Kolyma: Land of Gold and Gulags

It’s a place where the cold is so intense that it corrupts the soul A place where human nature shows its extraordinary fragility A place where, according to one of its residents, a human being can turn into a beast after three weeks of hard work, starvation and beatings The place I am describing is one of the Easternmost regions of Russia and was almost entirely uninhabited until the start of the 20th Century, when prospectors first found precious metal In any other place, or at any other time, it could have become a land of plenty and opportunity; instead, it became a sprawling region of despair and meaningless death, home to hundreds of thousands of slaves, forced to toil in labour camps Welcome to Kolyma, the land of gold and Gulags Whiteout Where is Kolyma, and what makes it special? Kolyma is a vast area, larger than France, situated in the Far East of Russia, at the most remote end of Siberia The area takes its name from the Kolyma River and the Kolyma mountain range The largest inhabited centre is the regional capital of Magadan, 6000 kilometres ( or 3700 miles) from Moscow To give you an idea of the distance, you could fit the entire United States between Moscow and Magadan, with enough room left over for a Mexico on both side The precise coordinates of Magadan are 59.56 degrees North and 150.83 degrees East 59 degrees North is the same latitude as the Orkney Islands off Scotland, Stockholm in Sweden and the Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska In other words, this is very much up north, and very cold! The average temperature in and around Magadan in January is minus 17 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit And that’s an average — meaning temperature can easily fall below minus 30 Celsius, or -22 Fahrenheit This is a coastal town we are talking about, so the weather there is relatively mild As you move inland, conditions can become much harsher Winter can start as early as September, or sometimes even August As mercury creeps below freezing, the landscape is covered in a glassy shroud of ice, which doesn’t thaw out until May Snowstorms are frequent and arrive without warning, surprising travellers in a swirling whiteout There is a danger of losing all sense of direction after walking just a few paces in these unforgiving conditions In Summer, temperatures in Magadan only climb up as far as 12 Celsius or 54 Fahrenheit But these are averages, and exceptionally hot summers have been recorded in the past, averaging at 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) What makes it difficult to trek, travel, or work in Kolyma — especially in its woodlands — is the extreme humidity After a typically dry March, precipitation gradually increases from April to September Below the topmost layer of soil, the Kolyma wilderness is covered by a thick layer of permafrost, which prevents rain from seeping into the ground Thus, the woods actually become huge swamps, infested by clouds of midges This inconvenience aside, the natural beauty of Kolyma is striking, with its deep, clean rivers and sprawling taiga, which is the woodlands typical of arctic and sub-arctic areas In addition to natural riches, this area can boast plenty of material ones — the area is ripe with tungsten, platinum, and gold It was the discovery of these metals that kicked off Russia’s own Gold Rush, which was very different from the one which took place in America In Alaska and California, the discovery of gold stimulated private initiative and fuelled a capitalist system Here in Kolyma, the hunt for the ‘shiny stuff’ happened in the context of a planned economy: the rush was specifically designed to feed a communist totalitarian state Eventually, this led to the ultimate distortion of socialist ideas: the creation of 80 labour camps – or Gulags – in Kolyma The details of the first discovery of gold in Kolyma are lost in legend Tales are told of an adventurer called Boris, a gold digger by profession, who went to Kolyma in the summer of 1910 A short time later, he moved to Yakutsk, 2000km (1250 miles) west of Magadan, carrying a considerable amount of gold with him Boris’ good fortune did not initially create any sort of mad gold rush He was pestered by his friends about where he had found all that gold, but he always kept quiet The secret of Kolyma would be safe for another 12 years Then, in 1922, as the Russian Civil War was concluding, the Red Army had already won in the Russian Far East and forced the opposing White Army to retreat to Vladivostok One of the officers separated from the main White column and headed to Ust-Nera instead, a town deep in the heart of Kolyma Again, the details are sketchy here We only know that his name was Nikolayev, but it’s not clear why he went so far from

