Modern history



Those who are sick, no good,
Too weak for mining
Are lowered down, sent
To the camp below
To fell the trees of Kolyma.
It’s very simple when
Written down on paper. But I cannot forget
The chain of sleds upon the snow
And people, harnessed.
Straining their sunken chests, they pull the carts.
They either stop to rest
Or falter on steep slopes . . .
The heavy weight rolls down
And any moment
It will trip them . . .
Who has not seen a horse that stumbles?
But we, we have seen people in a harness . . .

—Elena Vladimirova, “Kolyma”1


Work was the central function of most Soviet camps. It was the main occupation of prisoners, and the main preoccupation of the administration. Daily life was organized around work, and the prisoners’ well-being depended upon how successfully they worked. Nevertheless, it is difficult to generalize about what camp work was like: the image of the prisoner in the snowstorm, digging gold or coal with a pickax, is only a stereotype. There were many such prisoners—millions, as the figures for the camps of Kolyma and Vorkuta make clear—but there were also, we now know, camps in central Moscow where prisoners designed airplanes, camps in central Russia where prisoners built and ran nuclear power plants, fishing camps on the Pacific coast, collective farm camps in southern Uzbekistan. The archives of the Gulag in Moscow are chock-full of photographs of prisoners with their camels.2

Without a doubt, the range of economic activity within the Gulag was as wide as the range of economic activity within the USSR itself. A glance through the Guide to the System of Corrective-Labor Camps in the USSR , the most comprehensive listing of camps to date, reveals the existence of camps organized around gold mines, coal mines, nickel mines; highway and railway construction; arms factories, chemical factories, metal-processing plants, electricity plants; the building of airports, apartment blocks, sewage systems; the digging of peat, the cutting of trees, and the canning of fish. 3 The Gulag administrators themselves preserved a photo album solely dedicated to the goods that inmates produced. Among other things, there are pictures of mines, missiles, and other army equipment; car parts, door locks, buttons; logs floating down rivers; wooden furniture, including chairs, cabinets, telephone boxes, and barrels; shoes, baskets, and textiles (with samples attached); rugs, leather, fur hats, sheepskin coats; glass cups, lamps, and jars; soap and candles; even toys—wooden tanks, tiny windmills, and mechanical rabbits playing drums.4

Work varied within individual camps as well as between them. True, many prisoners in forestry camps did nothing but fell trees. Prisoners with sentences of three years or less worked in “corrective-labor colonies,” light-regime camps which were usually organized around a single factory or occupation. Larger Gulag camps, by contrast, might contain a number of industries: mines, a brick factory, and a power plant, as well as housing or road construction sites. In such camps, prisoners unloaded the daily goods trains, drove trucks, picked vegetables, worked in kitchens, hospitals, and children’s nurseries. Unofficially, prisoners also worked as servants, nannies, and tailors for the camp commanders, guards, and their wives.

Prisoners with long sentences often held down a wide variety of jobs, changing work frequently as their luck rose and fell. In her nearly two-decade camp career, Evgeniya Ginzburg worked cutting trees, digging ditches, cleaning the camp guest house, washing dishes, tending chickens, doing laundry for camp commanders’ wives, and caring for prisoners’ children. Finally, she became a nurse.5 During the eleven years he spent in camps, another political prisoner, Leonid Sitko, worked as a welder, as a stonemason in a quarry, as a construction worker on a building brigade, as a porter in a railway depot, as a miner in a coal mine, and as a carpenter in a furniture factory, making tables and bookshelves.6

But although jobs could be as varied within the camp system as they were in the outside world, working prisoners usually broke down into two categories: those assigned to obshchya raboty—“general work”—and the pridurki, a word usually translated into English as “trusties.” The latter had, as we shall see, the status of a separate caste. General work, the lot of the vast majority of prisoners, was precisely what it sounds like: unskilled, physically demanding hard labor. “The first camp winter of 1949–50 was especially difficult for me,” wrote Isaak Filshtinsky. “I didn’t have a profession which could be put to use in the camps, and I was forced to go from place to place, doing various kinds of general work, to saw, to carry, to pull, to push, and so on—to go, in other words, wherever it came into the head of the work-assigner to send me.”7

With the exception of those who had been lucky in the very first round of work assignments—usually those who were building engineers or members of other useful camp professions, or else had already established themselves as informers—the majority of zekswere assigned to general work as a matter of course after their week or so in quarantine had ended. They were also assigned to a brigade: a group of anywhere from four to 400 zeks, who not only worked together, but also ate together and generally slept in the same barracks. Each brigade was led by a brigadier, a trusted, high-status prisoner who was responsible for doling out jobs, overseeing the work—and ensuring that the team met the production norm.

The importance of the brigadier, whose status lay somewhere between that of prisoner and that of administrator, was not lost on camp authorities. In 1933, the boss of Dmitlag sent an order to all of his subordinates, reminding them of the need to “find among our shock-workers the capable people who are so necessary to our work,” since “the brigadier is the most important, most significant person on the construction site.”8


Grave Digging: a drawing by Benjamin Mkrtchyan, Ivdel, 1953

From the individual prisoner’s point of view, his relationship with the brigadier was more than merely important: it could determine his quality of life—even whether he lived or died, as one prisoner wrote:

The life of a person depends very much on his brigade and his brigadier, given that you spend all your days and nights in their company. At work, in the dining hall, and in your bunks—always the same faces. The brigade members can either work all together, in groups, or individually. They can help you survive, or help destroy you. Either sympathy and help, or hostility and indifference. The role of the brigadier is no less important. It also matters who he is, what he thinks his tasks and obligations are: to serve the bosses at your cost and his own benefit, to treat his brigade members like underlings, servants and lackeys—or to be your comrade in ill-fortune and to do everything possible to make life easier for the members of the brigade.9

Some brigadiers did indeed threaten and intimidate their workforce. On his first day in the Karaganda mines, Alexander Weissberg fainted from hunger and exhaustion: “with the roars of a maddened bull the brigadier now turned on me, flinging every ounce of his powerful body on to me, kicking and punching and finally dealing me such a blow on the head that I fell to the ground, half-stunned, covered in bruises and with blood streaming down my face...”10

