Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956 (1973)
Solzhenitsyn’s riveting and renowned exposé of the Soviet prison camp system shook many convinced Communists, East and West, to the core. Here he describes the brutal conditions under which the prisoners lived, and their determination to retain some vestige of humanity by rising against and expelling the camp administration in May and June 1954.
For the Special Camps there was another side to Beria’s fall: by raising their hopes it confused, distracted, and disarmed the katorzhane. Hopes of speedy change burgeoned — and the prisoners lost their interest in hunting stoolies, and sitting in the hole for them, in strikes and rebellions. Their anger cooled. Things seemed to be improving anyway, and all they had to do was wait.
There was another aspect, too. The epaulets with blue borders (but without air force wings), hitherto the most respected, the least questionable in the armed forces at large, had suddenly become a stigma, not just in the eyes of prisoners or prisoners’ relatives (who gives a damn for them?), but even perhaps in the eyes of the government.
In that fateful year, 1953, MVD officers lost their second wage (“for their stars”), which meant that henceforward they received only one salary, plus increments for length of service, polar allowances, and of course bonuses. This was a great blow to their pockets, but a still greater one to their expectations: did it mean that they were less needed?
The fall of Beria made it urgent for the security ministry to prove its devotion and its usefulness in some signal way. But how?
The mutinies which the security men had hitherto considered a menace now shone like a beacon of salvation. Let’s have more disturbances and disorders, so that measures will have to be taken. Then staffs, and salaries, will not be reduced.
In less than a year the guards at Kengir opened fire several times on innocent men. There was one incident after another: and it cannot have been unintentional.* [*The camp authorities, of course, acted similarly to speed up events in other places, for instance in Norilsk.]
They shot Lida, the young girl from the mortar-mixing gang who hung her stockings out to dry near the boundary fence.
They winged the old Chinaman — nobody in Kengir remembered his name, and he spoke hardly any Russian, but everybody knew the waddling figure with a pipe between his teeth and the face of an elderly goblin. A guard called him to a watchtower, tossed a packet of makhorka near the boundary fence, and when the Chinaman reached for it, shot and wounded him.
There was a similar incident in which the guard threw some cartridges down from the tower, ordered a prisoner to pick them up, and shot him.
Then there was the famous case of the column returning to camp from the ore-dressing plant and being fired on with dumdum bullets, which wounded sixteen men. (Another couple of dozen concealed light wounds to keep their names out of reports and avoid the risk of punishment.)
This the zeks did not take quietly — it was the Ekibastuz story over again. Kengir Camp Division No. 3 did not turn out for work three days running (but did take food), demanding punishment of the culprits.
A commission arrived and persuaded them that the culprits would be prosecuted (as though the zeks would be invited to the trial to check! . . . ). They went back to work.
But in February, 1954, another prisoner was shot at the woodworking plant — “the Evangelist,” as all Kengir remembered him (Aleksandr Sisoyev, I think his name was). This man had served nine years and nine months of his tenner. His job was fluxing arc-welding rods and he did this work in a little shed which stood near the boundary fence. He went out to relieve himself near the shed — and while he was at it was shot from a watchtower. Guards quickly ran over from the guardhouse and started dragging the dead man into the boundary zone, to make it look as though he had trespassed on it. This was too much for the zeks, who grabbed picks and shovels and drove the murderers away from the murdered man. (All this time near the woodworking plant stood a saddled horse belonging to Security Officer Belyaev — known as “the Wart” because he had one on his left cheek. Captain Belyaev was an enterprising sadist, and engineering a murder like this was just his style.)
The woodworking plant was in an uproar. The prisoners said that they would carry the dead man into camp on their shoulders. The camp officers would not permit it. “Why did you kill him?” shouted the prisoners. The bosses had their explanation ready: the dead man himself was to blame — he had started it by throwing stones at the tower. (Can they have had time to read his identity card; did they know that he had three months more to go and was an Evangelical Christian? . . . )
The march back was grim, and there were reminders that the bosses meant business. Machine-gunners lay here and there in the snow, ready to shoot (only too ready, as the men of Kengir had learned). Machine-gunners were also posted on the roofs of the escort troops’ quarters.
This was at the same Camp Division, No. 3, which had already seen sixteen men wounded at once. Although only one man was killed on this occasion, they felt more painfully than ever that they were defenseless, doomed. Nearly a year had gone by since Stalin’s death, but his dogs had not changed. In fact, nothing at all had changed.
In the evening after supper, what they did was this. The light would suddenly go out in a section, and someone invisible said from the doorway: “Brothers! How long shall we go on building and taking our wages in bullets? Nobody goes to work tomorrow!” The same thing happened in section after section, hut after hut.
