In 1938 a special order from the USSR People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs established Vyatlag, one of the biggest concentrations of forced labour camps in the Gulag system, in the north of the Kirov Oblast, 1000 km north east of Moscow. Its 75th anniversary falls in 2013. During the period 1938-56 more than 100,000 prisoners from 20 countries and of 80 different nationalities were sent here to serve their sentence. 18,000 of them were destined never to see their homes again.
The settlement in the marsh
There are two ways of reaching the settlement of Lesnoy [literally, forest], the capital of Vyatlag, called after the Vyatka region where it is situated: prisoners come here by prisoner transport, in a special train; civilians hitch a lift if a car is going their way. Regular buses have not served this place for many years and there is no rail connection either. A few ‘Stolypin’ carriages [prisoner trains] rust in the sidings of the deserted station, one of them still bearing the words ‘All power to the Soviets!’ Perhaps it was one of these carriages that brought my grandfather, Andrei Konstantinovich, here. He was an academic, a mathematician who had volunteered for front line service in the war with Nazi Germany, been taken prisoner and managed to escape, only to be accused by the NKVD of betraying his country. I still don’t know what became of him…
Welcome to Lesnoy, a village in the Kirov oblast. Generations of prisoners, both political and criminal, worked logging wood in the local forest.
Inside one of the carriages I find a rotting quilted jacket that prisoners used to wear and some winter footwear, which were called ‘chuni’ and were worn by prisoners in Stalin’s time. The first prisoner transport arrived here in 1938. Initially the prisoners were generally peasants from the dispossessed ‘kulak’[rich peasant] class, but then they were joined by actors, artists, poets, writers, academics and politicians. Anyone, in other words, who had been convicted of offences under the notorious Article 58, 'anti-Soviet agitation' and 'counterrevolution'. Inside the camp they were described succinctly as 'blabbermouths.'
In 1940 special prisoner transports started arriving from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, occupied by Soviet troops during the time of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. After 1945 there were captured German soldiers, Hungarians, Italians and other nationalities who had served in Hitler's armies, as well as people who had been deported from conquered parts of Europe. The prisoners were set to work logging, building roads and the settlement itself by spreading earth over the marshland. Even today, when walking about the village, you feel as though you're either in the forest or on marshland: one false step and you can be up to your knees in bog or falling over a tree stump sticking out of the marsh.
'You might ask who someone was and what he or she was here for, and you would hear they were “enemies of the people”. And of course we believed it at the time’.
Uprooting tree stumps was one of the forms of work done by prisoners in the past; they included actress Tatyana Okunevskaya, the star of many Soviet films, while Japanese film star Yoshiko Okada lopped off branches and the composer Paul Marcel (Pavel Rusakov) worked on tree felling. All three of them took part in camp amateur dramatics, appearing alongside visiting professional actors on the stage of the village House of Culture. One of the members of the camp's artistic circle at that time was Nadya Voshchenko, the daughter of one of the guards, who had a keen interest in choreography. She may be 86 now but she can remember everything that happened then, thrilling to the memory of 'the whole of the Bolshoi Theatre being among the prisoners here' and the operettas, oratorios and even scenes from Swan Lake that they performed – ‘the whole village came to see them!’
I asked if it hadn't bothered her that most of the performers were prisoners, but she assured me that they didn't think about it. 'You might ask who someone was and what he/she was here for, and you would hear they were “enemies of the people” and of course we believed it. There were even people with an indefinite sentence, who didn't even know that they would be released. Men and women were put together in one camp and of course they got together. It was forbidden, but you can't keep tabs on everyone! There was even a special hut for the mums, where women lived when they were pregnant and with their babies for the first year. Then the babies were taken to the children's home; Vyatlag had three of those.'
In the past Lesnoy was connected to the outside world by rail and prisoners were brought here in trains. But now there is no public transport and wagons from Soviet times lie rusting on a siding at the old station.