In other cases, the brigadier allowed the brigade itself to function as an organized peer group, putting pressure on prisoners to work harder even if they were otherwise inclined. In the novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s hero at one point muses that a camp brigade “isn’t like a work gang outside, where Ivan Ivanovich and Pyotr Petrovich each get a wage of his own. In the camps things are arranged so that the zek is kept up to the mark not by his bosses but by the others in his gang. Either everybody gets a bonus or else they all die together.” 11

Vernon Kress, another Kolyma prisoner, was beaten and shouted at by his brigade comrades for being unable to keep up, and was ultimately forced into a “weak” brigade, none of whose members ever received the full ration.12 Yuri Zorin also had the experience of being part of a genuinely hardworking brigade, composed mostly of Lithuanians who would not tolerate shirkers in their ranks: “You can’t imagine how willingly and well they worked . . . if they thought you worked badly, you got kicked out of the Lithuanian brigade.”13

If you had the bad luck to end up in a “bad” brigade, and you could not bribe or squirm your way out, you could starve. M. B. Mindlin, later one of the founders of the Memorial Society, was once assigned to a Kolyma brigade composed mostly of Georgians and led by a Georgian brigadier. He quickly realized not only that the brigade members were as afraid of their brigadier as they were of the camp guards, but also that as the “only Jew in a brigade of Georgians,” he would be shown no special favors. One day he worked particularly hard, in an attempt to be awarded the highest level of rations, 1,200 grams of bread. The brigadier refused to recognize this, however, and marked him down as deserving only 700 grams. With the aid of a bribe, Mindlin switched brigades, and found a completely different atmosphere: the new brigadier actually cared about his underlings, and even allowed him a few days of lighter work in the beginning, in order to get his strength back: “Everyone who got into his brigade considered himself lucky, and was saved from death.” Later, he himself became a brigadier, and took it upon himself to dole out bribes, in order to ensure that all the members of his brigade got the best possible deal from the camp cooks, bread-cutters, and other important people.14

The brigadier’s attitude mattered because, for the most part, general work was not intended to be phoney or meaningless. Whereas in German camps, work was often designed, according to one prominent scholar, to be “principally a means of torture and abuse,” Soviet prisoners were meant to be fulfilling some aspect of the camp’s production plan.15 True, there were exceptions to this rule. At times, stupid or sadistic guards would actually set prisoners pointless tasks. Susanna Pechora recalled being assigned to carry buckets of clay back and forth, “totally pointless work.” One of the “bosses” in charge of her work site specifically told her, “I don’t need your work, I need your suffering,” a phrase which would have been familiar to the prisoners of Solovetsky in the 1920s. 16 By the 1940s, as we shall see, there also arose a system of punishment camps, whose purpose was not primarily economic but punitive. Even within them, however, prisoners were expected to produce something.

Most of the time, prisoners were not meant to suffer—or perhaps it is more accurate to say that no one cared if they did or not. Far more important was that they fit into a camp production plan and fulfill a work norm. A norm could be anything: a certain number of cubic meters of wood to be cut down, of ditches to be dug, of coal to be hauled. And these norms were taken deadly seriously. Camps were covered with posters exhorting prisoners to fulfill their norms. The entire “cultural-educational” apparatus of the camps was devoted to the same message. The dining halls or central square of some camps featured enormous chalkboards, listing each brigade and its latest norm-fulfillment.17

Norms were calculated with great care and scientific reasoning by the norm-setter (normirovshik), whose job was thought to require great skill. Jacques Rossi records, for example, that those shoveling snow were assigned different norms depending upon whether the snow was freshly fallen snow, light snow, lightly packed snow, packed snow (requiring pressure from the foot on the shovel), heavily packed snow, or frozen snow (requiring work with picks). Even after all of that, “a series of coefficients account for the distance and height of the shoveled snow, and so forth.”18

But although theoretically scientific, the process of establishing norms for work, and of determining who had achieved them, was fraught with corruption, irregularity, and incongruity. To begin with, prisoners were usually assigned norms that corresponded with those assigned to free workers: they were meant to achieve the same as professional foresters or miners. By and large, however, prisoners were not professional foresters or miners, and often had little idea what they were meant to be doing. Nor, after long terms in jail and harrowing journeys in unheated cattle cars, were they even in average physical condition.

The more inexperienced and exhausted the prisoner, the more he would suffer. Evgeniya Ginzburg wrote a classic description of two women, both intellectuals unaccustomed to hard labor, both weakened by years in prison, trying to cut down trees:

For three days, Galya and I struggled to achieve the impossible. Poor trees, how they must have suffered at being mangled by our inexpert hands. Half-dead ourselves, and completely unskilled, we were in no condition to tackle them. The axe would slip and send showers of chips in our faces. We sawed feverishly, jerkily, mentally accusing each other of clumsiness—we knew we could not afford the luxury of a quarrel. Time and again the saw got stuck. But the most terrifying moment was when the tree was at last on the point of falling, only we didn’t know which way. Once Galya got hit on the head, but the medical orderly refused even to put iodine on the cut, saying, “Aha! That’s an old trick! Trying to get exempted on the first day, are you?”

At the end of the day, the brigadier declared Evgeniya and Galya had achieved 18 percent of the norm, and “paid” them for their poor showing: “Receiving the scrap of bread which corresponded to our performance, we were led out next day literally staggering from weakness to our place of work.” Meanwhile, the brigadier kept repeating that he “did not intend to throw away precious food on traitors who could not fulfill their norm.”19

In the camps of the far north—particularly the camps of the Kolyma region, as well as Vorkuta and Norilsk, all of which lie beyond the Arctic Circle—the climate and the terrain exacerbated the difficulties. Summer, contrary to popular belief, was often no more bearable in these Arctic regions than winter. Even there, temperatures can rise well above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. When the snow melts, the surface of the tundra turns to mud, making walking difficult, and mosquitoes appear to travel in gray clouds, making so much noise it is impossible to hear anything else. One prisoner remembered them:

The mosquitoes crawled up our sleeves, under our trousers. One’s face would blow up from the bites. At the work site, we were brought lunch, and it happened that as you were eating your soup, the mosquitoes would fill up the bowl like buckwheat porridge. They filled up your eyes, your nose and throat, and the taste of them was sweet, like blood. The more you moved and waved them away, the more they attacked. The best method was to ignore them, to dress lighter and instead of an anti-mosquito hat, to wear a wreath of grass or birch bark.20

Winters, of course, were very, very cold. Temperatures could fall to 30, 40, or 50 degrees below zero. Memoirists, poets, and novelists have all struggled to describe what it felt like to work in such frost. One wrote of it being so cold that “the simplest sudden motion of a hand in the air caused a notable swishing sound.”21 Another wrote that one Christmas Eve morning, he awoke to discover that he could not move his head.

