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

Forced Labor

We came away from the meeting thoroughly discouraged, and we spoke freely to each other. "It is senseless to work any longer for the Trust."—"Yes, within a year their plan will fail and they'll begin to look around for the 'guilty'; try to prove your innocence then"—"But they can't send us to any place worse than Murmansk."

Another cautioned us, "Never forget the Soviet saying: 'Whoever is not in prison—will be there; whoever was in prison—will return there.'" And, finally, still another added: "I handed in my resignation to the president after that first telegram about the 150 new trawlers, but he wrote 'refused' on it and added that he did not 'advise' my making such an 'attempt.'"

Nevertheless, when later I made a trip to Moscow, I asked to be transferred to some other place or to be discharged. The Chief Director of the Fisheries, a Communist, answered literally as follows: "We consider your work at the North State Fishing Trust so valuable that we cannot allow you to leave and, if necessary, we will find, with the help of the GPU, a way to make you work." 

Possibly it may seem, to persons tainted with a "rotten liberalism," that since we could neither resign nor obtain transfer to another post, all of us at the Trust were actually working under compulsion and were not free men. I will not discuss that question here, but it leads me to speak of that unmistakable slavery—forced labor—which I first met at Murmansk in 1928 and observed in the years that followed, until my own turn came.

That autumn (1928), under the pressing requirements of the Five Year Plan, the North State Fishing Trust had been faced with the problem of finding highly qualified specialists, such as engineers and ship-builders, willing to go to Murmansk with its vile climate and wretched living conditions, when they could easily find occupation in Leningrad, Moscow or some southern town.

All the efforts of the Trust were in vain. The situation seemed hopeless. The labor exchange offered to enlist, under a contract, first-year students from various special technical schools, giving them scholarships for four to five years until they graduated. But the Piatiletka  had to be completed by the time these young men could finish their education. Construction work had to be started at once. The Trust needed engineers who were already experienced; it had no time to train new men.

Finally, one of the Communist workers had the brilliant idea of applying to the GPU. We had heard a rumor that the GPU traded in experts, with a large number of engineers of every specialty at its disposal, but we somehow could not believe it. The Communist Bagdanoff, the manager of our Trust, was asked to make inquiries. The rumor was confirmed and he set out for Kem, the administration center for the famous Solovetzki concentration camp, with instructions to purchase a whole squad.

Within a few days he had returned, his mission successfully accomplished, but the Kem impressions were too strong for even a Communist to keep to himself and he could not refrain from talking about them even to us nonparty men.

"Can you imagine that there (the administration of the Solovetzki camp) the following expressions are freely used: 'We sell!'—'We discount for quantity!'—'First class merchandise!'—'The city of Archangel offers 800 roubles a month for X. and you offer only 600!' . . . What merchandise! He gave a course in a university, is the author of a number of scientific works, was director of a large factory, in pre-war time was considered an outstanding engineer; now he's serving a ten-year sentence at hard labor for "wrecking"; that means that he'll do any kind of work required of him, and yet you quibble over 200 roubles!' Nevertheless, I bargained and they finally agreed to reduce the price, because we purchased at wholesale fifteen engineers. I picked out wonderful men! Look at the list: K., shipbuilding engineer, one of the best in the U.S.S.R.—he used to get rations of the 3rd category as a scientist; P., electrical engineer, has been director of the electrical industry in Moscow; K. and E. are architects with wide experience. And all of them are sentenced for 'wrecking'—that means they will do conscientious work." "What are the terms of this purchase?" I asked, unconsciously lowering my voice, so monstrous did the question sound.

"The men we buy are entirely at our disposal," replied the manager; "we may detail them to any kind of work and to any responsible position. The GPU guarantees them and they are under the surveillance of the local GPU. We aren't held liable in case they escape. The GPU, however, is sure they won't escape, because they all have wives and children, living in other towns, who are actually hostages.

"We pay the GPU monthly 90% of the agreed rental and the remaining 10% we give to the prisoner according to his work. As we pay a much higher price for them than the established tariff, they are ranked as experts in respect to work and no time limit applies to them. If we wish we can make them work twenty-four hours a day. The GPU attorney laughed when he said that we wouldn't be transgressing the labor laws if we disregarded the provisions about working hours, because the prisoners are sold as specialist-experts and have to work as such.

"What scoundrels!" he added, after a moment of silence, remembering the scene of the purchase.

"Did you actually sign a written agreement?"

"Of course! Is it possible to trust the GPU without a contract?"

"And all this is stated in the contract?"

"Certainly. The lawyer approved the deal and the Chief of the camp, as well as the head of the department, signed. Everything was according to form."

