That was a time when only the dead
Could smile, delivered from their struggles,
And the sign, the soul of Leningrad
Dangled outside its prison house;
And the regiments of the condemned,
Herded in the railroad-yards
Shrank from the engine’s whistle-song
Whose burden went, “Away, pariahs!”
The star of death stood over us.
And Russia, guiltless, beloved, writhed
Under the crunch of bloodstained boots,
Under the wheels of Black Marias.
—Anna Akhmatova, “Requiem 1935–1940” 1
OBJECTIVELY SPEAKING, the years 1937 and 1938—remembered as the years of the Great Terror—were not the deadliest in the history of the camps. Nor did they mark the camps’ greatest expanse: the numbers of prisoners were far greater during the following decade, and peaked much later than is usually remembered, in 1952. Although available statistics are incomplete, it is still clear that death rates in the camps were higher both at the height of the rural famine in 1932 and 1933 and at the worst moment of the Second World War, in 1942 and 1943, when the total number of people assigned to forced-labor camps, prisons, and POW camps hovered around four million.2
As a focus of historical interest, it is also arguable that the importance of 1937 and 1938 has been exaggerated. Even Solzhenitsyn complained that those who decried the abuses of Stalinism “keep getting hung up on those years which are stuck in our throats, ’37 and ’38,” and in one sense he is right.3 The Great Terror after all, followed two decades of repression. From 1918 on, there had been regular mass arrests and mass deportations, first of opposition politicians at the beginning of the 1920s, then of “saboteurs” at the end of the 1920s, then of kulaks in the early 1930s. All of these episodes of mass arrest were accompanied by regular roundups of those responsible for “social disorder.”
The Great Terror was also followed, in turn, by even more arrests and deportations—of Poles, Ukrainians, and Balts from territories invaded in 1939; of Red Army “traitors” taken captive by the enemy; of ordinary people who found themselves on the wrong side of the front line after the Nazi invasion in 1941. Later, in 1948, there would be re-arrests of former camp inmates, and later still, just before Stalin’s death, mass arrests of Jews. Although the victims of 1937 and 1938 were perhaps better known, and although nothing as spectacular as the public “show trials” of those years was ever repeated, the arrests of the Great Terror are therefore best described not as the zenith of repression, but rather as one of the more unusual waves of repression that washed over the country during Stalin’s reign: it affected more of the elite—Old Bolsheviks, leading members of the army and the Party—encompassed in general a wider variety of people, and resulted in an unusually high number of executions.
In the history of the Gulag, however, 1937 does mark a genuine water-shed. For it was in this year that the Soviet camps temporarily transformed themselves from indifferently managed prisons in which people died by accident, into genuinely deadly camps where prisoners were deliberately worked to death, or actually murdered, in far larger numbers than they had been in the past. Although the transformation was far from consistent, and although the deliberate deadliness of the camps did ease again by 1939— death rates would subsequently rise and fall with the tides of war and ideology up until Stalin’s death in 1953—the Great Terror left its mark on the mentality of camp guards and prisoners alike.4
Like the rest of the country, the Gulag’s inhabitants would have seen the early warning signs of the terror to come. Following the still mysterious murder of the popular Leningrad Party leader Sergei Kirov in December of 1934, Stalin pushed through a series of decrees giving the NKVD far greater powers to arrest, try, and execute “enemies of the people.” Within weeks, two leading Bolsheviks, Kamenev and Zinoviev—both past opponents of Stalin’s—had already fallen victim to the decrees, and were arrested along with thousands of their supporters and alleged supporters, many from Leningrad. Mass expulsions from the Communist Party followed, although they were not, to start with, much broader than expulsions that had taken place earlier in the decade.
Slowly, the purge became bloodier. Throughout the spring and summer of 1936, Stalin’s interrogators worked on Kamenev and Zinoviev, along with a group of Leon Trotsky’s former admirers, preparing them to “confess” at a large public show trial, which duly took place in August. All were executed afterward, along with many of their relatives. Other trials of leading Bolsheviks, among them the charismatic Nikolai Bukharin, followed in due course. Their families suffered too.
The mania for arrests and executions spread down the Party hierarchy, and throughout society. It was pushed from the top by Stalin, who used it to eliminate his enemies, create a new class of loyal leaders, terrorize the Soviet population—and fill his concentration camps. Starting in 1937, he signed orders which were sent to the regional NKVD bosses, listing quotas of people to be arrested (no cause was given) in particular regions. Some were to be sentenced to the “first category” of punishment—death—and others to be given the “second category”—confinement in concentration camps for a term ranging from eight to ten years. The most “vicious” among the latter were to be placed in special political prisons, presumably in order to keep them from contaminating other camp inmates. Some scholars speculate that the NKVD assigned quotas to different parts of the country according to its perception of which regions had the greatest concentration of “enemies.” On the other hand, there may have been no correlation at all.5
Reading these orders is very much like reading the orders of a bureaucrat designing the latest version of the Five-Year Plan. Here, for example, is one dated July 30, 1937:
Clearly, the purge was in no sense spontaneous: new camps for new prisoners were even prepared in advance. Nor did the purge encounter much resistance. The NKVD administration in Moscow expected their provincial subordinates to show enthusiasm, and they eagerly complied. “We ask permission to shoot an additional 700 people from the Dashnak bands, and other anti-Soviet elements,” the Armenian NKVD petitioned Moscow in September 1937. Stalin personally signed a similar request, just as he, or Molotov, signed many others: “I raise the number of First Category prisoners in the Krasnoyarsk region to 6,600.” At a Politburo meeting in February 1938, the NKVD of Ukraine was given permission to arrest an additional 30,000 “kulaks and other anti-Soviet elements.”7
Some of the Soviet public approved of new arrests: the sudden revelation of the existence of enormous numbers of “enemies,” many within the highest reaches of the Party, surely explained why—despite Stalin’s Great Turning Point, despite collectivization, despite the Five-Year Plan—the Soviet Union was still so poor and backward. Most, however, were too terrified and confused by the spectacle of famous revolutionaries confessing and neighbors disappearing in the night to express any opinions about what was happening at all.