My first waking thought was that it had somehow been tied to the planks of my bunk during the night, but as I tried to sit up, the piece of material I had tied around my head and over my ears before I went to sleep the night before had pulled away. Pulling myself up on one elbow, I tugged at the material and realized that it was frozen to the wooden plank. My breath and the breath of all the men in the hut hung in the air like smoke. 22

Yet another wrote that “It was dangerous to stop moving. During head count we jumped, ran in place, and slapped our bodies to keep warm. I perpetually kneaded my toes and curled my fingers into a fist . . . touching a metal tool with a bare hand could tear off the skin, and going to the bathroom was extremely dangerous. A bout of diarrhea could land you in the snow forever.” As a result, some prisoners simply soiled their trousers: “Working next to them was unpleasant, and back in the tent, when we began to warm up, the stench was unbearable. Those who had soiled themselves were often beaten and thrown out.”23

Certain general-work jobs, from the point of view of the weather, were worse than others. In the coal mines of the Arctic, one inmate remembered, the underground air was warmer, but freezing water was constantly dripping on the miners: “The miner becomes a sort of giant icicle, his organism begins to freeze for a long and stable period of time. After three or four months of such hellish work, prisoners begin to experience massive illnesses...” 24

Isaak Filshtinsky also wound up assigned to one of the most unpleasant winter jobs in Kargopollag, sorting logs on their way to be processed. It meant standing in water all day, and although the water was warm—it was pumped from the electrical plant—the air was not:

Because in that winter the Arkhangelsk region maintained a stable frost of forty, forty-five degrees below zero, a thick fog hung at all times over the sorting basin. It was at the same time very wet, and very cold . . . the work was not very difficult, but after thirty to forty minutes your entire body was permeated and enveloped by damp, your chin, lips, and eyelashes were covered in frost, and the frost had penetrated to your very bones, through the pathetic camp clothing.25

The worst winter jobs were in the forests. For not only was the taiga cold in winter, but it was also periodically swept by severe, unpredictable winter storms—called burany or purgai. Dmitri Bystroletov, a prisoner in Siblag, was caught in one:

In that instant, the wind began a wild and terrifying howl, forcing us down to the ground. The snow swirled up into the air, and everything disappeared—the lights of the camp, the stars, the aurora borealis—and we were left alone in a white fog. Opening our arms wide, clumsily slipping and stumbling, falling and supporting one another, we tried as quickly as possible to find the road back. Suddenly, a thunderclap burst above our heads. I scarcely managed to hang on to my fellow climber, when a violent stream of ice, snow, and rocks began gushing toward our faces. The swirling snow made it impossible to breathe, impossible to see . . . 26

Janusz Bardach was caught in a buran in Kolyma as well, while working in a quarry. Along with their guards, he and his fellow prisoners made their way back to camp following the watchdogs, attached to one another by rope:

I couldn’t see anything beyond Yuri’s back and clung to the rope as though it were a life preserver . . . With the familiar landmarks gone, I had no idea how much further we had to go and was sure we’d never make it back. My foot fell upon something soft—a prisoner who had let go of the rope. “Stop!” I shouted. But there was no stopping. No one could hear my voice. I leaned down and pulled his arm towards the rope. “Here!” I tried to link his hand with the rope. “Hold on!” It was no use. The man’s arm fell to the ground when I let go. Yuri’s stern command to move on carried me forward . . .

When Bardach’s brigade returned to the camp, three prisoners were missing. Usually, “the bodies of prisoners who got lost weren’t found until springtime, often within one hundred meters of the zone.” 27

The regulation clothing allotted to prisoners gave them little protection from the weather. In 1943, for example, the central Gulag administration ordered that prisoners were to receive, among other things, one summer shirt (to last two seasons), a pair of summer trousers (to last two seasons), one padded-cotton winter jacket (to last two years), padded winter trousers (to last eighteen months), felt boots (to last two years), and underwear, intended for nine months.28 In practice, there were never enough even of these paltry items. An inspection of twenty-three camps in 1948 reported that the supply of “clothes, underclothes, and shoes is unsatisfactory.” That appears to have been an understatement. In a camp at Krasnoyarsk, less than half of the prisoners had shoes. In Norilsk, in the far north, only 75 percent had warm boots, and only 86 percent had warm clothes. In Vorkuta, also in the far north, only 25 to 30 percent of prisoners had underclothes, while only 48 percent had warm boots.29

In the absence of shoes, prisoners improvised. They made boots out of birch bark, scraps of fabric, old rubber tires. At best, these contraptions were clumsy and difficult to walk in, particularly in deep snow. At worst, they leaked, virtually guaranteeing frostbite.30Elinor Lipper described her homemade boots, which in her camp were nicknamed “Che-Te-Ze,” the abbreviation for the Chelyabinsk Tire Factory:

They were made of lightly padded and quilted sacking with high, wide tops that reach to the knee, the shoe itself being strengthened by oil cloth or artificial leather at the toe and heel. The sole is made of three cross sections of rubber from worn-out automobile tires. The whole thing is fastened to the foot with string and tied with string below the knee so that the snow does not get in . . . after a day’s use they become all twisted, and the flabby soles turn every which way. They absorb moisture with incredible speed, especially when the sacks of which they are made were used for bagging salt . . .31

Another prisoner describes a similar improvisation: “The sides were open so that the toes were exposed from the sides. The cloth to wrap up the feet could not be secured tightly, meaning that toes were thereby exposed to frost.” As a result of wearing these shoes, he did indeed get frostbite— which, he reckoned, saved his life, as he was no longer able to work.32