Vladivostok What is clear though, is that in Ust-Nera officer Nikolayev not only struck gold: he also struck platinum! Following in the footsteps of the mythical Boris, the White officer went to Yakutsk to secure his booty in a bank Then, he surrendered to the Red Army, probably hoping to secure a pardon thanks to his discoveries Unfortunately for Officer Nikolayev, the Red Army is not exactly a charitable outfit renowned throughout history for the clemency it shown its opponents — especially if they were Tsarist loyalists Therefore, it’s unsurprising to learn that officer Nikolayev disappeared from history after his surrender His fate is unknown, but we know for sure that the new regime in Moscow welcomed his metallic discovery By the mid-20s, the Bolshevik government under Josef Stalin was seeking volunteers for a gold-finding expedition to Kolyma The gold-digging party eventually reached Kolyma, and proceeded to map out the region, which was still largely unexplored They first built a small settlement called ‘Boriskin’, in honour of the very first gold prospector in the Region Eventually, they built a road connecting Boriskin to Okhotsk, a coastal town West of Magadan During their exploration, these … ‘Boriskinians’ … discovered a completely unknown chain of mountains, the Cherski range It was the last time a mountain range was to be discovered anywhere on our planet Among the volunteers in this expedition there was a geologist, Yuri Bilibin Based on his findings, he concluded that the subsoil of Kolyma contained more gold than the remaining territory of the entire Soviet Union Despite this shocking and encouraging realisation, the volunteers at Boriskin did not have enough resources to properly mine Kolyma, so by 1928 the expedition was recalled Stalin and the Politburo were very keen on tapping Kolyma’s precious minerals, so they changed tactics: instead of relying on volunteers, they would establish a new State-owned trust fully dedicated to managing and exploiting the mines of Kolyma In 1931 Stalin signed the order establishing this trust, called Dalstroy, or ‘Far North Construction Trust’ At first sight, it may appear odd that an order related to state-owned mines was issued by Genrikh Yagoda, head of the NKVD – Stalin’s secret police Based on what we know today, any piece of paper issued by a Yagoda, a Berja, or any other of Stalin’s chief thugs, and signed by the Man of Steel himself … well, that piece of paper could only mean bad news Such an order can only result in imprisonment, torture, slavery and death The Dalstroy order was not an exception: the involvement of Yagoda made it clear from the start that the new ‘Construction Trust’ would be relying on forced labour And forced labour meant Gulags 3 Pounds of Rye, 23 Years of Hell If you are not familiar with Soviet Gulags, here is a crash course on the topic: The word ‘GULAG’ is an acronym that stands for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies You can see the original Russian in the subtitle here: [Caption: Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitel’no-Trudovykh LAGerey i koloniy] The GULAG system was a network of forced labour camps where both common criminals and political dissenters were sent to work in inhuman conditions The term ‘Gulag’ was first used in 1928, but the practice of locking up political prisoners in labour camps started immediately after the October 1917 revolution In his great work ‘The Gulag Archipelago,’ Nobel Laureate and former prisoner Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that Soviet Russia had more prisoners than the rest of the world as early as 1919 By the same year, the Bolshevik regime had murdered more political opponents than the whole Romanov dynasty during their 300-year reign Unlike the Nazi Lagers, the Gulags were never designed as a machine for systematic extermination; their purpose was to exploit to the last drop of energy the forced labour of the prisoners, also known as ‘Zeks’ Death was not the objective, but it was an all-too-common consequence: hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were tortured, beaten, starved, frozen or simply worked to death The Gulag system boomed during the Stalin era, from 1924 to 1953 A paranoid, ruthless, and at times criminally incompetent leader, the self-appointed Man of Steel dedicated large part of the 1930s to waging a war of extermination against his own people From 1929 to 1935, Stalin ordered a forced collectivisation of farm land which implied a ‘Liquidation of the Kulaks’, the small land-owners Hundreds of thousands of these farmers were deported to labour camps for refusing to cede their lands — or even just a part of their crops! — to the State The collectivisation resulted in mismanagement of farm land; as a result, there were some truly terrible famines, like the Ukrainian Holodomor, which resulted in some 10 million deaths From 1934 to 1938, Stalin conducted the Great Purge — a campaign of arrests, deportations, and executions to rid Soviet institutions of alleged capitalists, fascists, or other

