(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

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Robert Conquest, a British poet and political writer who has written such works as Power and Policy in the USSR, Russia After Khrushchev, and The Great Terror, has once more made a significant contribution to twentieth century Soviet Russian history by his latest book, Kolyma, which is an account of the prison life for the inmates of the Arctic Death Camps situated in northeastern Siberia during the regime of Stalin. Drawing upon contemporary eyewitness accounts of seventeen individuals, sixteen of whom were former prisoners and one of whom was a free individual who worked there, Conquest sets out to depict the atrocities committed upon Russians and ethnic minorities by Stalin and his regime.

The author did extensive research in order to write this book. The subject matter of this work is such that he could not, of course, use any materials in the Soviet State Archives and had to rely upon two major sources of information: eyewitness accounts and memoirs and indirect evidence. A good example of the latter is the fact that he diligently checked the various volumes of Lloyd’s Register of Shipping for the tonnage and place and date of origin of the ships which were owned and operated by Dalstroy (The Far Northern Construction Trust), as these vessels were used exclusively to transport prisoners to Kolyma. His research clearly demonstrates that over three million people were transported there from 1937 until 1953. Of these, at least three million died during the same period. Using his first type of source, the eyewitness and contemporary accounts of his seventeen major sources, Conquest very cleverly and succinctly weaves these stories into a coherent unified account of what went on in these Soviet labor camps established by Stalin in the 1930’s. What unfolds is a story of such horror, such barbarism, that for many of us today it is quite literally incomprehensible.

The story of Kolyma’s inhabitants begins back in European Russia where they were arrested—usually at midnight—by agents of the Russian Secret Police, the NKVD. From various places in Russia, these hapless individuals were then transferred in overcrowded, dark, stinking cattle trucks or trains to the transit camps of Vladivostok, Nakhodka, and Vanino. These prisoners had already been beaten and tortured by the time they arrived in the transit camps, but in these camps conditions were much worse. The lack of adequate food supplies, incredibly crowded living areas and totally inadequate medical treatment allowed disease and starvation to run unchecked and many thousands of prisoners died before they were taken to Kolyma.

But for those who survived the long train journey and the transit camps, many more horrible experiences awaited. From the transit camps, the prisoners were taken aboard the ships of the NKVD, called the Dalstroy Line. This fleet of ships was actually a slave fleet, and the occupants of their holds underwent a “Middle Passage” from Vladivostok to Nagayevo, the port of Kolyma, as gruesome as any in the history of slavery. Ironically, the colors of this fleet were a broad white band with a blue stripe which symbolized the idea of hope. The typical hold of these ships consisted of three decks, each of which contained two-level bunks. Here the prisoners were confined and cramped in very small spaces, where the heat, the humidity, the stench were overpowering. In addition, the hardened criminals in the group terrorized, murdered, and raped those prisoners who were regarded as “politicals” by the authorities. In a sense, this voyage was the introduction of Kolyma to its future inhabitants. Fortunately, these voyages often only lasted one week.

At long last, the prisoners arrived at the port city of Kolyma, Nagayevo, located on the barren shores of the Sea of Okhotsk. This city was the gateway to a world of subarctic climate where in winter the temperature can reach 70 C., a world totally isolated from the rest of Russia, and a world of slave labor camps...

(The entire section is 1,882 words.)