Ep. 36 “You can die today – I’ll die tomorrow”


GERHARD I was always thankful that my father had managed to avoid being arrested. Then one year I received a letter that he too was exiled along with my 17-year-old brother Nikolai.

Gerhard would have received this devastating letter late in 1936 or 1937 but gives no clue how this information affected him. Just the facts: Joe Friday would have been proud of his emotional distance. There was no room for grief or sorrow. Gerhard had decided he wanted to live. Next sentence.

GERHARD I had made a few friends. I was appointed bookkeeper of the Supply Depot. Now I was in a position where I was seen by everyone, and was given the respect of being called by my father’s name (Gerhard Gerhardovich). Everyone who knew me expected something from me since I was now at the source of all provisions entering the camp. I had all the food I wanted and many others also received extra bread or an extra packet of tobacco. It was likely a whole year that I had this job.

Many prisoners survived because they raised themselves above other prisoners, and distinguished themselves from the swarming mass of starving zeks (Russian: prisoner). “You can die today – I’ll die tomorrow,” was their motto.[1]

tired woodcutter

The tired woodcutter. Drawing by Danzig Baldaev, gulag camp guard.

Survivor Varlam Shalamov: “The camp was a great test of our moral strength, or our everyday morality, and 99 per cent of us failed it.”[2]

Survivor Edward Buca: “After only three weeks most of the prisoners were broken men, interested in nothing but eating. They behaved like animals, disliked and suspected everyone else, seeing in yesterday’s friend a competitor in the struggle for survival.”[3]

Gerhard had become a trusty[4] by this time, enjoying the fruits of his position by eating well and bestowing favours of bread and tobacco on others. Here is how Applebaum describes Solzhenitsyn’s controversial view of trusties:

The “work trusties” – the norm-setters, bookkeepers, engineers – did not actually torture people, but they all participated in a system that forced prisoners to work to their deaths. The same was true of the “compound trusties”: typists ran off orders for the camp command. Every bread-cutter who was able to steal an extra loaf for himself might be said to be depriving a zek working in the forest of his full portion.[5]

Dmitri Panin was embarrassed by his two-week stint working a soft job in the kitchen:

Even worse was the realization that I was stealing food from other prisoners. I tried to gain comfort from the thought that when a man has been reduced to the condition I was in then, he doesn’t fret over niceties; but it did not lighten my sense of wrongdoing, and when they kicked me out of the kitchen, I was actually glad.[6]

Lev Razgon, who had been a norm-setter argued that “choosing to become a trusty was simply a matter of choosing to live.”[7]

And in the end, they were no more secure than the people that came below them on the hierarchy. If they were not being worked to death, they knew that they soon could be. At any moment, a distant camp boss could order a transfer to take them away to another camp, to another job, to another, deadlier fate.[8]

GERHARD When Yezhov rose to power in Stalin’s circle all of us “enemies of the people” were no longer permitted to work in offices but assigned to hard labour out of doors. Whenever there was trouble among the “Great Ones” us “enemies of the people” were always to blame. I was Gerhard Gerhardovich as long as I was in a position to benefit others, but after Yezhov, not anymore.

* * * * *

To most prisoners thoughts of escape were fantasy;  many tried but few succeeded. The most likely to attempt escape were newcomers who did not understand the circumstances of their situation. The most likely to escape successfully were the “urki”, the criminal class, while politicals had the least success. Geography was the primary factor mitigating against escape; the taiga is a vast forested swamp, impassable for most months due to the cold and snow and impassable in the other months due to the swamps, insects and dense forests. To this day, many places in the Komi taiga are accessible by boat, plane or train only. One prisoner turned himself in after wandering for seven days and finding himself only eight miles from the camp: “We’re chained to this place for the rest of our lives, even though we aren’t wearing chains. We can escape, we can wander about, but in the end we’ll come back.”[9]

And if the geography did not defeat escapees, the residents living in remote outposts of the far north captured and returned escapees either for a reward or out of fear of being imprisoned because they failed to do so. There were no friendly faces on the taiga.

Killing the calf

“Killing the calf.” Escapees who were to be eaten were called calves. Drawing by Danzig Baldaev, gulag camp guard.