"And did you see 'them?'" we asked.

"No, I didn't look them over; it was a little embarassing. They offered to show them to me, but I bought them according to their papers."

"Will they come to Murmansk soon?"

"As soon as we send in our first payment. It's done very simply; they say that if they get our message even one hour before the train leaves they will immediately send out the whole group. Talk is short with prisoners there."

"And if they refuse to work or do not fit the job?"

"That's also taken care of. In case of a complaint on our part the purchased man is immediately removed from the job and sent back to the concentration camp, where he is disciplined. In his place another man of the same specialty and qualifications is sent out."

"And if they do not have any? These are really exceptional men."

"Not have any? What are you talking about? They can get anyone they want. Besides, they have a good supply of 'ready ones.' Some of the best engineers and professors are now working in lumber camps as woodcutters under conditions that are horrifying even to hear about. It's good luck for them to be sold, for they will be working at their own professions and, althoug at miserly pay, will at least be paid something."

"But how are they going to live? We are getting five hundred to six hundred roubles and can barely make both ends meet, and they will be receiving 10%—only fifty to sixty roubles a month."

"Certainly it isn't much. But the Trust is required to furnish living accomodations and the money will suffice to buy the food rations. Do you think they live in better conditions at the camp? They manage to live there and will find a way of exisitng here."

Meantime the bookkeeper was figuring out how much the GPU was making on such sales. "Fifteen men at an average hire of 400 roubles a month—72,000 roubles a year, less 10% paid to the prisoners = 64,800 roubles net per year."

"Fifteen men, that's only for us," corrected the manager; "you must remember that the GPU sells at least 1,000 men a year."

The bookkeeper continued his calculations. "At 4,800 roubles a year—that would be a total of 4,800,00 roubles. Let us deduct 800,000 roubles to cover the 10% and administration expenses—and we get four millions. Four millions! And our Trust makes a profit of one million at the most. And think of the capital outlay we need and the risks involved in cases of a bad catch! They certainly have a good business there! No worries, never a poor catch, no taxes to pay—just take in the money. That's a real business!"

This "purchase" made a deep impression on the employees of the Trust. We were afraid to talk about it openly, but in secret it was much discussed.

The new engineers, arriving as they did at a time when the number of employees was being greatly increased, passed almost unnoticed among the many new faces. Two of them were appointed to executive positions as chiefs of the technical and rationalization departments respectively. The new head of the technical department was the engineer K., a man already advanced in years but still exceptionally energetic. He had the responsible post of directing all repairs of the fleet, the work of the machine shops, foundries and the power station. He was also in charge of the drawing up of projects for the enormous construction. Not only our Trust but practically all the other institutions and concerns in Murmansk were continually calling for his services as consultant. His expert advice was often sought by captains of foreign ships in need of repair, when they came to Murmansk to load lumber delivered from the forced-labor lumber camps of Solovki. Surely the foreigners who dealt with this man of authority did not realize that he was a convict, serving a ten-year sentence!

The Planning Bureau of the Trust was also composed of purchased engineers. These "purchased men" lived in the new houses built by the Trust—two or three men in each small room. A few boards laid on a trestle served as beds, a few stools and a board table as furnishings. They worked from early morning until late at night and they never talked of themselves or their former life in the concentration camps. No one questioned them. It was known, however, that they had families in dire need, whom they could not help, and that some had suffered confiscation of all their property at home.

How many more years were they destined to live like this? It was a frightful thought. Nevertheless, theirs was the lightest form of forced labor. The other, which I also came in contact with while working in the North State Fishing Trust, that at Cape Zeleny, was much more horrible. As a part of the Five Year Plan, construction on a large scale was to be undertaken in Murmansk. A special wharf was to be built where the trawlers could take on coal, at some distance from the trawler base, to avoid the penetration of coal dust into the warehouses used for fishing products designed for export to England. The site selected was several kilometers north of the town, on the eastern side of the bay, near Cape Zeleny, where the land was high above the water and had to be dynamited and leveled. The Trust decided to employ a contractor for the excavation and dirt removal but, there being no private contractors in the U.S.S.R., did not resort to open bids, but sent specifications to several State construction concerns, requesting them to name their prices.

Quite unexpectedly, among the few competitors, the GPU intervened with a statement that it could do the work at a figure 10% below the lowest bid and in a shorter period than the specifications required. The Trust had  to accept this offer of the GPU. One of the functions of the GPU was to watch over the economic activities of all enterprises. Had its bid not been accepted, it would certainly have prosecuted the Trust for "wasting the people's money." The Trust, therefore signed a contract with the GPU tor the job at Cape Zeleny, involving the expenditure of several hundred thousand roubles.