Different prisoners had different theories about how to cope with the cold. To recover from the frost at the end of the day, for example, some prisoners would rush into the barracks after work and crowd around the stove, so close that their clothes would sometimes burst into flames: “The repulsive smell of burning rags would come up and bite into your nostrils.” 33 Others thought this unwise. Isaak Filshtinskii was told by more experienced inmates that crowding around the stove or the camp fire was dangerous, as the sudden change of temperature brought on pneumonia: “The human organism is so constructed so that no matter how cold it is, the body adjusts and gets used to it. I always followed this sage rule in camp and I never caught cold.”34

Camp authorities were supposed to make some concessions to the cold. According to the rules, prisoners in certain northern camps received extra rations. But these, according to documents of 1944, could amount to as little as 50 extra grams of bread a day—a few bites—which was hardly enough to compensate for extreme cold.35 Theoretically, when it was too cold, or when a storm was pending, prisoners were not meant to work at all. Vladimir Petrov claimed that during the Berzin regime in Kolyma, prisoners had stopped working when temperatures reached 60 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. In the winter of 1938–39, after Berzin had been deposed, temperatures had to fall to 60 degrees below zero before work stopped. Even this rule was not always adhered to, writes Petrov, since the only person at the gold field who had a thermometer was the camp commander. As a result, “only three days during the winter of 1938–39 were declared nonworking days because of low temperatures, as against fifteen days during the winter of 1937–38.”36

Another memoirist, Kazimierz Zarod, recorded that the cutoff temperature in his camp during the Second World War was 49 degrees below zero, and recalled one occasion when his logging brigade was told to return to camp during the day, because the thermometer had reached minus 53: “How briskly we collected our equipment, formed ourselves into a column and began our journey back to camp.”37 Bardach recalls that in Kolyma in the war years, the rule was minus 50 degrees, “although the wind chill was never taken into account.”38

But weather was not the only obstacle to norm-fulfillment. In many camps, norms really were set impossibly high. In part this was a side effect of the logic of Soviet central planning, which decreed that enterprises had to increase their output every year. Elinor Olitskaya remembered her fellow inmates struggling to fulfill the norms in a camp sewing factory, wanting to keep their warm, indoor jobs. But because they did fulfill them, the camp administration kept raising them, as a result of which they became unattainable.39

Norms also grew tougher because prisoners and norm-setters alike lied, overestimating how much work had been and would be done. As a result, norms sometimes became astronomical over time. Alexander Weissberg recalled that even for the supposedly easier jobs, the norms seemed incredible: “Everyone seemed to be faced with a virtually impossible task. The two men in charge of the laundry had to wash the clothes of 800 men in ten days.” 40

Not that overfulfilling the norm necessarily brought the expected advantages. Antoni Ekart recalled an incident when ice on the river near his camp broke, and a flood threatened: “Several brigades of the strongest prisoners, including all the ‘shock’ men, worked like mad for two days, practically without a break. For what they had done they received one herring for every two men and a packet of makhorka [rough tobacco] for every four.” 41

In such conditions—with long working days, few days off, and little rest during the day—accidents were frequent. In the early 1950s, a group of inexperienced women prisoners were ordered to put out a brushfire near Ozerlag. On that occasion alone, recalled one of them, “several people burned to death.”42 Exhaustion and the weather often proved a lethal combination, as Alexander Dolgun testifies:

Cold, numbed fingers could not hold on to handles and levers and timbers and crates, and there were many accidents, often fatal. One man was crushed when we were rolling logs off a flat car, using two logs as a ramp. He was buried when twenty or more logs let loose at once and he was not fast enough. The guards shoved his body out of the way on the platform and the blood-stiffened mass was waiting for us to carry it home when night came.43

Moscow kept statistics on accidents, and these occasionally provoked irate exchanges between inspectors and camp commanders. One such compilation, for the year 1945, lists 7,124 accidents in the Vorkuta coal mines alone, including 482 that resulted in serious injury and 137 that resulted in death. The inspectors laid the blame on the shortage of miners’ lamps, on electrical failures, and on the inexperience of workers and their frequent rotation. Angrily, the inspectors calculated the number of workdays lost due to accidents: 61,492.44

Absurdly bad organization and slovenly management also hampered work. Although it is important to note that ordinary Soviet workplaces were badly run too, the situation was worse within the Gulag, where the lives and health of workers was not held to be important, and where the regular arrival of spare parts was disrupted by weather and huge distances. Chaos had been the reigning spirit of the Gulag since the days of the White Sea Canal, and it continued into the 1950s, even after far more workplaces in the Soviet Union were mechanized. For those doing forestry work, “there were no chainsaws, no timber-haulage tractors, and no mechanical loaders.” 45 Those working in textile factories were given “working tools either too few or else inappropriate.” This meant, according to one prisoner, that “all the seams had to be pressed with a huge iron weighing two kilograms. One had to iron 426 pairs of trousers during one session, one’s hands got numb with lifting the weight and one’s legs swollen and painful.” 46

Machinery also broke down constantly, a factor not necessarily taken into account when norms were calculated. In the same textile factory, “mechanics were constantly being summoned. These were mostly female convicts. The repairs went on for hours, for the women were not skilled. It became impossible to do the compulsory amount of work, and consequently we received no bread.” 47

The theme of broken machinery and unskilled machine technicians comes up in the annals of the Gulag administration again and again. Regional camp administrators attending the Far Eastern Party Conference in Khabarovsk in 1934 complained that constant breakdowns in equipment supply and the poor qualifications of technicians meant they could not meet norms for gold production. 48 A 1938 letter addressed to the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs in charge of the Gulag states that “40 to 50 percent of tractors are broken.” But even more primitive working methods often failed to work too. A letter of a year earlier notes that of the 36,491 horses employed by the Gulag, 25 percent were not fit to work.49

The Gulag’s enterprises also felt very keenly the lack of engineers and administrators. Few skilled technicians voluntarily worked on Gulag projects, and those who did volunteer did not necessarily have the appropriate skills. Over the years, many efforts were made to attract free workers to the camps, and enormous incentives were offered. As early as the mid-1930s, recruiters from Dalstroi were agitating across the country, offering special privileges for anyone who signed a two-year labor contract. These included a wage 20 percent higher than the Soviet average for the first two years, and 10 percent higher for the following years, as well as paid vacations, access to special food products and supplies, and a generous pension .50

The camps of the far north were also portrayed with great fanfare and enthusiasm in the Soviet press. An example of this sort of propaganda appeared in English in a publication called Sovietland, written for the benefit of foreigners. In an April 1939 article devoted to Magadan, a classic of the genre, the magazine gushed about the city’s magical appeal:

The sea of lights that is Magadan by night is a most stirring and alluring spectacle. This is a town which is alive and bustling every minute of the day and night. It swarms with people whose lives are regulated by a strict working schedule. Accuracy and promptness begets speed, and speed becomes easy and happy work . . .51

No mention is made of the fact that most of the people whose lives were “regulated by a strict working schedule” were prisoners.

