Reproduced from Daily Mail (link)
We prisoners had an unwritten rule, steal another man’s clothes and you’d get a hiding, steal a man’s bread and you’d die: The chilling testimony from the Gulags’ forgotten victims
The word Gulag is a actually an acronym, derived from the Russian for Main Camp Administration. Over the years, however, it has come to signify the whole Soviet slave labour camp system, a regime that reached its deadly peak under Josef Stalin’s despotic rule and saw millions of men and women transported to camps in Siberia and other outposts of the Red empire.
There, they had to endure sub-Arctic temperatures, undertake heavy labour at gunpoint and try to avoid starving to death. Between 1929 and 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, 18 million people passed through this Gulag system — many of them never to return.
Now a new book, Gulag Voices, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum, tells the stories of some of the survivors; harrowing reminders, told in their own heart-rending words, of one of the darkest chapters of 20th-century history.
Horrific: Workers in the gulag had to endure sub-Arctic temperatures, undertake heavy labour at gunpoint and try to avoid starving to death
IT WAS 3am and Sidorov, my interrogator, was angrier than ever. He had been showing me the same photographs over and over again, face after face of strangers. But he didn’t believe what I was saying.
‘I’m giving you another chance. Point out the ones you know! Why do you deny you know them?’
After almost a month of surviving on less than an hour’s sleep a day and already experiencing hallucinations, my fear was that I was going out of my mind. ‘It’s no use,’ I said, ‘we’ve done this over and over. I don’t recognise anyone. Not one!’
His fist came in hard and caught me on the side of the face with enough force to spin me out of my chair and onto the floor. I was dizzy with the shock. ‘Liar, liar, liar!’ he barked furiously.
Suddenly, I felt as if my right shin had been cracked open. I sat up and grabbed it, almost screaming, just as the toe of his hard high boot landed on the other shin.
Hellish: Manacled and with barely enough clothing to keep them warm, prisoners had to work in Siberian temperatures. Toture, or death, was common for anyone who didn’t comply
The pain was terrible; I felt sick and my stomach began to heave. Determined to avoid another blow, I clambered back to the chair, slowly composing myself.
‘I’ll try,’ I muttered.
The next night was even worse. This time Sidorov didn’t even wait for a denial, wading into me with both fists, yelling that if I did not tell him everything he would kill me with his bare hands.
I hit the wall hard after a punch, and went down on my knees. I must protect my shins, I thought, I must protect my shins. He picked me up and dragged me to the chair, screaming obscenities and slapping my cheeks hard. I held my eyes closed against the shattering pain of the lights in the room.
‘Are you going to identify this man?’ he asked, thrusting another photograph under my nose and with a sudden quiet in his voice.
I couldn’t trust my voice, so mouthed the words: ‘I can’t.’
The shock when his boot hit my shin on top of the first bruise made me gasp. The next kick made me yell out loud.
‘Please! I’ll tell you any name. Boris, Andrei, I don’t know. Anything. Only don’t kick me again.’
The fist lashed out again and my consciousness swam away.
AT 3AM each morning, an alarm was beaten out on a triangle. Dressing was unnecessary as we slept in our clothes.
Tumbling off the hard wooden shelf on which I slept, I joined the queue for the one water bucket, where I filled a small soup container and splashed my face with a few handfuls. Soap, a tiny scrap of which we were issued with once a month, we kept for the evenings when we returned filthy from work.
By 3.30am, we were supposed to be in the square to be counted. On snowy mornings, this could be a long, cold, agonising business. Assuming the right number of bodies were present, the foreman of each working party was then dispatched to collect the bread for the day.
Death surrounds: Prisoners with severe malnutrition in a camp hospital, most were expected to die. How much bread they got depended on how much timber they had cut the day before – a tally that could be the difference between life and death
How much bread you got depended on how much timber you had cut the day before, a tally that really could be the difference between life and death. Those who met 100 per cent of the punishing targets — a physical impossibility for most men — earned 900g of bread (about 2lb), while those returning only 50 per cent of their targets got 300g.
Made from rye which had not been thoroughly cleaned, this black bread was the source of Gulag life and carefully hoarded throughout the day. A little with the breakfast soup; a few bites during the short dinner break at midday; more with the soup in the evening to stave off the inevitable pangs of hunger after 12 hours of cutting and stacking logs.
If a prisoner stole clothes or tobacco and was discovered, he could expect a good beating from his fellow inmates. But the unwritten law of this camp was that anyone caught stealing another man’s bread earned a death sentence. An ‘accident’ was not difficult to arrange in the forest.
‘WOMEN in Burgurchan!’ The news spread like wildfire and within an hour men began flocking to the town hall — first the locals, then men from farther afield, some on foot, some on motorbikes. There were fishermen, geologists, fur-trappers, a team of miners and their Party boss and even some convicts who had bolted from their logging camp.
