Kolyma tales

This post continues my series on trauma—e.g. under Life behind the Iron Curtain, for the Soviet bloc as well as Germany; and for China, e.g. China: commemorating traumaConfessions, The temple of memories, and Guo Yuhua.

Among all the vast gulag camps spread across the USSR (e.g. Solovki), most utterly remote and terrifying was the Arctic region of Kolyma in northeast Siberia (wiki: under KolymaSevvostlag and Dalstroy; also e.g. here). As Anne Applebaum remarks,

In the same way that Auschwitz has become, in popular memory, the camp which symbolises all other Nazi camps, so too has the word “Kolyma” come to signify the greatest hardships of the Gulag.

An early study in English was

  • Robert Conquest, Kolyma: the Arctic death camps (1978)—cf. his major book on the Ukraine famine, a predecessor of Anne Applebaum’s Red famine.

A major source is

  • Varlam Shalamov (1907–82) (wikiwebsite), who endured consecutive sentences in Kolyma from 1937 until 1953.

His Kolyma tales, a bulky collection of stories, most only a few pages long, makes grimly compelling reading. [1]

For the wider story of the camps, a brilliant study is

  • Anne ApplebaumGulag: a history (2003).

She uses Shalamov’s work extensively among a great variety of sources, and it’s worth reading the historian’s forensic overview of the camp system in conjunction with the Kolyma memoirs.

As Applebaum notes in her Introduction, it is impossible to treat the gulag as an isolated phenomenon. The difference between life inside and outside the camps was one of degree.

The Gulag did not emerge, fully formed, from the sea, but rather reflected the general standards of the society around it. If the camps were filthy, if the guards were brutal, if the work teams were slovenly, that was partly because filthiness and brutality and slovenliness were plentiful enough in other spheres of Soviet life. If life in the camps was horrible, unbearable, inhuman, if death rates were high—that too was hardly surprising. In certain periods, life in the Soviet Union was also horrible, unbearable, and inhuman, and death rates were as high outside the camps as they were within them.

Having noted the wretched fate of the “special exiles” (a separate yet related theme), she goes on to summarise the “long, multinational, cross-cultural history of prisons, exile, incarceration and concentration camps, from Ancient Rome and Greece to Georgian Britain, 19th-century France and Portugal, and Czarist Russia itself. She then encapsulates similaries and differences between Nazi and Soviet camps.

Applebaum explains:

To reach the camps of Kolyma, prisoners travelled 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, travelling northwards past Japan, through the Sea of Okhotsk, to the port of Magadan, the gateway to the Kolyma river valley.

The transport ships were themselves deadly, as portrayed in Shalamov’s “The procurator of Judea”, and in the documentary below.

Kolyma map

Source here.

Part II of Gulag: a history, “Life and work in the camps” is a particularly harrowing survey, with chapters on arrest, prison; transport, arrival, selection; life and work in the camps; punishment and reward; guards, prisoners; women and children; the dying; strategies of survival; rebellion and escape.

Having noted that the guards didn’t inhabit an entirely different social sphere from the prisoners, in an astute analysis Applebaum observes that neither “politicals” nor “criminals” were simple categories. While inmates such as scientists, agronomists, former NKVD officers, and artists, mostly loyal Communists, have a higher profile, the “political” rubric was a catch-all for many ordinary people with no strong political views who had made some innocent yet fatal “mistake”, and most prisoners were ordinary workers and peasants. In 1934, 42.6% of the general gulag population were semi-literate; even in 1938, only 1.1%  had higher education. The proportion of “political” inmates rose during the war, reaching nearly 60% in 1946 following an amnesty for criminal prisoners.

Constantly hungry, subjected to relentless, punishing work in the dreaded gold mines and the endless taiga forests, they were at the mercy of the urki criminal inmates; degradation and dehumanisation were essential for survival.

Applebaum cites Evgeniya Ginzburg’s experiences on boarding the boat to Kolyma:

They were the cream of the criminal world: murderers, sadists, adept at every kind of sexual perversion… without wasting any time they set about terrorising and bullying the “ladies”, delighted to find that “enemies of the people” were creatures even more despised and outcast than themselves… They seized our bits of bread, snatched the last of our rags with our bundles, pushed us out of the places we had managed to find…

Shalamov 1937

Shalamov, “The Red Cross”:

Tens of thousands of people have been beaten to death by thieves. Hundreds of thousands of people who have been in the camps are permanently seduced by the ideology of these criminals and have ceased to be people. Something criminal has entered their souls for ever. Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each. […]

The young peasant who has become a prisoner sees that in this hell only the criminals live comparatively well, that they are important, that the all-powerful camp administrators fear them. The criminals always have clothes and food, and they support each other.

