Anything (or nothing) you did, had done, or might do would be enough to get you sent there. To quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – author of The Gulag Archipelago – on how very low the bar was to perceived “wrongdoing” in Stalinist Russia:
“Who among us has not experienced its all-encompassing embrace? In all truth, there is no step, thought, action, or lack of action under the heavens which could not be punished by the heavy hand of Article 58.”
The Kolyma (pronounced koh-lee-MAH) region (Russian: Колыма) is located in the far north-eastern area of Russia in what is commonly known as Siberia but is actually part of the Russian Far East. It is bounded by the East Siberian Sea and the Arctic Ocean in the north and the Sea of Okhotsk to the south. The extremely remote region gets its name from the Kolyma River and mountain range, parts of which were not discovered until 1926. Today the region consists roughly of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and the Magadan Oblast.
The area, part of which is within the Arctic Circle, has a subarctic climate with very cold winters lasting up to six months of the year. Permafrost and tundra cover a large part of the region. Average winter temperatures range from -19°C to -38°C (even lower in the interior), and average summer temperatures, from +3°C to +16°C. There are rich reserves of gold, silver, tin, tungsten,mercury, copper, antimony, coal, oil, and peat. Twenty-nine zones of possible oil and gas accumulation have been identified on the Sea of Okhotsk shelf. Total reserves are estimated at 3.5 billion tons of equivalent fuel, including 1.2 billion tons of oil and 1.5 billion m3 of gas.
The principal town, Magadan, with a population of 99,399 and an area of 18 square kilometers, is the largest port of north-eastern Russia. It has a large fishing fleet and remains open year-round with the help of icebreakers. Magadan is served by the nearby Sokol Airport. There are many public and private farming enterprises. Gold mining works, pasta and sausage plants, fishing companies, and a distillery form the city’s industrial base.
Under Joseph Stalin’s rule, Kolyma became the most notorious region for the Gulag labor camps. A million or more people may have died en route to the area or in the Kolyma’s series of gold mining, road building, lumbering, and construction camps between 1932 and 1954. It was Kolyma’s reputation that caused Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, to characterize it as the “pole of cold and cruelty” in the Gulag system. The Mask of Sorrowmonument in Magadan commemorates all those who died in the Kolyma forced-labour camps and the recently dedicated Church of the Nativity remembers the victims in its icons and Stations of the Camps.
Emergence of the Gulag camps
Gold and platinum were discovered in the region in the early 20th century. During the time of theUSSR’s industrialization (beginning with Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, 1928–1932) the need for capital to finance economic development was great. The abundant gold resources of the area seemed tailor-made to provide this capital. A government agency Dalstroy (Russian: Дальстрой, acronym for Far North Construction Trust) was formed to organize the exploitation of the area. Prisoners were being drawn into the Soviet penal system in large numbers during the initial period of Kolyma’s development, most notably from the so-called anti-Kulak campaign and the government’s internal war to force collectivization on the USSR’s peasantry. These prisoners formed a readily available workforce.
Butugychag Tin Mine – A Gulag camp in the Kolyma area
The initial efforts to develop the region began in 1932, with the building of the town of Magadan by forced labor. (Many projects in the USSR were already using forced labor, most notably theWhite Sea-Baltic Canal.) After a gruelling train ride (on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest in the USSR), prisoners were disembarked at one of several transit camps (such as Nakhodka and later Vanino) and transported across the Sea of Okhotsk to the natural harbor chosen for Magadan’s construction. Conditions aboard the ships were harsh.
In 1932 expeditions pushed their way into the interior of the Kolyma, embarking on the construction of the Kolyma Highway, which was to become known as the Road of Bones. Eventually, about 80 different camps dotted the region of the uninhabited taiga.
The original director of the Kolyma camps was Eduard Berzin, a Chekist. Berzin was later removed (1937) and shot during the period of the Great Purges in the USSR.