Some escapees regressed into cannibalism and brought their live food with them in the form of an accomplice; when they ran out of food the accomplice sufficed. Punishment for capture was usually execution, and if any civilians assisted an escapee, they were liable to the same punishment. Anne Applebaum quotes the State Archives of the Russian Federation as recording 45,755 escapes in 1933; the same source reports that 28,370 were captured. Escaping the gulag was never an acceptable risk, but Gerhard had seen many strong men wither and die from illness, mistreatment and malnutrition. Suicides were common. Thought of escape must have crossed his mind. One day he was given an opportunity for freedom by a man he had met years earlier in Taganrog.

GERHARD When I was in Taganrog jail under arrest from the GPU secret police, I was given quite a bit of freedom, I was permitted to chop wood outside. I saw a man in an air force uniform being led away to his interrogation. A few months later, in the fall of 1934 I saw him again and he said: “You look familiar, are we countrymen?” “We might be.”  I told him I was from Taganrog and he was too, so we were friends. He was working in the free kitchen and told me if I came by when the kitchen was not crowded he would fill my bowl. We met occasionally, but then he was transferred to the Third Division (that was the guards and the political division).[10]

One day we met again in exile and he had a proposal for me: “Do you want to be free?” I wondered if he was being completely honest. I had only two years left to eke out. I told him I would consider it. He promised all the papers I would need, but because he worked in the political division, I did not trust him. A few days later we heard that a large part of the political division had disappeared. God only knows if he stayed safe and I would have had to take a different name. I thanked the Lord for giving me the proper sense in that hour.

Gerhard turned down the escape plan in the faint hope he would be released when his sentence ended. Meanwhile in Moscow karma was seeking out Nikolai Yezhov. Yezhov had set the tone for his term in service when he arrested his predecessor, personally torturing Genrikh Yagoda and then having him stripped naked, beaten and shot.[11] By 1938 Yezhov had fallen out of favour with Stalin. The Gulag had tripled in size in two years; Gerhard’s camp now held 50,000 prisoners[12]. Lavrentiy Beria was promoted to lead the secret police and had Stalin’s ear. By April 10, 1939 Yezhov had stopped working, sunk deep into alcoholism and was arrested. After a secret trial, he was found guilty of numerous unlikely crimes and executed in a secret execution chamber he had designed himself with a sloping floor to facilitate cleaning.

GERHARD And so it went, until things blew up in Moscow again. At this time Yezhov was in conflict with Stalin so prisoners sentenced under Section 58 were again forced to do hard labour and I also took my turn. Eighteen months earlier while I was still in the project office, I had taken a course on diesel engines and now this was to my advantage because Abram Wiebe was the mechanic in the diesel station and he put in a good word for me. I worked 8 or 9 months at the diesel station.

* * * * *

Certificate on the release of IP Suchanov from the Ukhta-Pechora-ITL issued by the Ukhta-Pechora-ITL of the NKVD of the USSR, Chibju, Komi, Oct 19, 1938

Release papers for a man named Sukharov. Gerhard’s papers would have looked a lot like this.

Something unbelievable happened in 1939 – prisoners were released when their sentences were completed. Even Stalin no longer had the stomach for Yezhov’s excesses and so Gerhard became a part of the tiny reverse wave of 1939. Nearly five years to the day of his arrest, Gerhard was free. Was he released only to be imprisoned again?  Would he be under surveillance? Or had the authorities realized Gerhard’s innocence? Even in the honourable conduct of releasing prisoners who served their time, a perverse motive lurked just below the surface.

… it was necessary in order to heap all the blame on that dirty Yezhov, to strengthen the newcomer, Beria, and to cause the Leader [Stalin] himself to shine more brightly.

After all, if “they had sorted things out and freed some people” (and even the newspapers wrote intrepidly about individual cases of persons who had been slandered), it meant that the rest of those arrested were indeed scoundrels! And those who returned kept silent. They had signed pledges not to speak out. They were mute with terror. And there were very few who knew even a little about the secrets of the Archipelago.[13]

GERHARD The new lord in Moscow was now Beria, the minister for internal affairs and he was more honest. Until his time, when a prisoner had completed his sentence, he would be forced to sign a document saying he needed 3-5 more years to atone for his crimes. But on the 27th of February all those who had served their sentences were released. I, too, was one of the lucky ones and on February 27, 1939, I was free – exactly five years to the day from my arrest.[14]

In 1934 when I travelled the stretch from Knyazhpogostsky to Ukhta we had to walk 300 kilometres, now there were tracks and we could travel by train, take the Red Wagon worry-free.

During Gerhard’s incarceration, Russian slaves had built 4,500 kilometres of track, further than the distance from Vancouver to Halifax.

