Days, weeks blur past time as the monotonous work schedule goes on seemingly forever. Minus a few fingers now, you realize that cutting off your fingers wasn’t the greatest idea in the long term, with having less grip on the felling axe after every tiresome blow. Wake up, walk to work, try not to die from the weather and rations, come back to camp, and sleep. The cycle continues on and on without end, with the amount of men in the barracks decreasing each week. Almost instantaneously, new prisoners are put in the barracks and subjected to the same treatment everyone has been going through since day one, unless they’re an urka. Monotony is only broken up by the occasional “gang wars” in the camp, the most recent one having killed somewhere between five to fifteen prisoners. Weather never changes either, although spring is now right around the corner. The boredom and nagging hunger is so immense that everyone describes home-cooked meals with extremely critical details, and erupt into arguments whenever the recipe is spoken incorrectly. On a particularly hard day, prisoners from another barracks move in, and nearly every single one is partially blind from lack of nutrients.
Over more days, everyone learns the blind prisoners’ stories. For example, Vasily was an artist who was sentenced to ten years for painting a photo of an aristocrat. Boris was a petty criminal, sentenced to fifteen years for stealing multiple loaves of bread from food lines, and the list goes on and on. Each person has a nearly similar conviction, an “Enemy of the People” destined for exile and hard labor…
Political prisoners of the USSR were accused for the most trivial of crimes that wouldn’t even warrant a warning in other countries, such as having an unexcused work absence and even living on the “wrong side of the border”. During the Great Purge between 1937-1938, 1.5 million people were arrested of all political parties and ethnicities, some of them were Polish soldiers who happened to be in the region that Russia annexed. Usually, important officials to the Communist Party were extorted for a confession, paraded in show trials (to show the rest of the world that the USSR is “fair”), and sentenced to exile, hard labor, and execution. In the movie “The Way Back”, which is based on a true story, a group of prisoners escape southwards from a Siberian gulag. One of the characters was supposedly arrested for portraying an aristocrat in a pro-Soviet film, which is actually not too far from the truth, considering how stealing one loaf of bread can warrant a virtual death sentence.
The Soviet code in 1928 published Article 58, which allowed the Party to arrest those that committed “anti-Soviet crimes”, but the article itself was extremely vague on what was interpreted as a “political prisoner”. For example, here are a few court trials that showed the incompetence of this law:
- Man sentenced for three years for smiling “in sympathy” while drunken soldiers in a restaurant in Odessa told anti-Soviet anecdotes
- A cook who applied for a job at the Japanese embassy, but was arrested on charges of espionage before she even started the job
- Thousands of innocent people who happened to be family members of suspected “traitors.” These people received minimum sentences of five–eight years of hard labor
Soviet propaganda also contributed to this factor, creating an air of fear and distrust even among relatives, since EVERYONE around them could be an “Enemy of the People”. Child heroes were also idolized by Soviet media, where child soldiers, during the brutal battles of the Eastern Front with Nazi Germany, would martyr themselves in some unbelievable fashion, or turn in their own parents to the regime.
The next issue will delve more into the topic of spouses and children of those sent to the gulags.
Do Svidaniya, Comrades