The Arctic Death Camps
In 1937, at the height of the Purges, Stalin ordered an intensification of the hardships prisoners were forced to endure. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quotes camp commander Naftaly Frenkel as establishing the new law of the Archipelago: “We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don’t need him anymore.”  The system of hard labor and minimal or no food reduced most prisoners to helpless “goners” (dokhodyaga, in Russian).
Robert Conquest, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Anne Applebaum, Adam Hochschild and others (see bibliography) describe the Kolyma camps in some detail. The suffering of the prisoners was exacerbated by the presence of ordinary criminals, who terrorized the “political” prisoners. Death in the Kolyma camps came in many forms, including: overwork, starvation, malnutrition, mining accidents, exposure, murder at the hands of criminals, and beatings at the hands of guards. A director of the Sevvostlag complex of camps, colonel Sergey Garanin is said to have personally shot whole brigades of prisoners for not fulfilling their daily quotas in the late 1930s. Escape was difficult, owing to the climate and physical isolation of the region, but some still attempted it. Escapees, if caught, were often torn to shreds by camp guard dogs. The use of torture as punishment was also common. Soviet dissident historian Roy Medvedev has compared the conditions in the Kolyma camps to Auschwitz.
Prisoners at a Kolyma goldmine
Many of the prisoners in Kolyma were academics or intellectuals. Among them was Mikhail Kravchuk (Krawtschuk), a Ukrainian mathematician who by the early 1930s had received considerable acclaim in the West. After a summary trial, apparently for not being willing to take part in the accusations of some of his colleagues, he was sent to Kolyma where he died in 1942. “Hard work in the Soviet labor camp, harsh climate and meager food, poor health, and last but not least, accusations and abandonment by most of his colleagues, took their toll. Kravchuk perished in Magadan in Eastern Siberia, about 4,000 miles (6,000 km) from the place where he was born. Kravchuk’s last article had appeared soon after his arrest in 1938. However, after this publication, Kravchuk’s name was literally stricken from books and journals.”
The prisoner population of Kolyma was substantially increased in 1946 with the arrival of thousands of former Soviet POWs liberated by Allied forces or the Red Army at the close of World War II. Those not summarily executed frequently received ten or twenty-five year prison sentences to a gulag, including Kolyma.
There were, however, some exceptions. Léon Theremin, an inventor, who had been seized by Soviet agents in the United States and forced to return to the Soviet Union was, on Joseph Stalin’s order, imprisoned at Butyrka and later sent to work in the Kolyma gold mines. Although rumors of his execution were widely circulated, Theremin was, in fact, put to work in a sharashka or secret research laboratory, together with other scientists and engineers, including aircraft designerAndrei Tupolev and rocket scientist Sergei Korolyov (also a Kolyma inmate). The Soviet Union rehabilitated Theremin in 1956.
The Kolyma camps were converted to (mostly) free labor after 1954, and in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev ordered a general amnesty that freed many prisoners.
Dalstroy was the agency created to manage exploitation of the Kolyma area, based principally on the use of forced labour.
In the words of Azerbaijani prisoner Ayyub Baghirov, “The entire administration of the Dalstroy – economic, administrative, physical and political — was in the hands of one person who was invested with many rights and privileges.” The officials in charge of Dalstroy, i.e. the Kolyma Gulag camps were:
Eduard Petrovich Berzin, 1932–1937
Karp Aleksandrovich Pavlov, 1937–1939.
Ivan Fedorovich Nikishev, 1940–1948.
Ivan Grigorevich Petrenko, 1948–1950.
I.L. Mitrakov, from 1950 until Dalstroy was taken over by the Ministry of Metallurgy on 18 March 1953.
Calendar of historical events
A detailed calendar of events:
4 February 1932: Eduard Berzin, Manager of Dalstroy, arrives with the first 10 prisoners.
1934: The headcount increases to 30,000 inmates.
1937: The number of inmates increases to over 70.000; 51,500 kg of gold mined
June 1937: Stalin reprimands the Kolyma commandants for their undue leniency towards the inmates.
December 1937: Berzin is charged with espionage and subsequently tried and shot in August 1938.