A note was thrown over the wall to the Second Camp Division; they had some experience by now, and had thought about it often enough, so that they were able to call a strike there, too. In the Second Camp Division, which was multinational, the majority had tenners and many were coming to the end of their time — but they joined in just the same.
In the morning the men’s Camp Divisions, 2 and 3, did not report for work.
This bad habit — striking without refusing the state’s bread and slops — was becoming more and more popular with prisoners, and less and less popular with their bosses. They had an idea: warders and escort troops went unarmed into the striking Camp Divisions, where two of them at a time took hold of a single zek and tried shoving and jostling him out of the hut. (Far too humane a method: only thieves deserve to be nannied like this, not enemies of the people. But since Beria’s execution, no general or colonel dared take the lead and order machine-gunners to fire into a camp.) This was wasted labor: the prisoners just went off to the latrines, or sloped about the camp ground — anything rather than report for work.
They held out like this for two days. The simple idea of punishing the guard who had killed “the Evangelist” did not seem at all simple, or just, to the bosses. Instead, a colonel from Karaganda, with a large retinue, went around the camp on the second night of the strike, confident that he was in no danger, roughly waking everybody up. “How long do you intend to carry on slacking?”* [*”Slacking” was a word much used in official language after the Berlin disturbances of June, 1953. If ordinary people somewhere in Belgium fight for a raise, it’s called “the righteous anger of the people,” but if simple people in our country struggle for black bread they are “slackers.”] Then, knowing nobody there, he pointed at random: “You there — outside! . . . And you . . . And you . . . Outside!” And these chance people the valiant and forceful manager of men consigned to jail, imagining that this was the most sensible way to deal with slackers. The Latvian Will Rosenberg, when he saw this senseless high-handedness, said to the colonel: “I’ll go, too!” “Go on, then,” the colonel readily agreed. He probably did not even realize that this was a protest, or that there were any grounds for protest.
That same night it was announced that the liberal feeding policy was at an end and that those who did not go out to work would be put on short rations. Camp Division No. 2 went to work in the morning. No. 3 didn’t turn out for the third morning running. The jostling and shoving tactics were now applied to them, but with heavier forces: all the officers serving in Kengir, those who had come in to help, and those who were with investigating commissions, were mobilized. The officers picked a hut and entered in strength, dazzling the prisoners with the coming and going of white fur hats and the brilliance of their epaulets, made their way, stooping, among the bunks, and with no sign of distaste sat down in their clean breeches on dirty pillows stuffed with shavings. “Come on, move up a bit — can’t you see I’m a lieutenant colonel!” The lieutenant colonel kept this up, shifting his seat with arms akimbo, until he shoved the owner of the mattress out into the passageway, where warders grabbed him by his sleeves and hustled him along to the work-assignment area or, if he was still too stubborn, into jail. (The limited capacity of the two Kengir jails was a great nuisance to the staff: they held about five hundred men.)
The strike was mastered, regardless of cost to the dignity and privileges of officers. This sacrifice was forced on them by the ambiguities of the time. They had no idea what was required of them, and mistakes could be dangerous! If they showed excessive zeal and shot down a crowd, they might end up as henchmen of Beria. But if they weren’t zealous enough, and didn’t energetically push the strikers out to work — exactly the same thing could happen.* [*Colonel Chechev, for one, was defeated by this conundrum. He retired after the February events and we lose track of him-to discover him later living on his pension in Karaganda. We do not know how soon the camp commander, Colonel Yevsigneyev, left Ozerlag. “An excellent manager … a modest comrade,” he became deputy head of the Bratsk hydroelectric station. (No hint of this in Yevtushenko’s poem.)] Moreover, by their massive personal participation in putting down the strike, the MVD officers demonstrated as never before the importance of their epaulets to the defense of holy order, the impossibility of reducing staffs, and their individual bravery.
All previously proved methods were also employed. In March and April, several contingents of prisoners were transferred to other camps. (The plague crept further!) Some seventy men (Tenno among them) were sent to maximum security prisons, with the classic formula: “All measures of correction exhausted, corrupts other prisoners, not suitable for labor camp.” Lists of those dispatched to maximum security jails were posted in the camp to deter others. And to make the self-financing system — Gulag’s New Economic Policy, as it were — a more satisfactory substitute for freedom and justice, a wide selection of foodstuffs was delivered to the previously ill-stocked sale points. They even — incredibly! — started giving prisoners advances so that they could buy these provisions. (Gulag giving the natives credit! Who had ever heard of such a thing!)
So, for the second time in Kengir, a ripening abscess was lanced before it could burst.
But then the bosses went too far. They reached for the biggest stick they could use on the 58’s — for the thieves! (Why, indeed, should they dirty their hands and sully their epaulets when they had the “class allies”?)
