Stalin's GULag 1930-1940

 

 

The Journey

After arrest and having spent time in prison, prisoners were usually sentenced. If they were to spend time incarcerated in a forced labour camp, the journey to the camp usually began in a dark green, almost black chernyi voron ['Black Maria' - truck equipped to transport prisoners]. During the 1930s, they were camouflaged as vehicles delivering goods to shops. They were painted in bright colours and were designated 'bread' or 'meat' in Russian, English, German and French. [1]J. Rossi, The GULag Handbook, New York: Paragon House, 1989, pp.56-57 This mode of transport generally took prisoners to the railway station from where most long journeys began. However, prisoners were not loaded onto trains at the station in full public view; they were loaded at sidings down the track, away from public glare. It was done secretively, just as the process of arrest late at night was secret. Being loaded onto a goods train was the first real step to becoming a camp inmate. To follow was the horror of the journey in cramped unsanitary conditions and the induction into forced labour camp existence.

Freight cars were commonly used to transport the prisoners by rail to their first destination that was usually a transit camp situated en route to their final destination. Without the use of ladders, prisoners were loaded into the carriages. Inside the carriages, along two sides, were two rough, level bed boards and two closely barred windows just beneath the ceiling. Due to the large number of prisoners in each carriage, some were forced to sleep underneath the boards. It was usual for up to 60 or more to be crammed into each carriage. [2]MEMORIAL, fond 2, opis 1, file 7, p.3, 1937. Bazhanov, Ivan Nikolaevich, reports that 150 prisoners travelled in one goods wagon from Taganka prison to the Ivdel' camp area, a journey lasting 13 days. The prisoners could only wear the clothes in which they were arrested, even if the weather was severe during the journey. In the winter months the temperature inside the carriages was often no higher than that of outside. No bedding was available. During warmer weather, prisoners spent all day and night in their underwear because the heat in the carriage was so intense.

A narrow opening in the floor served as a latrine and an iron rim bordered it. This was to prevent prisoners enlarging the hole and dropping down onto the track. The hole was also sometimes used during stops for trade with escorts who acquired prisoner belongings in exchange for a piece of black bread or some tobacco. There were no washing facilities, although memoir literature mentions that sometimes the prisoner transports stopped at camps with bathhouses if the journey was very long. There was no illumination and rats and vermin abounded. [3]3. MEMORIAL, 2/1/5, 106. 1938 Antsis, Marianna Lazarevna

Spotlights were mounted on the leading carriages to illuminate the train at night. Furthermore, iron spikes were fastened underneath the carriages so that if anyone managed to escape through the floor and lie down between the tracks, they would be scooped up by the spikes. The contents of the carriages were usually designated with the words 'special equipment' marked in large letters on the side. This explained the presence of guards armed with machine guns or automatic weapons on the roofs of the cars. Prisoners were not detectable from the outside.

Prisoner freight trains usually stopped, in deserted areas, for inspection twice a day. All prisoners were herded to one end of a carriage and then counted as they moved back to the other end. Sometimes prisoners were struck, out of pure spite, on the back with a hammer normally used for testing the soundness of the walls, ceilings and floors.[4]4. Rossi, p.182.
See also: MEMORIAL, 2/1/84, 23. L'vov, Evsei Moiseevich reports that in August 1938 on a transport from Moscow to Vladivostock, the carriages were searched at night by guards carrying hammers. They used these to hit the prisoners on the back of the head and on the legs as they moved across the carriage.
Each train had a carriage used as a shizo [penalty isolator].

Prisoners were also transported by rail in passenger cars, known as Stolypin carriages. These carriages were named after Stolypin, Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Minister of Internal Affairs for Nicholas II from 1906-1911, who introduced this method of transporting prisoners. They were dark green in colour with thick iron doors coming together in the middle of the cars and secured by immense iron bars. The carriages often contained ten or more wire enclosures, each measuring approximately three cubic metres. They were designed to hold either eight or 16 prisoners but it was actually possible to fit 25 people or more into one enclosure. There were usually three-tier sleeping shelves along the compartment bulkheads. The space separating the shelves was bridged to create three continuous platforms. Throughout the journey, all prisoners were forced to recline or semi recline on the platforms since the space between them was not large enough to straighten up. Sometimes prisoners were forced to sleep on the floor beneath the bottom platform. The cars had no windows and the only light came from the two tiny grated rectangles high up in the roof in the long narrow corridor. There was a latrine for the prisoners at the other end. They were accompanied there by guards who stood at the open door whilst waiting for them to finish.

