Modern history

Chapter 5


We go forward, and behind us
The whole brigade walks merrily along.
In front of us, the victory of the Stakhanovites
Opens a new path . . .
For the old path is no longer known to us,
From our dungeons we have risen to the call
Along the path of Stakhanovite triumph
Believing, we walk towards a life of freedom . . .

—From the journal Kuznitsa printed in Sazlag, 1936 1

POLITICALLY, THE WHITE SEA CANAL was the most important Gulag project of its era. Thanks to Stalin’s personal involvement, no existing resources were spared on its construction. Lavish propaganda also ensured that its successful completion was trumpeted far and wide. Yet the canal was not typical of the Gulag’s new projects, of which it was neither the first nor the largest.

In fact, even before construction of the canal had begun, the OGPU had already started quietly deploying prison labor all over the country, with far less fuss and propaganda. By the middle of 1930, the Gulag system already had 300,000 inmates at its disposal, dispersed among a dozen or so camp complexes and a few smaller sites. It had put 15,000 people to work in Dallag, a new camp in the far east. More than 20,000 were building and operating chemical plants in Vishlag, a camp organized on the base of the Vishersky division of SLON, on the western side of the Ural Mountains. In Siblag, in western Siberia, prisoners were building the northern railways, making bricks, and cutting trees, while the 40,000 prisoners of SLON were at work building roads, cutting wood for export, and packaging 40 percent of the fish harvested in the White Sea.2

Unlike the White Sea Canal, these new camps were not for show. Although they were certainly of greater economic significance to the Soviet Union, no teams of writers set out to describe them. Their existence was not completely secret—not yet—but no one publicized them either: the “real” achievements of the Gulag were not for foreign or even domestic consumption.

As the camps expanded, the nature of the OGPU changed too. As before, Soviet secret police continued to spy upon the regime’s enemies, to interrogate suspected dissidents, and to ferret out “plots” and “conspiracies.” From 1929 on, the secret police also shouldered part of the responsibility for the Soviet Union’s economic development. Over the next decade, they would even become pioneers of a sort, often organizing the exploration as well as the exploitation of the Soviet Union’s natural resources. They planned and equipped geological expeditions which sought to identify the coal, oil, gold, nickel, and other metals that lay beneath the frozen tundra of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of the Soviet far north. They decided which of the enormous stands of timber would be the next to be cut into valuable raw-wood exports. To move these resources into the Soviet Union’s major cities and industrial centers, they set up a huge network of road and rail links, carving out a rudimentary transport system across thousands of kilometers of uninhabited wilderness. On occasion, they took part in these ventures themselves, marching across the tundra, clad in heavy fur coats and thick boots, telegraphing their discoveries back to Moscow.

Prisoners acquired new roles along with their captors. Although some continued to toil behind barbed wire, digging coal or ditches, throughout the first half of the 1930s prisoners also paddled canoes down rivers north of the Arctic Circle, carried the equipment needed for the geological surveys, and broke the ground for new coal mines and oil wells. They built the barracks, unrolled the barbed wire, and set up the watchtowers for new camps. They constructed the refineries needed to process the resources, pounded in the stakes for the railways, and poured the cement for the roads. Eventually, they settled the newly opened territories too, populating the virgin wilderness.

Later, Soviet historians would lyrically call this episode in Soviet history the “Opening Up of the Far North,” and it is true that it did represent a real break with the past. Even in the last decades of Czarist rule, when a belated industrial revolution had finally exploded across Russia, no one had attempted to explore and settle the far northern regions of the country with this intensity. The climate was too harsh, the potential human suffering too great, Russian technology too primitive. The Soviet regime was less troubled by such concerns. Although its technology was not much better, it had little regard for the lives of the people it sent to do the “opening up.” If some of them died—well, more could be found.

