I Speak for the Silent Prisoners of the Soviets - V. Tchernavin

The Lumber Camps

We remained in the quarantine company for two weeks, with little to do and suffering badly from cold and hunger. Sometimes we were driven out to load logs on small hand cars; other men moved them down to the wharf and stowed the lumber aboard foreign ships. This procedure had been in effect since the beginning of the campaign abroad against the use of convict labor in the lumber business. The prisoners were kept out of sight of foreigners and so, although lumber was cut and prepared by convicts, all the work on the wharves and ships was done by free hired labor. There was a shortage of "free labor" at that time and, therefore, delays in loading were common.

When the quarantine term was ended we were transferred to another barracks which looked better from the outside, but inside differed little from the first one the same filth, cold, crowding and bed bugs. The only difference was an enormous placard stretched across the entire barracks, bearing the words: "Work without beauty and art is barbarism."  This placard was the result of the activity of the "Cultural-Educational" Department. The peasants in bewilderment tried to decipher this strange motto by syllables. "Barbarism? What is it, comrade? Perhaps you know?" they asked.

Now we were allowed to walk within the camp yard and meet the prisoners from other companies, both novices like ourselves and veterans who had been in the camp for several years. The latter were mostly peasants who had been working in lumber camps until hurriedly withdrawn because of the anticipated arrival of an American Commission which was going to investigate whether forced labor lumber camps actually existed.

In preparation for this visit all lumber camps were liquidated in a few days, the prisoners' barracks leveled to the ground and the prisoners themselves herded back to the distribution points. These peasants described vividly to us the panic and hurry involved in this liquidation. A special messenger on horseback came riding swiftly to distant camps in the midst of the wild forest, delivered his message to the chief and galloped away to the next camp. Orders followed to stop work, to pull down the barracks, to tear down everything which could be destroyed. Special attention was given to the wrecking of punitive cells, guard towers and barbed wire fences. In barracks built of logs, which were hard to destroy at short notice, all inscriptions made by prisoners, all notices, orders and placards were scraped off or removed. Everything that could be burned was set on fire. A special agent of the GPU made a tour of inspection to ascertain that no sign was left which might indicate that prisoners, and not free lumbermen, had been at work there. Then, whether day or night, prisoners were driven out of the woods to the railroad. The rush and panic was such that many believed war had been declared and that all were being removed further from the border.

If a train appeared in the distance while the large crowds of prisoners were being driven along the railroad tracks, they were made to lie down in the swamp, in the snow, and remain hidden until the train had passed; the GPU was afraid that somebody might see them from the car windows.

After this retreat the prisoners were dispersed among the various distributing points, where they languished on meager rations. "We felt better at work in the woods," they told us. "We were given one kilo of bread there—here only three hundred grams. Kasha  was also thicker. Here the only thing left is to die of starvation."

"But what we miss especially is the premium tobacco we were getting," added another, "not much, but still four packages of fifty grams each a month. It's perhaps easier to go without bread than without a smoke."

"Tobacco is expensive here," said another, "three roubles for one eighth of a pound, and three roubles is a month's premium pay. And we don't even get that here."

We, the novices, asked a question: "Isn't it true that in lumber camps 'work assignments' are allotted which no one can accomplish, and that this means death?"

"No, dear man, there's no danger of it now. Beating is not allowed any more—they stopped it a year ago. Did you hear about Kourilko? When he was operating here on Popoff Island what a number of people he crippled and killed! It will soon be a year since he was shot. It's your luck that you got here after he had gone, after 1930."

"But what was going on here before?"

"What was going on? Well, I'll tell you, but let's move farther away."

We found a place in the sunshine sheltered from the wind. Peasants were straightforward people; one could talk to them without fear.

"We came here to Popoff Island in 1929, during the time of Kourilko. We were brought in railway cars. We all stood waiting, holding our little boxes or bags, some with packs on their backs. We heard the command: 'Get out of the car one by one!' The first one came out. The step is high from the ground—you know yourself. Two guards were stationed below. Just as he was ready to jump, they shouted: 'Stop! Do you wear a cross?' He was afraid to tell them that he did. 'No, I have no cross,' he said. 'Well, jump!' He jumped and they began to beat him on the head with their fists from both sides. He just dropped. 'That's what you get for not wearing a cross! Next!' The next one came up, he had heard what had happened and was badly frightened. 'Do you wear a cross? ' 'Yes,' he said. 'Jump!' And they beat him also, saying: 'That's what you get for wearing a cross!' The third one did not answer at all and he was beaten for keeping silent. The whole convoy got the same treatment. Then we were led behind the barbed wire—and what didn't they do to us there!"

