‘We’re abnormal… our entire lives spent in the Vyatlag!’, says Anna Atlashkina as she greets me. She won’t say any more: ‘Good heavens, me give an interview? You must be joking! I’m even late for staff meetings because I’m afraid to go into the classroom.’ Now a dark-haired elderly lady walking with a stick, Atlashkina was for ten years a teacher of Russian literature to prisoners of Institution K-231 (otherwise known as Vyatlag). She leaves the talking to her husband Leonid, who was the head doctor at the camp’s health centre. Leonid began his career as the ‘prison doctor’ at the age of just 24.
‘I came to Vyatlag entirely by chance. Around the time I graduated, they only gave out degrees once you had been assigned a job [as per the Soviet system of distributing students from big cities to other places around the USSR]. I didn’t want to leave Kazan, so I dragged the whole thing out until the very last moment, but by then all the best places were already taken. So I was given a choice between Magadan or Vyatlag. I looked at the map and saw that Magadan was the other end of the world, whereas Vyatlag was kind of next door. And that’s where I went.’
Vyatlag was one of the largest prison camps in the GULAG system. It was spread out over 12,000 sq.km, and took in the Verkhnekamsk district of the Kirov oblast, the Komi-Perm National Area and the Komi Republic. The first camps were built in the late autumn of 1937, and by early 1940 there were more than 20,000 prisoners. Political prisoners were sent there for counter-revolutionary or other subversive activities, treason, spying or terrorism, and there were the criminals. The work they did was building a railway and logging.
The life and fate of a prison doctor
Leonid Atlashkin is now 82, but it's hard to see him as an old man. Marathon runner would be a more suitable description, and that's not only because he runs many kilometres every day and in any weather. His whole life has been a marathon: from the 20th into the 21st century, Stalin's camps into the age of computer technology. His running has taken him through life and fate, where the beginning of the run was a camp hut for civilian employees in the dense Vyatka forest.
Dr Atlashkin talks of his life there energetically and with pleasure, as if in a hurry to tell me some of the things that happened to him. I listen without interrupting.
Building of a stadium inside Vyatlag, 1940. The first camps were opened in 1937; by 1940 they accommodated more than 20,000 prisoners
'I was assigned to settlement no 11 in the very north, nearer to Syktyvkar, capital of the Komi Republic. The train was only a few coaches. I was met at the station and driven another 8kms by car. It was night-time when we arrived, but there was light shining all around and I thought to myself that, thank heavens, the village didn't look too bad.
'I was taken into a wooden hut with 4 trestle beds in it, on one of which a woman in a red coat was asleep. I said “There must be some mistake here – surely men and women live separately?” but was told that, no, everyone lives together here! The woman, it turned out, had come to see her husband, a prisoner. I lay down and put my little plywood suitcase under the bed, but didn't get a wink all night, tossing and turning.
‘I got up in the morning….what a shock, what a nightmare! What I had taken for quite an acceptable village during the night now turned out to be a prison camp with its watchtowers, earth dugouts and huts. All around lay huge piles of felled trees. Convicts were marching along four deep, guarded by soldiers and dogs, as they went to work in the forest’
More than a life at stake
'A soldier came to take me to the medical department. We went into the ‘zone’ and I was shocked by what I saw, just dumbfounded: white barrack huts, a wide avenue covered with white sand and people walking up and down it arm in arm. They were in tails, top hats, patent leather shoes and carrying canes. I was a simple boy from a peasant family and had only ever seen anything like this in the films.’
'These people were, I was told, the 'godfathers' or authorities of the criminal world. Subsequently they came to meet me in the medical department to establish how we were going to work together in the future. I told them “I have nothing particular to boast about. You know I have only just graduated, but I will have assistants who are highly-qualified specialists. We will treat you, we will help, but apart from that I shall have nothing to do with you and there will be no question of friendship!” Strangely enough, they seemed to like that.
