoman Empire. From there, he made his way (perhaps via Odessa, perhaps via Austro-Hungary) to the Soviet Union, where he described himself as a “merchant.”60 In 1923 the authorities arrested him for “illegally crossing borders,” which could mean that he was a merchant who indulged in a bit of smuggling, or simply that he was a merchant who had become too successful for the Soviet Union to tolerate. They sentenced him to ten years of hard labor on Solovetsky. 61

How, precisely, Naftaly Frenkel managed the metamorphosis from prisoner to camp commander also remains mysterious. Legend has it that upon arriving in the camp, he was so shocked by the poor organization, by the sheer waste of money and labor, that he sat down and wrote a very precise letter, describing exactly what was wrong with every single one of the camp’s industries, forestry, farming, and brick-making among them. He put the letter into the prisoners’ “complaints box,” where it attracted the attention of an administrator who sent it, as a curiosity, to Genrikh Yagoda, the Chekist who was then moving rapidly up the ranks of the secret police bureaucracy, and would eventually become its leader. Allegedly, Yagoda immediately demanded to meet the letter’s author. According to one contemporary (and Solzhenitsyn as well, who names no source), Frenkel himself claimed that he was at one point whisked off to Moscow, where he discussed his ideas with Stalin and Kaganovich, one of Stalin’s henchmen, as well.62 This is where the legend grows mistier: although records show that Frenkel did indeed meet Stalin in the 1930s, and although he was protected by Stalin during the Party purge years, no record has yet been found of any visit in the 1920s. This is not to say that it did not happen: the records may simply not have survived. 63

Some circumstantial evidence backs up these stories. Naftaly Frenkel was, for example, promoted from prisoner to guard within a surprisingly short period, even by the chaotic standards of SLON. By November 1924, when Frenkel had been resident in the camp for less than a year, the SLON administration had already applied for his early release. The request was finally granted in 1927. In the meantime, the camp administration would regularly submit statements to the OGPU describing Frenkel in glowing terms: “in camp he conducted himself as such an exceptionally talented worker that he has won the confidence of the administration of SLON, and is treated with authority . . . he is one of the rare, responsible workers.”64

We also know that Frenkel organized, and then ran, the Ekonomicheskayakommercheskaya chast, the Economic-Commercial Department of SLON, and in that capacity attempted to make the Solovetsky camps not merely self-supporting, as the decrees on concentration camps required, but actually profitable—to the point where they began to take jobs away from other enterprises. Although these were state enterprises, not private enterprises, elements of competition still remained in the Soviet economy in the 1920s, and Frenkel took advantage of them. By September 1925, with Frenkel running its economic department, SLON had already won the right to cut 130,000 cubic meters of wood in Karelia, outbidding a civilian forestry enterprise in the process. SLON had also become a shareholder in the Karelian Communal Bank, and was bidding for the right to build a road from Kem to the far northern city of Ukhta.65

From the beginning the Karelian authorities were unnerved by all of this activity, particularly since they had initially opposed the construction of the camp altogether.66 Later, their complaints grew louder. At a meeting called to discuss SLON’s expansion, local authorities complained that the camp had unfair access to cheap labor, and would therefore put ordinary foresters out of work. Still later, the mood of the meetings shifted, and those in attendance raised more serious objections. At a meeting of the Karelian Council of People’s Commissars—the government of the Karelian Republic—in February 1926, several local leaders attacked SLON for overcharging them, and for demanding too much money for the building of the road from Kem to Ukhta. “It has become clear,” summed up Comrade Yuzhnev angrily, that “SLON is a kommersant, a merchant with large, grabbing hands, and that its basic goal is to make profits.”67

The Karelian trading enterprise, a state company, was also up in arms against SLON’s decision to open its own shop in Kem. The state enterprise could not afford to open such a business, but SLON, which could demand longer hours from its prisoner employees, and could pay them far less— nothing, in fact—managed to do so.68 Worse, the authorities complained, SLON’s special links with the OGPU allowed it to disregard local laws and avoid paying money into the regional budget.69