Cigarettes, bread, even lumps of cured salmon were tossed to the corralled women prisoners who, after two days at sea, swallowed the food without chewing.
Then bottles began to clink and the men, as if on command, retreated to one side to drink vodka with the guards. There were songs and toasts, but there was also a clear purpose to this debauch as, one by one, the women’s guards passed out, dead-drunk.
whooping and hollering, the men rushed the women and began to haul them into the building, twisting their arms, dragging them through the grass, brutally beating any who resisted. They knew their business; it was co-ordinated and confident. Benches were removed, planks nailed over the windows, kegs of water hauled in.
That done, whatever rags or blankets they had at hand — padded vests, bedrolls, mats — were spread out and the women thrown to the floor. A line of about 12 men formed by each woman and the Kolyma tram began.
When it was over, the dead women were dragged away by their feet; the survivors were doused with water from the buckets and revived. Then the lines formed up again.
OUR transport had been walking for a week and as we finally neared our destination, Camp No 1 in Ustvymlag, my first camp boss was outside waiting for us. A tall man in a well-made overcoat with a blue NKVD [the Stalin-era forerunner of the KGB] cap and boots polished to an unbelievable shine, Senior Lieutenant Ivan Zaliva, surveyed us with a severe and condescending gaze — his hand placed firmly on the wooden butt of his Mauser pistol. Over the forthcoming months, I would learn that he was a man of astounding ignorance and rare stupidity, who stuck devotedly to his official instructions, regardless of the cost in human lives.
To curry favour with his superiors, he always bought the cheapest food, the poorest clothing and, after three days, always switched new arrivals — many of them weakened by months in prison and weeks in transit — to a diet that related to their output.
Slaughter: Prisoners building a copper factory in Norilisk in 1949. Sometimes Chinese who had inadvertently strayed over the invisible Russian border were thrown in the camps. Few survived the brutal conditions
There were 517 of us in the Moscow transport when we arrived in August 1938. By spring, after some 20 to 30 had been transferred to other camps, only 27 remained. All the rest had died that first winter.
In November 1938, 270 nomadic Chinese had arrived, having inadvertently strayed over the invisible Russian border. Zaliva set them to hauling timber by hand — a job that none of us could endure for more than a week.
The Chinese, however, worked steadily and calmly day after day, and when they had finished their punishing days, returned to the barracks, which they kept scrupulously clean and where they spent their evenings repairing their ripped clothing.
By February 1939, just three months after their arrival, 269 of these Chinese had died. Only one remained alive, working in the kitchen.
A number of men offered their ‘services’ — and I did not choose the best by any means. But the result of my choice was an angelic little girl with golden curls. I called her Eleanor.
There were three mothers in our barracks and we were given a tiny little room of our own. By night, we brushed from our babies the bedbugs that fell from the ceiling like sand. By day, we left them with any old woman who had been let off work, knowing these women would calmly help themselves to the food we left for the children.
No escape: Women and children work at a gulag in 1932. Prison nurseries did exist, but malnutrition, restrictive breast-feeding schedules and astonishing cruelty often resulted in the child suffering an early death
Every night for a year, I stood at my child’s cot, picking off the bedbugs and praying, begging God to prolong my torment by 100 years if it meant I wouldn’t be parted from my daughter.
But God did not answer my prayer. Eleanor had barely started walking and had just uttered her first, heart-warming word — ‘Mama’ — when we were dressed in rags, despite the winter’s chill, bundled into a freight car and transferred to the ‘mother’s camp’.
Here, I was expected to work in the forest, felling trees as normal during the day — while my pudgy little angel with the golden curls, back at the camp’s infant shelter, soon turned into a pale ghost with blue shadows under her eyes and sores all over her lips.
I caught a chill on the bladder, terrible lumbago and shaved my hair off to avoid getting lice. My appearance could not have been more miserable and wretched. But in return for bribes of firewood, the guards let me see my daughter outside normal hours. But the things I saw!
I saw nurses shoving and kicking children out of bed before washing them in ice-cold water. I saw a nurse grab the nearest baby, tie back its arms and then cram spoonful after spoonful of hot porridge down its throat.
My little Eleanor began to fade faster. ‘Mama, want home,’ she cried one evening, her little body covered with mysterious bruises.
On the last day of her life, when I picked her up to breast-feed her, she stared wide-eyed into the distance, clawing and biting at my breast, begging to be put down.
In the evening, when I came back with my little bundle of firewood, her cot was empty. I found her lying naked in the morgue among the corpses of the adult prisoners. She had spent one year and four months in this world and died on March 3, 1944.
Reproduced from: Daily Mail