Ukhta memorial

Memorial to the pioneers of Ukhta.

* * * * *

Yesterday I looked on the Memorial Society website at https://www.memo.ru/en-us/ which contains databases listing individuals who were politically repressed from 1918-1970’s. I found this:

Wall, Gerhard Gerhardovich

Year of birth: 1911

Place of birth: Kurgan district, Azov-Chernomorsky Krai

Year of repression: 1934, 5 years imprisonment.

Arrived in Ukhtpechlag: September 16, 1934 from Vyatka (Kirov).

Released: February 27, 1939

Source: Book of Memory of the Republic of Komi

Every confirmation touches me deeply.

* * * * *

GERHARD Having served five years against my will, I arrived at Rostov/Don in the morning and wanted to look up my friend Isaak Bergmann but I was told he had already been exiled. Then I went to bring greetings to the wife of fellow prisoner Jacob Jacobovich Goloborotyka. This man was an engineer at a large mill in Rostov when something blew up and he got ten years for that.

Gerhard never said whether he signed any promise to keep quiet, but he did not want to return to the gulag and by his subsequent conduct we find he knew how to lay low.

Beria was in charge when Gerhard was one of the very few kulaks to be released, but Beria too met an ignominious end. In 1953 he was tried without a defense lawyer or a chance of appeal and convicted of treason, terrorism and counter-revolutionary activity, but his true crimes were as a sexual predator who abducted and raped women and buried them in his wife’s rose garden. Beria was sentenced and executed the same day with a bullet to the forehead.



[1] Applebaum, Anne, Gulag, A History, Anchor Books, 2003, New York, page 347.

[2] Applebaum, op. cit., page 347.

[3] Buca, Edward, Virkuta, trans. Michael Lisinski and Kennedy Wells, London, 1976, p. 79 quoted in Applebaum, page 347.

[4] A prisoner supervising other prisoners.

[5] Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipeligo, Vol. II, New York, 1973, pages 360-66, quoted in Applebaum, Anne, Gulag, A History, Anchor Books, 2003, New York, page 368.

[6] Panin, Dmitri, The Notebooks of Sologdin, New York, 1973, page 176, quoted in Applebaum, op. cit., page 368.

[7] Razgon Lev, True Stories [Nepridumannoe, Moska, 1989], pg 153, trans. John Crowfoot, Dana Point, CA, 1997 cited in Applebaum, op. cit.,page 368.

[8] Applebaum, op. cit., page 369.

[9] Herling, Gustav, A World Apart, trans. Andrzej Ciolkosz, London, 1951,  pg. 125-29 quoted in Applebaum, op. cit., page 391.

[10] The third division was a secret intelligence network of undercover operatives employed to ferret out anti-Soviet behavior in the camps.

[11] http://www.mereja.com/dictionary/Genrikh_Yagoda, accessed January 31, 2017 and Dunaevsky, Valery,  A Daughter of the “Enemy of the People”, Xlibris Corporation, 2015

[12] http://www.gulag.memorial.de/lager.php?lag=441, accessed January 5, 2017

[13] Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I., The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956,Harper Row, New York, 1973, page 220.

[14] Russian officials state Gerhard was released February 22, 1939 in a Letter from Director V.I. Korobov, National Archives of the Republic of Komi, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Archives of the Republic of Komi, dated March 17, 2017 to Edvin Peter Wall, received October 3, 2017.

3 thoughts on “Ep. 36 “You can die today – I’ll die tomorrow”

  1. Your book will be a valuable addition to the body of literature accumulating to counter the suppressing mantras of, “Let sleeping dogs lie; Let bygones be bygones; Keep to the sunny side; Stick to business; Mind your own business,” and all the other coping mechanisms we sometimes choose to use to survive with its accompanying certainty that some of us will continue to use those mechanisms after they’re no longer necessary to enrich ourselves at others’ expense. If we can’t or won’t admit historical truth and examine its ugly sources and consequences and effects on victims even from the safety of long passages of time, opportunistic sadistic evil forces’ tendrils are still keeping us imprisoned. Bruno Betleheim no doubt survived a WWII concentration camp for some of the reasons you explain in this chapter; one reason he talked about in one of his books about treating autistic children that I read at least 40 years ago was his realization when he was a prisoner that his guards were also human beings and if he could deal with them on that basis, he would have a better chance of surviving. So obvious, yet so hard to grasp and use.

    Liked by 1 person

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