In the Gulag, the purge first left its mark on the camp commanders— by eliminating many of them. If, throughout the rest of the country, 1937 was remembered as the year in which the Revolution devoured its children, in the camp system it would be remembered as the year in which the Gulag consumed its founders, beginning at the very top: Genrikh Yagoda, the secret police chief who bore the most responsibility for the expansion of the camp system, was tried and shot in 1938, after pleading for his life in a letter to the Supreme Soviet. “It is hard to die,” wrote the man who had sent so many others to their deaths. “I fall to my knees before the People and the Party, and ask them to pardon me, to save my life.” 8
Yagoda’s replacement, the dwarfish Nikolai Yezhov (he was only five feet tall), immediately began to dispose of Yagoda’s friends and subordinates in the NKVD. He attacked Yagoda’s family too—as he would attack the families of others—arresting his wife, parents, sisters, nephews, and nieces. One of the latter recalled the reaction of her grandmother, Yagoda’s mother, on the day she and the entire family were sent into exile.
“If only Gena [Yagoda] could see what they’re doing to us,” someone quietly said.
Suddenly Grandmother, who never raised her voice, turned towards the empty apartment, and cried loudly, “May he be damned!” She crossed the threshold and the door slammed shut. The sound reverberated in the stairwell like the echo of this maternal curse.9
Many of the camp bosses and administrators, groomed and promoted by Yagoda, shared his fate. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Soviet citizens, they were accused of vast conspiracies, arrested, and interrogated in complex cases which could involve hundreds of people. One of the most prominent of these cases was organized around Matvei Berman, boss of the Gulag from 1932 to 1937. His years of service to the Party—he had joined in 1917—did him no good. In December 1938, the NKVD accused Berman of having headed a “Right-Trotskyist terrorist and sabotage organization” that had created “privileged conditions” for prisoners in the camps, had deliberately weakened the “military and political preparedness” of the camp guards (hence the large numbers of escapes), and had sabotaged the Gulag’s construction projects (hence their slow progress).
Berman did not fall alone. All across the Soviet Union, Gulag camp commanders and top administrators were found to belong to the same “Right-Trotskyist organization,” and were sentenced in one fell swoop. The records of their cases have a surreal quality: it is as if all of the previous years’ frustrations—the norms not met, the roads badly built, the prisoner-built factories which barely functioned—had come to some kind of insane climax.
Alexander Izrailev, for example, deputy boss of Ukhtpechlag, received a sentence for “hindering the growth of coal-mining.” Alexander Polisonov, a colonel who worked in the Gulag’s division of armed guards, was accused of having created “impossible conditions” for them. Mikhail Goskin, head of the Gulag’s railway-building section, was described as having “created unreal plans” for the Volochaevka–Komsomolets railway line. Isaak Ginzburg, head of the Gulag’s medical division, was held responsible for the high death rates among prisoners, and accused of having created special conditions for other counter-revolutionary prisoners, enabling them to be released early on account of illness. Most of these men were condemned to death, although several had their sentences commuted to prison or camp, and a handful even survived to be rehabilitated in 1955.10
A striking number of the Gulag’s very earliest administrators met the same fate. Fyodor Eichmanns, former boss of SLON, later head of the OGPU’s Special Department, was shot in 1938. Lazar Kogan, the Gulag’s second boss, was shot in 1939. Berman’s successor as Gulag chief, Izrail Pliner, lasted only a year in the job and was also shot in 1939.11 It was as if the system needed an explanation for why it worked so badly—as if it needed people to blame. Or perhaps “the system” is a misleading expression: perhaps it was Stalin himself who needed to explain why his beautifully planned slave-labor projects progressed so slowly and with such mixed results.
There were some curious exceptions to the general destruction. For Stalin not only had control over who was arrested, but he also sometimes decided who would not be arrested. It is a curious fact that, despite the deaths of nearly all of his former colleagues, Naftaly Frenkel managed to evade the executioner’s bullet. By 1937, he was the boss of BAMlag, the Baikal–Amur railway line, one of the most chaotic and lethal camps in the far east. Yet when forty-eight “Trotskyites” were arrested in BAMlag in 1938, he was somehow not among them.
His absence from the list of arrestees is made stranger by the fact that the camp newspaper did attack him, openly accusing him of sabotage. Nevertheless, his case was mysteriously held up in Moscow. The local BAMlag prosecutor, who was conducting the investigation into Frenkel, found the delay incomprehensible. “I don’t understand why this investigation was placed under ‘special decree,’ or from whom this ‘special decree’ has come,” he wrote to Andrei Vyshinsky, the Soviet Union’s chief prosecutor: “If we don’t arrest Trotskyite-diversionist-spies, then whom should we be arresting?” Stalin, it seems, was still well able to protect his friends.12
Perhaps the most dramatic 1937 camp-boss saga was one that occurred toward the end of that year, in Magadan, and began with the arrest of Eduard Berzin, the Dalstroi boss. As Yagoda’s direct subordinate, Berzin ought to have suspected that his career would soon be shortened. He ought also to have been suspicious when, in December, he received a whole new group of NKVD “deputies,” among them Major Pavlov, an NKVD officer who ranked higher than Berzin himself. Although Stalin often introduced soon-to-be-disgraced officials to their successors in this manner, Berzin showed no sign of suspecting anything. When the ominously named SS Nikolai Yezhov pulled into Nagaevo Bay, carrying his new team, Berzin organized a brass band to welcome them. He then spent several days showing his new “staff” the ropes—although they virtually ignored him—before boarding the SS Nikolai Yezhov himself.