The argument over the profitability, efficiency, and fairness of prison labor was to continue for the next quarter century (and will be discussed more thoroughly later in this book). But in the mid-1920s, the Karelian local authorities were not winning it. In his 1925 reports on the economic condition of the Solovetsky camp, Comrade Fyodor Eichmanns—at this point Nogtev’s deputy, although he would later run the camp—bragged about SLON’s economic achievements, claiming that its brick factory, formerly in a “pathetic state,” was now thriving, its woodcutting enterprises were overfulfilling that year’s plan, its power plant had been completed, and fish production had doubled.70 Versions of these reports later appeared both in Solovetsky’s journals and elsewhere in the Soviet Union for popular consumption. 71 They contained careful calculations: one report estimated the average daily cost of rations at 29 kopeks, the annual cost of clothing at 34 rubles and 57 kopeks. The total expenditure on each prisoner, including medical care and transport, was said to be 211 rubles and 67 kopeks per year.72 Although as late as 1929, the camp was in fact running a deficit of 1.6 million rubles73—quite possibly because the OGPU stole from the till— Solovetsky’s supposed economic success was still trumpeted far and wide.

That success soon became the central argument for the restructuring of the entire Soviet prison system. If it was to be achieved at the cost of worse rations and poorer living conditions for prisoners, no one much cared.74 If it was to be achieved at the price of poor relations with local authorities, that bothered no one either.

Within the camp itself, few doubted who was responsible for this alleged success. Everyone firmly identified Frenkel with the commercialization of the camp, and many equally firmly hated him for it. At a rancorous meeting of the Solovetsky Communist Party in 1928—so rancorous that part of the meeting’s protocols were declared too secret to keep in the archive, and are unavailable—one camp commander, Comrade Yashenko, complained that SLON’s Economic-Commercial Department had accrued far too much influence: “everything lies in its competence.” He also attacked Frenkel, “a former prisoner who was freed after three years’ work because at that time there were not enough people [guards] to work at the camp.” So important had Frenkel become, complained Yashenko (whose language contains a strong whiff of anti-Semitism), that “when a rumor came around that he might leave, people were saying, “we can’t work without him.”

Yashenko hated Frenkel so much, he confessed, that he had contemplated murdering him. Others asked why Frenkel, a former prisoner, received priority service and cheap prices in the SLON shops—as if he were the owner. Still others said SLON had become so commercial that it had forgotten its other tasks: all re-educational work in the camp had been halted, and prisoners were being held to unfair work standards. When prisoners mutilated themselves to escape work norms, their cases were not investigated.75

But just as SLON was to win the argument against the Karelian authorities, so Frenkel was to win the argument, within SLON—perhaps thanks to his contacts in Moscow—about what kind of camp Solovetsky should become, how prisoners were to work in it, and how they should be treated.

As I have already mentioned, Frenkel probably did not invent the notorious you-eat-as-you-work system, by which prisoners were given food rations according to the amount of work they completed. Nevertheless, he did preside over the development and flowering of that system, which grew from a slapdash arrangement in which work was sometimes “paid” with food, into a very precise, regulated method of food distribution and prisoner organization.

In fact, Frenkel’s system was quite straightforward. He divided the prisoners of SLON into three groups according to their physical abilities: those deemed capable of heavy work, those capable of light work, and invalids. Each group received a different set of tasks, and a set of norms to fulfill. They were then fed accordingly—and the differences between their rations were quite drastic. One chart, drawn up between 1928 and 1932, allotted 800 grams of bread and 80 grams of meat to the first group; 500 grams of bread and 40 grams of meat to the second group; and 400 grams of bread and 40 grams of meat to the third group. The lowest category of worker, in other words, received half as much food as the highest.76