enemies Between 750,000 and 1.5 Million victims died, either directly by the hands of the NKVD, or by working to death in the Gulags The collectivisation and the Great Purge are only two examples of Soviet-era mass incarcerations The risk of being arrested and deported to a labour camp was an ever-present danger for Soviet citizens, who could fall foul of the NKVD for a number of petty reasons Alleged enemies of Communism would be judged by special tribunals who almost always found them guilty Sentences were commonly harsh, ranging from eight to fifty years long Take these examples: In 1949, beekeeper Ivan Burylov cast his vote in one of many, ridiculous, rigged elections where citizens had the choice of just one candidate Burylov simply wrote ‘comedy’ on his ballot sheet He was sentenced to eight years in a Gulag Believe it or not, he was relatively lucky: directing humour against a specific party official could result in 25 years of hard labour A recurring crime was stealing food, as in the case of Maria Tchebotareva A victim of the 1932-1933 famine, Maria stole three pounds of rye to feed her children Actually, she didn’t even steal them — she just took them from a field that was rightfully hers, but had been confiscated by the State She was sentenced to ten years in a Gulag, a stint that was arbitrarily extended until 1945, followed by eleven years of forced exile She was free to return home only in 1956, but could not find her children anymore Women had an especially hard time in Gulags, as in many cases they were not housed in separate facilities, but shared working and accommodation structures with the male ‘zeks’ Women were often molested, abused, or raped by camp guards or fellow inmates A common practice for female prisoners was to take on “camp husbands” for protection and companionship If they became pregnant while in the Gulag, female prisoners and their children could be released in special amnesties But this was not the norm: more frequently, new mothers simply returned straight to work, while Gulag officials placed the babies in special orphanages Instances of rape and sexual abuse were just one example of prisoner-on-prisoner violence inside the Gulags This was surely due to the desperate conditions of the prisoners, who could turn on one another for an extra ration of food As is the case in other prisons, ‘snitches’ could be gruesomely punished; a common example was ‘the close shave’, i.e. the removal of the moustache and the full upper lip from a man’s face Another contributing factor in Gulag violence was the close proximity of common criminals with political inmates These two groups were not separated and received a similar treatment Accordingly, hardened felons would bully and prey on ordinary citizens who may have been imprisoned simply for telling a joke at the wrong time Lenin’s Bodyguard Let’s fly back to Kolyma The first wave of prisoners arrived there on the 22nd of April 1932, landing on Navaego Bay The numbers are disputed, but by end of the year, there were around 12,000 surviving zeks – and I stress ‘surviving’ The hardships these prisoners faced were enormous, so it is likely that these 12,000 were a fraction of those who had set foot initially The prisoners did not start mining immediately, simply because infrastructure was completely lacking Even if prisones were destined to a labour camp, this did not actually exist yet! It would have been the zek’s duty to build it But first, the mining trust, Dalstroy, had another priority: building roads from the coast to the interior, to secure supplies and then transport gold back to the West This meant that the zeks had to brave their first Kolyma winter in tents Again, numbers are not clear, but apparently, by early 1933, half of those 12,000 had died to exposure, hypothermia, frostbite, or other consequences of the extreme cold The frigid conditions did not spare the guards, or even their dogs It is no surprise that, by this stage, the gold mined in 1932 amounted to only 500kg 1933 was still dedicated to expanding the road network and other infrastructure Only in 1934 had Dalstroy established basic conditions for human survival, under the direction of Eduard Petrovich Berzin Berzin was Dalstroy’s first director He was a Bolshevik of the old guard and a former body guard to Lenin He had a solid reputation for being a pragmatist who could get a job done, and so he did; from 1934 to 1938, he managed to double gold production, year on year He also succeeded in completing the construction of the main road required to supply the mines and transport extracted minerals, a strip of asphalt connecting Navaego Bay with the town of Seimchan, 900km to the north Berzin ensured the zeks had decent rations and even a basic pay, which were luxuries compared to other Gulags around the Soviet Union But don’t get me wrong: the Kolyma camps were no Club Med under Berzin On one occasion, some mining equipment had sunk in the freezing waters of Navaego Bay He did not think twice before sending prisoners to their icy deaths to recover the equipment That was a special case, but day-to-day activities were no less brutal A typical daily routine in one of the Kolyma Gulags may have looked like this:

[Editing note: I suggest this work schedule is presented with titles/captions on screen] 6am – Wake up call 6:30am – Breakfast: thin soup and a small allowance of stale bread Food rations were proportioned to work output: prisoners who didn’t meet quotas received less and less food, until they starved to death 7am – Roll call 7:30am – March to the road under construction, or to the mines This took 1.5 hours 9am to 6pm – Nine hours of continuous, intense physical work 6pm – March back to the camp, another hour and a half 7:30pm – Dinner 8pm to 11pm – After-dinner camp work This involved more manual labour, such as shovelling snow or repairing equipment 11pm – Lights out That was a total of 15 hours of intense physical activity, in the freezing cold, with food providing a minimal calorie intake Clearly, thousands of prisoners died of exhaustion and starvation while building the Kolyma roads Bodies piling up by the roadworks was a common sight In winter, the layer of permafrost was too hard to dig graves, and so the corpses were simply buried underneath a thin layer of soil on the roadside Or directly under the roads, covered by a layer of asphalt This is the story behind the macabre name of one of these roads, still in use today: it’s the R504, Kolyma Highway, also known as the Road of Bones Digging The Grave In early 1938 Berzin was recalled to Moscow The director of Dalstroy had done well and he deserved a reward It was a trap Berzin had fallen under the crosshairs of the NKVD for totally unknown reasons, and he was to be purged He was shot by the secret police at their Moscow headquarters, the Lubianka prison, on August 1, 1938 The Great Purge was due to hit Kolyma, too Berzin’s successor was one K.A Pavlov, more of a bookkeeper than a prison warden It was his chief enforcer who became the real terror of Kolyma This was Colonel Stepan Nikolaivich Garanin, who reported directly to the new head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov Yezhov ensured that thousands of purged enemies of the State were sent to the Kolyma camps, and Garanin ensured that they never left again The definition of Enemies of the State was quite broad, and it included troops who had returned from the Spanish Civil War According to a witness account, some Soviet pilots were sent to Kolyma, their only crime having not won the war against the Francoist As soon as they arrived, Garanin walked out of his office to meet them and shot them all, one by one, with his pistol Garanin was responsible for organising an anomaly that contributes to Kolyma’s unique character: the camp of Serpantinka Earlier I mentioned that the Gulags were never designed as extermination camps Well, there are always exceptions, and Serpantinka was one of them This was the only Kolyma camp, and probably the only Gulag in the USSR, where prisoners were specifically sent to be executed Garanin’s reign of terror did not last long, though, as he became a victim of the very system he had served In 1939, Stalin realised that the Great Purge had weakened the military and industrial capabilities of the Soviet Union Productivity levels at Kolyma had also been greatly reduced A ‘great’ man always has a scapegoat handy, and so did Stalin: he accused Yezhov and his associates of having damaged the Nation with their excesses The head of the NKVD and all the Garanins of the country were purged in the following year, either shot in the Lubjanka or sent to die in a Gulag After Garanin was sent to another Siberian camp, Kolyma prisoners enjoyed a brief period of respite before things got bad again In June of 1941, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union dragged the country into the Great Patriotic War This meant that what little supplies and food the prisoners could receive had to be diverted to the war effort Mortality rates among the Kolyma zeks became so high that Foreign Minister Molotov himself had to intervene, demanding better conditions Quite the humanitarian Or not He was only worried about the decline in gold output This may explain why, when Molotov negotiated the Lend-Lease agreement with the US Government, he secured a supply of excavators and bulldozers to increase mining production Prisoner Varlan Shalamov, who would later become a writer, described the arrival of the first American mechanical beasts, some Caterpillar bulldozers Their first use upon arriving to Kolyma, was to dig mass graves in the permafrost The spirit of cooperation between the US and the USSR was cemented by the official visit of American Vice-President Henry Wallace to Kolyma in 1944 He was welcomed by General Nikishov, then director of Dalstroy Somehow, Nikishov managed to put on a show that impressed Wallace: all the prisoners were rounded up and kept indoors in towns and camps away from the official visit tour Barbed wire was removed As Wallace was an ex-farmer, he wanted to visit the collective farm providing food for the miners Nikishov had also the prisoners in the camps removed and replaced by the teenage children of NKVD agents, as they looked healthier The ruse worked: Wallace publicly praised Nikishov and even published a book about the marvels of the Dalstroy operations At the end of the war, Soviet leadership rewarded returning PoWs with yet another purge