An older peasant interrupted. "I will tell you how we were driven into the woods to work. It was winter. We were on foot. We had to carry our own things and pull sleighs with provisions and with the things of the guard. It is hard to walk through soft, deep snow. All of us were starving; our strength was failing us. We were dropping our belongings; many were discarding even their clothes. The guards were picking up these things, putting them on the sleighs and dividing them amongst themselves. When we reached our destination in the woods, we were ordered to trample down the snow. We were formed into lines and ordered to stamp down roads leading to the camp and a place for the barracks to be erected. The snow—you know how it is here—comes up to the waist and in places up to the chest. For the night the guards had a tent—and we lay down just as we were, right under the trees. We cut wood for them and prepared their dinner. Then we built barracks for them but we slept on the snow under the branches. Next we built the punitive cell where we would be locked up to die; then a storehouse. When all these were completed we were allowed to erect barracks for ourselves out of thin trees. It had no floor. How many of us froze or died felling trees and building the camp cannot even be estimated."

"And how is work in the woods?" we asked with apprehension.

"Work in the woods is given out by assignment to two men working together. The whole assignment is called 100 percent. A specialist determines what percent each tree represents. Where the trees are thick, fewer trees make up an assignment, where they are thin—more trees. Well, in a word, the assignments were such that two experienced lumbermen could scarcely accomplish them in fourteen or sixteen hours of hard work."

"And those who could not accomplish them?"

"They were not fed or permitted to return to the barracks. Also they were beaten."

"Well, and what happened to them?"

"A man, hungry and cold, can he work? If he couldn't keep up with the work, the only thing left for him was to die. In any case he would be beaten or in winter put out naked on a tree stump in the bitter cold; in summer left outside, undressed, tied to a tree, with his hands bound, at the mercy of mosquitoes. A deer can't endure the mosquitoes and runs away to the seashore where there is wind—how could a man?"

"They died?"

"Of course they died. Many also died in the 'scream-cells'—our name for punitive cells. They would call and scream in agony for some time, before death, thinking that someone might take pity on them, then they would quiet down and die from cold. And what did the guards care? 'Let them die, the good-for-nothings,' they would say. It is true, only the strongest survived. If a guard came to dislike anyone he was a doomed man. They had their own way of doing it; they would order the man to go out into the woods to bring in a log, perhaps not more than a hundred feet away. Failure to carry out the order meant death. If he went the guard would let him get fifty feet away, then take aim and the job would be done. A report would be prepared that the prisoner had been shot attempting to escape."

The company broke up. I stayed behind to listen to a peasant from the Ukraine.

"I will tell you of how my comrade died. Two years have passed, but when I think of it tears come in spite of all that I have seen here. He was a young fellow and belonged to the sect of 'Sabbath.' They believe it is a great sin to do any kind of work on the Sabbath—Saturday. No one in all the camp was his equal in work; he was tremendously strong and a steady worker, very quiet and compliant. He never spoke an obscene or even a rude word. He did everything he was ordered to, except that he definitely refused to work on Saturday. He worked out his Saturday's assignment on the other days of the week in addition to his daily quota. The supervising authorities tried in vain to break him; he was beaten over and over again, until finally they left him alone. And so it went on for some time. Then a new chief came to our camp. He noticed that on Saturday this fellow would stand idle. 'Why don't you work?' 'I can't, such is my faith. I will work out my assignment but not on Saturday.' 'Ah, you can't! I'll show you your faith!' and he struck him hard. 'Will you work?' 'I can't,' he replied. Again the chief struck him. Blood was running down his face, but the beating went on. 'Will you work now?' 'I can't work today.' 'You can't?' He called the guard and exchanged some words with him. The guard shouldered his rifle, aiming at my comrade. 'Will you work?' 'I can't; if I have to die for my faith, kill me!' The chief said something to the guard. The guard fired. My comrade moaned and fell. He was still alive, his chest shot through. The chief approached him. 'Will you work?' and kicked him in the face with his boot. I ran up to my comrade and begged him to comply, to take a saw in his hands, if only for appearance. 'For God's sake do it,' I entreated, 'otherwise you will be killed.' But what question could there be of work when the man was dying? He raised himself up, looked at me and fell face downward in the snow. They kicked him, over and over again, and left him alone. After work we were allowed to bury him."

My companion had been speaking slowly, sadly, without indignation or resentment, as they all did. How many stories of this kind I have heard, especially from peasants and from fishermen with whom I had to live and work, and they were always told not alone as narratives of individual human lives but as revelations of an implacable fate that was wiping out mankind.