Not that it mattered: these efforts failed to attract the necessary caliber of specialists anyway, leaving the Gulag to rely upon prisoners who found themselves there by accident. One prisoner recalled having been sent, with a building brigade, 600 kilometers north of Magadan to build a bridge. Once they arrived, they realized that no one in the brigade had ever built a bridge before. One of the prisoners, an engineer, was put in charge of the project, although bridges were not his specialty. The bridge was built. It was also washed away in the first flood.52

This was a minor disaster, however, in comparison to some others. There were entire Gulag projects, employing thousands of people and enormous resources, which proved spectacularly wasteful and ill-conceived. Of these, perhaps the most famous was the attempted construction of a railway line from the Vorkuta region to the mouth of the Ob River on the Arctic Sea. The decision to start building was taken by the Soviet government in April 1947. A month later, exploration, surveying work, and construction all began simultaneously. Prisoners also began building a new seaport at the Kamenny cape, where the Ob River widens out toward the sea.

As usual, there were complications: there were not enough tractors, so prisoners used old tanks instead. The planners made up for their lack of machines by overworking the prisoners. Eleven-hour days were normal, and even free workers sometimes stayed on the job from nine o’clock in the morning until midnight during the long summer days. By the end of the year, the complications had grown more serious. The surveying team had established that the Kamenny cape was a poor location for the port: the water was not deep enough for large ships and the land was too unstable for heavy industry. In January 1949, Stalin held a midnight meeting, where the Soviet leadership determined to move the site, and the railway too: the line would now connect the Ob not with the Vorkuta region to the west, but with the Yenisei River to the east. Two new camps were built— Construction Site No. 501 and Construction Site No. 503. Each began to lay down railway track at the same time. The idea was to meet in the middle. The distance between them was 806 miles.

Work continued. At its height there were, according to one source, 80,000 people working on this railway, according to another, 120,000. The project became known as the “Road of Death.” Construction proved nearly impossible in the Arctic tundra. As winter permafrost turned quickly into summer mud, track had to be constantly prevented from bending or sinking. Even so, wagons frequently came off the rails. Because of supply problems, the prisoners began using wood instead of steel in the railway construction, a decision which guaranteed the project’s failure. At the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, 310 miles had been built from one end of the railway, 124 miles from the other end. The port existed only on paper. Within weeks of Stalin’s funeral, the entire project, which had cost 40 billion rubles and tens of thousands of lives, was abandoned for good.53

On a smaller scale, such stories were repeated every day, all across the Gulag. Yet despite weather, inexperience, and mismanagement, pressure on camp administrators never slackened, nor did pressure on prisoners. The bosses were subject to endless inspections and verification programs, and constantly harangued to do better. However fictitious, the results mattered. Ludicrous though it may have seemed to prisoners, who knew perfectly well how shoddily work was being done, this was, in fact, a deadly serious game. Many of them would not survive it.


Were they not clearly marked as belonging to the NKVD archives, the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the photographs of Bogoslovlag, which appear in a carefully preserved album, dated 1945, were not of a camp at all. The pictures show carefully planted gardens, flowers, shrubs, a fountain, and a gazebo in which prisoners could sit and rest. The entrance to the camp is marked by a red star, and a slogan: “All of our strength for the future power of the Motherland!” The photographs of prisoners gracing another album, filed nearby, are equally hard to reconcile with the popular image of the Gulag inmate. There is a happy man holding a pumpkin; cows pulling a plow; a smiling camp commander picking an apple. Beside the pictures are graphs. One shows the camp’s planned production, the other the plan’s fulfillment. 54

All of these albums, neatly cut, pasted, and labeled with the same conscientiousness that schoolchildren show when putting together a class project, were produced by the same institution: the Gulag’s Kulturno-Vospitatelnaya Chast, the Cultural-Educational Department, or KVCh, as it was usually known to prisoners. The KVCh, or its equivalent, had been in existence since the Gulag began. In 1924, the very first edition of SLON, the journal of the Solovetsky prison, contained an article on the future of prisons in Russia: “The corrective-labor policy of Russia must re-educate prisoners through accustoming them to participating in organized productive labor.” 55

Most of the time, however, the real goal of camp propaganda was higher production figures. This was even the case during the building of the White Sea Canal, when, as we have seen, the “re-education” propaganda was at its loudest and perhaps most sincere. At that time, the national cult of the shock-worker was at its height. Camp artists painted portraits of the canal’s best workers, and camp actors and musicians put on special concerts for them. The shock-workers were even invited to huge assemblies, at which songs were sung and speeches were read out. One such assembly, held on April 21, 1933, was followed by a two-day “work storm”: for forty-eight hours, none of the 30,000 shock-workers left their workplaces at all.56

This sort of activity was unceremoniously abandoned in the late 1930s when prisoners became “enemies” and could no longer be “shock-workers” at the same time—nevertheless, after Beria took control of the camps in 1939, propaganda did slowly return. While there would never again be a White Sea Canal—a Gulag project whose “success” was trumpted to the world—the language of re-education was brought back to the camps. By the 1940s, every camp theoretically had at least one KVCh instructor, as well as a small library and a KVCh “club,” where theatrical performances and concerts were put on, political lectures were given, and political discussions were held. Thomas Sgovio remembered one such club: “The main room, seating about thirty persons, had wooden, gaudily painted walls. There were a few tables, supposedly for reading purposes. However, there were no books, newspapers or periodicals. How could there be? Newspapers were worth their weight in gold. We used them for smoking.”57

