Ivan Kharkov was only twenty-four when he was liberated from a prisoner of war camp in 1945, having endured the hardships of Nazi neglect and torture for three years. Returning to his hometown to teach high school math, he was one of the many Red Army soldiers captured in the beginning of the war on the Eastern Front by the Nazis, and an Allied pact turned over ALL Soviet P.O.W.s back to the U.S.S.R. regardless of consent. Stalin became alarmed and suspicious of over two million Soviet citizens that were captured and sent to concentration camps in Germany, believing them to be possible traitors. Due to the large amount of Soviet soldiers surrendering to the Wehrmacht in 1941-1942, Stalin issued “Order 227”, which stated that Soviet soldiers must fight until they die and they will be executed and imprisoned if they do not. Kharkov was quickly snatched up by the NKVD and thrown into an isolation cell away from his former comrades.
Staving off boredom by playing brain trivia, Kharkov was tortured and interrogated by the NKVD, which disturbed him more than anything else he endured in the Nazi camps. When he was in the camps he could hardly relate to his Nazi captors, but now that he was home in Russia it was that much harder to be questioned by his own countrymen. Either way, he endured through the “standard” confession extraction methods, and each new beating just made his shell harder to crack. Giving up on extracting a confession, the NKVD dumped him in front of a trial with judges who quickly stated that he betrayed his people, sentencing him to 20 years in the gulag system. Placed in a suffocating cattle car, Kharkov physically collapsed into unconsciousness on day eight of the journey.
Riddled with dysentery and malnutrition, Kharkov would have died if the train didn’t stop on the ninth day. Taken to the gulag hospital, he was treated by real doctors and other prisoners, the first people to show genuine care for his well-being in the past few years. Once fully recovered, Kharkov moved into the “public” population, fortunately having a bunk that belonged only to him and no one else. Put on timber cutting, Kharkov and his fellow prisoners were forced to cut extreme amounts of wood each day to get the bare minimum ration, but his “unit commander” assisted them in faking their workloads to get adequate rations. Coincidentally, the unit commander was also a former soldier that somehow found out that Kharkov was a soldier too, which allowed him to be transferred to his unit in the first place. Able to eat reasonable amounts of food also made Kharkov’s gulag experience much easier than the majority of unprotected political prisoners’ lives.
As usual, the actual criminals in the gulag began sizing up the war veteran prisoners and decided that they could also be robbed as easily as political prisoners. However, they soon found out that former Red Army soldiers could easily outfight and ignore the threats commonly made by the urkas. Kharkov found this out on his first day, when a criminal threatened him straight out of the hospital, attempting to bribe him for Kharkov’s bunk. Refusing the offer, the criminal became enraged and started a fight with Kharkov, who nearly killed the criminal as a result. When more of these events happened to other criminals, they got the memo and decided to leave the veterans alone.
Deciding that enough was enough, Kharkov and a few of his fellow military prisoners began planning an escape from the gulag. When the final pieces of the plan were laid out, someone questioned how they were going to find outside assistance, considering how some angry and afraid Soviet citizens tended to report escaped prisoners or lynch them on the spot. Kharkov believed that other sympathetic Red Army veterans would assist them in acquiring passports and other goods. The escape plan never happened because Stalin died and his successor Khrushchev released hundreds of thousands of prisoners. It took another 34 years until Ivan Kharkov’s name was cleared up and he was declared innocent.
Leaving the gulag at age 32 in 1953, Ivan Kharkov went back to his hometown of Yaroslavl to resume his job as a math teacher.
Do Svidaniya, Comrades