Tragedies were plentiful, particularly at the outset of this new era. Recently, the veracity of one particularly horrific incident, long a part of camp survivors’ folklore, was confirmed by a document found in the archives in Novosibirsk. Signed by an instructor of the Party Committee in Narym, western Siberia, and sent to the personal attention of Stalin in May 1933, it precisely describes the arrival of a group of deported peasants—described as “backward elements”—on the island of Nazino in the Ob River. The peasants were exiles, and as such were supposed to settle on the land, and presumably to farm it:

The first convoy contained 5,070 people, and the second 1,044; 6,114 in all. The transport conditions were appalling: the little food that was available was inedible and the deportees were cramped into nearly airtight spaces . . . The result was a daily mortality rate of 35–40 people. These living conditions, however, proved to be luxurious in comparison to what awaited the deportees on the island of Nazino . . . The island of Nazino is a totally uninhabited place, devoid of any settlements . . . There were no tools, no grain, and no food. That is how their new life began. The day after the arrival of the first convoy, on 19 May, snow began to fall again, and the wind picked up. Starving, emaciated from months of insufficient food, without shelter and without tools . . . they were trapped. They weren’t even able to light fires to ward off the cold. More and more of them began to die . . .

On the first day, 295 people were buried. It was only on the fourth or fifth day after the convoy’s arrival on the island that the authorities sent a bit of flour by boat, really no more than a few pounds per person. Once they had received their meagre ration, people ran to the edge of the water and tried to mix some of the flour with water in their hats, their trousers or their jackets. Most of them just tried to eat it straight off, and some of them even choked to death. These tiny amounts of flour were the only food that the deportees received during the entire period of their stay on the island . . .

By August 20, three months later, the Party functionary went on to write, nearly 4,000 of the original 6,114 “settlers” were dead. The survivors had lived because they ate the flesh of those who had died. According to another inmate, who encountered some of these survivors in the Tomsk prison, they looked “like walking corpses,” and were all under arrest— accused of cannibalism.3

Even when the death toll was not quite so horrific, living conditions in many of the Gulag’s best-known early projects could be very nearly as intolerable. BAMlag, a camp organized around the construction of a railway line from Baikal to Amur, in the Russian far east—part of the Trans-Siberian Express railway system—was one notable example of how badly things could go wrong through simple lack of planning. Like the White Sea Canal, the railway construction was carried out in great haste, with no advance preparation whatsoever. The camp’s planners carried out the exploration of the terrain, the design of the railway, and the building of the railway simultaneously; construction began before the surveys were complete. Even so, surveyors were forced to make their report of the 2,000-kilometer track in under four months, without adequate shoes, clothing, and instruments. Existing maps were poor, as a result of which costly mistakes were made. According to one survivor, “two workers’ parties [each surveying a separate length of track] found they could not close ranks and finish work, because the two rivers along which they were walking came together only on maps, when in fact they were far apart.” 4

Convoys began arriving at the camp’s headquarters in the town of Svobodny (the name means “Freedom”) without any respite, as soon as the work had begun. Between January 1933 and January 1936 the numbers of prisoners rose from a few thousand to over 180,000. Many were already weak upon arrival, shoeless and badly clothed, suffering from scurvy, syphilis, dysentery, among them survivors of the famines that had swept the rural Soviet Union in the early 1930s. The camp was totally unprepared. One arriving convoy was put in cold, dark barracks upon arrival and given bread covered with dust. The BAMlag commanders were unable to deal with the chaos, as they admitted in reports they filed to Moscow, and were particularly ill-equipped to deal with weak prisoners. As a result, those too ill to work were simply put on disciplinary rations and left to starve. One convoy of twenty-nine people died within thirty-seven days of arrival.5 Before the railway was completed, tens of thousands of prisoners may well have died.

Similar stories were repeated across the country. On the Gulag railway construction site of Sevlag, northeast of Arkhangelsk, engineers determined in 1929 that the number of prisoners assigned to their project would have to be increased sixfold. Between April and October of that year, convoys of prisoners duly began to arrive—to find nothing. One prisoner remembered: “There were neither barracks, nor a village. There were tents, on the side, for the guards and for the equipment. There weren’t many people, perhaps one and a half thousand. The majority were middle-aged peasants, former kulaks. And criminals. No visible intelligentsia . . .”6

Yet although all of the camp complexes founded in the early 1930s were disorganized to start out with—and all of them were unprepared to receive the emaciated prisoners coming in from the famine districts—not all of them descended into lethal disarray. Given the right set of circumstances— relatively favorable conditions on the ground, combined with strong support from Moscow—some found it possible to grow. With surprising speed, they developed more stable bureaucratic structures, built more permanent buildings, even spawned a local NKVD elite. A handful would eventually occupy whole swathes of territory, converting entire regions of the country into vast prisons. Of the camps founded at this time, two—the Ukhtinskaya Expedition and the Dalstroi Trust—eventually attained the size and status of industrial empires. Their origins deserve a closer look.