March 4, 1938: Dalstroy is put under the jurisdiction of NKVD, USSR.
December 1938: Osip Mandelstam, an eminent Russian poet, dies in a transit camp en route to Kolyma.
1939: Number of inmates now 138,200.
11 October 1939: Commandants Pavlov (Dalstroy) and Garanin (Sevvostlag) sacked from their posts. Garanin subsequently shot.
1941: Headcount of inmates reaches 190,000. Also some 3,700 Dalstroy contract workers.
May 23, 1944: US Vice President Henry A. Wallace arrives for a NKVD-hosted 25-day tour of Magadan, Kolyma, and the Russian Far East.
October 1945: Camp for the Japanese prisoners of war is established in Magadan, to provide extra labour.
1952: 199,726 inmates, the highest ever in the history of the Kolyma camps and Dalstroy.
May 1952: According to commandant Mitrakov, Sevvoslag is dissolved, Dalstroy transformed into the General Board of Labour Camps
March 1953: After Stalin’s death, Dalstroy transferred to the Ministry of Metallurgy, camp units come under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Ministry of Justice.
September 1953: Dalstroy camp units taken over by the newly established Management Board of the North-Eastern Corrective Labour Camps. Harsh camp regime gradually relaxed.
1953–1956: Period of mass amnesties and the release of most political prisoners. Some camp closures begin.
1957: Dalstroy liquidated. Many of the former prisoners continued to work in the mines with a modified status and a few new prisoners arrived, at least until the early 1970s.
The Chukot Autonomous Okrug site provides details of developments after the official closure of the camps. In 1953, the Magadan Oblast (or region) was established. Dalstroy was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Metallurgy and later to the Ministry of Non-Ferrous Metallurgy.
Industrial and economic evolution
Industrial gold-mining started in 1958 leading to the development of mining settlements, industrial enterprises, power plants, hydro-electric dams, power transmission lines and improved roads. By the 1960s, the region’s population exceeded 100,000. With the dissolution of Dalstroy, the Soviets adopted new labor policies. While the prison labor was still important, it mainly consisted of common criminals. New manpower was recruited from all Soviet nationalities on a voluntary basis, to make up for the sudden lack of political prisoners. Young men and women were lured to the frontier land of Kolyma with the promise of high earnings and better living. But many decided to leave. The region’s prosperity suffered under Soviet liberal policies in the end of the 1980s and 1990s with a considerable reduction in population, apparently by 40% in Magadan. A U.S. report from the late 1990s gives details of the region’s economic shortfall citing outdated equipment, bankruptcies of local companies and lack of central support. It does however report substantial investments from the United States and the governor’s optimism for future prosperity based on revival of the mining industries.
Last political prisoners
Dalstroy and the camps did not close down completely. The Kolyma authority, which was reorganised in 1958/59 (31 December 1958), finally closed in 1968. However the mining activities did not stop. Indeed, government structures still exist today under the Ministry of Natural Resources. In some cases, the same individuals seem to have stayed on over the years under new management. There are indications that the political prisoners were gradually phased out over the years but it was only as a result of Yeltsin’s far reaching reforms in the 1990s that the very last prisoners were released from Kolyma. The Russian author Andrei Amalrik appears to have been one of the last high-profile political prisoners to be sent to Kolyma. In 1970, he published two books: Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? and Involuntary Journey to Siberia. As a result, he was arrested for “defaming the Soviet state” in November 1970 and sentenced to hard labour, apparently in Kolyma, for what turned out to be a total of almost five years.
Accounts of the Kolyma Gulag
During and after the Second World War the region saw major influxes of Ukrainians, Polish,German, Japanese, and Korean prisoners. There is a particularly memorable account written by aRomanian survivor, Michael Solomon, in his book Magadan (see Bibliography below) which gives us a vivid picture of both the transit camps leading to the Kolyma and the region itself. TheHungarian, George Bien, author of the Lost Years, also recounts the horrors of Kolyma. His story has also led to a film.
