Soviets Face Up to the Gulag, 1990
April 12, 2009 | 2:00 pm
| Note: The Daily Mirror is pleased to present a nondupe by the late Charles Hillinger, written in 1990.
Soviets Face Up to the Gulag
Millions died in prison camps in harshest Siberia. The once-taboo topic is now in the open, the anguish even shared with visiting Americans.
September 15, 1990
By CHARLES HILLINGER, TIMES STAFF WRITER
VOSTOCHNY CAMP, Soviet Union -- Thousands died in this Stalin-era death camp, bleak and desolate on a wind-swept mountain top in Siberia. They were beaten to death, or shot or died from the extreme cold, from disease and from hunger. Human bones still litter the ground.
For Dennis Robbins, 45, a medical ethics specialist from Farmington Hills, Mich., who recently visited Vostochny (pronounced Vos-TOACH-knee ), the sight of the camp's ruins and rusted barbed wire renewed his grief over the loss of most of his Russian-Jewish grandfather's family.
His grandfather's seven brothers and sisters were murdered, apparently because they were Jews, Robbins said. His grandfather survived only because his train broke down and he arrived home a day later than planned.
"I cry for the Soviet Union," Robbins said, wiping away tears. "I feel the pain of sorrow and despair for those who suffered so much in this place, for my grandfather's brothers and sisters, for all the useless brutality and lack of humanity on Earth."
Tatiana Khokhorina, 34, a Soviet interpreter visiting from the port of Magadan, about 1,000 miles to the southwest, also was moved to tears.
"I cannot express my innermost feelings seeing these human bones, knowing what happened here. I was a real Soviet patriot growing up in school. I loved my country. I considered it the best country on Earth. I never heard about these camps until five years ago. I am so sad for my country . . . ."
Vostochny lies beyond the Arctic Circle, near the edge of the Magadan Oblast, a region almost three times the size of California in the remote, easternmost reaches of Siberia. For years travel was strictly controlled, both for Soviet citizens and foreigners. This was because of the area's dark history as a center of the Gulag, as the labor-camp system is called, because of its militarily strategic location close to Alaska, China and Japan and because of fears that gold might be smuggled from the mineral-rich area.
Now, although glasnost and perestroika have not brought complete freedom of movement in this vast region of tundra and permafrost, more and more people have been given access to it. Recently, 31 American medical personnel visited the region for 17 days. Among them was Robbins, who, along with several other members of the group, visited the Vostochny site in the company of some Soviet doctors.
The Americans visited different parts of the region under the auspices of the University of Alaska's Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies, an organization founded on the premise that medical personnel in countries at the top of the world can learn from one another about such shared problems as the remoteness and poor communications of the areas they serve, the long periods of darkness in winter and of perpetual daylight in summer and the common incidence of alcoholism.
The Soviet Union's reform policies have also opened the subject of the dreaded Gulag system to discussion. In Magadan City, Dr. Alexander (Sasha) Nochevnoy, 42, told how only in recent years have people living in the Magadan Region been allowed to "talk about the camps with one another. Before, if the authorities heard us discussing the camps, we would be sent to prison."
Scattered throughout the mountains and glacier-sculptured river valleys in the Soviet Union's northeastern corner, from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Arctic Ocean, are the ruins of more than 100 Gulag camps in which an estimated 3 million men, women and children were executed or died.
At Vostochny, one of the Soviet doctors traveling with the American visitors recalled that the camp was "one of the deadliest of the infamous Gulag camps of the Kolyma River area described by Solzhenitsyn."
To some Soviet citizens, the names Magadan and Kolyma have the same ring as the names Buchenwald or Dachau to a Jew.
"Kolyma in eastern Siberia was the largest camp area in the U.S.S.R., had the highest death rate. Whole camps perished to a man," wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his novel, "The Gulag Archipelago." "Prisoners worked at 75 degrees below zero, in six-foot snow, beneath it only permafrost. One bowl of gruel a day. Kolyma camps were known for executions and mass graves."
At one Kolyma camp, Solzhenitsyn wrote, "the prisoners were so famished they ate the corpse of a horse lying dead for more than a week in summer, which not only stank, but was covered with flies and maggots. They ate a half-barrel of lubrication grease brought there to grease the wheelbarrows . . . ."
At Vostochny camp, the bone fragments, bleached white by time and the elements, lie everywhere on the rock-strewn ground. The doctors, American and Soviet, agreed they were human, but, beyond the assumption that they were the remains of the camp's victims, no one could explain how they had come to be exposed.
Beyond the barbed wire, on the summit of the treeless mountaintop, rests what once was called "the living zone." It is a row of single-story stone barracks with rusted iron bars in window openings.
The roofs and walls of many of the buildings have collapsed from heavy snow and howling winds. Shreds of clothing, shoes, rusted bedposts, tin dishes, shovels and other debris are mute reminders of life before the camp was abandoned. Barracks with roofs still intact were filled with snow and ice unmelted despite the 24-hour summer sun.