Guards moved up and down the train at regular intervals beating on the walls of the cars with rifles to ensure that no planks were missing. The number of guards for each convoy varied but on most trains, there was one guard in each car and he generally sat on a small platform. On some transports, there was not a guard in every car but on others, there were two or more. Illness was rife and many prisoners did not make the whole journey that could last from 24 hours to several weeks. In theory, a doctor and medical orderlies were supposed to accompany each train but this did not always happen.

Rations for all prisoners transported by rail were very similar - bread every two or three days and salted herring that caused severe thirst. A dry ration was supplied once a day or less often if individual rations had been distributed before the transport began. Frequently the guards did not distribute any water and most prisoners were tormented by thirst throughout their entire journey. Water for washing was given out even more infrequently. As well as the basic rations, prisoners occasionally received a bucket of soup containing fish heads, bones, eyes or animal entrails. Sometimes they received no hot food at all. Only in rare cases was food adequate. Grosman states that prisoners in his transport lasting two months from Leningrad to Vladivostock transit camp received only 400 grams of bread every day and sometimes balanda [watery soup] or hot water. Hot water was rare since they stopped at a kitchen only infrequently. However, they all had plenty to eat because, prior to their transport, relatives in Leningrad had sent them parcels containing sausage and cheese, as well as money with which to buy supplies at the stations. [5]5. MEMORIAL, 2/1/50, 18. 1938. Grosman, Arkardii Grigor'evich

The level of terror of the journey depended largely upon the guards. Memoir literature, however, reports that some were friendlier than others. Kozhana reports that guards on the journey from Moscow to Potma, Temlag, gave them a mug every four days with their barrel of water. All the prisoners felt a despairing thirst because their rations generally comprised of a piece of vobly fish and 400 grams of stale bread.[6]6. MEMORIAL, 2/1/73, 10. 1938. Kozhana, Tsipora Moiseevna Glazov reports that in 1936 whilst travelling from Leningrad to Chib'yu, Ukhtpechlag, the guards allowed hawkers near the train to sell different produce and they sometimes even bought newspapers for their cargo. [7]7. MEMORIAL, Glazov, Nikolai Alekhandrovich, 34. 1936 Antsis states that rations in February 1938 on the way from Artemovsk in the Donbas region to Akmolinsk, Karlag, were received twice a day on the 25 day journey. The women collected their sugar ration to give to 24 babies and nursing mothers who were amongst them. The sugar was passed into the appropriate carriages by the guards. The women also gave the guards money to buy potatoes and flour for them. Furthermore, these were particularly friendly guards because they smuggled in a book for the women entitled 'Nasha rodina' ['Our Motherland'] in which there was a map marked with a red pencil indicating their final destination. [8]8. MEMORIAL, 2/1/5, 100-103. 1938. Antsis Usually the final destination was not disclosed.

Another common method of transport was by sea. Prisoners taken to Vladivostock transit camp to sail to Magadan, Kolyma could be held there for either a few days or six months or more whilst waiting for the navigation season to begin again. It depended on the time of year. At the end of the season in December, all communication by water to Kolyma was cut as the sea froze over.

However, those who missed this break in their journey suffered most, although even during the navigation season, conditions in the camp were extremely poor. In 1937, for example, there were so many prisoners awaiting transport that they slept on the ground all over the camp during the summer months. [9]9. MEMORIAL, 2/1/50, 19. 1937. Grosman Until 1941, each steamer embarking on the six-day journey from Vladivostock to Magadan made between twelve to fifteen trips a year. [10]10. D. J. Dallin, The Real Soviet Russia, London: Hollis & Carter, p.143. See also: MEMORIAL, 2/2/82, 2. Skachkov, Petr Emel'yanovich reports that in 1938 prisoners were loaded onto the ship by barge. They entered the barge through a hatch that was closed when the hold contained thirty people. Above that, another ten people were loaded. Within a couple of minutes people in the hold began to gasp for breath and fainted. The prisoners' cries for help were in vain, as it was impossible to open the hatch due to the bodies on top of it. As time went on, more prisoners fainted. Eventually the barge reached the ship and the hatch was opened. Many prisoners had to be carried out by the guards. See also: G. Saunders [ed.] Samizdat - Voices of the Soviet Opposition, New York: Monad Press for the Anchor Foundation, 1974, p.163. In 1936 prisoners docked at Naryan Mar, Vorkuta. The prisoners were expected to get onto a covered barge for transportation along the Pechora River but they protested that the barges looked like grey coffins and refused to board them. Finally a two-board passenger ship with normal accommodation steamed into the harbour and took them to Vorkuta.