In Bitter Days of Kolyma, Ayyub Baghirov, an Azerbaijani accountant who was finally rehabilitated, provides details of his arrest, torture and sentencing to eight (finally to become 18) years imprisonment in a labour camp for refusing to incriminate a fellow official for financial irregularities. Describing the train journey to Siberia, he writes: “The terrible heat, the lack of fresh air, the unbearable overcrowded conditions all exhausted us. We were all half starved. Some of the elderly prisoners, who had become so weak and emaciated, died along the way. Their corpses were left abandoned alongside the railroad tracks.”
A detailed description of conditions in the camps is provided by Varlam Shalamov in his Kolyma Tales. In Dry Rations he writes: “Each time they brought in the soup… it made us all want to cry. We were ready to cry for fear that the soup would be thin. And when a miracle occurred and the soup was thick we couldn’t believe it and ate it as slowly as possible. But even with thick soup in a warm stomach there remained a sucking pain; we’d been hungry for too long. All human emotions—love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellow man, compassion, longing for fame, honesty — had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies…”
A vivid account of the conditions in Kolyma is that of Brother Gene Thompson of Kiev’s Faith Mission. He recounts how he met Vyacheslav Palman, a prisoner who survived because he knew how to grow cabbages. Palman spoke of how guards read out the names of those to be shot every evening. On one occasion a group of 169 men were shot and thrown into a pit. Their fully clothed bodies were found after the ice melted in 1998.
One of the most famous political prisoners in Kolyma was Vadim Kozin, possibly Russia’s most popular romantic tenor, who was sent to the camps in February 1945, apparently for refusing to write a song about Stalin. Although he was initially freed in 1950 and could return to his singing career, he was soon framed by his enemies on charges of homosexuality and sent back to the camps. Though released once again several years later, he was never officially rehabilitated and remained in exile in Magadan where he died in 1994. Speaking to journalists in 1982, he explained how he had been forced to tour the camps: “The Polit bureau formed brigades which would, under surveillance, go on tours of the concentration camps and perform for the prisoners and the guards, including those of the highest rank.”
Finally, Ukrainian prisoner Nikolai Getman who spent the years 1945-1953 in Kolyma, records his testimony in pictures rather than words. But he does have a plea: “Some may say that the Gulag is a forgotten part of history and that we do not need to be reminded. But I have witnessed monstrous crimes. It is not too late to talk about them and reveal them. It is essential to do so. Some have expressed fear on seeing some of my paintings that I might end up in Kolyma again — this time for good. But the people must be reminded… of one of the harshest acts of political repression in the Soviet Union. My paintings may help achieve this.” The Jamestown Foundation provides access to all 50 of Getman’s paintings together with explanations of their significance.
Estimating the number of victims
While comparatively complete lists of the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps have survived, the amount of hard evidence in regard to Kolyma is extremely limited. Unfortunately, no reliable archives exist about the total number of victims of Stalinism; all numbers are estimates. In his book, Stalin (1966), Edvard Radzinsky explains how Stalin, while systematically destroying his comrades-in-arms “at once obliterated every trace of them in history. He personally directed the constant and relentless purging of the archives.” That practice continued to exist after the death of the dictator.
In an account of a visit to Magadan by Harry Wu of Stanford University in 1999, there is a reference to the efforts of Alexander Biryukov, a Magadan lawyer to document the terror. He is said to have compiled a book listing every one of the 11,000 people documented to have been shot in Kolyma camps by the state security organ, the NKVD. Biryukov, whose father was in the Gulag at the time he was born, has begun researching the location of graves. He believed some of the bodies were still partially preserved in the permafrost.
It is therefore impossible to provide final figures on the number of victims who died in Kolyma. Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror, now admits that his original estimate of three million victims was far too high. In his article Death Tolls for the Man-made Megadeaths of the 20th Century, Matthew White estimates the number of those who died at 500,000. In Stalin’s Slave Ships, Martin Bollinger undertakes a careful analysis of the number of prisoners who could have been transported by ship to Magadan between 1932 and 1953 (some 900,000) and the probable number of deaths each year (averaging 27%). This produces figures significantly below earlier estimates but, as the author emphasizes, his calculations are by no means definitive. In addition to the number of deaths, the dreadful conditions of the camps and the hardships experienced by the prisoners over the years need to be taken into account. In his review of Bollinger’s book, Norman Polmar independently estimates there were more than 3,000,000 victims who died at Kolyma. As Bollinger reports in his book, the 3,000,000 estimate originated with the CIA in the 1950s and appears to be a flawed estimate. This number is also estimated by the last survivors.
Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize winner, carried out an extensive investigation of the gulags, and explained in a lecture in 2003, that it’s extremely difficult not only to document the facts given the extent of the cover-up but to bring the truth home.
Applebaum, Anne, Gulag: A History, Broadway Books, 2003, hardcover, 720 pp., ISBN 0-7679-0056-1.
Bardach, Janusz / Gleeson, Kathleen Man Is Wolf to Man : Surviving the Gulag, University of California Press, c1998, 392 p., ISBN 0520213521
Bollinger, Martin J., Stalin’s slave ships : Kolyma, the Gulag fleet, and the role of the West, Praeger, 2003, 217 p., ISBN 0275981002
Conquest, Robert: The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. 1968.
Conquest, Robert: The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press, May 1990, hardcover, ISBN 0-19-505580-2; trade paperback, Oxford, September, 1991, ISBN 0-19-507132-8
Conquest, Robert: Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, Viking Press, 1978, 254 p. ISBN 0670414999
Getman, Nikolai: The Gulag Collection: Paintings of the Soviet Penal System, The Jamestown Foundation, 2001, 131 p., ISBN 0967500915
Ginzburg, Eugenia, Journey into the whirlwind, Harvest/HBJ Book, 2002, 432 pp., ISBN 0156027518.
Ginzburg, Eugenia, Within the Whirlwind, Harvest/HBJ Book, 1982, 448 pp., ISBN 0156976498.
Hochschild, Adam, The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 304 pp., paperback: ISBN 0-618-25747-0
Kizny, Tomasz, Gulag, Firefly Books, 2004, 495 p. ISBN 1552979644
Khlevniuk, Oleg, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror, Yale University Press, c2004, 418 p., ISBN 0300092849
MacCannon, John: Red Arctic: Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0195114361
Radzinsky Edvard, Stalin: the first in-depth biography based on explosive new documents from Russia’s secret archives, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, 594 p., ISBN 0340606193
OstEuropa, various authors (in German): Das Lager schreiben, Varlam Šalamov und die Aufarbeitung des Gulag. Berlin (BWV) 2007 (= Osteuropa 6/2007), 440 p., ISBN 978-3-8305-1219-6
Medvedev, Roy: Let History Judge: the origins and consequences of Stalinism, New York, Vintage Books 1973, c1971, ISBN 039471928X
Shalamov, Varlam, Kolyma Tales, Penguin Books, 1995, 528 pp., ISBN 0-14-018695-6.
Solomon, Michel, Magadan, Princeton, Auerbach Publishers, 1971, 243 p. ISBN 0877690855
Kolyma; the Land of Gold and Death A personal on-line account in nine chapters by Stanislaw J. Kowalski, a Polish prisoner in Kolyma, with numerous references
The Soviet Gulag Era in Pictures, 1927-1953 Photographs, several of Kolyma, collected by James Duncan
Crimes of Soviet Communists Wide collection of sources and links about GULAG also in Kolyma
The White Crematorium Background information on the Gulag and the Kolyma camps by Jens Alstrup who cycled across Russia to Magadan in 1997 and has frequently returned to continue his research. Retrieved 26 February 2008.