Upon reaching Vladivostok, he proceeded, quite normally, to take the Trans-Siberian Express for Moscow. But although Berzin left Vladivostok as a first-class passenger, he arrived a prisoner. Just 70 kilometers outside Moscow, in the town of Aleksandrov, his train ground to a halt. In the middle of the night of December 19, 1937, Berzin was arrested on the station platform—outside the capital, so as not to cause a fuss in central Moscow— and driven to Lubyanka, Moscow’s central prison, for interrogation. He was quickly indicted for “counter-revolutionary sabotage-wrecking activities.” The NKVD accused him of organizing a “spy-diversionist Trotskyist organization in Kolyma,” which was allegedly shipping gold to the Japanese government and plotting a Japanese takeover of the Russian far east. They also accused him of spying for England and Germany. Clearly, the Dalstroi boss had been a very busy man. He was shot in August 1938 in the basement of Lubyanka prison.
The absurdity of the charges did not detract from the deadlines of the case. By the end of December, Pavlov, working quickly, had arrested the majority of Berzin’s subordinates. I. G. Filippov, the boss of the Sevvostlag camp, provided, under torture, an extensive confession which implicated virtually all of them. Confessing that he had “recruited” Berzin in 1934, he admitted that their “anti-Soviet organization” had planned to overthrow the Soviet government through the “preparation of an armed uprising against Soviet power in Kolyma . . . the preparation and accomplishment of terrorist acts against the leaders of the Communist Party and the Soviet government . . . the encitement of the native population . . . and the encouragement of widespread wrecking,” among other things. Berzin’s chief deputy, Lev Epshtein, subsequently confessed to “gathering secret intelligence for France and Japan while conducting sabotage, diversion and wrecking.” The chief medical doctor at the Magadan polyclinic was accused of having “connections with alien elements and doubledealers.” By the time it was over, hundreds of people who had been associated with Berzin, from geologists to bureaucrats to engineers, were either dead or had themselves become prisoners.13
To put their experience in perspective, the Kolyma elite was not the only powerful network to be eliminated in 1937 and 1938. By the end of that year, Stalin had purged the Red Army of a whole host of notables, including Deputy People’s Commissar for Defense Marshal Tukhachevsky, Army Commander Ion Yakir, Army Commander Uborevich, and others, along with their wives and children, most of whom were shot, but some of whom wound up in camps. 14 The Communist Party met a similar fate. The purge penetrated not only Stalin’s potential enemies in the Party leadership, but also the provincial Party elite, the First Party Secretaries, the heads of local and regional councils, and the leaders of important factories and institutions.
So thorough was the wave of arrests in certain places and among a certain social class, later wrote Yelena Sidorkina—herself arrested in November 1937—that “Nobody knew what tomorrow would bring. People were afraid to talk to one another or meet, especially families in which the father or mother had already been ‘isolated.’ The rare individuals foolhardy enough to stand up for those arrested would themselves be automatically nominated for ‘isolation.’”15
But not everyone died, and not every camp was wiped out. In fact, the more obscure camp bosses even fared slightly better than the average NKVD officer, as the case of V. A. Barabanov, a protégé of Yagoda’s, illustrates. In 1935, when he was the deputy commander of Dmitlag, Barabanov was arrested along with a colleague for having arrived at the camp “in a drunken state.” As a result, he lost his job, received a light prison sentence, and was working at a distant camp in the far north in 1938 when the mass arrests of Yagoda’s henchmen took place. In the chaos, his existence was forgotten. By 1954, his love of alcohol forgiven, he had risen through the ranks once again to become the deputy commander of the entire Gulag system.16
But in the folk memory of the camps, 1937 was not only remembered as the year of the Great Terror; it was also the year that propaganda about the glories of criminal re-education finally ground to a halt, along with any remaining lip service to the ideal. In part, this may have been due to the deaths and arrests of those most closely associated with the campaign. Yagoda, still linked in the public mind to the White Sea Canal, was gone. Maxim Gorky had died suddenly in June 1936. I. L. Averbakh, Gorky’s collaborator on Kanal imeni Stalina and author of From Crime to Labour, a subsequent tome dedicated to the Moscow–Volga Canal, was denounced as a Trotskyite and arrested in April 1937. So were many of the other writers who had taken part in Gorky’s White Sea Canal collective.17
But the change had deeper origins as well. As the political rhetoric grew more radical, as the hunt for political criminals intensified, the status of the camps, where these dangerous politicals resided, changed as well. In a country gripped by paranoia and spy-mania, the very existence of camps for “enemies” and “wreckers” became, if not exactly a secret (prisoners working on roads and apartment blocks were to be a common sight in many major cities in the 1940s) then at least a subject never discussed in public. Nikolai Pogodin’s play, Aristokraty, was banned in 1937, to be revived again, though only briefly, in 1956, well after Stalin’s death. 18 Gorky’s Kanal imeni Stalina was also placed on the list of forbidden books, for reasons that remain unclear. Perhaps the new NKVD bosses could no longer stomach the frothy praise for the disgraced Yagoda. Or perhaps its bright depiction of the successful re-education of “enemies” no longer made sense in an era when new enemies were appearing all the time, and when hundreds of thousands of them were being executed, instead of reformed. Certainly its tales of smooth, all-knowing Chekists were hard to reconcile with the massive purges of the NKVD.
Not wanting to seem lax in their task of isolating the regime’s enemies, the Gulag’s commanders in Moscow issued new internal secrecy regulations too, entailing huge new costs. All correspondence now had to be sent by special courier. In 1940 alone, the NKVD’s couriers had to transmit twenty-five million secret packages. Those writing letters to camps now wrote exclusively to post office boxes, as the locations of camps became a secret. The camps themselves disappeared from maps. Even internal NKVD correspondence referred to them euphemistically as “special objects” (spetsobekty) or “subsections” (podrazdeleniya) in order to conceal their real activity.19
For more specific references, both to camps and to the activities of their inhabitants, the NKVD devised an elaborate code which could be used in open telegrams. A document from 1940 listed these code names, some bizarrely creative. Pregnant women were to be referred to as “Books,” and women with children as “Receipts.” Men, on the other hand, were “Accounts.” Exiles were “Rubbish,” and prisoners undergoing investigation were “Envelopes.” A camp was a “Trust,” a camp division a “Factory.” One camp was code-named “Free.” 20
Language used inside the camps changed too. Until the autumn of 1937, official documents and letters frequently referred to camp inmates by profession, referring to them simply as “lumberjacks,” for example. By 1940, an individual prisoner was no longer a lumberjack, but just a prisoner: azaklyuchennyi, or z/k, in most documents—pronounced zek.21 A group of prisoners became a kontingent (“contingent,” or “quota”), a bureaucratic, depersonalized term. Nor could prisoners earn the coveted title of Stakhanovite: one camp administrator sent an indignant letter to his subordinates ordering them to refer to hardworking prisoners as “prisoners, working as shock-workers” or “prisoners, working according to the Stakhanovite methods of labor.”
Any positive use of the term “political prisoner” had, of course, long since disappeared. Privileges for the socialist politicals had ended with their transfer from Solovetsky in 1925. But now, the term “political” went through a complete transformation. It included anyone sentenced according to the infamous Article 58 of the prison code, which included all “counter-revolutionary” crimes—and it had thoroughly negative connotations. The politicals—sometimes called “KRs” (counter-revolutionaries), kontras, or kontriks—were more and more often referred to as vragi naroda: “enemies of the people.”22
This term, a Jacobin epithet first used by Lenin in 1917, had been revived by Stalin in 1927 to describe Trotsky and his followers. It began to have a wider meaning in 1936 after a secret letter—“of Stalin’s authorship,” in the view of Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin’s Russian biographer—went out from the Central Committee to the Party organizations in the regions and republics. The letter explained that while an enemy of the people “appeared tame and inoffensive,” he did everything possible to “crawl stealthily into socialism,” even though he “secretly did not accept it.” Enemies, in other words, could no longer be identified by their openly professed views. A later NKVD boss, Lavrenty Beria, would also frequently quote Stalin, noting that “an enemy of the people is not only one who commits sabotage, but one who doubts the rightness of the Party line.” Ergo, an “enemy” could mean anybody who opposed Stalin’s rule, for any reason, even if he did not openly profess to do so. 23
In the camps, “enemy of the people” now became an official term used in official documents. Women were arrested as “wives of enemies of the people” after an NKVD decree of 1937 made such arrests possible, and the same applied to children. Officially, they were sentenced as “ChSVR”: “Member of the Family of an Enemy of the Revolution.”24 Many of the “wives” were incarcerated together in the Temnikovsky camp, also known as Temlag, in the republic of Mordovia, central Russia. Anna Larina, the wife of Bukharin, the disgraced Soviet leader, remembered that there “We had become equals in our troubles—Tukhachevskys and Yakirs, Bukharins and Radeks, Uboreviches and Gamarniks: ‘Misfortune shared is half misfortune!’”25
Another Temlag survivor, Galina Levinson, remembered that the camp’s regime had been relatively liberal, perhaps because “we didn’t have sentences, we were just ‘wives.’” The majority of women in the camp, she noted, were people who until then had been “absolutely Soviet people,” and were still convinced that their arrests were due to the machinations of some secret, fascist organization within the Party. Several occupied themselves writing daily letters to Stalin and the Central Committee, complaining angrily about the plot being conducted against them.26
Aside from its official uses, “enemy of the people” had also, by 1937, evolved into a term of abuse. From the time of Solovetsky, the camps’ founders and planners had organized the system around the idea that prisoners were not human, but rather “units of labor”: even at the time of the building of the White Sea Canal, Maxim Gorky had described the kulaks as “half-animals.”27 Now, however, the propaganda described “enemies” as something even lower than two-legged cattle. From the late 1930s, Stalin also began publicly to refer to “enemies of the people” as “vermin,” “pollution,” and “filth,” or sometimes simply as “weeds” which needed to be uprooted. 28
The message was clear: zeks were no longer considered full citizens of the Soviet Union, if they were to be considered people at all. One prisoner observed that they were subject to “a kind of excommunication from political life, and are allowed to take no part in its liturgies and sacred rites.”29After 1937, no guard used the word tovarishch, or “comrade,” to address prisoners, and prisoners could be beaten for using it to address guards, who they had to call grazhdanin, or “citizen.” Photographs of Stalin and other leaders never appeared on the walls within the camps or in prisons. A relatively common sight of the mid-1930s—a train carrying prisoners, its wagons bedecked with portraits of Stalin and banners declaring the occupants to be Stakhanovites—became unthinkable after 1937. So did celebrations of the workers’ holiday on the First of May, such as those once held at the Solovetsky kremlin.30
Many foreigners were surprised at the powerful effect that this “excommunication” from Soviet society had on Soviet prisoners. One French prisoner, Jacques Rossi, author of The Gulag Handbook, an encyclopedic guide to camp life, wrote that the word “comrade” could electrify prisoners who had not heard it in a long time: “A brigade that had just completed an eleven-and-a-half-hour shift agreed to stay and work the next shift only because the chief engineer . . . said to the prisoners: ‘I ask that you do this, comrades.’”31
From the dehumanization of the “politicals” there followed a very distinct, and in some places drastic, change in their living conditions. The Gulag of the 1930s had been generally disorganized, frequently cruel, and sometimes deadly. Nevertheless, in some places and at some times during the 1930s, even political prisoners had been offered the genuine possibility of redemption. The workers of the White Sea Canal could read the newspaper Perekovka, whose very name meant “reforging.” The conclusion of Pogodin’sAristokraty featured the “conversion” of an ex-saboteur. Flora Leipman—daughter of a Scotswoman who had married a Russian, moved to St. Petersburg, and quickly been arrested as a spy—visited her imprisoned mother in a northern logging camp in 1934, and found that “there was also still an element of humanity between the guards and the prisoners as the KGB was not so sophisticated and psychologically orientated as it was to become a few years later.”32 Leipman knew what she was talking about, since she herself became a prisoner “a few years later.” For after 1937, attitudes did change, particularly toward those arrested under Article 58 of the criminal code for “counter-revolutionary” crimes.
