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

The Sign of the Elephant

Our company commander in his speech of "Welcome" had dwelt upon the change of policy in the GPU camps, since the spring of 1 930. It was true that a special commission, sent from Moscow to the Solovetzki camp had declared that the destruction of prisoners, systematically carried on for many years, and now, it was implied, for the first time discovered by the GPU, was due to irresponsible actions of the camp officers, recruited from the ranks of prisoners.

Fifty supervisors, guards and other camp officials, including Kourilko of Popoff Island, famous for his cruelty, were summarily shot. Several salaried Gepeists were transferred to other camps, but many executioners still succeeded in retaining their posts. In this case, as always, the GPU had not paid with their own heads.

There was a change, however. The former "Camps of Special Designation" were now to be called "Solovetzki and Kem Working Corrective Camps." The abbreviated form of this new name, "SIKTL," being unpronounceable, the old abbreviated name "OOSLON" continued in current use, and the emblem and trademark of the camps—an elephant—was left unchanged. ("Slon" means elephant in Russian.) This trademark can be found on many goods in the U.S.S.R.

Punishments, whether reduction of rations or solitary confinement and death, were now to be imposed only according to the decision of higher authorities who had no direct contact with prisoners. Their judgments were to be announced in the order of the day. In this way the life of the prisoner became a little less terrible.

Evidently the underlying reason for this abrupt change in policy was the tremendous influx of prisoners in 1930 which came as a result of the failure, then already quite apparent, of the Piatiletka  in industry as well as in agriculture. No longer tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands of "wreckers," "kulaks"  and "sub-kulaks,"  found themselves in convict camps.

It was utterly impossible, even under the Soviet regime, to keep such hordes of prisoners concealed on isolated islands of the White Sea and in the wilds of Karelia, treating them in whatever way one pleased, without the news of it leaking out and spreading. "Undersirable" publicity, in 1929 and 1930, found its way abroad. Especially unfortunate for the GPU had been the testimony given under oath by the medical student Malisheff who had escaped from the Solovetzki camp. The foreign campaign against forced labor in lumber camps was injuring the camp's basic activity which brought in the foreign currency so indispensible to the GPU in its work abroad.

Soviet counter-agitation, such as the badly staged film, "Solovki"  and a few articles in Soviet journals, where Solovki was represented as a resort offering a pleasant rest to prisoners, had no success whatever. To continue the destruction of prisoners behind such a thin screen had become impossible.

Finally, the destruction of prisoners was recognized as commercially unprofitable. Why destroy a working force, often highly qualified, when it can be made to produce a profit? Therefore, from 1930 onwards the concentration camps were transformed into a tremendous system of slave driving enterprises of the GPU. At the present time, the GPU no longer tries to conceal the existence of forced labor; it has taken the offensive: having given to its camps an appearance of corrective institutions for dangerous criminals, it widely advertises these institutions, its educational work there and the results of the working activity of its pupils. Soviet writers, such as Gorki and Alexis Tolstoy, are now by order of the GPU writing novels and comedies in which they sing the praises of forced labor. Meanwhile, under cover of all this noise the GPU carries on its work on the quiet and collects enormous profits from its slave trade.

This new system, the economic features of which I shall describe more fully later, brought a decided change in the preliminary treatment of prisoners—as we had already found out. It had been decreed that lice should be abolished; that explained the hair-cutting and shaving and the disinfecting of our things. No longer would there be the "lice regime" and "lice cells," either in prisons or in the camps, which had been such powerful weapons, in the hands of both examining officers and camp authorities, for the liquidation of prisoners. Epidemics of eruptive typhus—caused by lice—had never ceased; victims died by thousands. Now, after treatment at one of the "distributing points," if a single one of these vermin was found on a prisoner when he came up later for medical examination, the physician at the "point" got thirty days in a punitive cell. There were to be no more epidemics—the maximum work must be obtained from prisoners.

A personnel bureau, also composed of prisoners, took care of the registration of newly arrived prisoners at the distributing point. Individual cards were filled out for each prisoner, showing his special qualifications and the work to which he might be assigned; these cards were then sent to the office of the central administration of the camps which also received all requisitions for labor from the various camp sections.

Next came a medical examination of the prisoners to determine their physical capacity for work. In 1931-32 all were divided into three groups; the first group, those fit for any manual labor; the second, those fit for lighter work; and the third, those unfit for any kind of hard labor. This classification was changed from time to time; once there was another group of those who could not walk unaided. Prisoners in the first group were used in lumber camps, road construction, land reclamation, loading and unloading operations, in the fishery section, and so on. Those in the second group were assigned to the same classes of work but on lighter jobs, while the third group was put to work as watchmen, cleaners, office clerks, etc.

