The train takes hours to finally start moving again, and by then the “toilet”, a solitary metal bucket, is already filled with infectious waste. Racking coughs emanate from the other cattle cars, and it will be easy for germs to spread in this tight compartment. At least there are no urkas this time around, they have bought their way into the more manageable train carts. Taking out your spare pieces of potato and bread, you huddle with a few close confidants to conserve warmth, feeling every rut and turn as the train lurches haphazardly on icy rails.
“Good God, we’re all going to die,” gasps a prisoner after a particularly brutal turn, which topples multiple other prisoners and spills the waste bucket onto the floor. Putrid stenches from the human waste permeate the air as you struggle to keep your stomach in one piece.
“Focus, focus. Look around yourself,” says one of your inmate friends as he gestures to a group of other prisoners who are speaking in sign language. “Those guys have been in the system for years, pick up on their tactics. See how they use sign language to communicate, saving oxygen and energy. Come, come! I have stories to tell…”.
Mikhail Belov was an admired and appreciated middle-aged man who worked at a tractor factory in the USSR. His manager become paranoid of him, afraid that Belov would challenge his leadership, placed factory tools in Belov’s bag and told the state police that he had (truthfully) made jokes about Stalin. Dragged away from his wife and three children, Belov was placed in a holding cell five times over its capacity limit, all who were awaiting trial. Acting as a mediator and cell elder, he managed to stop many fights among the squalid conditions. Accused of being part of a labor union that wanted to destroy the factory’s machines and working as a counter revolutionary spy, Belov was torture for a confession, but never gave in. Sentenced to ten years in the gulag system, he was put on a train, and the only way for him to ignore his own growing weakness was to teach a thirteen-year old boy math, who later died while cutting timber.
Arriving at a gulag near Arkhangelsk meant for timber cutting, he lived with hundreds of other men through brutal winters and heating stove malfunctions. Working in the machinery department, Belov was a skilled worker who made his captors forget that he was an “Enemy of the People”. He was also forced to chop timber, which nearly killed him due to the poor rations he was fed for his back-breaking labor. Starving from lack of food, Belov never stole, since he believed that the only thing he had left to lose was his self-respect, which stealing and begging would ultimately break. Witnessing his fair deal of criminal activity in the gulag, he knew the urkas would kill political prisoners and mutilate each other with no regard over simple card games. One time, he saw two of them betting on the life of a political prisoner, but the prisoner was instead (fortunately) only forced to give up his clothes.
Vera, Belov’s wife, was singled out by her fellow workers and friends as a possible collaborator with an “Enemy of the People.” Their children were also harassed at school, living in shame for the rest of their lives, knowing that their father turned out to be a “criminal”. Making a difficult and dangerous journey to the gulag where Belov was held, Vera managed to see him twice during his sentence. As a model prisoner, Belov was alerted of the impending meetings with his wife and was overwhelmed with anxiety and joy due to the prolonged anticipation of not seeing each other for so long. However, when Vera actually arrived, they found it hard to take about their experiences to each other, unable to express the hardship and cruelty they both endured.
Mikhail Belov was released in 1943, on the condition that he would be conscripted into the Red Army to fight the Third Reich. In 1944, Mikhail Belov died in combat, an insignificant death and totally inadequate for the moral standards he lived up to in his short lifetime.
Do Svidaniya, Comrades