The bosses now renounced the whole principle of the Special Camps, acknowledged that if they segregated political prisoners they had no means of making themselves understood, and just before the May Day celebrations brought in and distributed throughout the mutinous No. 3 Camp Division 650 men, most of them thieves, some of them petty offenders (including many minors). “A healthy batch is joining us!” the bosses spitefully warned the 58’s. “Now you won’t dare breathe.” And they called on the new arrivals to “put our house in order!”
The bosses understood well enough how the restorers of order would begin: by stealing, by preying on others, and so setting every man against his fellows. And the bosses smiled the friendly smile which they reserve for such people when the thieves heard that there was a women’s camp nearby and asked in their impudent beggar’s whine for a “look at the women, boss man!”
But here again we see how unpredictable is the course of human emotions and of social movements! Injecting in Kengir No. 3 a mammoth dose of tested ptomaine, the bosses obtained not a pacified camp but the biggest mutiny in the history of the Gulag Archipelago.
Though they seem to be so scattered and so carefully sealed off, the islands of Gulag are linked by the transit prisons, so that they breathe the same air and the same vital fluids flow in their veins. Thus the massacre of stoolies, the hunger strikes, the strikes, the disturbances in the Special Camps, had not remained unknown to the thieves. By 1954, so we are told, it was noticeable in transit prisons that the thieves came, to respect the politicals.
If this is so — what prevented us from gaining their respect earlier? All through the twenties, thirties, and forties, we blinkered Philistines, preoccupied as we were with our own importance to the world, with the contents of our duffel bags, with the shoes or trousers we had been allowed to retain, had conducted ourselves in the eyes of the thieves like characters on the comic stage: when they plundered our neighbors, intellectuals of world importance like ourselves, we shyly looked the other way and huddled together in our corners; and when the submen crossed the room to give us the treatment, we expected, of course, no help from neighbors, but obligingly surrendered all we had to these ugly customers in case they bit our heads off. Yes, our minds were busy elsewhere, and our hearts were trained for other things! We had never expected to meet an enemy so vile and so cruel! We who were racked by the twists and turns of Russian history, were ready to die only in public, beautifully, with the whole world looking on, and only for the final salvation of all mankind. It might have been better if we had been far less clever. Perhaps when we first stepped into the cell of a transit prison we should have been prepared, every man of us in the place, to take a knife between the ribs and slump in a wet corner on the slime around the latrine bucket, in a sordid brawl with those ratmen whom the boys in blue had thrown in to gnaw our flesh. If we had, perhaps we should have suffered far fewer losses, found our courage sooner, and, who knows, shoulder to shoulder with these very same thieves smashed Stalin’s camps to smithereens? What reason, indeed, had the thieves to respect us? . . .
Well, then, when they arrived in Kengir the thieves had already heard a thing or two; they came expecting to find a fighting spirit among the politicals. And before they could get their bearings, and exchange doggy compliments with the camp authorities, their atamans were visited by some calm, broad-shouldered lads who sat down to talk about life and told them this: “We are representatives. You’ve heard all about the chopping in the Special Camps, or if you haven’t we’ll tell you. We can make knives as good as yours now. There are six hundred of you, two thousand six hundred of us. Think it over, and take your choice. If you try squeezing us we’ll cut the lot of you up.”
Now, this was a wise step, if ever there was one, and long overdue — rounding on the thieves with everything they had. Seeing them as the main enemy!
Of course, nothing would have suited the boys in blue better than a free-for-all. But the thieves looked at the odds and saw that it wouldn’t pay to take on the newly emboldened 58’s one against four. Their protectors, after all, were beyond the camp limits, and a fat lot of use anyway! What thief had ever respected them? Whereas the alliance which our lads offered was a novel and jolly adventure, which might also, they thought, clear a way over the fence into the women’s camp.
Their answer, then, was: “No, we’re wiser than we used to be. We’re with you fellows!”
The conference has not been recorded for history and the names of its participants are not preserved in protocols. This is a pity. They were clever lads.
In their first huts while they were still in the quarantine period, the healthy contingent held a housewarming party — making bonfires of their bunks and lockers on the cement floor, and letting smoke pour through the windows. They expressed their disapproval of locks on hut doors by stuffing the keyholes with wood chips.
For two weeks the thieves behaved as though they were at a health resort: they reported for work, but all they did was sun themselves. The bosses, of course, would not dream of putting them on short rations, but for lack of funds could not pay wages to those of whom they had such bright hopes. Soon, however, vouchers turned up in the possession of the thieves, and they went to the stall to buy food. The bosses were heartened by this sign that the healthy element had begun thieving after all. But they were ill-informed, they were mistaken: a collection in aid of the thieves had been taken up among the politicals (also, no doubt, part of the compact — otherwise the thieves would not have been interested) and this was how they had come by their vouchers! An event too far out of the ordinary for the bosses to guess at it!
No doubt the novelty and unfamiliarity of the game made it great fun for the criminals, especially the juveniles: treating “Fascists” politely, not entering their sections without permission, not sitting down on their bunks without invitation.
Paris in the last century took some of its criminals (it seems to have had plenty of them) into the militia, and called them the mobiles. A very apt description! They are such a mobile breed that they cannot rest quietly inside the shell of an ordinary humdrum existence, but inevitably break it. They had made it a rule not to steal, and it was unethical to slog away for the government, but they had to do something! The young cubs amused themselves By snatching off warders’ caps, prancing over the hut roofs and over the high wall from Camp Division No. 3 to No. 2 during evening roll call, confusing the count, whistling, hooting, scaring the towers at night. They would have gone further and climbed into the women’s camp if the service yard and its sentries had not been in the way.
When disciplinary officers, or education officers, or security men, looked in for a friendly chat with thieves in their hut, the juveniles hurt their feelings badly by pulling notebooks and purses out of their pockets, or suddenly leaning out from a top bunk and switching godfather’s cap peak-backward. Gulag had never encountered such conduct — but then the whole situation was unprecedented! They had always in the past regarded their foster fathers in Gulag as fools, and the more earnestly those turkey cocks believed that they were successfully reforging the thieves, the more the thieves despised them. They were ready to burst with scornful laughter as they stepped onto a platform or before a microphone to talk about beginning a new life behind a wheelbarrow. But so far there had been no point in quarreling with the bosses. Now, however, the compact with the politicals turned the newly released forces of the thieves against the bosses alone.
Thus the Gulag authorities, because they had only the mean intelligence of bureaucrats, and lacked the higher intellectual powers of human beings, had themselves prepared the Kengir explosion: to begin with, by the senseless shootings, and then by pouring the thieves into the camp like petrol fumes into an overheated atmosphere.
Events followed their inevitable course. It was impossible for the politicals not to offer the thieves a choice between war and alliance. It was impossible for the thieves to refuse an alliance. And it was impossible for the alliance, once concluded, to remain inactive — if it had, it would have fallen apart and civil war would have broken out.
They had to start something, no matter what! And since those who start something are strung up if they are 58’s, with nooses around their necks, whereas if they are thieves they are only mildly rebuked in their political discussion period, the thieves made the obvious suggestion: we’ll start, and you join in!
It should be noted that the whole Kengir camp complex formed a single rectangle, with one common outer fence, and was subdivided across its width into separate camp areas. First came Camp Division No. 1 (the women’s camp), then the service yard (we have already talked about the industrial importance of its workshops), then No. 2, then No. 3, and then the prison area, with its two jailhouses, an old and a new building in which not only inmates of the camp but free inhabitants of the settlement were locked up from time to time.
The obvious first objective was to capture the service yard, in which all the camp’s food stores were also situated. They began the operation in the afternoon of a nonworking day (Sunday, May 16, 1954). First the mobiles climbed onto the roofs of their huts and perched at intervals along the wall between Camp Divisions 2 and 3. Then at the command of their leaders, who stayed up aloft, they jumped down into Camp Division No. 2 with sticks in their hands, formed up in a column, and marched in line along the central road. This ran along the axis of No. 2 right up to the inner gates of the service yard, which brought them to a halt.
All these quite undisguised operations took a certain time, during which the warders managed to get themselves organized and obtain instructions. And here is something extremely interesting! The warders started running around to the huts of the 58’s, appealing to these men whom they had treated like dirt for thirty-five years: “Look out, lads! The thieves are on their way to break into the women’s camp. They are going to rape your wives and daughters! Come and help us. Let’s stop them at it!” But a treaty is a treaty, and those who, not knowing about it, seemed eager to follow the bosses were stopped. Normally the 58’s would have risen to this bait, but this time the warders found no helpers among them.
Just how the warders would have defended the women’s camp against their favorites, no one knows — but first they had to think of defending the storerooms around the service yard. The gates of the service yard were flung open and a platoon of unarmed soldiers came out to meet the attackers, with Belyaev the Wart leading them from behind — perhaps devotion to duty had kept him inside the camp on a Sunday out of zeal, or perhaps he was officer of the day. The soldiers started pushing the mobiles away, and broke their lines. Without resorting to their clubs, the thieves began retreating to their own Camp Division No. 3, scaling the wall once again, from which the rear guard covered their retreat by throwing stones and mud bricks at the soldiers.
