Siberian Terrors


Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, by Robert Conquest, New York: Viking Press, 1978, 254 pp., $10.95.

Kolyma Tales, by Varlam Shalamov, New York: W.W. Norton, 1980, 222 pp., $9.95.

What remains to be said about the Soviet penal system after Solzhenitsyn's monumental three-volume work The Gulag Archipelago and Robert Conquest's definitive scholarly work The Great Terror? Much still remains. Both these works take us only through 1966. And Solzhenitsyn, as he himself says, has little to relate about Kolyma, since it is so remote (almost 5,000 miles east of Moscow) and he encountered so few survivors. Yet Kolyma is the most dreaded of all the camp complexes, located in the most inhospitable region on earth outside of Antarctica, the Kolyma River region of northeastern Siberia. In the Soviet Union the word Kolyma arouses the same terror as the word Auschwitz does to survivors of Hitler's regime.

Why would anyone wish to go there, even to conduct slave labor? Because it happens that one of the world's largest deposits of gold lies in that region. The Soviet government, says Conquest, "was faced with great difficulty. On the face of it, it could either give concessions to free enterprise or invest a great amount of capital in the development of the area. But the first was ruled out for political reasons, and there was no capital available. The solution was to make use of the one reserve material the government could dispose of—human beings."

And so in the 1930s this almost unpopulated region became a center of activity. In cattle-cars to Vladivostok and thence in overcrowded vessels northward through the Sea of Okhotsk, millions of prisoners (average 500,000 per year in the 1930s and '40s) were shipped there. The death rate was about 50 percent per year, from overwork, malnutrition, cold, and disease; but the dead were constantly replaced by new supplies of slaves.

Conquest's scholarly work is based on the entire available evidence on Kolyma that has been collected, and his work updates the much earlier work Forced Labor in Soviet Russia by Dallin and Nicolaevsky (1947), which dealt with Kolyma in a long chapter, "The Land of the White Death." Soviet citizens from all walks of life were deported to the land of the white death: common thieves and murderers (who dominated the camps), strong Ukrainian kulaks who had resisted the collectivization of their lands, political prisoners who had been reported as saying something against the government, teenagers who had been found guilty of offenses such as slaughtering a sheep on a state farm for private use or gathering a few sheaves of grain that the thresher had left. All were thrown together into the windswept tundra at temperatures often going below -75 degrees F.

Girls and women (usually in separate camps) were no less victims: "Hundreds of young girls between 18 and 20 were sent to Kolyma for running away to their villages because they could no longer endure the starvation in the cities where they had been forced to work. Some had only gone back home for a few days to visit a sick mother, but the factory manager would not give them any days off and when they returned they would be arrested." A survivor, Eleanor Lipper, writes in her Eleven Years in Soviet Camps that "they came as adolescents…[and] they died with tin medallions of the Virgin on their shattered chests and with hatred in their eyes." The children of married women were placed in a children's settlement in the Kolyma under the control of women criminals: "They watch knowingly as their convict mothers are marched off in rows of five—behind them the soldier with the fixed bayonet." At the age of seven they would be sent to state orphanages and never permitted to see their mothers again.

Building roads through the mountainous terrain without proper equipment was back-breaking enough, but work in the mines meant almost certain death within months. (No one at all survived work in the lead mines on the Chukhotsk peninsula, since all prisoners died of lead poisoning.) The total number of prisoners who died in the Kolyma region alone, says Conquest, amounts thus far to about 3,500,000. And every ton of gold mined cost about a thousand human lives.

Conquest gives a detailed bibliography of eyewitness accounts by survivors. In addition to these accounts, a small fictional literature about Kolyma has arisen, based on factual stories. The main ones translated into English are Vladimir Andreyev's Gamailis and Other Stories (Regnery, 1963) and now Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales. His stories are mostly about the daily life of prisoners (in conditions unimaginable to us), with constant emphasis on how one's moral code tends to evaporate when one is always hungry and cold: each person grabs what he can for himself in order to survive another day or hour. As one becomes weak from hunger, his rations are further cut (he is of no more use to the State) and he dies. "Friendship," writes Shalamov, "is not born in conditions of need or trouble. Literary fairy tales tell of 'difficult' conditions which are an essential element in forming friendships, but such conditions are simply not difficult enough. If tragedy and need brought people together and gave birth to their friendship, then the need was not extreme and the tragedy not great."

His writing is terse and spare, like that of a detached spectator, but the details are devastating. Particularly agonizing is one story of an attempted escape, an impossible task because of the hundreds of miles of ice and snow in every direction and the impossibility of obtaining food. Nothing in this book, however, reaches the dramatic heights of Andreyev's escape-attempt story Gamailis, which must rank as one of the greatest works of short fiction in this century. (Even if an escape attempt were successful, no one would help prisoners or take them in, for if they did, they would themselves face 15 years in the Gulag, and their children would be placed in orphanages, never to be seen by them again.)

All the world knows about Auschwitz and Buchenwald; almost no one in the West knows about Kolyma. The books about it, now quite numerous, are seldom reviewed in the press. Wondering whether there was also popular ignorance of it in Russia, when I was there, I determined to make inquiries. I knew of course that no one was free to speak, particularly of such things as labor camps, and that few people now alive had been to Kolyma itself. But I remembered Magadan (from Dallin's chapter "Magadan, the Capital of the Slave Empire"), the port that was built by slave labor in Nagayev Harbor under impossible conditions of cold, wet, and hunger before the roads to the Kolyma mines 300 miles inland could be built. So I asked as many Russians as I could, "Have you ever been to Magadan?" Usually their faces would change color and they would look away. Yes, they knew: the camp underground had done its work. Only one person replied, "Yes, I have been to Magadan. It is a beautiful place."

John Hospers is REASON's movie reviewer and the author of several books in philosophy.