When prisoners were about to be transferred, they were confined to barracks and forbidden to leave them. Representatives from each barrack were elected to receive the rations for the group for the whole journey in the form of a week's supply of food. During the 1930s, these rations, per person, usually consisted of three kilograms of bread, 20 herrings, a slice of salted kefa and a kilogram of canned vegetables. They were also supposed to receive a bowl of soup or porridge on the ship every day.

One of the ships transporting the prisoners to Kolyma was the Dzhurma. [11][11] D. J. Dallin & Boris I. Nicolaevsky, Forced Labour in Soviet Russia, London: Hollis & Carter, 1948, p.137 On the smokestack of this vessel was painted a broad white band crossed with a narrow blue one, along with the letters DS, standing for Dal'stroi. She was originally a typical cargo ship but had been slightly modified for the transportation of prisoners. Four rows of plank beds in continuous decks, one above the other and running along the walls of the dark, filthy hold had been built. The space between them was so small that it was impossible to sit up. There was no ventilation and the toilets were makeshift wooden arrangements built on deck. It was necessary to queue for hours to use them and women only ventured there after dark, in groups. Prisoners used a parasha [latrine bucket] when they were kept locked in the hold and then the stench became intolerable. As the passengers disembarked after their journey, the dead and sick were laid on the shore and checked. The remainder were marched to Magadan transit camp situated a few kilometres away from the coast.

Petrov notes that in 1939 there were 100 armed guards on board who had no means of coping with a possible prisoner mutiny, except for locking the prisoners in the hold whilst passing through Japanese waters. Generally, the holds were kept covered anyway so that foreign ships and aircraft could not discern the cargo. The ship's crew consisted of prisoners who were former seamen convicted of non-political crimes. [12][12] V. Petrov, It Happens in Russia - Seven Years Forced Labour in Siberian Goldfields, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1951, pp.109-114

The journey to Magadan was not always successful. For example, in the late summer of 1933, the Dzhurma with 12,000 prisoners aboard was blocked in the ice flows. Rescuing the prisoners was determined to be uneconomical and they perished. When the icebreaker Cheliuskin was involved in an accident in the same area, Soviet authorities refused foreign offers of assistance since the Dzhurma with the 12,000 bodies on board remained in the vicinity. [13]13. Rossi, p.103. Rossi collated the information for his handbook from various sources; personal observation during the years 1937-1958 spent in the Lubyanka and Butyrki prisons, transit prisons, Noril'sk camp, Alexandrovka and Vladimir central prisons; information from individuals encountered there, including former inmates of the first Soviet concentration camps on the Solovki Islands and prisoners who held responsible administrative posts in the camps. No other sources mention this incident, however.

Stajner reports that in 1939 the freighter the Budyonny that was usually used to transport wood from Northern Russia to Western Europe was used to transport 4,800 prisoners from Solovki to the extreme northern regions of the USSR. A six-storey structure had been built into the hold of the ship with a wooden staircase connecting one storey to another. The ceilings were so low that it was necessary to crawl into the bunks. Parashi were lined up between the bunks and when they overflowed the stench was terrible. There were two latrines on the upper decks but it was necessary to queue for hours to use them. Water was let down in a pail from above but it was usually scarce as the ship was not built to supply water to so many people. Furthermore, part of the water ration was used once a day to cook hot meals and part was used by the guards. The prisoner ration consisted of zwieback, herrings and soup made of sauerkraut and beans that was served every other day. One large, rusty, black tin bowl was used to serve ten prisoners. Illness was rife and the corpses were simply thrown overboard. After a week voyaging through the White Sea, the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea over 150 prisoners were dead. However, the ship dropped anchor at Novaya Zemlya in the Barents Sea to refresh its supply of fresh water and bread. Now prisoners had enough water and bread. Furthermore, the rations of hot food increased to two servings of hot soup a day. On 22 August 1939, the ship dropped anchor at Dudinka, after a journey lasting 19 days. [14]14. K. Stajner, Seven Thousand Days in Siberia, Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing Limited, 1988, pp.62-66