No thief, of course, was arrested as a result of this. The authorities still saw it as nothing but high-spirited mischief, and let the camp Sunday quietly run its course. Dinner was handed around without incident, and in the evening as soon as it was dark they started showing a film, Rimsky-Korsakov, using a space near the mess hall as an open-air cinema.
But before the gallant composer could withdraw from the conservatory in protest against oppression and persecution, the tinkle of broken glass could be heard from the lamps around the boundary zone: the mobiles were shooting at them from slingshots to put out the lights over the camp area. They swarmed all over Camp Division No. 2 in the darkness, and their shrill bandit whistles rent the air. They broke the service yard gate down with a beam, and from there made a breach in the wall with a section of railway line and were through to the women’s camp. (There were also some of the younger 58’s with them.)
In the light of the flares fired from the towers, our friend Captain Belyaev, the security officer, broke into the service yard from outside the camp, through the guardhouse, with a platoon of Tommy-gunners, and for the first time in the history of Gulag opened fire on the “class allies”! Some were killed and dozens wounded. Behind them came red tabs to bayonet the wounded. Behind them again, observing the usual division of punitive labor, already adopted in Ekibastuz, in Norilsk, and in Vorkuta, ran warders with iron crowbars, and with these they battered the wounded to death. (That night the lights went up in the operating room of the hospital in Camp Division No. 2, and Fuster, the surgeon, a Spanish prisoner, went to work.)
The service yard was now firmly held by the punitive forces, and machine-gunners were posted there. But the Second Camp Division (the mobiles had played their overture, and the politicals now came onto the stage) erected a barricade facing the service yard gate. The Second and Third Camp Divisions had been joined together by a hole in the wall, and there were no longer any warders, any MVD authority, in them.
But what of those who had succeeded in breaking through to the women’s camp, and were now cut off there? Events outsoared the casual contempt which the thieves feel for females. When shots rang out in the service yard, those who had broken into the women’s camp ceased to be greedy predators and became comrades in misfortune. The women hid them. Unarmed soldiers came in to catch them, then others with guns. The women got in the way of the searchers, and resisted attempts to move them. The soldiers punched the women and struck them with their gun butts, dragged some of them off to jail (thanks to someone’s foresight, there was a jailhouse in the women’s camp area), and shot at some of the men.
Finding its punitive force under strength, the command brought into the women’s camp some “black tabs” — soldiers from a construction battalion stationed in Kengir. But they would have nothing to do with this “unsoldierly work” and had to be taken away.
At the same time, here in the women’s camp was the best political excuse which the executioners could offer their superiors in self-defense! They were not at all stupid! Whether they had read something of the sort or thought of it for themselves, on Monday they let photographers into the women’s camp, together with two or three of their own apes, disguised as prisoners. The impostors started pulling women about, while the photographers took pictures. Obviously it was to save defenseless women from such bullying that Captain Belyaev had been compelled to open fire!
In the morning hours on Monday, there was growing tension on both sides of the barricade and the broken gates to the service yard. The yard had not been cleared of bodies. Machine-gunners lay at their guns, which were trained on the gate. In the liberated men’s camps they were breaking bunks to arm themselves, and making shields out of boards and mattresses. Prisoners shouted across the barricade at the butchers, who shouted back. Something had to give; the position was far too precarious. The zeks on the barricade were thinking of taking the offensive themselves. Some emaciated men took their shirts off, got up on the barricade, pointed to their bony chests and ribs, and shouted to the machine-gunners: “Come on, then, shoot! Strike down your fathers! Finish us off!”
Suddenly a soldier ran into the yard with a note for the officer. The officer gave orders for the bodies to be taken up and the red tabs left the yard with them.
For five minutes the barricade was silent and mistrustful. Then the first zeks peeped cautiously into the yard. It was empty, except for the black prison caps lying around, dead men’s caps with stitched-on number patches.
(They discovered later that the order to clear the yard had been given by the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Kazakh Republic, who had just flown in from Alma-Ata. The bodies carried away were driven out into the steppe and buried, to rule out postmortem examination if someone later called for it.)
Shouts of “Hurrah” went through the ranks, and they poured into the yard and on into the women’s camp. They enlarged the breach. Then they freed the women in the jailhouse — and the whole camp was united! The whole of the main camp area was free–Mily No. 4 Division (the camp jail) was left.
There were four red-tabbed sentries on every tower — no lack of ears to cram with insults! Prisoners stood facing the towers and shouted at them (the women, naturally, louder than anyone): “You’re worse than Fascists!. . . Bloodsuckers!. . . Murderers!”
A priest or two were of course easily found in the camp — and there in the morgue a requiem was sung for those who had been killed or died later from their wounds.