In practice, the system sorted prisoners very rapidly into those who would survive, and those who would not. Fed relatively well, the strong prisoners grew stronger. Deprived of food, the weak prisoners grew weaker, and eventually became ill or died. The process was made more rapid and more extreme because work norms were often set very high—impossibly high for some prisoners, particularly for city people who had never worked digging peat or cutting trees. In 1928, the central authorities punished a group of camp guards because they had forced 128 people to work in the forest all night during winter, in order to fulfill the norm. A month later, 75 percent of the prisoners were still seriously ill with severe frostbite.77

Under Frenkel, the nature of SLON’s work changed as well: he was not interested in fripperies such as fur farming, or the cultivation of exotic Arctic plants. Instead, he sent prisoners to build roads and cut trees, taking advantage of the free, unskilled labor that SLON possessed in abundance. 78The nature of the work quickly changed the nature of the camp, or rather of the camps, for SLON now began to expand well beyond the Solovetsky archipelago. Frenkel no longer cared, particularly, whether prisoners were kept in a prison setting, in prison buildings, behind barbed wire. He sent teams of convict laborers all over the Karelian Republic and the Arkhangelsk region of the Russian mainland, thousands of kilometers away from Solovetsky, to wherever they were most needed.79

Like a management consultant taking over a failing company, Frenkel “rationalized” other aspects of camp life as well, slowly discarding everything that did not contribute to the camp’s economic productivity. All pretense of re-education was rapidly dropped. As Frenkel’s detractors complained, he had shut down the camp’s journals and newspapers, and halted the meetings of the Solovetsky Society for Local Lore. The Solovetsky museum and theater continued to exist, but solely in order to impress visiting bigwigs.

At the same time, random cruelty was becoming less common. In 1930, the Shanin Commission, a special delegation of the OGPU, arrived on the island to investigate rumors of ill-treatment of prisoners. Their reports confirmed the stories of excessive beating and torture on the island. In a stunning reversal of previous policy, the commission sentenced and executed nineteen of the OGPU perpetrators.80 Such behavior was now considered out of place in an institution that valued trudosposobnost—“work capability”—above all else.

Finally, under Frenkel’s leadership, the concept of “political prisoner” changed for good. In the autumn of 1925, the artificial lines that had been drawn between those with criminal sentences and those convicted of counter-revolutionary crimes were dropped as both groups were sent together to the mainland to work in the huge forestry projects and wood-processing plants of Karelia. SLON no longer recognized privileged prisoners, but rather saw all prisoners as potential laborers.81

The socialist residents of the Savvatyevo barracks presented a larger problem. Clearly, the socialist politicals did not fit into anyone’s idea of economic efficiency since they refused, on principle, to do any form of forced labor whatsoever. They even refused to cut their own firewood. “We have been exiled administratively,” one complained, “and the administration must provide us with all the necessities.”82 Not surprisingly, that position began to inspire resentment in the camp administration. Although he had personally negotiated with the politicals in Petrominsk in the spring of 1923, and had personally promised them a freer regime on Solovetsky if they would agree to go there peacefully, Commander Nogtev in particular appears to have resented their endless demands. He argued with the politicals about their freedom of movement, about their access to doctors, and about their right to correspond with the outside world. Finally, on December 19, 1923, at the height of a particularly bitter argument over prisoner curfews, the soldiers guarding the Savvatayevo barracks opened fire on a group of politicals, killing six of them.

The incident caused an uproar abroad. The Political Red Cross smuggled reports of the shooting across the border. Accounts appeared in the Western press even before they had appeared in Russia. Telegrams between the island and the Communist Party leadership went swiftly back and forth. At first, the camp authorities defended the shootings, claiming that the prisoners had broken the curfew and that the soldiers had given three warnings before firing.