Sometimes prisoners were transported along rivers by coal lighters. Bunks in these boats were in tiers of three and prisoners lay everywhere, including on the floor. Ventilation came through a gap three metres square. [15]15. Z. Zajdlerowa, The Dark Side of the Moon, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, p.76 In some cases prisoners travelling in this way were fed and forced to sleep on the riverbanks if there was no other accommodation available. [16]16. MEMORIAL, Glazov, 77-80. 1936

Other barges were equipped with multi-tier continuous bed boards that were too close together to allow movement and so a hold could contain several thousand people forced to lie on the bed boards for two or three weeks. Prisoners were forbidden from going up on deck and were issued with a dry food ration. Two barrels with a volume of several dozen pails were set up beneath the hatch on the bottom of the barge, near the ladder. One contained drinking water and the other served as the parasha. The latrine bucket had to be emptied on route and the escort supplied two pails from the deck that the prisoners had to drop into the parasha. Then the prisoners stood on the stairs in a row and passed the pails up the 'bucket brigade'. However, drops sometimes fell into the drinking water and caused dysentery amongst the prisoners. Covers on the barrels were prohibited since prisoners could use them as offensive weapons. [17]17. Rossi, p.512

1. J. Rossi, The GULag Handbook, New York: Paragon House, 1989, pp.56-57
2. MEMORIAL, fond 2, opis 1, file 7, p.3, 1937. Bazhanov, Ivan Nikolaevich, reports that 150 prisoners travelled in one goods wagon from Taganka prison to the Ivdel' camp area, a journey lasting 13 days.
3. MEMORIAL, 2/1/5, 106. 1938 Antsis, Marianna Lazarevna
4. Rossi, p.182.
See also: MEMORIAL, 2/1/84, 23. L'vov, Evsei Moiseevich reports that in August 1938 on a transport from Moscow to Vladivostock, the carriages were searched at night by guards carrying hammers. They used these to hit the prisoners on the back of the head and on the legs as they moved across the carriage.
5. MEMORIAL, 2/1/50, 18. 1938. Grosman, Arkardii Grigor'evich
6. MEMORIAL, 2/1/73, 10. 1938. Kozhana, Tsipora Moiseevna
7. MEMORIAL, Glazov, Nikolai Alekhandrovich, 34. 1936
8. MEMORIAL, 2/1/5, 100-103. 1938. Antsis
9. MEMORIAL, 2/1/50, 19. 1937. Grosman
10. D. J. Dallin, The Real Soviet Russia, London: Hollis & Carter, p.143. See also: MEMORIAL, 2/2/82, 2. Skachkov, Petr Emel'yanovich reports that in 1938 prisoners were loaded onto the ship by barge. They entered the barge through a hatch that was closed when the hold contained thirty people. Above that, another ten people were loaded. Within a couple of minutes people in the hold began to gasp for breath and fainted. The prisoners' cries for help were in vain, as it was impossible to open the hatch due to the bodies on top of it. As time went on, more prisoners fainted. Eventually the barge reached the ship and the hatch was opened. Many prisoners had to be carried out by the guards. See also: G. Saunders [ed.] Samizdat - Voices of the Soviet Opposition, New York: Monad Press for the Anchor Foundation, 1974, p.163. In 1936 prisoners docked at Naryan Mar, Vorkuta. The prisoners were expected to get onto a covered barge for transportation along the Pechora River but they protested that the barges looked like grey coffins and refused to board them. Finally a two-board passenger ship with normal accommodation steamed into the harbour and took them to Vorkuta.
11. D. J. Dallin & Boris I. Nicolaevsky, Forced Labour in Soviet Russia, London: Hollis & Carter, 1948, p.137
12. V. Petrov, It Happens in Russia - Seven Years Forced Labour in Siberian Goldfields, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1951, pp.109-114
13. Rossi, p.103. Rossi collated the information for his handbook from various sources; personal observation during the years 1937-1958 spent in the Lubyanka and Butyrki prisons, transit prisons, Noril'sk camp, Alexandrovka and Vladimir central prisons; information from individuals encountered there, including former inmates of the first Soviet concentration camps on the Solovki Islands and prisoners who held responsible administrative posts in the camps. No other sources mention this incident, however.
14. K. Stajner, Seven Thousand Days in Siberia, Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing Limited, 1988, pp.62-66
15. Z. Zajdlerowa, The Dark Side of the Moon, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, p.76
16. MEMORIAL, Glazov, 77-80. 1936
17. Rossi, p.512