28 January 2005

When Germans Threatened the Soviet Gulag

Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History (Anchor Books, 2003) describes what happened when the German Army's Operation Barbarossa in 1941 threatened camps full of Soviet prisoners.
The experience of being on a prisoner train during an air raid was relatively unusual, however--if only because prisoners were rarely allowed on the evacuation train at all. On the train leaving one camp, the families and the baggage of camp guards and administrators took up so much space that there was no room for any prisoners. Elsewhere, industrial equipment took priority over people, both for practical and propaganda reasons. Crushed in the West, the Soviet leadership promised to rebuild itself east of the Urals. As a result, that "significant proportion" of prisoners--in fact, the overwhelming majority--who [former Gulag system chief administrator Victor] Nasedkin had said were "evacuated on foot," endured long forced marches, descriptions of which sound hauntingly similar to the marches undertaken by the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps four years later: "We have no transport," one guard told an echelon of prisoners, as bombs fell around them. "Those who can walk will walk. Protest or not--all will walk. Those who can't walk--we will shoot. We will leave no one for the Germans ... you decide your own fate."

Walk they did--although the journeys of many were cut short. The rapid advance of the Germans made the NKVD nervous, and when they became nervous, they started shooting. On July 2, the 954 prisoners of the Czortkow jail in western Ukraine began their march to the east. Along the way, the officer who wrote the subsequent report identified 123 of them as Ukrainian nationalists and shot them for "attempted rebellion and escape." After walking for more than two weeks, with the German army within 10 to 20 miles, he shot all those still alive.

Evacuees not killed were sometimes hardly better off. Nasedkin wrote that "the apparat of the Gulag in the frontline regions was mobilized to ensure that evacuating echelons and transports of prisoners had medical-sanitary services and nourishment." Alternatively, here is how M. Shteinberg, a political prisoner arrested for the second time in 1941, described her evacuation from Kirovograd prison:
Everything was bathed in blinding sunlight. At midday, it became unbearable. This was Ukraine, in the month of August. It was about 95 degrees [Fahrenheit] every day. An enormous quantity of people were walking, and on top of this crowd hung a hazy cloud of dust. There was nothing to breathe, it was impossible to breathe ...

Everyone had a bundle in their arms. I had one too. I had even brought a coat with me, since without a coat it is hard to survive imprisonment. It's a pillow, a blanket, a cover--everything. In most prisons, there are no beds, no mattresses, no linen. But after we had traversed 20 miles in that heat, I quietly left my bundle by the side of the road. I knew that I would not be able to carry it. The vast majority of the women did the same. Those who didn't leave their bundles after the first 20 miles left them after 130. No one carried them to the end. When we had gone another 10 miles, I took off my shoes and left them too ...

When we passed Adzhamka I dragged behind me my cell mate, Sokolovskaya, for 20 miles. She was an old woman, more than seventy years old, completely gray-haired ... it was very difficult for her to walk. She clung to me, and kept talking about her fifteen-year-old grandson, with whom she had lived. The last terror in Sokolovskaya's life was the terror that he would be arrested too. It was difficult for me to drag her, and I began to falter myself. She told me to "rest a while, I'll go alone." And she immediately fell back by 1 mile. We were the last in the convoy. When I felt that she had fallen behind, I turned back, wanting to get her--and I saw them kill her. They stabbed her with a bayonet. In the back. She didn't even see it happen. Clearly, they knew how to stab. She didn't even move. Later, I realized that hers had been an easy death, easier than that of others. She didn't see that bayonet. She didn't have time to be afraid.
In all, the NKVD evacuated 750,000 prisoners from 27 camps and 210 labor colonies. Another 40,000 were evacuated from 272 prisons, and sent to new prisons in the east. A significant proportion of them--though we still do not know the real numbers--never arrived.

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