Construction engineer Yury Yurkevich, a scion of an ancient branch of a Polish noble family, was arrested as a counterrevolutionary. He remembers:
'The bread was always bad. The dough was so watery that if you added one more drop it would have been impossible to bake. The flour contained all sorts of additives, like bran and barley. When they added in buckwheat flour it made the bread bluish. But whatever they added, it had no nutrition in it at all. We were supposed to have hot food three times a day and it was always either flour or cereal-based, with barely detectible traces of vegetable oil – and not always even that. Sometimes the gruel had rotting salted tomatoes or cabbage in it. Fish or meat was a rare luxury. The food always tasted foul, but that was unimportant as it was rated only by its thickness and quantity. Behind the huts there were long rows of privies. There was a rule about going there during the night: in the summer you could go in your underwear, but in winter you had to wear a coat - not, of course, out of concern for the inmates, but so that the sentry in the watchtower could make out who it was. If you were inappropriately dressed, he could shoot you. That was how things were…'
Emergency rations: not just tins of sprats
In Vyatlag it was always raining or a blizzard was howling. Meteorological statistics show that there are no more than 40 good days a year in the settlement of Lesnoy and its surroundings. The air itself lies like impenetrable smoke over the marshes, as if saturated with evil and disaster. In the Stalin years the streets there were paved with boards, but now they have rotted and the filth has risen to the surface, running viscously between the houses. To keep upright, anyone trying to get to the settlement's shop has to wear rubber boots and carry a torch, because the street lighting hasn't worked for ages. There aren't many inhabitants left, because anyone who could has got away from this miserable place by acquiring a 'certificate' enabling them to buy somewhere to live elsewhere. The only people remaining either work in the camp or are former prisoners who don't have anywhere else to go. Prisoners whose crimes are not too serious and don't have to be under guard all the time also work in the village. Many of them run away. Some do it in style, using their mobiles to order a taxi to their home town; others take their chances and try to escape through the taiga, though few of them get far... 'Where is there to go round here? It's all forest and marshes and you'll probably get eaten by bears,' says Irina Movshovich, who's been a nurse at Vyatlag for a good 50 years. She lives with a variety of cats in a small flat in the middle of Lesnoy.
'Emergency rations….when one man takes another with him, so that he can eat him, a convict tradition. It still happens.'
'Only one political prisoner escaped successfully that I can remember, a Polish musician, after the war. It was some festival or other and he disappeared immediately after the performance. He obviously had a car waiting for him because they never found him. Criminals escaped more often, usually taking ‘emergency rations’ with them so as to survive in the taiga.'
'Not what you think – I’m not talking about tins of sprats. It's when one man takes another with him, so that he can eat him, a convict tradition. It still happens. And don't look so amazed!'
'Irina Moiseyevna, what does “living by the code” mean?'
'Well, to give you an example, I was watching TV yesterday. A man had raped a girl. He was caught and put in solitary. He hanged himself and he did the right thing, because if he'd been put straight into the camp he'd have been raped so many times he'd have been a total wreck. Anyone who's sent down for that crime is simply passed from one man to another. That's the code of the underworld.'
'Did medical staff like you ever get taken hostage?'
'Of course, it happened many times. One time there was even a revolt in the “zone” [penal camp] and Alpha Special Branch officers were flown in. But for some reason that wasn't as frightening as when Stalin died and there was a revolt in the camp in another settlement called Kommendant. I was just a child but I remember it very well because the revolt was put down with extreme cruelty. Convicts were taken out on to the ice of the lake and hosed down with icy water. Others were shot. It was almost 40°C below freezing, so cold you couldn't breathe; the sky was red, as if bloodshot, and the corpses lay about on the shore. The ringleaders were then put on trial in the House of Culture, those that were still alive, that is. And we children all came running to have a look…'
Even when they have served their sentence, some prisoners stay in Lesnoy for ever. After years inside they have nowhere else to go.
There are no traces on the shore of the lake of the tragedy that happened there so many years ago, just some rusty wire and logs rotting in the water. There is still a penal colony nearby, but the prisoners these days are in for criminal, not political, offences.