At any given time, 800 to 1,000 prisoners were incarcerated at Vostochny, working long hours with primitive tools to mine gold under the harshest conditions.
Before they left the mountain, the Soviet and American doctors placed a bouquet of flowers on the barbed wire to the memory of the victims of Vostochny.
Criminals are still sent to Siberia and, until 1987, political prisoners were sent there, too. Poles, Germans, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and others also were imprisoned in the camps. Solzhenitsyn has written that as many as 20 million people may have perished in the entire Gulag system.
"Thousands were sent here for petty theft, for making jokes about Stalin, for unbelievable inconsequential reasons as 'enemies of the people,' " said Yuri Pavlov, 57, a columnist for the newspaper Magadanskay Pravda. "All Soviet citizens who had been captured by the Germans during World War II and later freed were believed to have been tainted by their Fascist captors, and were re-arrested on arrival home and sent here and to other parts of Siberia.
"Americans liberated many Soviets from German prison camps," Pavlov said. "When they (the ex-POWS) returned home at war's end, they were sent to the Gulag in Siberia because Stalin thought they were all spies because the Americas saved them. It was crazy."
Now, in a new, more open time, residents of the region are willing to speculate about suggestions by some in the West that American POWs from the Korean War, who had been presumed dead, may have been imprisoned in the Gulag.
(A Times report in July, for example, quoted an American Red Cross spokeswoman in Seattle as saying that the agency knows of 12 reported sightings of American POWs in Siberia, some as recently as the 1970s. The report noted also that the Pentagon and State Department had dismissed the sightings.)
Pyotr Chagin, 63, for 38 years a member of the Communist Party and assistant director of the Magadan television station, insisted that there is no way there could have been American Korean War POWs in Magadan.
"I would have known about that if it were true," he said. "Somebody would have talked about it."
But Alexander Shornikov, 36, a writer for the Magadanskay Komsomoles, the other daily newspaper in Magadan, was less certain.
"I believe there is a remote possibility American POWs could have been shipped here during the Korean War. There were many foreign prisoners in the camps.
"There were German prisoners from World War II held in the camps as late as 1956, when (Nikita S.) Khrushchev began phasing out the camps," he said. "There were Japanese prisoners taken from the Kurile Islands in the closing days of World War II, who worked as forced laborers constructing several large buildings along Lenin Street, the main thoroughfare in Magadan City (constructed) from 1945 to 1949."
Shornikov said that for the North Koreans to make a deal with the Soviet Union to send American prisoners to the Magadan region "is believable."
"If they did indeed exist, it's possible that we would never have heard about special, very secretive labor camps for the Americans. In the Gulag, anything was possible."
From 1930 until dictator Josef Stalin's death in 1953, and even a few years afterward, the Magadan region evolved around the prison camps. Prison labor built the city of Magadan and other settlements in the far north that supported the camps. Today, 80% of the structures in the port, primarily four- and five-story concrete housing and office complexes, are prisoner-built.
Where in the past prisoners toiled in huge coal and gold mines, today civilians from throughout the Soviet Union do the work, attracted to the remote area by wages three times those in Moscow.
But many volunteers leave as soon as their first contract is up. Others stay on long enough--and that can be some time--to save the rubles for a better life elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
And there are many survivors of the Gulag, like Vadim Kozin, who have opted to stay because they cannot afford to move. Kozin, 87, lives in one of the typical tiny apartments, as does everyone except senior officials of the Communist Party.
Locals in Magadan describe Kozin as the "Bing Crosby" of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. He was shipped to Magadan in 1942 because he refused to write or sing a song about Stalin.
"I admired Stalin, as did most Soviet citizens," recalled Kozin in his apartment, where he played his piano and, still in good voice, sang some of his best-known songs. But "in my heart, I did not think I was good enough to write or sing a song about our great leader. So, I spent three years in a Magadan camp still making records that were sold all over the Soviet Union, with all proceeds going to the government. I wrote and recorded many popular songs sung in the U.S.S.R. during the Great Patriotic War (World War II) from my cell."
Kozin said he was not starved or mistreated as his fellow prisoners were. But "I heard the screams, the gunshots, the beatings, everything . . . ."
Solzhenitsyn wrote about the singer's performing in a camp theater in "The Gulag Archipelago": "The local Gulag big shots sat haughtily with their wives in the first rows and watched their slaves with curiosity and contempt. And the convoy guards sat behind the scenes and in the boxes with their automatic pistols. After the performances, those players who won applause were taken back to camp and those who had fallen on their faces . . . to punishment blocks.
"Sometimes they were not even allowed to enjoy the applause. In the Magadan Theater, Nikishov, the chief of Dalstroi (camp), interrupted Vadim Kozin, a widely known singer at that time: 'All right, Kozin, stop the bowing and get out!' (Kozin tried to hang himself but was taken down out of the noose.)"
Ernst Neizvestny, 65, is considered one of the greatest living Soviet-born sculptors. He created one of the world's largest sculptures, the 325-foot-high "Lotus Blossom Monument" atop Egypt's Aswan Dam. He did the headstone for Khrushchev's grave in Moscow. His monumental pieces stand in many sites in the Soviet Union, Washington, New York, Paris, the Vatican and Taipei.
He was in Magadan recently to begin his latest project: three 60-foot memorials to victims of Stalin's death camps, one in Magadan, to be put up over a mass grave. The others will be in Sverdlovsk, his hometown, and Vorkuta. The three areas contained the most notorious concentrations of Gulag camps.
"The Soviet Union never built a monument to what they did wrong. So, it is my historic duty to do it. These will be spiritual places. I personally was never a Gulag prisoner, but members of my family and many friends were. While the tragedy of the Holocaust was going on in Germany, this was taking place in the U.S.S.R.," said Neizvestny, interviewed at Magadan Mayor Gennady Dozofeew's home.
The Magadan work, expected to be completed in two years, will be a gigantic mask adorned with smaller masks, representing the souls of the thousands of Gulag victims. A huge tear will flow down the cheek of the 60-foot-high mask sculpture. Inside the monument will be a giant crucifix. Author-in-exile Solzhenitsyn, his Soviet citizenship recently restored, has been invited to attend the dedication.
At the mayor's home with Neizvestny was Atlis Merum Marcovitch, 62, president of the Magadan chapter of the Memorial Society, formed two years ago in Moscow by human rights advocates and former prisoners of the Gulag. Marcovitch himself spent eight years in the Stalin Gulag.
"To this day, I vividly recall when Stalin died in 1953. I was alone in a cage (cell) when word came about Stalin's death. It was the best news ever in the history of the Gulag," he recalled.
"The Memorial Society has 7,000 members throughout the Soviet Union," he added. "Our purpose is to bring respect to the victims, to honor their memory by finding the records and learning who they were. Until now, the records have been hidden by the KGB and others. We want their names. We are searching the truth of history. Ours is not a society for vendetta.
"After all these years," he added, "we are just beginning to put the pieces together of this horrendous puzzle. We want to preserve the ruins so people will know and remember what happened, so it will never happen again. The ruins are as they were when abandoned. In some camps, skulls and bones still lie exposed above the ground. We want proper burials. We want to know where the secret graves are."
In the city of Magadan, population 150,000, for the first time there is an exhibit at a local museum about the Magadan and Kolyma camps.
"We think it is vitally important that everybody realizes the entire Magadan region was built on the foundation of Stalin prison camps," said Svetlana Vladimirova, the museum director.
Prisons in Siberia still retain their notoriety. The most hardened criminals are sent from throughout the Soviet Union to these remote sites in this land of incredible cold.
Steve Carr, 42, a physician's assistant with the Alaska State Department of Corrections, was among the Americans on the recent trip. His goal in coming was to meet with Magadan penal authorities, to visit their prisons and to get to know his professional counterpart, the Magadan prison medical officer.
Although Carr had asked that a journalist be allowed to accompany him on his tour, in a meeting at the Magadan police headquarters, Police Chief Vladimir Povazhny gave a firm " Nyet " to the request, saying: "We are not interested in a journalistic perspective on our prisons. We know how bad they are. . . . .' "
Carr visited three Magadan prisons, including one known simply as Colony III, a maximum security prison 217 miles north of Magadan City. It is on the Kolyma High Road, which, local residents said, was built over 20 years on a foundation of human bones--those of the thousands of prison camp inmates who died while constructing it.
Colony III was built by Stalin in 1930. It sits behind 18-foot-high walls guarded by Interior Ministry troops, backed up by guards, lights and dogs. And there are also 220-volt trip wires.
Carr said Colony III is the worst prison that he has ever seen: "Pipes are rusting, concrete is falling off exterior and interior walls, the toilets and general condition of the dormitories and cells are primitive and unsanitary. Yet, that's true about most buildings in Magadan.
"Many prisoners," Carr added, "are employed in a furniture factory. Others work outside in a courtyard crushing rock for roadbeds with jackhammers."
He said the food left much to be desired:
"Breakfast was bread and tea; lunch was bread, tea and salted fish; dinner was broth with potatoes, bread, salted fish and tea. Prisoners are not allowed to have visitors. Solitary confinement is in a small cell with a hole in the ground for a toilet, no windows and a bare bulb hanging from a wire out of the ceiling."
Although it was summer when he visited, the prison was cold. Carr said he could only imagine what it would be like in winter when the sun never comes out and temperatures outside are often 50 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
"I would say the guards and officers are doing the best they can with what little they have," Carr said, but he added: "Even (their own) quarters would fail to pass a housing inspection anywhere in America."