Kolyma Streetcar

Elena Glinka
30 August 2005

“The Kolyma Streetcar is the one that can run you down and you just might not end up dead.”
– Kolyma convicts’ saying

The fishing settlement of Bugurchan, which dragged out an obscure existence on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, consisted of five or six miserable huts scattered randomly over the surface of the taiga and a squalid little log-built club-house jutting out of the ground, above which an old flag flapped in the wind. Probably because the village chairman had no stock of red calico, the flag had never been replaced: it must have been hanging there in Bugurchan since before the war, and had faded completely, but the hammer and sickle in the corner of the fabric stood out as bright as ever, like the identification numbers on the convicts’ pea-jackets.

This story first appeared in the “Women’s View” edition of Glas. Edited by Natasha Perova and Joanne Turnbull, Glas is a Moscow-based literary journal featuring contemporary Russian writing in English translation.

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The hold of a ship that brought cargo to the settlements and human labour to the camps during the summer navigational period delivered a women’s penal team to this place. Shouting and swearing obscenely, while their dogs barked loudly, the guards herded the female prisoners over to the club-house and performed a careful head-count, after which the chief guard ordered everyone to stay where they were while he went to look for the only representative of authority in those parts, the village chairman, to whom he was to hand over the convoy.

The group of prisoners consisted mainly of women sentenced for civil and for political offences; however, there were several hardened criminals as well – pathetic creatures whose lives had all been shattered once and forever in the same way: first their parents had either been executed or disappeared during the war, then a couple of years later they had run away from their NKVD orphanages and lived on the streets in poverty and hunger until they were eventually arrested for stealing a carrot or a potato from a shop. Stigmatized as outcasts and embittered by society’s rejection, they all quickly became bona fide criminals and several were already inveterate recidivists, “insiders” in the prison jargon. Now they sat outside the club-house, bandying words with each other, fumbling in their bundles of belongings and cadging fags from the guards.

Into this mishmash of maimed humanity the prison camp bosses had tossed three political prisoners sentenced under Article 58: an elderly woman – the wife of a repressed diplomat, a middle-aged seamstress and a Leningrad student. None of them had committed any violations of the camp regulations, it was simply that the penal team had been assembled in a hurry and there hadn’t been enough guilty parties to fulfil the directive, which required that a certain number of bodies should be assembled and transported in short order, and the “heavyweights” – those who had been sentenced to 25 years of hard labour – had been used to make up the number.

The news that there were “broads in Bugurchan!” instantly swept across the taiga, stirring up frantic action, like an anthill. After only one hour, men who had abandoned their work began gathering in a lively crowd at the club-house, at first only locals, but soon they were coming from all over the district, by foot and on motor-boats – fishermen, geologists, fur trappers, a team of miners with their Party boss, and even prisoners from the camps, common criminals and thieves, who had taken the risk of running off from a detachment felling trees nearby. As more and more of them arrived, the “insiders” grew restive and began kicking up a din, yelling things no one else could understand in their own rollicking jargon interspersed with obscenities. For appearance’s sake the guards yelled at some of the men to stay sitting where they were and at others to keep back: they even threatened to let the dogs loose and use their guns if they got out of line; but since the men – almost all of whom had been through the hard school of the camps – had no intention of provoking a violent response (someone had already placated the guards with a timely gift of liquor), the guards did nothing to drive them away – they merely shouted at them one last time and sat down close by.

The hard cases begged in chorus for tobacco and asked the guards to brew black narcotic tea, chifir offering hand-made tobacco pouches in exchange. Most of the men had brought along an ample supply of food, either from home or from the settlement’s store. Packs of tea and cigarettes, bread and cans of food went flying from the men’s hands into the women’s penal team. Throwing a starving prisoner a piece of bread was an act indicative of political unreliability and punishable by law were it to take place back home in compassionate Mother Russia, where you had to lower your gaze submissively, pass on by and forget you had ever seen anything. But here, where nearly all the men had spent time in the camps – here there was a different law... A merry group of fish-salters and the settlement’s only copper, already pretty drunk, brought out a parcel of Siberian salmon, cut the fish into chunks and threw them to the women prisoners.

Exhausted by seasickness and two days without food in the hold of the ship, the women clutched greedily at the scraps as they flew by, hastily stuffing them into their mouths and swallowing them without chewing; the hard cases coughed hoarsely as they took long drags on the Belomor cigarettes they’d been given. For a while it was quiet. Then there was a clinking of bottles: as though by command several men went off to one side and sat down to some serious drinking with the guards. Having eaten their fill, the hard cases started singing songs in chorus – first The Long Road and then Sister; the men replied with the famous camp song Tsentralka, and when the choir practice was over, everyone jumped up and began noisily getting to know each other, without so much as a sideways glance at the guards, who had thrown down their guns, tied their dogs to the trees and were now drinking with the chief guard and the village chairman he had brought back with him.

However, it was only the hard cases who displayed any particular interest. The civil offenders and political cases, who made up the bulk of the team, were more reserved and even remained aloof. They were willing enough to take the scraps offered to them and enter into conversation, but their minds seemed to be on something else – they were thinking of just one thing: for many of them their term was coming to an end and, unlike the political prisoners, they did not face exile after they got out of the camps. The short-term “insiders” were also looking forward to release, and although none of them had anywhere or anyone to go back to, and some of them were scared by the thought of a freedom which would condemn them to a defenceless existence in a world indifferent to their fate, none of the misfortunes that lay ahead were real to them yet: freedom was freedom, that was the only thing that mattered, and this alone was enough to give them hope for their future life. The “heavyweights” – the political prisoners – had no hope: the gulag had swallowed them forever.

The three of them sat off to one side away from the crowd – the student, the seamstress and the wife of the enemy of the people. They already knew why all this revelry and carousing with the guards had been arranged; they had realised it long before. One by one, the soldiers toppled unconscious to the ground and the men whooped and hollered, threw themselves at the women and started dragging them into the club-house, twisting their arms behind their backs as they dragged them over the grass and mercilessly beating those who resisted. The dogs tied to the trees barked furiously and strained at their leads.

The men set about things smoothly and confidently, they knew just what they were doing. Some ripped up the benches that were nailed to the floor and threw them onto the stage, others boarded up the windows tightly, while a third group rolled in small kegs, set them along the wall and brought in water in buckets to fill them, and yet another group brought the vodka and fish. When they were through, they boarded up the doors of the club with crossed planks and scattered whatever rags they could find on the floor – padded jackets, bedding and matting: then they flung their women-slaves to the ground, a line of about twelve men immediately formed by each one, and the mass rape of the women began: “the Kolyma Streetcar” – a phenomenon quite common in Stalin’s time, which always took place, as in Bugurchan, under the state flag, with the connivance of the guards and the authorities.

I offer this documentary narrative to all Stalin’s loyal devotees who to this very day do not wish to believe that their idol deliberately propagated lawlessness and sadistic violence. Let them just for one moment imagine their wives, daughters and sisters in that Bugurchan penal team: it was only by chance that they were not there and we were.

They raped at the command of the “driver”, who periodically waved his arms in the air and cried: “Mount up!...” At the command, “Stop the racket!” they tumbled off, reluctantly giving up their place to the next man in line, who was standing there in a state of total sexual readiness.

The dead women were dragged off by the legs to the door and piled up there. The rest were splashed with water to bring them back to consciousness, and the men lined up by them again.

But this was not the biggest kind of streetcar, it was only an average-sized one – “medium capacity”, as it were.

As far as I know no-one was ever punished for mass rapes – neither the rapists themselves, nor those who promoted this ferocious cruelty. In May 1951, on the ocean liner, Minsk (this was the famous “Big Streetcar” that created such a stir throughout the Kolyma), the corpses of women were thrown overboard. The guards did not even make a note of the women’s names, but upon arrival in the Bay of Nagayevo, they scrupulously counted those who were still alive – several times – and the group was herded on to Magadan as if nothing had happened, after it was announced that “the guards would open fire without warning on anyone attempting to escape”. The guards were held strictly responsible for the prisoners and, of course, if there were even just one escape they would pay for it with their lives. I don’t know how, under such strict discipline, they managed to write off the ones who were killed, but they were sure that they would go entirely unpunished. They knew perfectly well that they would have to account for any women who were missing and yet they calmly sold women for a glass of vodka.

During the night, everyone lay stretched out on the floor, occasionally someone wandered around the club-house in the dark, stumbling over the sleepers, gulping some water from the kegs, puking violently from the drink, then slumping back down onto the floor or onto the nearest available victim.

Did anything of this sort go on in those dark and distant times when primitive humanoid creatures had barely learned to lift their forelimbs off the ground and still lived by animal herd-instincts? I think not.

The full force of the streetcar’s first run was borne by the beautiful stately seamstress. Age saved the wife of the enemy of the people – the majority of her “partners” were feeble old men. The only woman to fare relatively well in comparison with the others was one of the three political prisoners – the Leningrad student, whom the Party functionary from the mine chose for himself for the whole of the two days.

The miners respected him: he was fair, he was straight with the workers and treated them as equals: he was politically educated and morally sound. The men acknowledged him as their leader and his participation in the “streetcar” seemed to justify and unite them all in their actions: we do as our political leader, our representative of authority does. Out of respect for him, no one else bothered the student, and the Party functionary even gave her a present of a new comb – a very scarce item in the camps.

The student did not have to scream or beat anyone off or struggle to break loose like the others – she thanked God she had been left to only one of them.

Next morning the guards came to, every one of them with a splitting headache from a hangover. The men were ready: they hammered one of the doors open and two of them squeezed through the resulting gap and brought the guards more vodka to make them feel better: soon the guards were once again slumped like corpses under the pines. Their guns lay beside them. The alsatians howled.

Not until the third day did the head guard come to and ordered the men to open the door and leave the club-house one by one.

The men refused to obey. The head guard warned them: “I’ll shoot!” – but even this had no effect.

In the boarded-up club, the women prisoners begged the guards to rescue them but the guards’ threats and the women’s pleas only whipped up the rapists’ fury: they still hadn’t gotten their fill of the “streetcar” – who knew when they would bring broads to Bugurchan again? And they feverishly set about raping the women again even more violently.

The guards broke down the door with an axe. The head guard repeated his warning but the men still did not react. Then the soldiers started shooting – first into the air and then at the heaving tangle of bodies on the floor.

There were casualties.

But the three women who were left stupefied, crushed and indifferent did not care who was killed, or how many.

Translated by Andrew Bromfield

Night, Edward R. Hughes (1851-1917)

Night, Edward R. Hughes (1851-1917)

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