The young peasant cannot but be impressed by this. It begins to seem to him that the criminals possess the truth of camp life, that only by imitating them will he tread the path that will save his life. […]

The intellectual convict is crushed by the camp. Everything that he valued is ground into the dust while civilisation and culture drop from him within weeks. The method of persuasion in a quarrel is the fist or a stick. The way to induce someone to do something is by means of a rifle butt, a punch in the teeth. […]

The intellectual is permanently terrified. His spirit is broken, and he takes this frightened and broken spirit with him back into civilian life.

Applebaum describes thieves’ slang, known as blatnaya muzyka “thieves’ music”.

The minority of women prisoners (Gulag, Chapter 15), again both political and criminal, were terribly vulnerable too. Shalamov’s “Women in the criminal world” is a substantial account, also addressing male homosexuality. As he notes, the sole exception to the contempt for women prescribed in the camps is the hypocritical cult of veneration for the criminal’s mother (cf. flamenco):

Even this seemingly lofty feeling is a lie from beginning to end—as is everything else. […] This feeling for his mother is nothing but a pack of lies and a theatrical pretence. The mother cult is a peculiar smokescreen used to conceal the hideous criminal world.

Crucial for inmates’ desperate strategies of survival (Gulag, Chapter 17) was the hierarchy of hospitals and medics, with their own troubled stories. They often feature in Kolyma tales, such as “Typhoid quarantine”:

The scratch marks on Andreev’s hands and arms healed faster than did his other wounds. Little by little, the turtle-shell armour into which his skin had been transformed disappeared. The bright rosy tips of his frostbitten fingers began to darken; the microscopically thin skin, which had covered them after the frostbite blisters ruptured, thickened slightly. And above all, he could bend the fingers of his left hand. In a year and a half at the mines, both of Andreev’s hands had molded themselves around the handles of a pick and shovel. He never expected to be able to straighten out his hands again. […]

The bloody cracks on the soles of his feet no longer hurt as much as they used to. The scurvy ulcers on his legs had not yet healed and required bandaging, but but his wounds grew fewer and fewer in number, and were replaced by blue-black spots that looked like the brand of some slave-owner. Only his big toes would not heal; the frostbite had reached the bone, and pus slowly seeped from them. Of course, there were less pus than there had been back at the mine, where the rubber galoshes that served as summer footwear were so full of pus and blood that his feet sloshed at every step—as if through a puddle.

Many years would pass before Andreev’s toes would heal. And for many years after healing, whenever it was cold or even slightly chilly at night, they would remind him of the northern mine. But Andreev thought of the future. He had learned at the mine not to plan his life further than a day in advance. He strove towards close goals, like any man who is only a short distance from death. Now he desired one thing alone—that the typhoid quarantine might last for ever. This, however, could not be, and the day arrived when the quarantine was up.

Among their strategies was self-mutilation, evoked in Shalamov’s “The businessman”.

The region’s main town Magadan was built by forced labour from 1932. Evgeniya Ginzburg noted a “peculiar paradox”:

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 only been forest, houses were appearing in the swamps. Native peoples [2] were being pushed aside to make way for cities, factories, and railways. […]

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…

The early years under Eduard Berzin were later recalled with a certain nostalgia. But

Of the 16,000 prisoners who travelled to Kolyma in Berzin’s first year [1932], only 9,928 even reached Magadan alive. 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.

Berzin was himself executed in the purges of 1938, as Stalin’s Great Terror took an even more severe toll on the camps.

During the American Lend-Lease programme to assist their Soviet allies, vice president Henry Wallace visited in May 1944, and was efficiently deceived. In a macabre story the most urgent task of a bulldozer donated under the programme is to rebury the frozen corpses of prisoners exposed as mass graves from 1938 began to slide down a hill. And for Monty Python fans, Shalamov also features the prisoners’ withering assessment of spam.

During and after the war, the ranks were supplemented by Ukrainian, Polish, German, Japanese, and Korean inmates (cf. Gulag, Chapter 20)—as well as Soviet prisoners of war, considered traitors.

After the war the general population’s hopes for a less punitive society were soon crushed (see The whisperers).

In “The lepers” Shalamov describes yet another disturbing story.