To the unobservant passenger, an automobile ride along the crumbling cement highway that leads from the city of Syktyvkar, the administrative capital of the Komi Republic, to the city of Ukhta, one of Komi’s major industrial centers, would seem to offer little of interest. The 200-kilometer road, somewhat the worse for wear in a few places, leads through endless pine forests and across swampy fields. Although the road crosses a few rivers, the views are otherwise unremarkable: this is the taiga, the splendidly monotonous sub-Arctic landscape for which Komi (and indeed all of northern Russia) is best known.

Even though the views are not spectacular, closer examination reveals some oddities. If you know where to look, it is possible in certain places to see indentations in the ground, just alongside the road. These are the only remaining evidence of the camp that was once strung out along the length of the road, and of the teams of prisoners that built it. Because the building sites were temporary, prisoners here were often housed not in barracks but in zemlyanki, earth dugouts: hence the marks in the ground.

On another section of the road lies the remains of a more substantial sort of camp, once attached to a small oil field. Weeds and underbrush now cover the site, but they are easily pushed away to reveal rotting wooden boards—possibly preserved by the oil that came off the prisoners’ boots— and bits of barbed wire. There is no memorial here, although there is one at Bograzdino, a transit camp farther along the road, which held up to 25,000 people. No trace remains of Bograzdino whatsoever. In yet another place along the road—behind a modern gas station, property of Lukoil, a present-day Russian company—stands an old wooden watchtower, surrounded by metal debris and bits of rusted wire.

Carry on to Ukhta in the company of someone who knows the city well, and its hidden history will be quickly revealed. All of the roads leading into town were once built by prisoners, as were all of central Ukhta’s office blocks and apartment buildings. In the very heart of the city there is a park, planned and built by prisoner architects; a theater in which prisoner actors performed; and sturdy wooden houses, where the camp commanders once lived. Today, the managers of Gazprom, another new Soviet company, inhabit modern buildings on the same leafy street.

Nor, in the Komi Republic, is Ukhta unique. Although difficult at first to see, traces of the Gulag are visible all over Komi, this vast region of taiga and tundra which lies to the northeast of St. Petersburg and to the west of the Ural Mountains. Prisoners planned and built all of the republic’s major cities, not just Ukhta but also Syktyvkar, Pechora, Vorkuta, and Inta. Prisoners built Komi’s railways and roads, as well as its original industrial infrastructure. To the inmates who were sent there in the 1940s and 1950s, Komi seemed to be nothing but one vast camp—which it was. Many of its villages are still referred to locally by their Stalinist-era names: “Chinatown,” for example, where a group of Chinese prisoners were held; or “Berlin,” once inhabited by German prisoners of war.

The origins of this vast republic of prisons lay in one of the earliest OGPU expeditions, the Ukhtinskaya Expedition, which set out in 1929 to explore what was then an empty wilderness. By Soviet standards, the expedition was relatively well-prepared. It had a surfeit of specialists, most of whom were already prisoners in the Solovetsky system: in 1928 alone, sixty-eight mining engineers had been sent to SLON, victims of that year’s campaigns against the “wreckers” and “saboteurs” who were supposedly holding back the Soviet Union’s drive to industrialization.7

In November 1928, with mysteriously good timing, the OGPU also arrested N. Tikhonovich, a well-known geologist. After throwing him into Moscow’s Butyrka prison, however, they did not carry out an ordinary interrogation. Instead, they brought him to a planning meeting. Wasting no time on preliminaries, Tikhonovich remembered later, a group of eight people—he was not told who they were—asked him, point-blank, how to prepare an expedition to Komi. What clothes would he take if he were going? How many provisions? Which tools? Which method of transport? Tikhonovich, who had first been to the region in 1900, proposed two routes. The geologists could go by land, trekking on foot and on horseback over the mud and forest of the uninhabited taiga to the village of Syktyvkar, then the largest in the region. Alternatively, they could take the water route: from the port of Arkhangelsk in the White Sea, along the northern coast to the mouth of the Pechora River, then continuing inland on the Pechora’s tributaries. Tikhonovich recommended the latter route, pointing out that boats could carry more heavy equipment. On his recommendation, the expedition proceeded by sea. Tikhonovich, still a prisoner, became its chief geologist.