Later, in April 1924, while not quite admitting that the soldiers had failed to give any warnings—and prisoners agree they did not—the camp administration provided a more elaborate analysis of what had happened. The politicals, their report explained, were of a “different class” from the soldiers assigned to guard them. The prisoners spent their time reading books and newspapers; the soldiers had no books and newspapers. The prisoners ate white bread, butter, and milk; the soldiers had none of these. It was an “abnormal situation.” Natural resentment had built up, the workers resenting the nonworkers, and when prisoners had defied the curfew, blood was inevitably spilled.83 To back up their conclusions, camp administrators read letters from prisoners aloud at a meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee in Moscow: “I am feeling well, I am eating well . . . it isn’t necessary to send me clothes and food now.” Other letters described the beautiful views.84 When some of these letters later appeared in the Soviet press, prisoners insisted they had written these idyllic descriptions of life on the island only in order to calm the fears of their relatives.85

Indignant, the Central Committee took action. A committee led by Gleb Boky, the OGPU boss in charge of concentration camps, paid a visit to the Solovetsky camps and the transit prison in Kem. A series of articles in Izvestiya followed in October 1924. “Those who believe Solovetsky is a depressing, gloomy prison, where people sit and waste time in crowded cells, are deeply mistaken,” wrote N. Krasikov. “The whole camp consists of a huge economic organization of 3,000 laborers, working at the most varied types of production.” Singing the praises of Solovetsky’s industry and agriculture, Krasikov then went on to describe life in the socialists Savvatyevo barracks:

The life they lead can be characterized as anarcho-intellectual, with all of the negative aspects of that form of existence. Continued idleness, harping on political dissensions, family quarrels, factional disputes, and above all an aggressive and hostile attitude to the government in general and the local administration and Red Army guards in particular . . . all this combined makes these three hundred-odd people hostile to every measure and every attempt of the local authorities to introduce regularity and organization into their lives.86

In another journal, the Soviet authorities claimed socialist prisoners enjoyed better rations than those of the Red Army. Those prisoners were also free to meet relatives—how else could they be smuggling out information?—and had plenty of doctors, more than in normal workers’ villages. Sneeringly, the article also claimed that these prisoners demanded “rare and expensive patent preparations” as well as gold caps and gold bridges on their teeth.87

It was the beginning of the end. After a series of discussions, during which the Central Committee considered and rejected the idea of exiling the politicals abroad—they were worried about the impact on Western socialists, particularly, for some reason, the British Labor Party—a decision was taken.88 At dawn on June 17, 1925, soldiers surrounded the Savvatyevo monastery. They gave the prisoners two hours to pack. They then marched them to the port, forced them into boats, and packed them off to distant closed prisons in central Russia—Tobolsk in western Siberia, and Verkhneuralsk, in the Urals—where they found far worse conditions than in Savvatyevo.89 One prisoner wrote of locked cells, the air of which is poisoned by the old, stinking toilet bucket; the politicals isolated from one another . . . our rations are worse than in Solovetsky. The prison administration refuses to recognize our starosta [group leader]. There is neither hospital nor medical aid. The prison consists of two floors: the cells of the lower floor are damp and dark. In these are kept the sick comrades, some of whom are consumptive . . . 90

Although they kept on fighting for their rights, kept sending letters abroad, kept tapping messages to one another through prison walls, and kept staging hunger strikes, Bolshevik propaganda was drowning out the socialists’ protests. In Berlin, in Paris, and in New York, the old prisoners’ aid societies began to experience greater difficulty collecting money.91 “When the events of 19 December occurred,” wrote one prisoner to a friend outside of Russia, referring to the shootings of the six prisoners in 1923, “it seemed subjectively to us that the ‘world would be convulsed’—our socialist world. But it appeared that it did not notice the Solovets events, and then a ring of laughter entered the tragedy.” 92

By the end of the 1920s the socialist politicals no longer had a unique status. They shared their cells with Bolsheviks, Trotskyites, and common criminals. Within the decade politicals—or rather “counter-revolutionaries”

—would be considered not as privileged prisoners but as inferior ones, ranked lower in the camp hierarchy than criminals. No longer citizens with rights of the sort the politicals had defended, they were of interest to their captors only insofar as they were able to work. And only insofar as they were able to work would they be fed enough to stay alive.

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