The reason for the low cost of the GPU work and production was no mystery—they used convict labor alone: peasants as well as men of higher education, many of whom had university degrees. The engineering and technical personnel was also composed of prisoners.

Labor and the supervisory personnel were brought to Murmansk from the Solovetzki camp, where they were serving sentences of from three to ten years for "counterrevolution" and "wrecking." They were not paid for their work; there were no fixed working hours; those who did not fulfill their quotas, figured on a sixteen hour basis, had to stay at their jobs until their assignments were completed and, in addition, they were deprived of bread rations and dinner and were not allowed to return to their camps for the night. It goes without saying that the GPU did not pay any premiums into the social insurance fund, which premiums, for other organizations, amount to as much as 22% of the total payroll. Neither did the GPU issue any clothing, as other concerns were required to do; the laborers were dressed in the clothes they had on when arrested—many of them were barefooted and half-naked. For those working on the Cape Zeleny construction temporary wooden barracks were erected. The uniformed "guard"—composed of prisoners (criminals, bandits, Chekists and party-men who were under sentence for theft or other crimes)—had better living quarters and larger food rations. Only a few of them were free employees on salary.

The work was done in a most primitive manner, by hand, with spades, picks and crowbars. When an unlimited free supply of labor is available mechanization is superfluous. The only item of expense was food for the prisoners and even that was not large one kilogram of black bread (baked by the prisoners themselves from flour furnished at a minimum price by State organizations) and a "dinner" of two courses, "soup," i.e., water with a small amount of grits, and "cereal," i.e., grits with a large amount of water. Under such a system as this, it can readily be seen that nearly all the money received by the GPU on their contracts was clear profit.

The townspeople of Murmansk knew very little about the life of these prisoners. It was forbidden to talk to them or approach their barracks. At first their starved appearance, swollen or emaciated faces, their ragged clothing and bare feet excited horror, but later the people became accustomed to the sight—the sensitiveness of Soviet citizens has become dulled. The workmen and the peasants of Murmansk established a clandestine business intercourse with the wretched prisoners, some of whom contrived to do small repair jobs on household utensils which, due to a complete lack of such articles on the market, could not be replaced or repaired elsewhere. The method of procedure was this: when the prisoners were being led to work, the article in need of repair would be shown to them from a distance and then dropped into an old barrel that was nearby. Next morning the repaired utensil would be returned with a slip of paper stating the price of the work, which was always amazingly small. On the following day money in payment would be deposited in the barrel. How the prisoners ever succeeded in accomplishing this work, sometimes quite complicated, at night and with great secrecy, is a mystery. It could be done only by men of long prison experience and driven by dire need.

[My description of this secret cannot hurt anyone in Murmansk now. Since the protests which appeared in the European press against forced labor, the GPU has discontinued its activities in the districts visited by foreign  ships and has transferred its prisoners from Murmansk to enterprises in other sections of the country.]

Isolated though they were, the most striking incidents in the life of these GPU prisoners were known in the town. The first was an epidemic of typhus at Cape Zeleny which, in the filth and crowded condition of the barracks, spread with amazing rapidity. A few cases appeared in the town itself and there was a panic. To localize the epidemic the GPU isolated the sick in special barracks, where they were left to die without any help or medical attention. The second incident was an attempt to escape—in fact, two attempts. Only despair could have forced anyone to such an act. The country round Murmansk is most unfavorable: there are hills and great rocks piled up in such disorder that it is almost impossible to find one's bearings; the lowlands are covered with impassable swamps. Nevertheless, two bands of four men each obtained row-boats, crossed to the western side of the Kola Bay and set out towards the Finnish frontier. One band was rounded up by natives who were promised a bag of flour for their capture; the other four men perished from hunger and exposure. The captured men were shot.

A third incident was the execution of the engineer Trester, who had supervised the building of GPU houses and had enjoyed considerable freedom of action. It was rumored that when the construction was completed Trester was taken under heavy guard back to Kem. There, according to the rumor, he was accused of "wrecking" and was shot because the construction had been finished two weeks behind schedule. Later I found out that this story was not quite exact; for the delay in construction Trester was sentenced to one year's solitary confinement at the Solovetzki camp and the GPU official who was taking him to his cell shot him on the way. I don't remember the name of this official but he was widely known for his exceptional cruelty and for frequently murdering prisoners without cause. Such cases were usually reported as "shot in an attempt to escape."

These were the only things the population of Murmansk knew about the life of the GPU slaves by whose hands the Five Year Plan was being carried out.