No time was wasted, and no expense was spared, for the Soviet leadership considered the expedition to be an urgent priority. In May, the Gulag administration in Moscow named two senior secret police bosses to lead the group: E. P. Skaya—the former chief of security at the Smolny Institute, Lenin’s first headquarters during the Revolution, and later chief of security at the Kremlin itself—and S. F. Sidorov, the OGPU’s top economic planner. At about the same time, the expedition bosses selected their “workforce”— 139 of the stronger, healthier prisoners in the SLON transit camp in Kem, politicals, kulaks, and criminals among them. After two more months of preparation, they were ready. On July 5, 1929, at seven o’clock in the morning, the prisoners began loading equipment on to SLON’s steamer, the Gleb Boky. Less than twenty-four hours later, they set sail.

Not surprisingly, the floating expedition encountered many obstacles. Several of the guards appear to have got cold feet, and one actually ran away during a stopover in Arkhangelsk. Small groups of prisoners also managed to escape at various points along the route. When the expedition finally made it to the mouth of the Pechora River, local guides proved difficult to find. Even if paid, the indigenous Komi natives did not want anything to do with prisoners or the secret police, and they refused to help the ship navigate upstream. Nevertheless, after seven weeks the ship finally arrived. On August 21, they set up their base camp in the village of Chibyu—later to be renamed Ukhta.

After the tiring voyage, the general mood must have been exceptionally gloomy. They had traveled a long way—and where had they arrived? Chibyu offered little in the way of creature comforts. One of the prisoner specialists, a geographer named Kulevsky, remembered his first view of the place: “The heart compressed at the sight of the wild, empty landscape: the absurdly large, black, solitary watch tower, the two poor huts, the taiga and the mud . . .”8

He would have had little time for further reflection. By late August, hints of autumn were already in the air. There was little time to spare. As soon as they arrived, the prisoners immediately began to work twelve hours a day, building their camp and their work sites. The geologists set out to find the best places to drill for oil. More specialists arrived later in the autumn. New prisoner convoys arrived too, first monthly and then weekly, throughout the 1930 “season.” By the end of the expedition’s first year, the number of prisoners had grown to nearly a thousand.

Despite the advance planning, conditions in these early days, for both prisoners and exiles, were horrendous, as they were everywhere else. Most had to live in tents, as there were no barracks. Nor were there enough winter clothes and boots, or anywhere near enough food. Flour and meat arrived in smaller quantities than had been ordered, as did medicines. The number of sick and weakened prisoners rose, as the expedition’s leaders admitted in a report they filed later. The isolation was no less difficult to bear. So far were these new camps from civilization—so far were they from roads, even, let alone railway lines—that no barbed wire was used in Komi until 1937. Escape was considered pointless.

Still, prisoners kept arriving—and supplementary expeditions continued to set out from the base camp at Ukhta. If they were successful, each one of these expeditions founded, in turn, a new base camp—a lagpunkt— sometimes in places that were almost impossibly remote, several days’ or weeks’ trek from Ukhta. They, in turn, founded further sub-camps, to build roads or collective farms to serve the prisoners’ needs. In this manner, camps spread like fast-growing weeds across the empty forests of Komi.


The route of the Ukhtinskaya Expedition, Komi Republic, 1929


Ukhtpechlag, Komi Republic, 1937

Some of the expeditions proved to be temporary. Such was the fate of one of the first, which set out from Ukhta in the summer of 1930 for Vaigach Island, in the Arctic Sea. Earlier geological expeditions had already found lead and zinc deposits on the island, although the Vaigach Expedition, as it came to be called, was well provided with geologist prisoners as well. Some of these geologists performed in such an exemplary manner that the OGPU rewarded them: they were allowed to bring their wives and children to live with them on the island. So remote was the location that the camp commanders appear not to have worried about escape, and they allowed prisoners to walk anywhere they wished, in the company of other prisoners or free workers, without any special permissions or passes. To encourage “shock-work in the Arctic,” Matvei Berman, then the Gulag boss, granted prisoners on Vaigach Island two days off their sentence for every such day worked. 9 In 1934, however, the mine filled with water, and the OGPU moved both prisoners and equipment off the island the following year.10