In the course of the war the leprosaria had been destroyed, and the patients had merged with the rest of the population. […] People ill with leprosy easily passed themselves as wounded or maimed in war. Lepers mixed with those fleeing to the east and returned to a real, albeit terrible life where they were accepted as victims or even heroes of the war.

These individuals lived and worked. The war had to end in order for the doctors to remember about them and for the terrible card catalogues of the leprosaria to fill up again.

Lepers lived among ordinary people, sharing the retreat and the advance, the joy and bitterness of victory. They worked in factory and on farms. They got jobs and even became supervisors. But they never became soldiers—the stubs of the fingers that appeared to have been damaged in the war prevented them from assuming this last occupation. Lepers passed themselves off as war invalids and were lost in the throng.

* * *

Rebellion and escape attempts were rare, and doomed (Gulag, Chapter 18). As in China, there was nowhere to escape to (ironically, it was only 55 miles across the Bering Strait to America). In “Major Pugachov’s last battle” Shalamov notes a certain change after the war:

The arrests of the thirties were arrests of random victims on the false and terrifying theory of a heightened class struggle accompanying the strnghtening of socialism. The professors, union officials, soldiers, and workers who filled the prisons to overflowing at that period had nothing to defend themselves with except, personal honesty and naïveté—precisely those qualities that lightened rather than hindered the punitive “justice” of the day. The absence of any unifying idea undermined the moral resistance of the prisoners to an unusual degree. They were neither enemies of the government nor state criminals, and they died, not even understanding why they had to die. Their self-esteem and bitterness had no point of support. Separated, they perished in the white Kolyma desert from hunger, cold, work, beatings, and diseases. They immediately learned no to defend or support each other. This was precisely the goal of the authorities. The souls of those who remained alive were utterly corrupted, and their bodies did not possess the qualities necessary for physical labour.

After the war, ship after ship delivered their replacements—former Soviet citizens who were “repatriated” directly to the far north-east.

Among them were many people with different experiences and habits acquired during the war, courageous people who knew how to take chances and who believed only in the gun. There were officers and soldiers, fliers and scouts…

Accustomed to the angelic patience and slavish submissiveness of the “Trotksyites”, the camp administration was not in the least concerned and expected nothing new.

So escape attempts increased, but were just as futile. Shalamov evokes another such attempt in “The green procurator”.

Here’s a 1992 documentary, if you can bear it:

* * *

The 1930s and 40s were the most horrifying years for the gulag system. After the war amnesty (Gulag, Chapter 21), the death of Stalin in 1953 created a new mood, and Kruschev declared a more lasting amnesty in 1956, freeing many. But as Applebaum describes in her concluding chapters, some still had little choice but to remain until the 1990s.

The end of the war may have brought an end to the Nazi camps as such, but in the USSR the gulag network continued operating; and just as it was winding down following the death of Stalin, in China Mao was expanding his own system of labour camps.

As Applebaum explains carefully in an Appendix to Gulag, attempts to assess the death toll have been inconclusive; for comparisons with estimates of victims under Hitler and Mao, cf. Timothy Snyder and Ian Johnson.

The legacy
Memory of the whole gulag system is a complex subject, explored by Applebaum in her perceptive Epilogue (cf. Figes). More recent accounts of the haunted Kolyma region discuss memory, ignorance, and veneration for Stalin. Jacek Hugo-Bader revisited the region in Kolyma diaries (2014), reviewed here by Kapka Kassabova (cf. this article).

And Yury Dud challenges modern amnesia in Kolyma: the home of our fear (2019):


[1] I’ve been reading the 1994 translation by John Glad; a recent version by Donald Rayfield (“Kolyma stories”) is well reviewed here, including its vexed publication history, and a comparison with Solzhenitsyn. See also the sequel Sketches of the criminal world. Other survivors’ accounts of Kolyma include those of the Polish Stanislaw J. Kowalski, The land of gold and death, Vladimir Nikolayevich Petrov, Evgeniya Ginzburg, and the Romanian Michael M. Solomon.

[2] Accounts of Kolyma inevitably focus on the camps’ Russian inmates and other outsiders; the fate of local indigenous peoples like the YukaghirsYakutChukchi, and Evenki, with their shamanistic cultures, is another story.

One thought on “Kolyma tales

  1. Reblogged this on Stephen Jones: a blog and commented:

    Reminder (summary: scroll down to click on “view original post”!):

    Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, and the mass killings of the 20th century—now with a link to an article by Eliot Sperling on issues in assessing the death count in Tibet under Maoism


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