From the 1930s on, the main “clients” of the KVCh were supposed to be the criminal prisoners. Just as it was unclear whether politicals would be allowed to hold specialists’ jobs, so too was it unclear whether it was worth anybody’s time trying to re-educate them. A 1940 NKVD directive on the cultural-educational work of the camps stated explicity that those who had committed counter-revolutionary crimes were not suitable targets for re-education. In camp theatrical productions, they were allowed to play musical instruments, but not to speak or sing.58

As was so often the case, these orders were ignored more frequently than they were obeyed. And—as was also often the case—the KVCh’s actual function in camp life differed from what the Gulag’s masters in Moscow had intended it to do. If Moscow intended the KVCh to force prisoners to work harder, the prisoners used the KVCh for their own purposes: for moral support—and for survival.

On the face of it, it appears as if the cultural-educational instructors inside the camps sought to propagate the value of work among prisoners much in the same way that Communist Party operatives sought to do so in the world outside the prison gates. In the larger camps, the KVCh produced camp newspapers. Sometimes these were full newspapers, with reports and long articles on the successes of the camp, as well as “self-criticism”— comments about what was going wrong inside the camp—a standard feature of all the Soviet press. Aside from a brief period in the early 1930s, these newspapers were intended largely for the free workers and the camp administration.59

For prisoners, there were also “wall newspapers,” designed not for distribution (there were paper shortages, after all) but for display on special notice boards. One prisoner described the wall newspapers as “an attribute of the Soviet way of life, no one ever read them but they appeared regularly.” They often featured “humor sections”: “They assumed, obviously, that workers dying of hunger would read the material in this section, give a great belly laugh, and finally hold up to shame those refusers and shirkers who didn’t want to repay their guilt to the Motherland through honest work.”60

Ludicrous though they seemed to many, the central Gulag administration in Moscow took the wall newspapers very seriously. Wall newspapers, ordered one directive, should “portray the best examples of work, popularize the shock-workers, condemn the shirkers.” No pictures of Stalin were allowed: these were, after all, still criminals, not “comrades,” and they were still excommunicated from Soviet life, forbidden even to gaze upon their leader. The often absurd atmosphere of secrecy which had descended upon the camps in 1937 remained in place throughout the 1940s as well: newspapers printed in the camps could not be taken out of the camps.61

Along with hanging up newspapers, the KVCh also showed films. Gustav Herling was shown an American musical, “full of women in fitted bodices, men in tight jackets and frilly cravats,” as well as a propaganda film which ended in “the triumph of righteousness”: “The clumsy students came first in their socialist competition of work and with blazing eyes delivered a speech glorifying the State where manual labor had been raised to the highest position of honor.”62

Meanwhile, some criminal prisoners took advantage of the darkened rooms where the films were shown to carry out revenge killings and murders. “I remember, at the end of one of these performances, seeing the body of a dead man carried past on a stretcher,” one prisoner told me.63

The KVCh also sponsored football matches, chess matches, concerts, and performances referred to solemnly as “self-taught creative activities.” One archival document lists the following repetoire of an NKVD singing and dancing ensemble, which was touring the camps:

The Ballad of Stalin

The Cossack Meditation on Stalin

The Song of Beria

The Song of the Motherland

The Fight for the Motherland

Everything for the Motherland

The Song of the NKVD Warriors

The Song of the Chekists

The Song of the Distant Frontier Post

The March of the Border Guards64

There were also some lighter numbers such as “Let’s Smoke” and “Song of the Dnieper,” the latter celebrating a river at least, and not a secret police institution. The theatrical repetroire included some Chekhov plays as well. Nevertheless, the bulk of the artistic efforts were meant, at least in theory, for the prisoners’ enlightenment, not their entertainment. As one 1940 order from Moscow declared, “Every performance must educate the prisoners, teaching them greater consciousness of labor.” 65 As we shall see, the prisoners learned to use the performances to help them survive, as well.

But “self-taught creative activity” was not the Cultural-Educational Department’s only concern—nor was it the only path to a lighter workload. The KVCh was also responsible for collecting suggestions as to how to improve or “rationalize” the prisoners’ work, a task which it took grimly seriously. In its semi-annual report to Moscow, one camp in Nizhne-Amursk claimed, without irony, to have achieved 302 rationalizations, of which 157 were put into practice, thereby saving 812,332 rubles.66

Isaak Filshtinskii also notes, with a great deal of irony, that some prisoners became adept at twisting this policy to their own advantage. One, a former chauffeur, claimed that he knew how to construct a mechanism that would allow cars to run on oxygen. Excited by the prospect of discovering a really important “rationalization,” the camp bosses gave him a laboratory in which to work on the idea: “I can’t say whether they believed him or not. They were simply fulfilling instructions of the Gulag. In every camp, there should be people working as rationalizers and inventors . . . and who knows, maybe Vdovin would find something, and then they would all get the Stalin prize!” Vdovin’s bluff was called, finally, when he returned one day from his lab with a giant construction made of scrap metal, the purpose of which he was incapable of explaining.67

As in the outside world, the camps also continued to hold “socialist competitions,” work contests in which prisoners were meant to compete against one another, the better to raise output. They also honored the camp shock-workers, for their alleged ability to triple and quadruple the norms. I’ve described the first such campaigns in Chapter 4, which began in the 1930s, but they continued—with markedly less enthusiasm and markedly more absurd hyperbole—into the 1940s. Prisoners who participated could win many different sorts of awards. Some received bigger rations or better living conditions. Others received more intangible prizes. In 1942, for example, a reward for good performance could include a knizhka otlichnika , a booklet awarded to those who attained the status of “excellent” workers. This contained a little calendar, with space for putting in daily percentages of norms fulfilled; a blank space for writing in suggestions for “rationalizations”; a list of the rights of the booklet holder (to receive the best place in the barracks, to get the best uniforms, the unlimited right to receive parcels, etc.); and a quote from Stalin: “The hardworking person feels himself a free citizen of his country, a social activist of a sort. And if he works hard, and gives society that which he can give, he is a hero of labor.”68