Other expeditions would prove more permanent. In 1931, a team of twenty-three set off northward from Ukhta by boat, up the inland waterways, intending to begin the excavation of an enormous coal deposit—the Vorkuta coal basin—discovered in the Arctic tundra of the northern part of Komi the previous year. As on all such expeditions, geologists led the way, prisoners manned the boats, and a small OGPU contingent commanded the operation, paddling and marching through the swarms of insects that inhabit the tundra in summer months. They spent their first nights in open fields, then somehow built a camp, survived the winter, and constructed a primitive mine the following spring: Rudnik No. 1. Using picks and shovels and wooden carts, and no mechanized equipment whatsoever, the prisoners began to dig coal. Within a mere six years, Rudnik No. 1 would grow into the city of Vorkuta and the headquarters of Vorkutlag, one of the largest and toughest camps in the entire Gulag system. By 1938, Vorkutlag contained 15,000 prisoners and had produced 188,206 tons of coal.11

Technically, not all of the new inhabitants of Komi were prisoners. From 1929, the authorities also began to send “special exiles” to the region. At first these were almost all kulaks, who arrived with their wives and children and were expected to start living off the land. Yagoda himself had declared that the exiles were to be given “free time” in which they were to plant gardens, raise pigs, go fishing, and build their own homes: “first they will live on camp rations, then at their own cost.”12 While all of that sounds rather rosy, in fact nearly 5,000 such exile families arrived in 1930—over 16,000 people—to find, as usual, almost nothing. There were 268 barracks built by November of that year, although at least 700 were needed. Three or four families shared each room. There was not enough food, clothing, or winter boots. The exile villages lacked baths, roads, postal service, and telephone cables.13

Although some died, and many tried to escape—344 had attempted to escape by the end of July—the Komi exiles became a permanent adjunct to the Komi camp system. Later waves of repression brought more of them to the region, particularly Poles and Germans. Hence the local references to some of the Komi villages as “Berlin.” Exiles did not live behind barbed wire, but did the same jobs as prisoners, sometimes in the same places. In 1940, a logging camp was changed into an exile village—proof that, in a certain sense, the groups were interchangeable. Many exiles also wound up working as guards or administrators in the camps.14

In time, this geographical growth was reflected in camp nomenclature. In 1931, the Ukhtinskaya Expedition was renamed the Ukhto-Pechorsky Corrective-Labor Camp, or Ukhtpechlag. Over the subsequent two decades, Ukhtpechlag itself would be renamed many more times—and reorganized and divided up—to reflect its changing geography, its expanding empire, and its growing bureaucracy. By the end of the decade, in fact, Ukhtpechlag would no longer be a single camp at all. Instead, it spawned a whole network of camps, two dozen in total, including: Ukhtpechlag and Ukhtizhemlag (oil and coal); Ustvymlag (forestry); Vorkuta and Inta (coal-mining); and Sevzheldorlag (railways).15

In the course of the next several years, Ukhtpechlag and its descendants also became denser, acquiring new institutions and new buildings in accordance with their ever-expanding requirements. Needing hospitals, camp administrators built them, and introduced systems for training prisoner pharmacists and prisoner nurses. Needing food, they constructed their own collective farms, their own warehouses, and their own distribution systems. Needing electricity, they built power plants. Needing building materials, they built brick factories.

Needing educated workers, they trained the ones that they had. Much of the ex-kulak workforce turned out to be illiterate or semiliterate, which caused enormous problems when dealing with projects of relative technical sophistication. The camp’s administration therefore set up technical training schools, which required, in turn, more new buildings and new cadres: math and physics teachers, as well as “political instructors” to oversee their work.16 By the 1940s, Vorkuta—a city built in the permafrost, where roads had to be resurfaced and pipes had to be repaired every year—had acquired a geological institute and a university, theaters, puppet theaters, swimming pools, and nurseries.

Yet if the expansion of Ukhtpechlag was not much publicized, neither was it haphazard. Without a doubt the camp’s commanders on the ground wanted their project to grow, and their prestige to grow along with it. Urgent necessity, not central planning, would have led to the creation of many new camp departments. Still, there was a neat symbiosis between the Soviet government’s needs (a place to dump its enemies) and the regions’ needs (more people to cut trees). When Moscow wrote offering to send exile settlers in 1930, for example, local leaders were delighted.17 The camp’s fate was discussed at the highest possible levels as well. It is worth noting that in November 1932, the Politburo—with Stalin present—dedicated most of an entire meeting to a discussion of the present state and future plans of Ukhtpechlag, discussing its prospects and its supplies in surprising detail. From the meeting’s protocols, it seems as if the Politburo made all the decisions, or at least approved everything of any importance: which mines the camp should develop; which railways it should construct; how many tractors, cars, and boats it required; how many exile families it could absorb. The Politburo also allocated money for the camp’s construction: more than 26 million rubles. 18

It can be no accident that during the three years following this decision, the number of prisoners nearly quadrupled, from 4,797 in mid-1932 to 17,852 in mid-1933.19 At the very highest levels of the Soviet hierarchy, someone very much wanted Ukhtpechlag to grow. Given his power and prestige—that could only have been Stalin himself.

In the same way that Auschwitz has become, in popular memory, the camp which symbolizes all other Nazi camps, so too has the word “Kolyma” come to signify the greatest hardships of the Gulag. “Kolyma,” wrote one historian, “is a river, a mountain range, a region, and a metaphor.”20Rich in minerals—and above all rich in gold—the vast Kolyma region in the far northeastern corner of Siberia, on the Pacific coast, may well be the most inhospitable part of Russia. Kolyma is colder than Komi—temperatures there regularly fall to more than 49 degrees Fahrenheit below zero in the winter—and even more remote.21 To reach the camps of Kolyma, prisoners traveled by train across the entire length of the USSR—sometimes a three-month journey—to Vladivostok. They made the rest of the trip by boat, traveling north past Japan, through the Sea of Okhotsk, to the port of Magadan, the gateway to the Kolyma River valley.

Kolyma’s first commander is one of the most flamboyant figures in the history of the Gulag. Eduard Berzin, an Old Bolshevik, had been commander of the First Latvian Rifle Division, which guarded the Kremlin in 1918. Later, he helped to crush the Social Revolutionaries, Lenin’s socialist opponents, and to unmask Bruce Lockhart’s “British plot.”22 In 1926, Stalin gave Berzin the task of organizing Vishlag, one of the very first large-scale camps. He took to the job with enormous enthusiasm, inspiring a historian of Vishlag to speak of his reign there as being the height of the Gulag’s “romantic period.”23

The OGPU built Vishlag at the same time as the White Sea Canal, and Berzin seems to have very much approved of (or, at least, enthusiastically paid lip service to) Gorky’s ideas about prisoner reform. Glowing with paternalistic goodwill, Berzin provided his inmates with film theaters and discussion clubs, libraries and “restaurant-style” dining halls. He planted gardens, complete with fountains and a small zoological park. He also paid prisoners regular salaries, and operated the same policy of “early release for good work” as did the commanders of the White Sea Canal. Not everyone benefited from these amenities: prisoners who were deemed poor workers, or who were simply unlucky, might be sent to one of Vishlag’s many small forestry lagpunkts in the taiga, where conditions were poor, death rates were higher, and prisoners were quietly tortured and even murdered. 24

Still, Berzin’s intention, at least, was that his camp appeared to be an honorable institution. All of which makes him seem, at first glance, an odd candidate to become the first boss of the Far Northern Construction Administration—Dalstroi—the “trust,” or pseudo-corporation, which would develop the Kolyma region. For there was nothing particularly romantic or idealistic about the founding of Dalstroi. Stalin’s interest in the region dated from 1926, when he sent an envoy engineer to the United States to study mining techniques.25 Later, between August 20, 1931, and March 16, 1932, the Politburo discussed the geology and geography of Kolyma no less than eleven times—with Stalin himself contributing frequently to the discussions. Like the Yanson commission’s deliberations on the organization of the Gulag, the Politburo conducted these debates, in the words of the historian David Nordlander, “not in the idealistic rhetoric of socialist construction, but rather in the practical language of investment priorities and financial returns.” Stalin devoted his subsequent correspondence with Berzin to questions about inmate productivity, quotas, and output, never touching on the ideals of prisoner reform.26


Kolyma, 1937

On the other hand, Berzin’s talent for creating rosy public images may have been precisely what the Soviet leadership wanted. For although Dalstroi would later be absorbed directly into the Gulag administration, in the beginning the trust was always referred to—in public—as if it were a separate entity, a sort of business conglomerate, which had nothing to do with the Gulag at all. Quietly, the authorities founded Sevvostlag, a Gulag camp which leased out convicts to the Dalstroi Trust. In practice, the two institutions never competed. The boss of Dalstroi was also the boss of Sevvostlag, and nobody had any doubt about that. On paper, however, they were kept separate, and in public they appeared to be distinct entities. 27

