05 May 2005

Escaping the Gulag with a "Walking Supply"

Generally, memoirists agree that the overwhelming majority of would-be runaways [from the Gulag] were professional criminals. Criminal slang reflects this, even referring to the coming of spring as the arrival of the "green prosecutor" (as in "Vasya was released by the green prosecutor") since spring was when summer escapes were most often contemplated: "A trip through the taiga is possible only during the summer, when it is possible to eat grass, mushrooms, berries, roots, or pancakes baked from moss flour, to catch fieldmice, chipmunks, squirrels, jays, rabbits..." In the very far north, the optimum time to escape was the winter, which criminals there referred to as the "white prosecutor": only then would the swamps and mud of the tundra be passable.

In fact, professional criminals were more successful at escaping because once they had gone "under the wire" they stood a far better chance of surviving. If they made it to a major city, they could melt into the local criminal world, forge documents, and find hiding places. With few aspirations to return to the "free" world, criminals also escaped simply for the fun of it, just to be "out" for a little while. If they were caught, and managed to survive, what was another ten-year sentence to someone who already had two twenty-five-year sentences, or more? One ex-zek remembers a woman criminal who escaped merely to have a rendezvous with a man. She returned "filled with delight," although she was immediately sentenced to the punishment cell....

Not all escapes involved clever flights of fancy. Many--probably the majority--criminal escapes involved violence. Runaways attacked, shot, and suffocated armed guards, as well as free workers and local residents. They did not spare their fellow inmates either. One of the standard methods of criminal escape involved cannibalism. Pairs of criminals would agree in advance to escape along with a third man (the "meat"), who was destined to become the sustenance for the other two on their journey. Buca also describes the trial of a professional thief and murderer, who, along with a colleague, escaped with the camp cook, their "walking supply":
They weren't the first to get this idea. When you have a huge community of people who dream of nothing but escape, it is inevitable that every possible means of doing so will be discussed. A "walking supply" is, in fact, a fat prisoner. If you have to, you can kill him and eat him. And until you need him, he is carrying the "food" himself.
The two men did as planned--they killed and ate the cook--but they had not bargained on the length of the journey. They began to get hungry again:
Both knew in their hearts that the first to fall asleep would be killed by the other. So both pretended they weren't tired and spent the night telling stories, each watching the other closely. Their old friendship made it impossible for either to make an open attack on the other, or to confess their mutual suspicions.
Finally, one fell asleep. The other slit his throat. He was caught, Buca claims, two days later, with pieces of raw flesh still in his sack.
SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 395-398

No comments: