The last prisoner

Pavel Galitsky spent fifteen years in the brutal labour camps of Kolyma, Siberia. Against the odds, the 100-year old dissident is still alive and Skype'ing, having outlived both his contemporaries and tormentors. He recounts the full horror of his experience to oDR writer Ekaterina Loushnikova.

“It’s most important to remember that the camp is a negative school from the first day to the last – for everyone.  No one, from the camp commandant down to the convict, should have to see it, but once you have done so, you have to tell the truth, however terrible that may be.”  

Varlaam Shalamov

Kolyma is often compared with Auschwitz, but without the ovens and the gas chambers.  The killer here was something else: cold, hunger and backbreaking labour.  In the Stalin years millions of prisoners did their time in the labour camps of Kolyma. Not many survived to tell the tale; and today there are even fewer of them left. 

Pavel Kalinkovich Galitsky, one of those very few, lives in St Petersburg. A journalist by profession, Galitsky spent 15 years doing hard labour in Kolyma. He recently celebrated his 100th birthday and I went to see him.

Spit it out!

I stood outside the door for a long time. I’d never met a 100-year old before. “He probably doesn’t remember anything,” I thought doubtfully, as I rang the bell. The door opened immediately and before me stood a tall, thin old man with bright, youthful eyes.

Pavel Galitsky has outlived all his tormentors and
almost all his contemporaries

“Just wait while I turn off the computer,” he said. “People keep trying to ring me on Skype.”

I was quite taken aback that a man of this age should know how to use the computer and Skype, as by no means everyone knows how to do this in Russia, and not only the elderly. I was even more surprised when we started with a concert: in honour of my visit, Pavel Kalinkovich began to sing the old Russian romance “The chrysanthemums have long since ceased to bloom”. His voice was so deafening that the red needle on my Dictaphone went right over the red line.

“Did you sing in the camp too, Pavel Kalinkovich?”

“I certainly did. For two weeks I was even on the propaganda team, but then I was chucked out because they clocked I was a ‘contra’  - I was sent to prison for ‘Anti-Soviet and counter-revolutionary propaganda and agitation’ (Article 58)”.

“And had you actually been agitating?”

Pavel Kalinkovich bursts out laughing. “I burst out laughing in exactly the same way when the interrogator said this to me. He barked ‘Stand up, you f*****!’  I got up and said ‘Comrade Pozdnyakov, why are you are contravening socialist legality?’ ‘I’m no comrade of yours, you bastard!’  He pressed a button to summon the guard. ‘Search this character!’ 

“Then they threw me in jail. The cell, a former peasant larder 4 metres long and 2 wide, had 32 people in it. People couldn’t even sit down. They had to stand and take turns to sleep. At that time arresting a man was as easy as falling off a log.”

I remember the story I was told by my grandmother, Valentina Nikolaevna. In 1937 she was working as an agronomist on a collective farm attached to an agricultural institute which studied plant selection. During the day.  But at night it was another “selection” — the selection of people. Every night the huge corridor of the communal flat where the specialists lived rang with the sound of footsteps. Every night each person waited for the knock on his door. Before going to bed they put a little suitcase with essentials by the bed.  My grandmother lived in the furthest room. She was lucky – they never came for her.

“Did the arrests only happen at night, Pavel Kalinkovich?”

“Day and night! As if they cared!  I was working at the local newspaper, which was called ‘New Way’. I lived in a big apartment block, where employees of the District Council, City Council and colleagues from the editorial office had their flats.  Everyone was taken. They had their plan and they over-fulfilled it. Quotas were set by the Central Committee of the Party for how many people should be shot, how many sent down for 25 years and how many for 10. The people they took at night were mainly going for interrogation. Stalin worked at night, so the NKVD investigators did too”.

In the years 1920-53, according to official figures, some 10 million people were sent to the Soviet labour camps. Unofficial data put the figure at more than 40 million.  According to the historian V.P. Pavlov, “from 1923 to 1953 1 in 3 active members of Russian society were convicted”. In 1937 Stalin personally gave permission for the use of torture as one of the methods of interrogation.

“I was put on the ‘conveyor belt’. That meant I was interrogated all the time: the investigators were on shifts, but I was on my feet all the time. If I fell, they got me up, beat me and put me back on my feet. I was there for a week at a time! When I started losing consciousness, they poured water over me and chucked me in the cell. Then there was the chair. It was on wheels. My hands were tied; one investigator turned the chair around and the other one stopped it, then it started again. The blood pounds in your head and you no longer understand anything. They stuck a paper under my nose ‘Sing, you bastard! Give us the information we want…on a plate!’ Needles were stuck under my nails, but I didn’t sign anything. I got a 10-year sentence for being a Trotskyist counter-revolutionary. Then they landed another 5 years on me. As Utyosov used to sing, ‘Tout va tres bien, Madame la Marquise!’”

Pavel Kalinkovich laughs again, as if he telling me some amusing incident from his life, rather than talking about torture.

“Why are you laughing?”

“Should I be crying? All my tears are shed, though actually I don’t remember crying at the time. I used to say to myself ‘Die, you bastards, die!  But I shall live!’”

Auschwitz without the ovens

“Heartlessly I trample the corpses,
My heart has turned to stone…
It happens in snowy Kolyma,
A ghastly and evil planet,
Where the snowstorm howls
And there’s no good and no happiness”

Pavel Kalinkovich wrote this poem many, many years after he had been released. He was woken at night by his own screams, because he had been dreaming he was back in the frozen camp hut in Kolyma, where shadowy figures, who were no longer real people, huddled around a smouldering stove trying to keep warm.

Koilyma

Historians will never know the exact number of people 
who died under Stalin's Soviet experiment

“Kolyma is Auschwitz without the ovens. Prisoners travelled in batches of 1500; within 3 months only 450 people of our batch were left alive.  They died of cold, hunger and the backbreaking labour. We extracted gold in mines and in quarries. The norm was 150 carts and if you didn’t make it, then you stayed on for the second shift to make up your quota.  Then you had to drill two or three drillholes in the permafrost. Then you were sent to the forest to get firewood for the hut and for the kitchen.  We worked 16 hours a day.  Men turned into animals, dumb cattle.  Your only thoughts were of food, of an extra bowl of balanda [thin soup].”

“What is balanda and how is it made?”

“It’s soup made of flounder, which comes straight from the barrel and is boiled up, guts and all, with salt. Then red cabbage is added in and you have your gruel – greasy and delicious!”

“Really?”

“Of course not!  It’s unbelievably bitter. You wouldn’t be able to eat it, but we did, because there was nothing else. Each person got a ladle of this brew. It was dished out by a fellow prisoner: if he liked you, he’d dig down so you got a thicker soup, if he didn’t he’d take it from the surface and it’d be sloppier. The canteen was cold and filthy with icicles on the floor, so you had to pick you way like a mountaineer. By the time you got to the table the soup was cold.  In the morning you got runny slops, tea, a piece of sugar and 600-900 grammes of bread. You mix it all up so your tin is full, then you eat it and feel as though your stomach’s full, though you’re just as hungry as you were.  I used to collect up herring heads and eat them.

“You can’t get to sleep, when you’re so hungry, then you sleep for a hour and have to rush to the toilet. That’s a pit in the ground surrounded by poles and that’s the toilet. The filth was indescribable. There were mounds of shit all round and outside the barrack there were veritable mountains. In the spring the goners had to hack at it.”

The North-East Corrective Camp, or more simply Kolyma, was set up in the Far East in 1932 and was one of the toughest camps in the GULag network. Prisoners mainly worked in the gold and uranium mines. Official figures for the number of prisoners in the Kolyma camps for the years 1932-53 are 740,434. Approximately 10,000 were shot, 120-130,000 died of hunger, cold and disease. Independent researchers consider that there were no less than 2,300,000 prisoners and that the numbers of those who perished are incalculable, as the corpses were simply thrown into a pit.

“But where did the prisoners sleep and did you have a blanket?”

“At first we slept in a tent, then we built a hut. The bunks were in two layers and made of poles. Mattresses were stuffed with straw and the ceiling was covered with peat. If it rained, the peat got soaked through and started to drip. The stoves smoked, it was airless, steamy and the stench was unbearable. We did have blankets, but when it was cold we slept in our clothes.  We were issued with padded clothes: trousers, a jerkin and a short jacket. We even got fur coats, but what good are they when it’s 70° below freezing?  Someone’s ear fell off once, but life goes on without it,” laughed Pavel Kalinkovich. “What you can’t live without is….”

“What?” I interrupted in horror.

 

“Boots. I remember a Jewish man, a railway engineer. He was so polite you couldn’t believe it. One evening we were issued with boots, but when he woke up in the morning – no boots!  They’d been stolen! ‘Comrades, who’s taken my boots? It’s not funny. Give them back!’ Of course no one did and there was much mirth in the hut. He was sent out to work barefoot, got frostbite, lost the will to live and then died.

“What was bad was that educated, cultured people…gave up more quickly and died. The peasants knew how to survive, no matter what. There was one Siberian, a strong lad – he did his shift in the mine, had dinner and then sawed wood for the kitchen. For that he got 3 litres of balanda.  He ate it and went to sleep. When he woke up, he went to heat up the remains. He poured it into the bowl and then….pulled out a mouse! A mangy dead mouse, which he’d cooked with the soup. And what do you think? He fished the mouse out and carried right on eating as if nothing had happened. Would you have been able to do that?”

My hundred-year old looked at me with curiosity.

“I would! A starving man can eat anything”, I assured him.

I remembered a documentary about Auschwitz. Skeletons in striped prison clothes look with inflamed eyes at the camera. In that state one could probably eat anything. But Pavel Kalinkovich doesn't believe me.

“Katya, you'd have been sick! You would, really. But then you'd have got used to it anyway”. The voice of Pavel Kalinkovich, which had hitherto been calm and even cheerful, turned into a shriek, “I saw a man picking grains out of his faeces. He was an engineer, a railway boss and a cultured man. I had come to pee and he was sitting on the john, picking out the grains and eating them. He looked at me and burst into tears ‘Pavlik, I’m not a human being any more…I’m not!’”

 “I saw a man picking grains out of his faeces. He was an engineer, a railway boss and a cultured man. I had come to pee and he was sitting on the john, picking out the grains and eating them. He looked at me and burst into tears ‘Pavlik, I’m not a human being any more…I’m not!’”

“What I don’t understand if why people put up with it. Wouldn’t it have been better to top yourself?”

“There were cases of prisoners walking straight towards the soldier guarding the convoy, who’d been ordered to shoot without warning. There were lots of these ‘self-shootings’.  In the mines we used nitrate explosive. Some people used to find bits of it and blow themselves up.  If a prisoner blew off his arm or leg, he’d be bandaged up, brought before a court and sentenced to death. Which was just what he’d wanted. He no longer wished to live. I myself was close to suicide at one point….”

No chink in the gloom…

"It was in 1941. We’d been brought back to the gates of the camp after work and they were starting to let us in. Suddenly I heard ‘Galitsky, on one side!” I was taken to the investigation block and the next morning I was summoned by the ‘godfather’ (the camp officer responsible for legal matters) and charged with the article ‘Counter-revolutionary agitation in time of war, taking pity on the enemies of the people’. My friend Petya and I had been on the upper bunk, lying under the blanket and talking. I said that the Red Army was losing to the Germans, because Stalin had had all the military commanders shot as enemies of the people. My neighbour overheard and reported us, the bastard. He was probably after an extra food ration. 

Kolyma detail

"The norm was 150 carts. Those who didn’t make it had
to stay on for the second shift to make up their quota"

“The case against me took a month to prepare and all that time I was in the investigation cell.  It was March, but spring in Kolyma means temperatures of -35°. There was a stove in the cell, but it wouldn’t work, because it smoked – someone had stuffed a sweater in to it.  The cracks in the walls were finger width. You lie on the boards and it’s freezing. In the hot food you get once every 24 hours, one grain chases the other. And you get 300 grammes of bread.

“I reached a state where I could no longer cope. I took off my long johns and my shirt and made a rope to hang myself with. I decided I’d wait till lights out, when it’d be quiet, and then….suddenly the door opened and the warder comes in. ‘Out you come, pal!’  And I spent the last 3 days in the hut. I don’t know if he’d sensed something or was just compassionate, but he saved me. He saved me….”

For the first time in our conversation Pavel Kalinkovich’s voice shook with emotion. Out of the table drawer he took a yellowed list of paper with verses on it.

“I wrote this then…it’s all I have left of Kolyma…”

I took the bit of paper carefully as if it were a holy object.

“My friends, I’m now 30 years old,
My youth is over and my hour is nigh,
Miseries have passed, nay flown, me by
Like minutes, like dreams of bygone days.
I long for kindness and tenderness,
Like a fairytale told to little children..
My heart asks me repeatedly where I will find love.
I’m sick of life, I see no break in the clouds..
So would it not be better to finish it all
When the dawn comes?
One minute and then forever oblivion….”

The Mine of Desire

Pavel Kalinkovich noticed that I was looking tired and offered me some soup to revive my spirits. I remembered the mouse in the camp soup and it made me feel sick, so I said a very definite no. But I really did need a drink and we had a glass of brandy each.

“There was alcohol in Kolyma too. If we worked well, we were allowed to receive parcels.  I was already a gang leader by that time. Parcels always had spirit in them – and champagne for the gang leader. There wasn’t any wine, because it would have frozen”.

“What about women, Pavel Kalinkovich?”

“The first woman I saw was in 1939.  At the mine face. That was a great event for all the prisoners. Everyone abandoned their carts and ran to see, shouting ‘Look, look!  A woman!’ It was the wife of one of the camp bosses. She had long hair and was very pretty. Can you imagine the situation? Out of 1 million prisoners, 999,000 had probably not seen a woman during the whole time they were in Kolyma, so when they opened up the mine called ‘Zhelanny’ [heart’s desire] with only women working in it, all the convicts gravitated there. They came with money, neat alcohol and loaves of bread. The alcohol was the currency for the guards, so they’d allow you to meet up with a woman.  Some didn’t come back from those dalliances:  there were criminals among the women prisoners, who killed anyone coming courting. When ‘Zhelanny’ was closed down, all the shafts were stuffed with corpses.

Pavel Galitsky accepting greetings for his 100th Birthday

“In Kolyma there were also women who’d skived at work. Stalin had decreed that if you were 15 minutes late for work, you got 15 years in the camps. These women survived by selling their bodies – for a loaf of bread, for instance. I had a friend, a big strapping lad, who told me that he’d been recently to visit ‘Zhelanny’. He’d asked the guard to find him a pretty young girl and the guard had brought along a girl who looked about 15. ‘She and I went into the bushes and she said ‘Got any bread, mister?’ While I did what I wanted, she just ate bread.  It was so funny!’ I didn’t like stories like this, because my own daughter was that age….”

“Did you ever fall in love in the camps?”

“I did. Just once. At that stage I no longer had to go everywhere in convoy. Our section supervisor was called Morozov and he was a drunk. I had an affair with his wife, Klavdia Ivanovna. We used to meet right out in the taiga, but rumours of our affair went round the whole mine. She was called before a party meeting and kicked out of the party. Then she was sacked from the institute for an affair with a prisoner. Soon she and her husband left, but before she went she told me that she had no regrets at all.”

“What about the gold? Could you hide it and then sell it?”

“Grains of gold could be hidden in your cheeks. You could do an exchange with the civilian employees in the camp and get some tobacco. 10 grammes of gold were worth a matchbox of tobacco, which could be used to roll 10 papirosy [Russian cigarette with a mouthpiece] and each of those was worth 300 grammes of bread. So you could get hold of extra food. The head warder had to be given gold too, so he’d write good reports on your work. Everyone who could took the gold, including the camp commandant. Later, when I was already a gang leader, I used to carry up to 4kgs of gold across the taiga from one seam to another. A convict carrying a fortune worth millions – just imagine it!”

“Could you not have escaped with that fortune?”

Even at the age of 100 years Pavel Galitsky can still
dance and blog

“That did happen once. Two convicts collected up 2.5kgs gold and gave it to some pilots, who hid it in the cockpit of their plane and took it to the mainland. They were caught and sentenced, so they became convicts too, but the ones that got away in the plane were never caught.”

“Somewhere I read that during the war the American Vice President visited Kolyma.”

“Yes, I was there at the time. The whole camp was locked up in the huts, no one was allowed out and they took the sentries off the control towers. The work was done by the camp civilian staff dressed in boilersuits to look like prisoners. For 3 days before that we had been washing gold and not clearing it away, so as to show the Americans how much of it we had. The Americans picked up nuggets and photographed them. They were delighted. After their visit the camp had white flour and ‘Sun' porridge, which we ate throughout the war”.

“People who are tortured and tormented often revolt and kill their torturers.”

“There was a rebellion at the ‘Serpantinka’ mine. Do you know how it was put down?  The mine was being worked entirely by soldiers, who had been at the front. They killed practically all the guards and took over the mine. They planned to get to the nearest village where there was a radio and announce to the whole world that Kolyma had risen up and was asking the free world for help and political asylum. But they made one mistake:  they didn’t kill all the guards. One of them got away and made it to the camp communications centre. The alarm was given, Kolyma regiment was mobilised and even air reinforcements were called out. The bombed the camp from the air in a military operation. All the rebels were killed”.

“Did you get used to death? Can you get used to it? When it’s not old people dying, but people who in normal times could have had a full and happy life….”

Kolyma 2

Extreme hunger, torture, work, beatings were the
reality in Kolyma's camps

“When they buried the dead, they just tied nametags to their legs. In 1939 a whole transport group of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians arrived. They were completely unable to adapt to the cold, hunger and inhuman work quotas and they all died within a month.  I buried them.  It was near the ‘Svetliy [Bright]’ mine. We dug a trench 20m long and about 3m deep with an excavator. During the night the corpses were loaded on to a tractor and thrown into the trench like firewood. The tractor made 2 or 3 trips that night.  Then a bulldozer flattened it. I always think of them when the TV shows a star or a politician being buried with pomp and circumstance”.

“How many people do you think are buried there?”

“Millions, there are millions!”

“Do you believe in God?”

“No, I don’t! My father was a priest, so were my grandfather and great grandfather, but I don’t believe in God. How could God allow such shitty things to happen, if you’ll forgive the expression, in Mother Russia? How could things like this happen? Do you understand?”

“What would it be like to meet your interrogator now?”

“I’d spit in his face, that’s all. I’m sure all those bastards have long since croaked. I’m 100 years old, but they’ve all croaked. Of that I’m absolutely sure.”

Pavel Kalinkovich laughed again. He is living proof of the famous adage that he who laughs last laughs best.  Pavel Kalinkovich was the last. He has outlived all his tormentors and almost all his contemporaries: in age, prison cell or camp hut. He’s outlived two wives and two daughters. Now he lives alone in a small flat in St Petersburg and spends most of his time on the internet.

“What would it be like to meet your interrogator now?”

“I’d spit in his face, that’s all. I’m sure all those bastards have long since croaked. I’m 100 years old, but they’ve all croaked. Of that I’m absolutely sure.”

“I press the button and get the internet. I have my own blog. Yesterday I had a look and saw that I have 190 people wanting me to be their friend. I use Skype to talk to my granddaughters and great-granddaughters. Natasha worked in the Philippines for a year and we talked every evening”.

The former prisoner from Kolyma recently travelled abroad for the first time. He went to Egypt, where he sailed on the Red Sea and had a ride on a camel. When his documents were being checked at the customs, the duty officer called over his superior because he couldn’t believe he was looking at a 100-year old tourist.

“No one believes it. When I was registering my blog on the internet and wrote 1911 in the box for year of birth, the machine told me I’d made a mistake. I had to lie about my age and write a later year, so I put in 1920, which makes me only 80!”

“You don’t look over 70,” I said, and it was absolutely true.

We kissed each other goodbye. I wouldn’t describe it as a kiss from a doddering old man.

About the author

Ekaterina Loushnikova is radio and print journalist based in the city of Kirov

Read On

Gulag Archipelago, by Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, Random House, 2003 (last edition), 496 pages

Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, by Robert Conquest, Viking, 1978, 254 pages

Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday, 2003 (first edition), 720 pages

Kolyma Tales, by Varlam Shalamov, Penguin Classics, 1995, 528 pages

Journey into the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginzburg,  Mariner Books, 2002, 432 pages

Kolyma: The white Crematorium, web site by Jens Alstrup

More On

From the mid-thirties on, the terror became yet more intense, the treatment worse still. These millions of totally innocent men and women were treated in ways that would have been thought grossly inhumane elsewhere even if applied to the worst criminals. In Russia itself, in Tsarist times, enemies of the state such as Lenin were merely ‘exiled’ to Siberia—with their wives, housing and even an allowance.

In Soviet times most of the prisoners had been held in one or another of the immensely overcrowded prisons, and had been ‘interrogated’ to produce confessions of being to one degree or another enemies of the people, of society, of the party. It was taken for granted that anyone given only a ten-year sentence was totally innocent, and guards and police officials sometimes implicitly accepted this.

The prisoners were then transported in packed and unsanitary cattle trucks for journeys often of weeks, with minimal rations, with not even water given regularly, with hardly room to stand in almost total darkness. In the case of the Kolyma camps in Northeast Siberia, “the pole of cold and cruelty” of the system, as Solzhenitsyn put it, prisoners then had to face a week or more packed into the holds of the slave ships, even more filthy and crowded.

After this interlude, they faced a deadly environment. There were often executions in the camps. Ten thousand were specifically ordered by Moscow in 1937. Others were carried out for local offenses such as failing three times to work, or simply as a means of removing those showing any other sign of independence, or uttering any “anti-Soviet” words. Some were done locally, others in special camps serving a whole area such as the Serpantinka in Kolyma. There were even small execution camps outside of any particular group that handled a few hundred brought in at a time, two or three batches a week.

Nikolai Getman: The Gulag Collection, Jamestown Foundation