There was a certain logic to this arrangement. For one, Dalstroi needed to attract volunteers, especially engineers and marriageable women (there were always shortages of both in Kolyma) and Berzin conducted many recruiting drives in an attempt to persuade “free workers” to emigrate to the region, even setting up offices in Moscow, Leningrad, Odessa, Rostov, and Novosibirsk.28 For that reason alone, Stalin and Berzin may have wanted to avoid associating Kolyma too closely with the Gulag, fearing that the link might frighten away potential recruits. Although there is no direct proof, these machinations may also have been directed at the outside world. Like Soviet timber, Kolyma’s gold would be sold directly to the West, exchanged for desperately needed technology and machinery. This may help explain why the Soviet leadership wanted to make the Kolyma gold fields seem as much like a “normal” economic enterprise as possible. A boycott of Soviet gold would be far more damaging than a boycott of Soviet timber.

In any case, Stalin’s personal involvement with Kolyma was extremely strong from the beginning. In 1932, he actually demanded daily reports on the gold industry, and, as already noted, interested himself in the details of Dalstroi’s exploration projects and quota fulfillments. He sent out inspectors to examine the camps, and required Dalstroi’s leaders to travel frequently to Moscow. When the Politburo allotted money to Dalstroi, it also issued precise instructions as to how the money was to be spent, as it did with Ukhtpechlag.29

Yet Dalstroi’s “independence” was not entirely fictitious either. Although he did answer to Stalin, Berzin also managed to leave his mark on Kolyma, so much so that the “Berzin era” was later remembered with some nostalgia. Berzin appears to have understood his task in quite a straightforward manner: it was his job to get his prisoners to dig as much gold as possible. He was not interested in starving them or killing them or punishing them—only production figures mattered. Under Dalstroi’s first boss, conditions were therefore not nearly as harsh as they became later, and prisoners were not nearly as hungry. Partly as a result, Kolyma’s gold output increased eight times in the first two years of Dalstroi’s operation. 30

True, the first years were fraught with the same chaos and disorganization that prevailed elsewhere. By 1932, nearly 10,000 prisoners were at work in the region—among them the group of inmate engineers and specialists whose skills tallied so beautifully with the task in front of them—along with more than 3,000 voluntary “free workers”—camp workers who were not prisoners.31 The high numbers were accompanied by high death rates. Of the 16,000 prisoners who traveled to Kolyma in Berzin’s first year, only 9,928 even reached Magadan alive.32 The rest were thrown, underclothed and underprotected, into the winter storms: survivors of the first year would later claim that only half of their number had lived. 33

Still, once the initial chaos had passed, the situation did gradually improve. Berzin worked hard to improve conditions, apparently believing, not irrationally, that prisoners needed to be warm and well-fed in order to dig large quantities of gold. As a result, Thomas Sgovio, an American Kolyma survivor, wrote that camp “old-timers” spoke of Berzin’s reign warmly: “when the frost dipped below minus 60 degrees, they were not sent to work. They were given three Rest Days a month. The food was adequate and nutritious. The zeks [prisoners] were given warm clothing—fur caps and felt boots ...”34 Varlam Shalamov, another Kolyma survivor—whose short stories, Kolyma Tales, are among the bitterest in the entire camp genre—also wrote of the Berzin period as a time of excellent food, a workday of four to six hours in winter and ten in summer, and colossal salaries for convicts, which permitted them to return to the mainland as well-to-do men when their sentences were up . . . The cemeteries dating back to those days are so few in number that the early residents of Kolyma seemed immortal to those who came later. 35

If living conditions were better than they would be later, the camp command also treated prisoners with a greater degree of humanity. At that time, the line between the volunteer free workers and the prisoners was blurred. The two groups associated normally; inmates were sometimes allowed to move out of their barracks to live in the free workers’ villages, and could be promoted to become armed guards, as well as geologists and engineers. 36 Mariya Ioffe, an exile in Kolyma in the mid-1930s, was allowed to keep books and paper, and remembered that most exile families were allowed to stay together.37

Inmates were also allowed to participate, up to a point, in the political events of their time. Like the White Sea Canal, Kolyma promoted its own inmate shock-workers and Stakhanovites. One prisoner even became Dalstroi’s “instructor in the Stakhanovite methods of labor,” and those inmates who performed well could receive a small badge, declaring them to be “Kolyma shock-workers.”38

Like Ukhtpechlag, Kolyma’s infrastructure quickly became more sophisticated. In the 1930s, prisoners built not only the mines, but also the docks and breakwaters for Magadan’s port, as well as the region’s single important road, the Kolyma Highway, which leads due north from Magadan. Most of Sevvostlag’s lagpunkts were located along this road, and indeed they were often named according to their distance from Magadan (“Camp Forty-seventh Kilometer,” for example). Prisoners also built the city of Magadan itself, which contained 15,000 people by 1936, and would go on growing. Returning to the city in 1947, after serving seven years in the farther-flung camps, Evgeniya Ginzburg “nearly swooned with surprise and admiration” at the speed of Magadan’s growth: “It was only some weeks later that I noticed you could count the big buildings on your fingers. But at the time it really was a great metropolis for me.” 39

In fact, Ginzburg was one of the few prisoners to notice a peculiar paradox. It was strange, but true: in Kolyma, as in Komi, the Gulag was slowly bringing “civilization”—if that is what it can be called—to the remote wilderness. Roads were being built where there had been only forest; houses were appearing in the swamps. Native peoples were being pushed aside to make way for cities, factories, and railways. Years later, a woman who had been the daughter of a camp cook in a far-flung outpost of Lokchimlag, one of the Komi logging camps, reminisced to me about what life had been like when the camp was still running. “Oooh, there was a whole warehouse of vegetables, fields full of squash—it wasn’t all barren like today.” She waved her arm in disgust at the tiny village which now stood on the site, at the former camp punishment cells, still inhabited. “And there were real electric lights, and the bosses in their big cars drove in and out almost every day . . .”

Ginzburg made the same observation, more eloquently:

How strange is the heart of man! My whole soul cursed those who had thought up the idea of building a town in this permafrost, thawing out the ground with the blood and tears of innocent people. Yet at the same time I was aware of a sort of ridiculous pride . . . How it had grown, and how handsome it had become during my seven years’ absence, our Magadan! Quite unrecognizable. I admired each street lamp, each section of asphalt, and even the poster announcing that the House of Culture was presenting the operettaThe Dollar Princess. We treasure each fragment of our life, even the bitterest.40

By 1934, the expansion of the Gulag in Kolyma, in Komi, in Siberia, in Kazakhstan, and elsewhere in the USSR had followed the same pattern as Solovetsky. In the early days, slovenliness, chaos, and disorder caused many unnecessary deaths. Even without outright sadism, the unthinking cruelty of guards, who treated their prisoners as domestic animals, led to much misery.

Nevertheless, as time went on, the system seemed to be falling shakily into place. Death rates dropped from their high of 1933 as famine across the country receded and camps became better organized. By 1934, they were, according to the official statistics, hovering at around 4 percent.41Ukhtpechlag was producing oil, Kolyma was producing gold, the camps in the Arkhangelsk region were producing timber. Roads were being built across Siberia. Mistakes and mishaps abounded, but this was true everywhere in the USSR. The speed of industrialization, the lack of planning, and the dearth of well-trained specialists made accidents and overspending inevitable, as the bosses of the big projects surely would have known.

Despite the setbacks, the OGPU was fast becoming one of the most important economic actors in the country. In 1934, Dmitlag, the camp that constructed the Moscow–Volga Canal, deployed nearly 200,000 prisoners, more than had been used for the White Sea Canal. 42 Siblag had grown too, boasting 63,000 prisoners in 1934, while Dallag had more than tripled in size in the four years since its founding, containing 50,000 in 1934. Other camps had been founded all across the Soviet Union: Sazlag, in Uzbekistan, where prisoners worked on collective farms; Svirlag, near Leningrad, where prisoners cut trees and prepared wood products for the city; and Karlag, in Kazakhstan, which deployed prisoners as farmers, factory workers, and even fishermen.43

It was also in 1934 that the OGPU was reorganized and renamed once again, partly to reflect its new status and greater responsibilities. In that year, the secret police officially became the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs—and became popularly known by a new acronym: NKVD. Under its new name, the NKVD now controlled the fate of more than a million prisoners.44 But the relative calm was not to last. Abruptly, the system was about to turn itself inside out, in a revolution that would destroy masters and slaves alike.

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