Not everybody would have taken such a prize terribly seriously. Antoni Ekart, a Polish prisoner, also described one such work campaign:

A plywood Board of Honor was put up on which were posted the results of the Socialist Workers’ Contests when announced. Sometimes a crude portrait of the leading “shock” man was exhibited, giving details of the records achieved. Almost unbelievable figures, showing outputs of five hundred percent or even one thousand percent of the normal, were shown. This referred to the digging up of the ground with spades. Even the most backward prisoner could understand that to excavate five to ten times more than the standard was impossible . . . 69

But the KVCh instructors were also ultimately responsible for convincing “refusers” that it was in their interest to work, not to sit in punishment cells, or to attempt to get by on small rations. Clearly, not many took their lectures seriously: there were too many other ways to persuade prisoners to work. But a few did, much to the delight of the Gulag’s bosses in Moscow. In fact, they took this function terribly seriously, and even held periodic conferences of KVCh instructors, designed to discuss such questions as “What are the basic motives of those who refuse to work?” and “What are the practical results of eliminating the prisoners’ day off?”

At one such meeting, held during the Second World War, the organizers compared notes. One acknowledged that some “shirkers” could not work because they were too weak to live off the amount of food they were given. Still, he claimed, even starving people could be motivated: he had told one shirker that his behavior was “like a knife in the neck of his brother, who was at the front.” That was enough to persuade the man to ignore his hunger, and work harder. Another claimed he had shown some shirkers photographs of “Leningrad in battle,” after which they all went immediately to work. Yet another said that in his camp, the best brigades were allowed to decorate their own barracks, and the best workers were encouraged to plant flowers in their own individual plots. On the minutes from this meeting, preserved in the archives, someone has made a notation beside this latter comment: “Khorosho!” “Excellent!” 70

This sharing of experiences was considered so important that at the height of the war, the Cultural-Educational Department of the Gulag in Moscow took the trouble to print a pamphlet on the subject. The title—with clear religious echoes—was Return to Life.The author, one Comrade Loginov, describes a series of relationships he had with prisoner “shirkers.” Using clever psychological tactics, he converted every one of them to a belief in the value of hard work.

The stories are fairly predictable. In one of them, for example, Loginov explains to Ekaterina Sh., the educated wife of a man condemned to death for “espionage” in 1937, that her ruined life can once again have meaning within the context of the Communist Party. To another prisoner, Samuel Goldshtein, Loginov recounts Hitler’s “racial theories” and explains to him what “Hitler’s new order” in Europe would mean for him. So inspired is Goldshtein by this surprising (in the USSR) appeal to his Jewishness, that he wants to leave immediately for the front. Loginov tells him that “today, your weapon is your labor,” and persuades him to work harder in the camp. “Your life is needed by your fatherland, and so are you,” he tells yet another prisoner who, with tears in his eyes, returns to work upon hearing these words.71

Clearly, Comrade Loginov was proud of his work, and applied himself to it with great energy. His enthusiasm was real. The rewards he received for his work were real too: V. G. Nasedkin, then the boss of the entire Gulag system, was so pleased with his effort that he ordered the pamphlet sent to all of the camps in the system, and awarded Loginov a bonus of 1,000 rubles.

Whether Loginov and his shirkers actually believed in what he was doing is less clear. We do not know, for example, whether Loginov understood, at some level, that many of the people he was “bringing back to life” were innocent of any crime. Nor do we know whether people like Ekaterina Sh. (if she existed) really reconverted to Soviet values, or whether she suddenly realized that by appearing to be so converted she might receive better food, better treatment, or an easier job. The two possibilities are not even mutually exclusive. For people shocked and disoriented by their rapid transition from useful citizen to despised prisoner, the experience of “seeing the light” and rejoining Soviet society may have helped them make a psychological recovery from their experiences, as well as providing them with the better conditions that saved their lives.

In fact, this question—“Did they believe in what they were doing?”—is actually a small part of a much larger question, one which goes to the heart of the nature of the Soviet Union itself: Did any of its leaders ever believe in what they were were doing? The relationship between Soviet propaganda and Soviet reality was always a strange one: the factory is barely functioning, in the shops there is nothing to buy, old ladies cannot afford to heat their apartments, yet in the streets outside, banners proclaim the “triumph of socialism” and the “heroic achievements of the Soviet motherland.”

These paradoxes were no different within the camps than outside them. In his history of the Stalinist industrial city Magnitogorsk, Stephen Kotkin points out that in the prison newspaper of the Magnitogorsk corrective-labor colony, the profiles of reformed convicts were written in “language strikingly reminiscent of what could be heard from accomplished workers outside the colony: they were laboring, studying, making sacrifices and trying to better themselves.”72

Still, there was an extra level of strangeness in the camps. If, in the free world, the enormous gap between this sort of Soviet propaganda and Soviet reality already struck many as ludicrous, in the camps, the absurdity seemed to reach new heights. In the Gulag, where they were constantly addressed as “enemies,” explicitly forbidden to call one another “comrade,” and forbidden to gaze upon a portrait of Stalin, prisoners were nevertheless expected to work for the glory of the socialist motherland, just the same as those who were free—and to participate in “self-taught creative activity” just as if they were doing so out of the sheer love of art. The absurdity was perfectly clear to all. At one point in her camp career, Anna Andreeva became a camp “artist,” meaning that she was actually employed to paint those slogans. This job, very easy by camp standards, certainly saved her health and possibly her life. Yet interviewed years later, she claimed not even to be able to remember the slogans. She said, she supposed, that “the bosses thought them up. Something like, ‘We give all of our strength to work,’ something like that . . . I wrote them very quickly, and technically very well, but I absolutely forgot everything that I wrote. It was some kind of self-defense mechanism.” 73

Leonid Trus, a prisoner in the early 1950s, was also struck by the pointlessness of the slogans which were plastered all over the camp buildings, and were repeated through the loudspeakers:

There was a camp radio system, which regularly transmitted information on our labor successes, which scolded those who worked badly. These transmissions were very crude, but they reminded me of transmissions I had heard in freedom. I became convinced that they were no different, except that in freedom the people were more talented, they knew how to describe it all in a prettier way . . . but in general [the camp] was the same as freedom—the same posters, the same slogans—except that in the camp the phrases all sounded more absurd. “They took on the job, they finished the job,” for example. Or “Labor in the USSR—it is a thing of honesty, of glory, of valor and heroism”—the words of Stalin. Or all of the other slogans, like “We are for peace,” or “We welcome peace in the whole world.”74

Foreigners, who were not used to the presence of slogans and banners, found the work of the “re-educators” even more bizarre. Antoni Ekart, a Pole, described a typical political indoctrination session:

The method employed was as follows. A man from the KVCh, a professional agitator with the mentality of a six-year-old child, would address the prisoners on the nobility of putting all their effort into work. He would tell them that noble people are patriots, that all patriots love Soviet Russia, the best country in the world for the working man, that Soviet citizens are proud to belong to such a country, etc. etc. for two solid hours—all this to an audience whose very skins bore witness to the absurdity and the hypocrisy of such statements. But the speaker is not upset by the cool reception and keeps on speaking. Finally he promises to all “shock” workers better pay, increased rations and improved conditions. The effect on those who are undergoing the discipline of hunger may be imagined.75

A Polish deportee had the same reaction to a propaganda lecture he attended in a Siberian camp.

For hours and hours the lecturer went on, trying to prove that God did not exist, that He was nothing but some bourgeois invention. We should consider ourselves lucky to have found ourselves among the Soviets, the most perfect country in the world. Here in the camp we should learn how to work and at last become decent people. From time to time he attempted to give us some education: so he told us that the “earth is round” and he was absolutely convinced we knew nothing about it, and that we were also ignorant of such things as for instance that Crete is “peninsular,” or that Roosevelt was some foreign minister. He imparted such truths as these with unshakeable confidence in our complete lack of knowledge, for how could we, brought up in a bourgeois state, expect to have the advantage of even the most elementary education . . . he stressed the point with satisfaction that we could not even dream of regaining our freedom, that Poland would never rise again . . .

Alas for the poor lecturer, continued the Pole; his work was for naught: “The more he held forth about it, the more we rebelled inwardly, hoping against hope. Faces became set with determination.”76

Another Pole, Gustav Herling, described his camp’s cultural activities as a “vestigial reminder of the regulations drawn up in Moscow in the days when the camps really were intended to be corrective, educational institutions. Gogol would have appreciated this blind obedience to an official fiction despite the general practice of the camp—it was like the education of ‘dead souls.’”77

These views are not unique: they are found in the vast majority of memoirs, most of which either fail to mention the KVCh, or deride it. For that reason, it is difficult, when writing about the function of propaganda in the camps, to know how to rate its importance to the central administration. On the one hand, it can be reasonably argued (and many do) that camp propaganda, like all Soviet propaganda, was pure farce, that no one believed it, that it was produced by the camp administration purely in order to fool the prisoners in a rather juvenile and transparent manner.

On the other hand, if the propaganda, the posters, and the political indoctrination sessions were completely farcical—and if no one believed in them at all—then why was so much real time and real money wasted on them? Within the records of the Gulag administration alone, there are hundreds and hundreds of documents testifying to the intensive work of the Cultural-Educational Department. In the first quarter of 1943, for example, at the height of the war, frantic telegrams were sent back and forth from the camps to Moscow, as camp commanders desperately tried to procure musical instruments for their prisoners. Meanwhile, the camps held a contest on the theme “The Great Motherland War of the Soviet People Against the German Fascist Occupiers”: fifty camp painters and eight sculptors participated. At this time of national labor shortages, the central organs also recommended that every camp employ a librarian, a film technician to show propaganda movies, and a kultorganizator, a prisoner assistant to the cultural instructor, who would help conduct the “battle” for cleanliness, raise the cultural level of prisoners, organize artistic activity—and help teach the prisoners to “correctly understand questions of contemporary politics.”78

The camp cultural instructors also filed semi-annual or quarterly reports on their work, often listing their achievements in great detail. The KVCh instructor of Vosturallag, at the time a camp for 13,000 prisoners, sent one such report, for example, also in 1943. The twenty-one-page report begins with the admission that, in the first half of 1943, the camp’s industrial plan was “not fulfilled.” In the second half of that year, however, steps were taken. The Cultural-Educational Department had helped to “mobilize prisoners to fulfill and overfulfill the production tasks set by comrade Stalin,” to “return prisoners to health and prepare for winter,” and to “liquidate insufficiencies in cultural-educational work.”79 The camp KVCh chief then went on to list the methods he deployed. He notes grandly that in the second half of that year, 762 political speeches were given, attended by 70,000 prisoners (presumably, many attended more than once). At the same time, the KVCh held 444 political information sessions, attended by 82,400 prisoners; it printed 5,046 “wall newspapers,” read by 350,000 people; it put on 232 concerts and plays, showed 69 films, and organized 38 theatrical groups. One of the latter even wrote a song, proudly quoted in the report:

Our brigade is friendly
Our duty calls
Our building site waits
The Front needs our work.80

One can attempt to come up with explanations for this enormous effort. Perhaps the Cultural-Educational Department functioned, within the Gulag bureaucracy, as the ultimate scapegoat: if the plan was not being fulfilled, it was not poor organization or malnutrition that were to blame, not stupidly cruel work policies or the lack of felt boots—but insufficient propaganda. Perhaps the system’s rigid bureaucracy was at fault: once the center had decreed there must be propaganda, everyone tried to fulfill the order without ever questioning its absurdity. Perhaps the Moscow leadership was so isolated from the camps that they really did believe that 444 political information sessions and 762 political speeches would make starving men and women work harder—although given the material also available to them in camp inspection reports, this seems unlikely.

Or perhaps there is no good explanation. Vladimir Bukovsky, the Soviet dissident who was later a prisoner himself, shrugged when I asked him about it. This paradox, he said, was what made the Gulag unique: “In our camps, you were expected not only to be a slave laborer, but to sing and smile while you worked as well. They didn’t just want to oppress us: they wanted us to thank them for it.”81

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