Ep. 33 Welcome to the sewer

Shut your eyes, reader. Do you hear the thundering of wheels? Those are the Stolypin cars rolling on and on. Those are the red cows rolling. Every minute of the day. And every day of the year. And can you hear the water gurgling – those are the prisoners’ barges moving on and on. And the motors of the Black Marias roar. They are arresting someone all the time, cramming him in somewhere, moving him about. And what is that hum you hear? The overcrowded cells of the transit prisons. And that cry? The complaints of those who have been plundered, raped and beaten to within an inch of their lives.

…And even the last human hope that there is something better ahead, that it will be better in camp, is a false hope. In camp it will be …worse.[1]

It was August when Gerhard’s transport left for the unknown. The moment of leaving was a powerful one according to Thomas Sgovio: “Our train left Moscow on the evening of June 24. It was the beginning of an eastward journey which was to last a month. I can never forget that moment. Seventy men … began to cry.”[2]

Gerhard was fortunate. His transport to the gulag occurred in Fall 1934, one of the best times of the year to make the journey. Every available method of transportation was used to move the prisoners – trucks, trains, barges and feet.

Black Marias

Black Marias

Not only did the Bolshevik government go to great lengths to maintain the pretense of a functioning justice system, it did its best to hide the fact millions of innocent Russian citizens were being exiled to distant slave labour camps. Transports always left at night, but people knew. They ran alongside the wagons calling out the names of loved ones. The Black Marias or Black Ravens were the transport trucks and the Stolypins and the red cows were the railway cars prepared to house human cargo at maximum discomfort. A hole in the floor for obvious reasons, bars on the windows and sometimes a small stove. Signs on the sides of vehicles disguised the true purpose of the transport: Bread, Fruits/Vegetables. Perishables.

GERHARD[3] We were loaded into red cattle cars and transported through Moscow, Kirov to Kotlas, a distance of 2,500 km. In Kotlas we were loaded onto barges and were towed upstream 400 kilometres to Ust Vym on the River Vychegda. From Ust Vym we travelled on foot 270 kilometres through Knyazhpogost to Ukhta, in the Komi Republic.

The road was extremely difficult because there was so little food. We always had to walk four abreast and among us there were several older people. When the guards lined us up, they made it clear that anyone who took one step out of line would be shot without warning. It was a difficult march, and there was no place to put old people or sick people who could not keep up. At certain intervals along the way there were shacks where we overnighted.

We walked in a column of four men abreast and the guards said any step to the right or a step to the left will be seen as an attempt to escape and that person will be shot without warning. It happened at times that an older person or an ill person could not keep the pace and so they would be shot and then reported as trying to escape and that is how the problem of the sick and the elderly was taken care of.

Stolypin car

Stolypin car

Gerhard’s transport stopped at the various transit prisons he mentions along the way. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who was there in his time, described them like this:

Kirov: Two guards jammed prisoners into their cells with their boots; it was the only way they could get the door to close. There were so many bedbugs they went on biting in the daytime …[4]

Kotlas: It was simply a piece of land divided into cages by fencing and the cages were all kept locked. …people simply lived there on the ground, beneath the heavens.[5]

The barges: Solzhenitsyn paints a pitiful picture of the “capacious and potbellied barges” carting their “gray mass from living Russia to the dead North.”

The whole barge was alive with lice, and the convoy allowed the prisoners to go up on deck one by one to brush the parasites off into the water.[6] People were thrown into the trough-like holds and lay there in piles or crawled around like crabs in a basket. And high up on the deck, as though atop a cliff, stood guards. Sometimes they transported this mass out in the open without any cover, and sometimes they covered it up in a big tarpaulin-in order not to look at it, or to guard it better, but certainly not to keep off the rain. The journey in such a barge was no longer prisoner transport, but death on the installment plan.[7]

Ust Vym: Prisoners had no bowls and were fed their gruel from wash basins ten at a time, leaving them to race each other gulping it down.[8]