In the camps, politicals were removed from the jobs they had held in planning or engineering, and forced to return to “general work,” meaning unskilled physical labor in mines or forests: “enemies” could no longer be allowed to hold any position of importance, for fear they would engage in sabotage. Pavlov, the new head of Dalstroi, personally signed the order forcing one prisoner geologist, I. S. Davidenko, to be “used as a common laborer and in no case allowed to conduct independent work. Davidenko’s tasks should be carefully controlled and subject to daily observation.” 33In a report filed in February 1939, the commander of Belbaltlag also claimed that he had “chased away all workers not deserving of political trust,” and in particular “all former prisoners, sentenced for counter-revolutionary crimes.” From then on, he pledged, administrative and technical jobs would be reserved for “Communists, Komsomol members [members of the Young Communist league] and trusted specialists.” 34 Clearly, economic productivity was no longer the camps’ top priority.
Camp regimes across the system grew harsher for ordinary criminal prisoners as well as politicals. Bread rations for “general work” at the beginning of the 1930s could be as high as 1 kilogram per day, even for those who did not fulfill 100 percent of the norm, and up to 2 kilograms for Stakhanovites. In the main lagpunkts of the White Sea Canal, meat was served twelve days a month.35 By the end of the decade, the guaranteed ration had more than halved, falling to between 400 and 450 grams of bread, while those who managed 100 percent got an extra 200 grams. The punishment ration fell to 300 grams.36 Speaking of that era in Kolyma, Varlam Shalamov wrote that
In order for a healthy young man, beginning his career at the gold-face in the clean, cold air, to turn into a “goner,” he needed only a period of twenty to thirty days of sixteen-hour workdays, without days off, coupled with systematic starvation, tattered clothes, nights in 60 degrees below zero of cold in a canvas tent full of holes . . . out of entire brigades which began the gold-mining season, not a single person would survive, except the brigadier himself, the brigade orderly, and a few of the brigadier’s personal friends.37
Conditions also worsened because the number of prisoners rose, in some places with astonishing rapidity. The Politburo had, it is true, tried to prepare in advance for the influx, instructing the Gulag in 1937 to begin the construction of five new timber camps in the Komi region, as well as more “in the remote areas of Kazakhstan.” To hasten construction, the Gulag had even received an “advance of 10 million rubles” to organize these new camps. In addition, the People’s Commissariats of Defense, Health, and Forestry were ordered to find 240 commanding officers and political workers, 150 physicians, 400 medical attendants, 10 eminent forestry specialists, and “50 graduates of the Leningrad Academy of Forest Technology” to work in the Gulag—immediately.38
Nevertheless, the existing camps once again overflowed with new recruits, and the overcrowding of the early 1930s repeated itself. At a lagpunkt built for 250 to 300 people in Siblag, the Siberian forestry camp, a survivor guessed that the actual number of prisoners in 1937 surpassed 17,000. Even if the real number were only a quarter of that, the overestimate indicates how crowded it must have felt to be there. Lacking barracks, prisoners built zemlyanki, dugouts in the earth; even those were so crowded that it was “impossible to move, without stepping on someone’s hand.” Prisoners refused to go outside, for fear of losing their place on the floor. There were no bowls, no spoons, and huge lines for food. A dysentery epidemic began, and prisoners died rapidly.
In a later Party meeting, even Siblag’s camp administration solemnly remembered the “terrible lessons of 1938,” not least for the “number of working days lost” in the crisis.39 Throughout the camp system, the number of fatalities officially doubled from 1937 to 1938. Statistics are not everywhere available, but death rates are presumed to be much higher in those far northern camps—Kolyma, Vorkuta, Norilsk—where political prisoners were sent in large numbers.40
But prisoners did not die only from starvation and overwork. In the new atmosphere, the incarceration of enemies quickly began to seem insufficient: better that they cease to exist altogether. Thus, on July 30, 1937, the NKVD issued an order on the repression of “former kulaks, thieves, and other anti-Soviet elements”—an order that contained execution quotas for Gulag prisoners as well as others.41 Thus, on August 25, 1937, Yezhov signed another order calling for executions of inmates being held in the high-security political prisons. The NKVD, he said, must “finish within two months the operation for the repression of the most active counter-revolutionary elements . . . those sentenced for spying, diversion, terrorism, revolutionary activity, and banditry, as well as those sentenced for being members of anti-Soviet parties.”42
To the politicals, he added the “bandits and criminal elements” operating in Solovetsky, which by that time had been converted into a high-security political prison as well. The quota for Solovetsky was stated: 1,200 inmates still imprisoned on Solovetsky were to be shot. A witness recalled the day some of them were called away:
Unexpectedly, they forced everyone from the open cells of the Kremlin to a general count. At the count, they read out an enormous list of names— several hundred of them—to be taken on transport. They were given two hours to prepare, and were then meant to reassemble in the same central square. A terrible confusion ensued. Some people ran to gather up their things, others to bid farewell to friends. In two hours, most of those to be transported stood in their places . . . columns of prisoners marched out with suitcases and knapsacks . . . 43
Some were also apparently carrying knives, which they later used to attack those who shot them, near the village of Sandormokh in northern Karelia, injuring them badly. After that incident, the NKVD stripped all prisoners to their underwear before shooting them. Later, the NKVD man in charge of the operation was rewarded with what the archives describe only as a “valuable present” for his valor in carrying out the task. A few months later, he was shot too.44
In Solovetsky, the selection of prisoners for murder appears to have been random. In some camps, however, the administration took advantage of the opportunity to rid themselves of particularly difficult prisoners. This may also have been the case in Vorkuta, where a large number of the selected prisoners actually were former Trotskyites—genuine followers of Trotsky, that is, some of whom had been involved in camp strikes and other rebellions. One eyewitness reckoned that by the beginning of the winter of 1937–38, the Vorkuta administration had interned about 1,200 prisoners, mostly the Trotskyites, as well as other politicals and a sprinkling of criminals, in an abandoned brick factory and a series of large, crowded (“overflowing”) tents. No hot food was given to the prisoners at all: “the daily ration consisted only of 400 grams of half-dried bread .”45 There they remained until the end of March, when a new group of NKVD officers arrived from Moscow. The officers formed a “special commission” and called out the prisoners in groups of forty. They were told they were going off on a transport. Each was given a piece of bread. The prisoners in the tent heard them being marched away—“and then the sounds of shooting.”