Red Army soldiers who had been a prisoner of the Axis were suspected of having been turned into capitalist double agents, and so thousands of them were sent to dig for gold in Kolyma This influx of ex-soldiers within the camps changed one of the recurring dynamics amongst the zeks: the clean-cut separation between common criminals and political prisoners, with the latter often suffering at the hands of the former Now, the veterans of the Army that had beaten the Axis back to Berlin were filling the ranks of the political zeks It didn’t take long before full scale riots erupted, in which the bullying criminals were severely beaten in a major reversal of fortunes By 1948, Dalstroy authorities were so concerned about these riots that the two categories of prisoners were kept in separate camps These measures did not prevent other types of riots from erupting This is when prisoners revolted against their guards In a famous incident, a group of zeks decided to take over a transit camp at the port of Magadan After taking most of the guards hostage, they assaulted the last watchtower manned by the NKVD The soldiers on the tower mowed down many of the rioters with their machine guns When they run out of ammunition, they were lynched The end of the Gulags In addition to active, violent revolts, zeks across Kolyma and the rest of the Gulag system enacted constant, passive resistance This included slowing down work on purpose or sabotaging production output After the death of Stalin in 1953, his successor Nikita Khrushchev realised that the whole Gulag system was an inefficient, unprofitable monster In parallel with his policies of de-Stalinisation, the new Soviet leader decided to get rid of the labour camps During the Stalin era, approximately 18 million Soviet citizens had been imprisoned in a Gulag, with 1.5 million not surviving the experience Eight percent of all prisoners were killed During the Khrushchev era, Gulag population steadily declined More than one and half million zeks were released from 1953 to 1956 The concept of forced labour for political dissidents was not completely abandoned, but it never became as intense and widespread as it was under Stalin From 1968 to 1986, only about 2,500 prisoners were sent to labour camps This process had obvious impacts on Kolyma During the second half of the 1950s the Gulag organisation was dissolved in the region, and the mining trust Dalstroy was restructured Its leadership was rid of NKVD officers, who were transferred to regular police, and their positions replaced with civilians The all powerful Dalstroy, which controlled its own air force and navy at its peak, was gradually stripped of all its assets and functions By 1958, it became what it was meant to have been from the start: an actual mining company 10 years later, Dalstroy was officially dissolved, and the mines came under direct authority of the Ministry of Natural Resources Since then, Kolyma has gone through a lengthy process of healing, trying to shake off its image as poster boy for the land of Gulag – and we are certainly not helping there The Soviet government paid good incentives to volunteers who were willing to relocate to the remote cities of the region to start a new life in mining Many of the former prisoners and guards decided to settle in Magadan and other surrounding towns, sometimes living as close neighbours The Teachings of Kolyma Earlier in the video, I mentioned Varlam Shalamov, the eventual writer who spent 14 years in Kolyma for being a Trotskyist sympathiser Shalamov is less known or celebrated than Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of ‘The Gulag Acrhipelago,’ but Shalamov deserves to be remembered for the powerful prose he wrote during and after his sentence A good place to start if you want to discover Shalamov’s work is What I Saw and Learned in the Kolyma Camps His book is a list of 46 teachings that Varlam brought with him after his soul-destroying experience Some are reflections on the darkest depths of the human condition: “I learned that spite is the last human emotion to survive A starving man has only enough flesh to feel spite — he is indifferent to everything else.” “I learned why a man lives neither on hope — there are no hopes at all; nor on will — what will? But only on the instinct of self-preservation, the same as a tree, a rock, an animal.” Shalamov learned about the true manifestations of devotion and love: “I saw that women are more honest and selfless than men — there was not a single husband at Kolyma who came after his wife But wives did come; many did” He even found reasons to hope within the strength of the individual I would like to close with his teaching No 20, as it is my favourite one: “My body and spirit proved to be stronger in this great trial than I thought, and I am proud to have betrayed no one, to have sent no one to death nor to the camp, to have denounced no one.”