Knyazhpogost: Latitude 63 degrees north. Shacks built on a swamp; their pole frames covered with torn tarpaulin tenting that didn’t quite reach the ground. During the day, the wet mud squelched through the flooring, and at night it froze. They fed the prisoners the same thing every day: a mash made of crushed grits and fish bones. There were no bowls or spoons or forks. The prisoners were herded to the boiler by the dozens and the mash was ladled into their caps or the flaps of their jackets.[9]

* * * * *

Blatnoi tatooed hand

Like most other countries Russia has a strong criminal culture: think the Yakuza in Japan, the Triads in China, and the Mafia in Italy and North America. In Russia they are the Urka, or Blatnoi, or Vory V Zakone. They operate under their own rules, one of which was to never cooperate with the authorities. Consequently they became a thorn in Stalin’s side and were well represented in the prisons and in the forced labour camps. In prison they were the highest class of prisoner and were, for all intents and purposes, in charge of keeping order. So much for never cooperating with the authorities. The urka had their own well-defined hierarchy and if you were not a part of it then you were at the bottom of it. They had the best places to sleep, the best food and anything else they wanted from the “enemies of the state.”

The professional criminals would descend upon the other prisoners in what appeared to be a mad fury, throwing them off bunks in barracks or trains; stealing what remained of their clothing; howling cursing and swearing.[10]

They did not work but they were allocated a full ration; they levied a money tribute from all the “peasants,” those who did work; they took half of food parcels and purchases from the camp commissary; and they brazenly cleaned out the new transports, taking all the best clothes from the new comers.[11]

GERHARD On this journey there were also a large number of gangster criminals called “blatneye” or “urki.” These were murderers and thieves and they were given somewhat more freedom than the political prisoners. They could take anything they wanted and anyone who did not stick together in a group had everything taken away from them.

On one occasion we were overnighting in a crude hut. All around us murderers, thieves and political prisoners were pressed into one small room. Now the “enemies of the people” were inspected by the criminals to see if we still had  any worthwhile possessions. A number of men lost their fine jackets and coats that night. The guards knew what was happening but they did not care. Anyone who still had decent clothes lost them. We were terrified and they took whatever they wanted. There was a group of Manchurians who placed their things together and protected them with clubs. They didn’t lose any clothes. The next morning no one reported anything.

On another spot the thieves conducted another search and they were going to take more belongings from whomever they wanted. The guards didn’t care. There was an engineer, a tall young man who had a knife. He stabbed the thief and then there was peace. Then we also became brave, and we protected this brave man, wherever he happened to be.




[1] Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I.The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956,Harper Row, New York, 1973, pages 1652-3.

[2] Sgovio, Thomas, Dear America, Kenmore NY, 1979, pages 129-35, quoted in Applebaum, Anne, Gulag, A History, Anchor Books, 2003, New York, page 160.

[3] Here are the Google Earth coordinates of the places mentioned by Gerhard: Moscow 55°45’20.62″N, 37°37’2.44″E; Kirov 58°36’12.72″N, 49°40’0.47″E; Kotlas 61°15’0.23″N, 46°38’59.81″E; Ust Vym 62°13’34.54″N, 50°24’3.37″E; Knyazhpogost (now Yemva) 62°34’16.62″N, 50°49’48.50″E; Ukhta 63°33’58.40″N, 53°42’17.03″E.

[4] Solzhenitsyn, op. cit., page 1516.

[5] Ibid., page 1520.

[6] Ibid., page 1628.

[7] Ibid., page 1630.

[8] Ibid., page 1524.

[9] Ibid., page 1523-24.

[10] Applebaum, op. cit., pg 281.

[11] Razgon Lev, True Stories [Nepridumannoe,Moska, 1989], pg 185, trans. John Crowfoot, Dana Point, CA, 1997 cited in Applebaum, op. cit., page 283.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s