Kolyma, Mikhail Mikheev’s 1995 documentary film winner of both the Amsterdam and Berlin film festivals
Work in the Gulag from the Stalin’s Gulag section of the Online Gulag Museum with a short description and images of Kolyma
GULAG: Many Days, Many Lives, Online Exhibit, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
Virtual Gulag Museum The Saint-Petersburg Research and Information Centre “Memorial” linking to museums in Russia, eastern Europe and Asia on the history of Soviet Terror, the Gulag and the resistance
Gulag prisoners at work, 1936-1937 Photoalbum at the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery
Kolyma – Off to the Unknown – Stalin’s Notorious Prison Camps in Siberia by Ayyub Baghirov (1906-1973)
Italian-American artist Thomas Sgovio (1916–1997) created a series of drawings and paintings, based on his life as a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag
Russian-language history of Dalstroy from Kolyma.ru
Links to Maps
Detailed Russian map of the Kolyma Gulag from the site Jewish Community in Magadan
Russian Map of the Gulag camps across the Soviet Union from the Memorial site
The Book of Books: Rasequin’s Chronicles dark fantasy novel involving details from camp life
^ a b Magadan Region from Kommersant, Russia’s Daily Online. Retrieved 22 January 2007.
^ Ludwik Kowalski: Alaska notes on StalinismRetrieved 18 January 2007.
^ According to a 1987 article in Time Magazine: “During the 1930s the only way to reach Magadan was by ship from Khabarovsk, which created an island psychology and the term Gulag archipelago. The prison ships were crowded hell-holes in which thousands died. One survivor’s memoir recounts that the prison ship Dzhurma was caught in the autumn ice in 1933 while trying to get to the mouth of the Kolyma River. When it reached port the following spring, it carried only crew and guards. All 12,000 prisoners were missing, left dead on the ice.” It turns out that this incident, widely reported since it was first mentioned in a book published in 1947, could not have happened as the ship Dzhurma was not in Soviet hands until mid 1935. A detailed analysis of this legend can be found in the book Stalin’s Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet, and the Role of the West (Praeger, 2003). James O. Jackson on a visit to Magadan, Time Magazine, April 20, 1987, article entitled Soviet Union. Retrieved 18 January 2007.
^ Case Study: Stalin’s Purges from Genderside Watch. Retrieved 19 January 2007.
^ Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, p. 49.
^ Campo di detenzione speciale “La Kolyma” 1931 – 1955 Alexander Langer Foundation (in Italian). Retrieved 17 January 2007.
^ Kravchuk story : How a scientist received a job offer from the American Mathematical Society, was accused of being a foreign spy, and sent to GULAG by Ivan Katchanovski, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia
^ a b Conquest, Robert, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, Viking Press, (1978), ISBN 0670414999, pp. 228-229
^ (Russian) История Дальстроя (History of Dalstroy) from the kolyma.ru website. Retrieved 14 February 2007.
^ Yakutia ASSR and the Sakha Republic from Cosmic Elk. Retrieved 23 January 2007.
^ Magadan Region Update by Bisnis Vladivostok Representative Svetlana Kuzmichenko, 1998, U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service and U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 23 January 2007.
^ John Keep: Andrei Amalrik and “1984”, Russian Review, Vol. 30, No.4. (Oct., 1971), pp. 335-345. Retrieved 21 January 2007.
^ George Bien, Gulag Survivor in the Boston Globe, June 22, 2005
^ Documentary film Walk on Gulagland Kolyma by Zoltan Szalkai. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
^ Br. Gene Thompson: The Road to Death– Retrieved 17 January 2007
^ Vadim Kozin, One Way Trip from Petersburg to Magadan from the Little Russia in US site. Retrieved 13 February 2007.
^ The Gulag Collection: Paintings of the Soviet Penal System by Former Prisoner Nilolau Getman
^ Nikolai Getman: The Gulag collection. Retrieved 13 February 2007.
^ Norman Polmar “Stalin’s Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet, and the Role of the West (review)”, Journal of Cold War Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, Summer 2007, pp. 180-182
^ Gulag: Understanding the Magnitude of What Happened, 16 October 2003. Retrieved 23 January 2007.
Producer Mikhail Mikheev
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