The atmosphere inside the tents became hellish. One peasant, imprisoned for the crime of “speculation”—he had sold his own piglet at a bazaar—lay on his bunk, eyes open, reacting to nothing. “What do I have in common with you politicals?” he would periodically moan. “You were fighting for power, for rank, and I just need my life.” Another man committed suicide, according to the eyewitness. Two went mad. Finally, when there were about 100 people left, the shooting stopped, as abruptly and as inexplicably as it began. The NKVD bosses had returned to Moscow. The remaining prisoners returned to the mines. Throughout the camp, about 2,000 prisoners had been killed.
Stalin and Yezhov did not always send outsiders from Moscow to carry out such jobs. To speed up the process across the country, the NKVD also organized troikas, operating inside the camps as well as outside them. A troika was just what it sounds like: three men, usually the regional NKVD chief, the Chief Party Secretary of the province, and a representative of the prosecutor’s office or of the local government. Together, they had the right to pass sentence on a prisoner in absentia, without benefit of judge, jury, lawyers, or trial.46
Once in place, the troikas did move quickly. On September 20, 1937, a fairly typical day, the troika of the Karelian Republic sentenced 231 prisoners of the White Sea Canal camp, Belbaltlag. Assuming a ten-hour workday, with no breaks, less than three minutes would have been spent considering the fate of each prisoner. Most of those condemned had received their original sentences much earlier, at the beginning of the 1930s. Now, they were accused of new crimes, usually connected to bad behavior or a poor attitude to life in the camps. Among them were former politicals— Mensheviks, Anarchists, Social Democrats—and a former nun who “refused to work for the Soviet authorities,” as well as a kulak who had worked as a cook in the camp. He was accused of inciting dissatisfaction among the Stakhanovite workers. He had, the authorities claimed, deliberately created “long lines for them to stand in, having earlier given food to ordinary prisoners.” 47
The hysteria did not last. In November 1938, the mass shootings came to an abrupt halt, both in the camps and in the rest of the country. Perhaps the purge had gone too far, even for Stalin’s tastes. Perhaps it had simply achieved what it was meant to achieve. Or perhaps it was causing too much damage to the still-fragile economy. Whatever the reason, Stalin told the Communist Party Congress of March 1939 that the purge had been accompanied by “more mistakes than might have been expected.” 48
No one apologized or repented, and almost no one was ever punished. Just a few months earlier, Stalin had sent a circular to all of the NKVD bosses, complimenting them for “inflicting a crushing defeat on espionage-subversive agents of foreign intelligence services” and for “purging the country of subversive, insurrectionary, and espionage cadres.” Only then did he point out some of the “deficiencies” in the operation, such as the “simplified procedures for investigation,” the lack of witnesses and corroborating evidence.49
Nor did the purge of the NKVD itself come to a complete halt. Stalin removed the alleged author of all these “mistakes,” Nikolai Yezhov, from office in November 1938—and sentenced him to death. The execution took place in 1940, after Yezhov had pleaded for his life, just like Yagoda before him: “Tell Stalin that I shall die with his name upon my lips.” 50
Yezhov’s protégés went down along with him, as had Yagoda’s cronies a few years earlier. In her prison cell, Evgeniya Ginzburg noticed one day that the prison regulations pasted to the wall had been removed. When they were replaced, the space in the top left-hand corner, which had read “Approved. Yezhov, Commissar-General for State Security,” had been pasted over with white paper. But the changes did not end there: “First the name Weinstock [the prison commander] was painted over and Antonov substituted; then Antonov went, and in his place it read: Chief Prison Administration. ‘That’ll save them from changing it again,’ we laughed.”51
The productivity of the camp system continued to spiral downward. In Ukhtpechlag, the mass shootings, the increased number of sick and weak prisoners, and the loss of prisoner specialists had forced the camp’s output to drop precipitously from 1936 to 1937. In July 1938, a special Gulag commission was called upon to discuss Ukhtpechlag’s massive deficit.52 The productivity of the Kolyma gold mines also fell. Even the huge influx of new prisoners failed to bring up the overall quantity of gold mined to levels comparable with those in the past. Before being deposed, Yezhov himself called for more money to be spent updating Dalstroi’s old-fashioned mining technology—as if that were the real problem.53
Meanwhile, the commander of Belbaltlag—the one who had bragged so proudly of his success in ridding the camp’s administrative staff of political prisoners—complained of the current “urgent need for administrative and technical personnel.” The purge had certainly made the camp’s technical staff politically “healthier,” he wrote carefully, but it had “increased its deficiencies” as well. In his fourteenth camp division, for example, there were 12,500 prisoners, of which only 657 were nonpoliticals. Of these, however, most had very severe criminal sentences, which also disqualified them from work as specialists and administrators, while 184 were illiterate—leaving only 70 who could be used as clerks or as engineers.54
Overall, the turnover of the NKVD camps, according to official statistics, dropped from 3.5 billion rubles in 1936 to 2 billion rubles in 1937. The value of the camps’ gross industrial production also dropped, from 1.1 billion rubles to 945 million rubles.55
The unprofitability and vast disorganization of most camps, as well as the increasing numbers of sick and dying prisoners, did not go unnoticed in Moscow, where extremely frank discussions of camp economics took place during meetings of the central Gulag administration’s Communist Party cell. At a meeting in April 1938, one bureaucrat complained of the “chaos and disorder” in the Komi camps. He also accused the Norilsk camp commanders of producing a “badly designed” nickel factory, and of wasting a great deal of money in consequence. Given the amount of money that had been spent setting up new forestry camps, grumbled another administrator, “We could have expected more. Our camps are organized unsystematically. Major buildings were constructed in the mud, and now have to be moved.”
