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.”

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