How can we say what feelings wrung the hearts of those eight thousand men, who for so long and until yesterday had been slaves with no sense of fellowship, and now had united and freed themselves, not fully perhaps, but at least within the rectangle of those walls, and under the gaze of those quadrupled guards? Even the bedridden fast in locked huts at Ekibastuz was felt as a moment of contact with freedom! This now was the February Revolution! So long suppressed, the brotherhood of man had broken through at last! We loved the thieves! And the thieves loved us! (There was no getting away from it: they had sealed the friendship in blood! They had departed from their code!) Still more, of course, we loved the women, and now we were living as human beings should, there were women at our side once more, and they were our sisters and shared our fate.
Proclamations appeared in the mess hall: “Arm yourselves as best you can, and attack the soldiers first!” The most passionate among them hastily scrawled their slogans on scraps of newspaper (there was no other paper) in black or colored letters: “Bash the Chekists, boys!” “Death to the stoolies, the Cheka’s stooges!” Here, there, everywhere you turned there were meetings and orators. Everybody had suggestions of his own. Come on, think — you’re permitted to think now: Who gets your vote? What demands shall we put forward? What is it we want? Put Belyaev on trial — that’s understood! Put the murderers on trial! — goes without saying. What else? … No locking huts; take the numbers off! But beyond that?… Beyond that came the most frightening thing — the real reason why they had started it all, what they really wanted. We want freedom, of course, just freedom — but who can give it to us? The judges who condemned us in Moscow. As long as our complaints are against Steplag or Karaganda, they will go on talking to us. But if we start complaining against Moscow . . . we’ll all be buried in this steppe.
Well, then — what do we want? To break holes in the walls? To run off into the wilderness? . . .
Those hours of freedom! Immense chains had fallen from our arms and shoulders! No; whatever happened, there could be no regrets! That one day made it all worthwhile!
Late on Monday, a delegation from command HQ arrived in the seething camp. The delegation was quite well disposed, they did not glare savagely at the prisoners, they had no Tommy-gunners with them, no one would ever take them for henchmen of the bloody Beria. Our side learned that generals had flown in from Moscow — Bochkov, from Gulag HQ, and the Deputy Procurator General, Vavilov. (They had served in Beria’s time, but why reopen old wounds?) They found the prisoners’ demands fully justified! (We simply gasped: justified? We aren’t rebels, then? No, no, they’re quite justified!) “Those responsible for the shooting will be made to answer for it!” “But why did they beat up women?” “Beat up women?” The delegation was shocked. “That can’t be true.” Anya Mikhalevich brought in a succession of battered women for them to see. The commission was deeply moved: “We’ll look into it, never fear!” “Beasts!” Lyuba Bershadskaya shouts at the general. There were other shouts: “No locks on huts!” “We won’t lock them any more.” “Take the numbers off!” “Certainly we’ll take them off,” comes the assurance from a general whom the prisoners had never laid eyes on (and would never see again). “The holes in the wall between camp areas must remain!” They were getting bolder. “We must be allowed to mix with each other.” “All right, mix as much as you like,” the general agreed. “Let the holes remain.” Right, brothers, what else do we want? We’ve won, we’ve won! We raised hell for just one day, enjoyed ourselves, let off steam — and we won! Although some among us shake their heads and say, “It’s a trick, it’s all a trick,” we believe it! We believe our bosses; they’re not so bad, on the whole! We believe because that’s our easiest way out of the situation. . . .
All that the downtrodden can do is go on hoping. After every disappointment they must find fresh reason for hope.
So on Tuesday, May 18, all the Kengir Camp Divisions went out to work, reconciling themselves to thoughts of their dead.
That morning the whole affair could still have ended quietly. But the exalted generals assembled in Kengir would have considered such an outcome a defeat for themselves. They could not seriously admit that prisoners were in the right! They could not seriously punish soldiers of the MVD! Their mean understanding could draw only one moral: the walls between Camp Divisions were not strong enough! They must ring them with hoops of fire!
And that day the zealous commanders harnessed for work people who had lost the habit years or decades ago. Officers and warders donned aprons; those who knew how to handle them took up trowels; soldiers released from the towers wheeled barrows and carried hods; discharged soldiers who had stayed around the camps hauled and handed up mud bricks. And by evening the breaches were bricked up, the broken lamps were replaced, prohibited zones had been marked along inside walls and sentries posted at the ends with orders to fire!
When the columns of prisoners returned to camp in the evening after giving a day’s work to the state, they were hurried in to supper before they knew what was happening, so that they could be locked up quickly. On orders from the general, the jailers had to play for time that first evening — that evening of blatant dishonesty after yesterday’s promises; later on the prisoners would get used to it and slip back into the rut.