Some prisoners arrived in such condition that they could not even sit up—for example, Professor Farmanoff, who before his arrest in 1930 was giving a course in Ichthyology at the Petrovski Agricultural Institute. He was seventy years old and paralyzed in both legs; he had been carried on a stretcher from the prison to the train and thence to the camp hospital where he still remained, unable to sit up on his cot, through the years 1931-32. He was still there when I escaped. It is horrible to think of his dark and hopeless fate.

As a general rule all prisoners in the first group are sent to manual labor: exceptions are made only for those specialists whose services are needed by the GPU; they remain, however, under the constant danger of being sent back to "regular work" in case their special knowledge is no longer needed or there is shortage of labor, or as punishment for disobedience or some error. Educated persons of the second and especially the third group are usually sent to the numerous administrative offices of the camp as clerks, bookkeepers, statisticians etc. Priests, however, form a special class: according to special instructions from the GPU they are sent only to hard manual labor or, in cases of complete disability, are appointed night watchmen. Those whose specialties are of no practical value to the GPU, such as historians, archaeologists and literary men, have the hardest time of all in finding suitable assignments.

Doctors, who are also prisoners under the strict supervision of GPU officials, are told in advance what percentage of recruits they are allowed to find unfit for work. They dare not disobey. Considering the condition in which men reach the camps after prison life and the journey, no normal medical commission would have been able to find a single healthy man really fit for heavy manual labor. But the plight of doctors and prisoners is aggravated when there is a shortage of labor in the GPU, such as occurred in the summer and autumn of 1931, when the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal began. Conditions were frightful; the prisoners worked in swamps, in forests, without living quarters, in miserable clothes. The casualties were unbelievable. To provide replacements a re-examination of the second and third groups was ordered and all those below the age of fifty, if only they had arms and legs, were transferred to the first group and sent to dig the canal. The first group is never re-examined; a man stays in it until he drops.

After this preliminary classification, prisoners were distributed among the various sections of the camp as called for by requisitions. Most of them departed for work with the vague hope that life would be a little easier; only the detachments taken to the Solovetzki Islands left with apprehension. These ill-fated men knew that they were branded as especially dangerous prisoners and, therefore, had little chance of "amnesty" or any reduction in their term. Fearful also is the extreme isolation of the Solovetski Islands, especially in winter when for seven months contact with the mainland is maintained only by occasional trips of GPU aeroplanes.

Doctors and actors were always the first to be "distributed"—individually, often on the day of their arrival, with entire disregard of quarantine requirements, for the reason that they were at the disposal, first of all, of the hired, free officials of the GPU. The wives and mistresses of these Gepeists continuously demand medical attention for themselves and their children from the ablest physicians whose "arrival" is always known in advance. Actors and actresses are awaited with no less impatience; a theatre, with small opera, musical comedy and dramatic casts, is attached to the camp headquarters and follows these headquarters when they are transferred from one place to another. The actor Ksendzovski, former director of the "Musical Comedy" in Petersburg, was at one time the leading man in this theatre. Unfortunately I never had a chance to visit this peculiar slave theatre, but I sometimes heard sad news about its life and from day to day I watched the decline of a young and pretty actress who, under the conditions of camp life, had very soon lost her voice, left the theatre for a clerical position, and was compelled to spend the whole long day, until eleven at night, in the heavy smoke-laden atmosphere of the administration offices.

Next, after the doctors and actors, the engineers and technical men were singled out—agronomists, lumber specialists, bookkeepers. The rest of us were eager to hear about all the camp activities in the hope that, somewhere among them, we might find work in our chosen field.

Talking with old-timers returned from lumber camps, I learned that a whole fishing industry section was included in the camp organization and that the fisheries were located in sparsely inhabited places along the western shore of the White Sea.

I knew that region and it seemed to me that, if I could only get to work as a specialist there, I should have taken the first, perhaps scarcely perceptible, step towards my goal—escape. All that I could do now was to give on my registration card such information about myself as might influence the management of the fishery section to believe that my work would be of real value to them. To that extent I succeeded. Only a month had passed before I was told, in confidence, by the employees of the registration department, also prisoners, that the Administration of the fisheries in Kem had requisitioned me—as a scientific specialist.