Leonid Atlashkin was just 24 when he became the camp's head doctor. A professional, non-judgemental approach earned respect even among the prison 'authorities'
'And that was my life. I lived in an earth dugout for a year, before being given a room in a hut. I had an orderly called Schweik, a old man of exceptional kindness who used to keep the stove alight for me. He had been sentenced for anti-Soviet propaganda, so he'd probably said more than he should have…
'I was given a telephone and was called out day and night. I had to pull teeth, assist at births and even do operations. Not surprising, given that a man could bleed to death while waiting for the railcar. I had to learn to do everything. The convicts treated me very well. No one could go into the ‘zone’ at night time, not the supervisors or even the camp commandant, but I could go anywhere I liked, including the third hut, which is where the godfathers lived. They were well set up there, of course: pillows, sheets, blankets and all kinds of food. Very different from the ordinary workers or the “enemies of the people”.
‘I ask if it the stories about thieves playing cards for a man’s life were true.
'Not only for a life, but for organs too.' Dr Atlashkin said calmly, as if talking about something completely natural. ‘The last bet is the genitals: first one testicle, then the other, the penis itself and that's it. I sometimes had to sew people up, but what I could I do? I'm a doctor and must give assistance!'
'There were international thieves doing time too, people who had occupied positions of importance in their own countries. In the camp they were in charge of brigades and responsible for productivity, which, it must be said, was excellent. Huge sums of money were in circulation: every worker who earned 100 roubles had to pay 30 into the general fund. If he didn't, he'd be knifed.
'There was a very strict discipline in the camp. One night I was on duty and couldn't sleep, so I went for a walk. I could see that there was a meeting going on in hut no 3. These were like Communist Party meetings, with a presidium and everyone behaving properly. The man on guard said “Leonid Petrovich, you can't go in there!” I told him to go to hell – I would go in whether he liked it or not. Inside, once the authorities heard my voice, they immediately broke up the meeting, pretending they were just having an ordinary conversation.
“OK, OK! Don't mind me, I know you're having a meeting.”
'An ‘authority’ who went by the name of Pistol said “It's you we're worrying about, because later on they'll say that Dr Atlashkin was taking part in a thieves' gathering . You'll get into trouble!”
“Put a sock in it, Pistol!”
'We had a good laugh and I left the hut, only to discover my watch had gone. When had Pistol managed to nick it off me, I wondered? I went back in and told him to give it back because I couldn't manage without it. “What are you saying, Doctor? Rob? You? Never!” At that moment someone came in from outside and handed me my watch, which he said I must have dropped. But he was clearly grinning…'
I ask if it the stories about thieves playing cards for a man’s life were true.
'Not only for a life, but for organs too.' Dr Atlashkin said calmly, as if talking about something completely natural. 'A game of chance where debts incurred are sacred. First they lose all their money, then their clothes and after that they play for their own life. The last bet is the genitals: first one testicle, then the other, the penis itself and that's it. There were some really skilled players. I sometimes had to sew people up, but what I could I do? I'm a doctor and must give assistance!'
'The doctors in the Vyatlag hospital were outstanding. At that time prisoners were allowed to work in their area of expertise. I remember one day well: I was in the infirmary and a tall man came in to meet me, his new boss. He introduced himself as Bruno Bryuks, a political prisoner, sentenced to 25 years for Article 58-1a (treason). He had been a major in the SS and was a general practitioner. He became my first mentor in the profession and a great friend.'
Noticing my surprise that he could befriend an SS major, Dr Atlashkin explained calmly:
'It's all quite simple. He joined the SS against his will. He worked in an ordinary hospital, but when the Germans occupied Riga they announced mobilisation. Doctors were called up and forced to work in hospitals for German military men; then they were given a title and a black uniform to wear. There was no alternative, so he couldn't refuse, but he never shot at anyone and only ever held a needle in his hand.
Lessons inside the 'zone'. All GULAG camps had a functioning school system, at least up to middle-school level.
'He was a marvellous doctor. When the Soviet Army arrived, he was arrested and sent to Vyatlag. His wife, a beautiful Latvian woman, came to visit him, but he told her she should marry someone else and not wait for him, because he wouldn't ever get back to her. She left in floods of tears.
'Later on another doctor was sent to join us in our work at the hospital. He was Mikhail Yevseyev, a surgeon from the front, with the same Article and the same sentence as Dr Bryuks. Neither of them believed they would ever be released and there were many others like them, actors, journalists, footballers, writers, artists, people of all nationalities – Germans, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Italians, Hungarians and Poles, to name but a few. They had all been accused of spying, treason or anti-Soviet propaganda, which basically means saying too much. Blabbermouths usually got 10 years. I had no idea who was guilty or not: I didn't read their files, I just treated them. I was, after all, the doctor.'
The inmates of Vyatlag
In the 18 years between 1938 and 1956 the traffic through Vyatlag amounted to some 100,000 people, imprisoned for political or national reasons and including subjects from some 20 foreign states and 80 nationalities. More than 18,000 prisoners were fated never to leave the camp and are buried in the graveyards of Vyatlag.
'Among the famous people I knew was Eduard Streltsev, a world-class footballer sent to the camp for rape. He never admitted his crime and claimed that he had been framed.
One of the camp's most famous prisoners was the Soviet footballing hero, Eduard Strelstev, who was sent to the camp for rape (a charge he strenuously denied)
'He was capricious, stuck-up and overbearing and at one point the prisoners actually beat him up, but when he was going to play football, everyone wanted to watch – prisoners, soldiers, officers, even the camp commandant. Everyone was shouting “Come on, Edik, come on!” and his team always won. There were other masters of sport [Soviet award denoting excellence] in other camps too.
'I remember the Estonian Rikho Pyats, who was a composer, music professor and winner of the Stalin Prize. He was in charge of the music-making at Vyatlag, where the concerts were so outstanding that people came from all over the camp to listen to them. The camp commandant brought his wife and children!'
'Were there women in Vyatlag too?'
'Of course there were, but only criminals, no political prisoners. They were very cocky and everyone was afraid of them. If a woman goes to prison more than once she becomes completely dehumanised. Even I took an iron bar with me when I went to see the women, just in case. If a supervisor went in to see them, for instance, he would find them stark naked and lying on their bunks with their legs in the air. What can one do in that situation?
'We had a children's home too with about 250 babies in it of all colours - black, white and yellow. They had all been born in Vyatlag, but then they were sent on to other children's homes.'
'Do you remember the death of Stalin?'
'Of course! I actually saw him in the flesh once, on the stand at a parade in Moscow. Now it's fashionable to be critical of him, but I respect him. He was Someone, a loved and trusted Figure. Those were the times when….there were excesses, of course, but there was discipline in the country. When Stalin died, everyone was very upset and even the prisoners cried. But in about a year the release orders started coming through.
‘The women were very cocky and everyone was afraid of them. If a woman goes to prison more than once she becomes completely dehumanised. Even I took an iron bar with me when I went to see the women, just in case.’
'I remember the telephone call telling me that my colleague Doctor Bryuks was to be released the next day. I called him in and asked him what he would do if he were to discover that he was going home the next day. He looked at me disapprovingly and said “Oh, please don't joke about things like that, it's too painful!” I told him that I had received his release papers and, to my amazement, he banged his head against the wall with all the force he could muster. “There is justice in this world after all! There really is!” Before he left he called in with his wife and brought me a little bottle of pure spirit. We drank to his health, then he left and I never saw him again.'
Dr Atlashkin couldn't restrain his tears as he thought of his old friend. He very much wanted to find his former colleague and had sent enquiries to Latvia, but they all remained unanswered.
'Doctor, perhaps he doesn't want to respond, because he wants to forget the awful dream that was Vyatlag?'
'Perhaps you're right. But that dream took away my youth and I'll never get it back again…'
Dr Atlashkin said goodbye to me, then set off for his usual run. I stood looking at his receding figure, as if time itself were running away from me…