But before nightfall the long-drawn whistles heard on Sunday shrilled through the camp again — the Second and Third Camp Divisions were calling to each other like hooligans on a spree. (These whistles were another useful contribution from the thieves to the common cause.) The warders took fright, and fled from the camp grounds without finishing their duties. Only one officer slipped up. Medvedev, a first lieutenant in the quartermaster service, stayed behind to finish his business and was held prisoner till morning.
The .camp was in the hands of the zeks, but they were divided. The towers opened fire with machine guns on anyone who approached the inside walls. They killed several and wounded several. Once again zeks broke all the lamps with slingshots, but the towers lit up the camp with flares. This was where the Second Camp Division found a use for the quartermaster: they tied him, with one of his epaulets torn off, to a table, and pushed it up to the strip near the boundary fence, with him yelling to his people: “Don’t shoot, it’s me! This is me, don’t shoot!”
They battered at the barbed wire, and the new fence posts, with long tables, but it was impossible, under fire, either to break through the barrier or to climb over it — so they had to burrow under. As always, there were no shovels, except those for use in case of fire, inside the camp. Kitchen knives and mess tins were put into service.
That night — May 18-19 — they burrowed under all the walls and again united all the divisions and the service yard. The towers had stopped shooting now, and there were plenty of tools in the service yard. The whole daytime work of the epauleted masons had gone to waste. Under cover of night they broke down the boundary fences, knocked holes in the walls, and widened the passages, so that they would not become traps (in the next few days they made them twenty meters wide).
That same night they broke through the wall around the Fourth Camp Division — the prison area — too. The warders guarding the jails fled, some to the guardhouse, some to the towers, where ladders were let down for them. The prisoners wrecked the interrogation offices. Among those released from the jail were those who on the morrow would take command of the rising: former Red Army Colonel Kapiton Kuznetsov (a graduate of the Frunze Academy, no longer young; after the war he had commanded a regiment in Germany, and one of his men had run away to the Western part — this was why he had been imprisoned; he was in the camp jail for “slanderous accounts of camp life” in letters sent out through free workers); and former First Lieutenant Gleb Sluchenkov (he had been a prisoner of war, and some said a Vlasovite).
In the “new” jailhouse were some inhabitants of the Kengir settlement, minor offenders. At first they thought that nationwide revolution had broken out, and rejoiced in their unexpected freedom. But they quickly discovered that the revolution was too localized, and the minor offenders loyally returned to their stone sack and dutifully lived there without guards throughout the rebellion — though they did go to eat in the mutinous zeks’ mess hall.
Mutinous zeks! Who three times already had tried to reject this mutiny and this freedom. They did not know how to treat such gifts, and feared rather than desired them. But a force as relentless as the surf breaking on the shore had carried them helplessly into this rebellion.
What else could they do? Put their faith in promises? They would be cheated again, as the slavemasters had shown so clearly the day before, and so often in the past. Should they kneel in submission? They had spent years on their knees and earned no clemency. Should they give themselves up and take their punishment today? Today, or after a month of freedom, punishment would be equally cruel at the hands of those whose courts functioned like clockwork: if quarters were given out, it would be all around, with no one left out!
The runaway escapes to enjoy just one day of freedom! In just the same way, these eight thousand men had not so much raised a rebellion as escaped to freedom, though not for long! Eight thousand men, from being slaves, had suddenly become free, and now was their chance to … live! Faces usually grim softened into kind smiles.* [*A hostile witness, Makeyev, noted this.] Women looked at men, and men took them by the hand. Some who had corresponded by ingenious secret ways, without even seeing each other, met at last! Lithuanian girls whose weddings had been solemnized by priests on the other side of the wall now saw their lawful wedded husbands for the first time — the Lord had sent down to earth the marriages made in heaven! For the first time in their lives, no one tried to prevent the sectarians and believers from meeting for prayer. Foreigners, scattered about the Camp Divisions, now found each other and talked about this strange Asiatic revolution in their own languages. The camp’s food supply was in the hands of the prisoners. No one drove them out to work line-up and an eleven-hour working day.
The morning of May 19 dawned over a feverishly sleepless camp which had torn off its number patches. Posts with broken lamps sprawled against the wire fences. Even without their help the zeks moved freely from zone to zone by the trenches dug under the wires. Many of them took their street clothes from the storerooms and put them on. Some of the lads crammed fur hats on their heads; shortly there would be embroidered shirts, and on the Central Asians bright-colored robes and turbans. The gray-black camp would be a blaze of color.
Orderlies went around the huts summoning us to the big mess hall to elect a commission for negotiations with the authorities and for self-government, as it modestly and timidly described itself.
For all they knew, they were electing it just for a few hours, but it was destined to become the government of Kengir camp for forty days.