By April 1939, the complaints worsened. At the northern camps, there was a “particularly difficult situation with food supplies,” which led to “an enormous percentage of weak workers, an enormous percentage of prisoners who couldn’t work at all, and a high death rate and illness rate.”56 In that same year, the Council of People’s Commissars acknowledged that up to 60 percent of camp prisoners suffered from pellagra or other diseases of malnutrition.57
The Great Terror was not responsible for all of these problems, of course. As noted, even Frenkel’s forestry camps, so admired by Stalin, had never actually made a profit.58 Prison labor had always been—and would always be—far less productive than free labor. But this lesson had not yet been learned. When Yezhov was removed from power in November 1938, his replacement as NKVD chief, Lavrenty Beria, almost immediately set about altering camp regimes, changing the rules, streamlining the procedures, all in order to put the camps back where Stalin wanted them: at the heart of the Soviet economy.
Beria had not—yet—concluded that the camp system itself was unproductive and wasteful by its very nature. Instead, he seemed to believe that the people in charge of the camp system had been incompetent. Now he was determined to turn the camps into a genuinely profitable part of the Soviet economy, this time for real.
Beria did not, then or later, release large numbers of unjustly accused prisoners from camps (although the NKVD released some from jails). The camps did not, then or later, become any more humane. The dehumanization of “enemies” continued to permeate the language of the guards and camp administrators until Stalin’s death. The mistreatment of political prisoners, indeed of all prisoners, continued: in 1939, under Beria’s watchful eye, the first prisoners began working in Kolyma’s uranium mines with virtually no protection against radiation.59 Beria changed only one aspect of the system: he told camp commanders to keep more prisoners alive, and to make better use of them.
Although the policy was never clear, in practice Beria also lifted the ban on “hiring” political prisoners with engineering, scientific, or technical skills to work in technical positions in the camps. On the ground, camp commanders were still wary of using political prisoners as “specialists,” and would remain so until the Gulag’s demise in the mid-1950s. As late as 1948, different branches of the security services would still be arguing about whether or not political prisoners should be forbidden from holding jobs as specialists, some arguing that it was too politically dangerous, others claiming the camps would be too difficult to run without them. 60 Although Beria never fully resolved this dilemma, he was too intent on making the NKVD into a productive part of the Soviet economy to allow all of the Gulag’s most important scientists and engineers to lose their limbs to frostbite in the far north. In September 1938, he began organizing special workshops and laboratories for prisoner scientists, known by prisoners as sharashki. Solzhenitsyn, who worked in a sharashka, described one—a “top-secret research establishment, officially referred to only by a code number”—in his novel The First Circle:
A dozen prisoners were brought from the camps to this old country house on the outskirts of Moscow, which had been duly surrounded by barbed wire . . . at that time, the prisoners did not know exactly what kind of research they had been brought to Mavrino to do. They were busy unpacking stacks of crates which two special goods trains had delivered, securing comfortable chairs and desks for themselves, and sorting equipment . . . 61
Initially, the sharashki were christened the “Special Construction Bureaus.” Later, they were known collectively as the “Fourth Special Department” of the NKVD, and about 1,000 scientists would eventually work in them. In some cases, Beria personally tracked down talented scientists, and ordered them brought back to Moscow. NKVD agents gave them baths, a haircut, a shave, and a long rest—and sent them off to work in prison laboratories. Among Beria’s most important “finds” was the aviation engineer Tupolev, who arrived at his sharashka carrying a bag with a hunk of bread and a few pieces of sugar (he refused to give them up, even after being told the food would improve).
Tupolev, in turn, gave Beria a list of others to recall, among them Valentin Glushko, the Soviet Union’s leading designer of rocket engines, and Sergei Korolev, later to be the father of the Sputnik, the Soviet Union’s first satellite—indeed the father of the entire Soviet space program. Korolev returned to Lubyanka prison after seventeen months in Kolyma, having lost many of his teeth to scurvy, looking “famished and exhausted,” in the words of his fellow prisoners.62 Nevertheless, in a report prepared in August 1944, Beria would list twenty important new pieces of military technology invented in his sharashki, and elaborate on the many ways in which they had been of use to the defense industry during the Second World War.63
In some ways, Beria’s reign would have seemed like an improvement to ordinary zeks too. Overall, the food situation did temporarily improve. As Beria pointed out in April 1938, the camp food norm of 2,000 calories per day had been set for people sitting in prisons, not for people working at manual labor. Because theft, cheating, and punishment for poor work reduced even this low quantity of food by as much as 70 percent, large numbers of prisoners were starving. This he regretted, not because he pitied them, but because higher death rates and higher levels of sickness prevented the NKVD from fulfilling its production plans for 1939. Beria requested the drawing up of new food norms, so that the “physical capabilities of the camp workforce can be put to maximum use in any industry.” 64
Although food norms were raised, Beria’s regime hardly heralded a re-discovery of prisoners’ humanity. On the contrary, the transformation of prisoners from human beings into units of labor had progressed several steps further. Prisoners could still be sentenced to die in the camps—but not for mere counter-revolutionary tendencies. Instead, those who refused to work or actively disorganized work were to be given “a stricter camp regime, punishment cells, worse food and living conditions, and other disciplinary measures.” “Shirkers” would also receive new sentences, up to and including death.65
Local prosecutors began investigations into shirking immediately. In August 1939, for example, a prisoner was shot, not just for refusing to work, but for encouraging others not to work as well. In October, three women prisoners, evidently Orthodox nuns, were accused both of refusing to work and of singing counter-revolutionary hymns in camp: two were shot and the third received an extra sentence.66
The years of the Great Terror had also left their mark in another way. Never again would the Gulag treat prisoners as wholly worthy of redemption. The system of “early release” for good behavior was dismantled. In his one known public intervention into the daily operations of the camps, Stalin himself had put an end to early releases, on the grounds that they hurt the economic operations of the camps. Addressing a meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1938, he asked,
Could we not think of some other form of reward for their work—medals, or such like? We are acting incorrectly, we are disturbing the work of the camp. Freeing these people may be necessary, but from the point of view of the national economy, it is a mistake . . . we will free the best people, and leave the worst.67
A decree to this effect was issued in June 1939. A few months later, another decree eliminated “conditional early release” for invalids too. The number of sick prisoners would rise correspondingly. The main source of incentive for hardworking prisoners now was to be the improvement of “supplies and food”—as well as the medals Stalin thought would be so appealing. By 1940, even Dalstroi had begun to hand them out.68
Several of these initiatives ran counter to the laws of the time, and actually encountered resistance. The chief prosecutor, Vyshinsky, and the People’s Commissar of Justice, Richkov, both opposed the liquidation of early release, as well as the imposition of the death sentence for those accused of “disorganizing camp life.” But Beria, like Yagoda before him, clearly had Stalin’s support, and he won all of his battles. From January 1, 1940, the NKVD was even granted the right to take back some 130,000 prisoners who had been “loaned” to other ministries. Beria was determined to make the Gulag really and truly profitable.69
With surprising speed, Beria’s changes did make an impact. In the final months before the Second World War, the economic activity of the NKVD began, once again, to grow. In 1939, the NKVD’s turnover was 4.2 billion rubles. In 1940, it was 4.5 billion rubles. As prisoners began to stream into the camps during the war years, those numbers would grow even more quickly. 70 According to official statistics, the number of deaths in camps also halved from 1938 to 1939, from 5 percent back to 3 percent, even as the number of prisoners continued to increase.71
There were also now far more camps than there had been, and they were much bigger than they had been at the beginning of the decade. The number of prisoners had nearly doubled between January 1, 1935, and January 1, 1938, from 950,000 to 1.8 million, with about another million people sentenced to exile.72 Camps which had contained nothing more than a few huts and some barbed wire had become true industrial giants. Sevvostlag, the main Dalstroi camp, contained nearly 200,000 prisoners in 1940. 73 Vorkutlag, the mining camp that developed out of Ukhtpechlag’s Rudnik No. 1, contained 15,000 prisoners in 1938; by 1951, it would contain over 70,000.
But there were new camps as well. Perhaps the grimmest of the new generation was Norillag, usually known as Norilsk. Located, like Vorkuta and Kolyma, north of the Arctic Circle, Norilsk sat right on top of an enormous nickel deposit, probably the largest in the world. The prisoners of Norilsk not only dug the nickel, but they also built the nickel-processing plant and the power stations alongside the mines. Then they built the city— Norilsk—to house the NKVD men who ran the mines and the factories. Like its predecessors, Norilsk grew quickly. The camp contained 1,200 prisoners in 1935; by 1940, it contained 19,500. At its largest, in 1952, 68,849 prisoners would be incarcerated there.74
In 1937, the NKVD also founded Kargopollag, in the Arkhangelsk region, followed, in 1938, by Vyatlag, in central Russia, and Kraslag, in the Krasnoyarsk district of northern Siberia. All were essentially forestry camps, which acquired side interests—brick factories, wood-processing plants, furniture-making workshops. All would double or triple in size in the 1940s, by which time they contained some 30,000 prisoners apiece. 75
There were other camps too, opening and shutting and reorganizing themselves so frequently that it is difficult to give precise numbers for a particular year. Some were quite small, built to serve the needs of a particular factory or industry or building project. Others were temporary, built for the purposes of road or railway construction, and abandoned afterward. To manage their enormous numbers and complex problems, the Gulag administration eventually set up subdivisions: a Main Administration of Industrial Camps, a Main Administration of Road Building, a Main Administration of Forestry Work, and so on.
But it was not only their sizes that had changed. From the end of the 1930s, all new camps had a purely industrial character, without the fountains and “gardens” of Vishlag, without the idealistic propaganda that accompanied the building of Kolyma, without the prisoner specialists at all levels of camp life. Olga Vasileeva, an administrator who worked as an engineer and inspector on Gulag and other construction sites in the late 1930s and 1940s, remembered that in the earlier era “there were fewer guards, fewer administrators, fewer employees . . . In the 1930s, prisoners were enlisted in all sorts of work, as clerks, barbers, guards.” In the 1940s, however, she recalled that all of that stopped: “It all began to take on a mass character . . . things became harsher . . . as the camps grew bigger, the regime grew crueler.”76
It might be said, in fact, that by the end of the decade, the Soviet concentration camps had attained what was to be their permanent form. They had, by this time, penetrated nearly every region of the Soviet Union, all twelve of its time zones, and most of its republics. From Aktyubinsk to Yakutsk, there was not a single major population center that did not now have its own local camp or colony. Prison labor was used to build everything from children’s toys to military aircraft. In the Soviet Union of the 1940s it would have been difficult, in many places, to go about your daily business and not run in to prisoners.
More important, the camps had evolved. They were now no longer a group of idiosyncratically run work sites, but rather a full-fledged “camp-industrial complex,” with internal rules and habitual practices, special distribution systems and hierarchies.77 A vast bureaucracy, also with its own particular culture, ruled the Gulag’s far-flung empire from Moscow. The center regularly sent out orders to local camps, governing everything from general policy to minor details. Although the local camps did not (or could not) always follow the letter of the law, the ad hoc nature of the Gulag’s early days never returned.
The fortunes of prisoners would still fluctuate along with Soviet policy, economics, and, most of all, the course of the Second World War. But the era of trials and experiments was over. The system was now in place. The group of procedures that prisoners called the “meat-grinder”—the methods of arrest, of interrogation, of transport, of food, and of work—were, at the start of the 1940s, set in stone. In essence, these would change very little until Stalin’s death.
The Gulag at its zenith, 1939–1953