'The only monument to Vyatlag prisoners stands three kilometres away: a cross commemorating the Latvians who perished there, 'victims of Stalin's terror'. If you ask why there are no monuments in the settlement itself, the locals ask you why enemies of the people need a memorial.'
There's no memorial to all those political prisoners, tormented and dying of hunger in Vyatlag and the Lesnoy settlement. The main space in front of the central prison administration building is still embellished by a statue of Lenin with his hand raised in greeting, and Dzerhzhinsky smiling craftily into his moustache. No changes there then.
The only monument to Vyatlag prisoners stands three kilometres from the settlement: a cross commemorating the Latvians who perished there, 'victims of Stalin's terror'. It stands on its own across the road from the old Russian cemetery, a symbol of different national attitudes to the past; the Russian graves on one side and the Latvian cross on the other are separated by more than just the road between them. And if you ask why there are no monuments in the settlement itself, the locals ask you why enemies of the people need a memorial.
The common fate – the pit
Vladimir Veremeyev has written several research papers on the subject of Vyatlag. He tells me that many years ago he collected money for a memorial to all political prisoners, but the money was stolen and there's still no memorial. Officially there are 34 burial sites for Vyatlag convicts, but no one has any idea of how many unofficial sites there are. Prisoners who died were buried in pits, just beside the barracks where people were living. And in the winter no one wanted to hack away at the frozen earth, so the corpses were piled up on top of each other until the spring and then thrown into a common grave. Their clothes were removed because they could be worn by others, so the corpses were bare, save only for a number tag on their ankle.
'It was a way of killing people off by just dragging the torment out for months. Death from a bullet can in no way be compared to what many millions of people had to survive while they were dying of hunger.'
I asked Vladimir what the inmates died of.
'Many things – cold, hunger, frost, pellagra, scurvy, dysentery and other diseases, cruel treatment and back-breaking labour.'
And by the way…
The philosopher Dmitry Panin, formerly a Vyatlag prisoner, remembers:
'In Vyatlag a man could be a goner in as little as two weeks. There may not have been gas chambers, but there was cold, hunger, disease and forced labour. Instead of gas there were:
- negligible food rations
- a lack of proper camp clothing
- absolutely impossible work quotas
- an 8-9 km walk across the snowy taiga to the work area
- terrible frosts of -35°C
- a 7-day working week
- regiments of bedbugs and lice
- the cold in the living huts
'Between two weeks and a month was enough to make a man unfit for work. After that a convict would lose his remaining strength and be so weak that he couldn't reach the logging site or even manage to stand throughout roll-call. Beyond that it was a slow death. It was a way of killing people off by just dragging their suffering out for months. Death from a bullet can in no way be compared to what many millions of people had to go through when they were dying of hunger. This kind of death sentence is the height of sadism, cannibalism and hypocrisy.'
Day and night the guards in the watch tower monitor the camp and surrounding area.
'I compared the death rates for Vyatlag and Buchenwald for the years 1938-45,' says Vladimir Veremeyev. 'And I discovered that during this period about 90,000 were put on the special register at Vyatlag and 21,000 of them died, which is 24%. If we compare the same period in Buchenwald, 236,000 were on the register, of whom 33,000 died, in other words just over 14%. So the figure for Vyatlag is almost two to one!
'I compared the death rates for Vyatlag and Buchenwald for the years 1938-45. In Buchenwald the rate was just over 14%, in Vyatlag 24% - almost two to one!’
'On top of that, the Germans usually sent the relatives of someone who had died an official letter requesting them to collect the ashes (for a fee of 5 marks). I'm not saying this was humane, but people did at least know that their relative had died. In Russia the relatives of some people who were in the camps still don't know what happened to them. Several millions people who died there are still officially registered as alive.
I told Vladimir Veremeyev that I still don’t know what happened to my grandfather. He spent some time searching his card index, looking for my grandfather Andrei Konstantinovich in the list of the dead, but he didn't find him…So it's like the song by one of our Russian singer-songwriters: 'no trace, no cross, no family star…' Just bones rotting in the forests and souls crying out to hear the prayers for the dead.
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