Had all this taken place two years earlier, if only for fear that He would find out, the bosses of Steplag would not have delayed a moment before giving the classic order “Don’t spare the bullets!” and shooting the whole crowd penned within these walls. If it had proved necessary to knock off four thousand — or all eight thousand — they would not have felt the slightest tremor, because they were shockproof.
But the complexity of the situation in 1954 made them vacillate. Even Vavilov, even Bochkov, sensed that a new breeze was stirring in Moscow. Quite a few prisoners had been shot in Kengir already, and they were still wondering how to make it look legal. So a delay was created, which meant time for the rebels to begin their new life of independence.
In its very first hours the political line of the revolt had to be determined: to be or not to be? Should it follow in the wake of the simple-hearted messages scrawled over the columns of the robot press: “Bash the Chekists, boys”?
As soon as he left the jail and began to take charge — whether through force of circumstances, or because of his military skill, or on the advice of friends, or moved by some inner urge — Kapiton Ivanovich immediately adopted the line of those orthodox Soviet citizens who were not very numerous in Kengir and were usually pushed into the background. “Cut out all this scribbling” (of leaflets), “nip the evil of counter-revolution in the bud, frustrate those who want to take advantage of events in our camp!” These phrases I quote from notes kept by another member of the commission, A. F. Makeyev, of an intimate discussion in Pyotr Akoyev’s storeroom. The orthodox citizens nodded approval of Kuznetsov: “Yes, if we don’t stop those leaflets, we shall all get extra time.”
In the first hours, during the night, as he went around the huts haranguing himself hoarse, again at the meeting in the mess hall next morning, and on many subsequent occasions, whenever he encountered extremist sentiments and the bitter rage of men whose lives were trodden so deep into the mire that they felt they had nothing more to lose, Kuznetsov endlessly, tirelessly repeated the same words:
“Anti-Sovietism will be the death of us. If we display anti-Soviet slogans we shall be crushed immediately. They’re only waiting for an excuse to crush us. If we put out leaflets like that, they will be fully justified in shooting. Our salvation lies in loyalty. We must talk to Moscow’s representatives in a manner befitting Soviet citizens!”
Then, in a louder voice: “We shall not permit such behavior on the part of a few provocateurs!” (However, while he was making these speeches, people on the bunks were loudly kissing. They didn’t take in much of what he said.)
When a train carries you in the wrong direction and you decide to jump off, you have to jump with the motion of the train, and not against it. The inertial force of history is just as hard to resist. By no means everyone wanted it that way, but the reasonableness of Kuznetsov’s line was immediately perceived, and it prevailed. Very soon slogans were hung up all over the camp, in big letters easily legible from the towers and the guardhouse:
“Long live the Soviet Constitution!”
“Long live the Presidium of the Central Committee!”
“Long live the Soviet regime!”
“The Central Committee must send one of its members and review our cases!”
“Down with the murdering Beria-ites!”
“Wives of Steplag officers! Aren’t you ashamed to be the wives of murderers?”
Although it was clear as could be to the majority in Kengir that all the millions of acts of rough justice, near and distant, had taken place under the watery sun of that very constitution, and had been sanctioned by a Politburo consisting of the very same members, all they felt able to do was write “long live” that constitution and that Politburo. As they reread their slogans, the rebel prisoners now felt themselves on firm legal ground and began to be less anxious: their movement was not hopeless.
Over the mess hall, where the elections had just taken place, a flag was raised which the whole settlement could see. It hung there long afterward: white, with a black border, and the red hospitalers’ cross in the middle. In the international maritime code this flag means:
“Ship in distress! Women and children on board.”
Twelve men were elected to the Commission, with Kuznetsov at their head. The members of the Commission assumed individual responsibilities, and created the following departments:
Agitation and propaganda (under the Lithuanian Knopkus, who had been sent for punishment from Norilsk after the rising there).
Services and maintenance.
Internal security (Gleb Sluchenkov).
Technical (perhaps the most remarkable branch of this camp government).
Former Major Mikheyev was made responsible for contacts with the authorities. The Commission also had among its members one of the atamans of the thieves, and he, too, was in charge of something. There were also some women (apparently, Shakhnovskaya, an economist and Party member already gray; Suprun, an elderly teacher from the Carpathians; and Lyuba Bershadskaya).
But did the real moving spirits behind the revolt join this Commission? It seems that they did not. The centers, especially the Ukrainian Center (not more than a quarter of those in the whole camp were Russian), evidently kept themselves to themselves. Mikhail Keller, a Ukrainian partisan, who from 1941 had fought alternately against the Germans and the Soviet side, and had publicly axed a stoolie in Kengir, appeared at meetings of the Commission as an observer from the other staff.
The Commission worked openly in the offices of the Women’s Camp Division, but the Military Department moved its command post (field staff) out to the bathhouse in Camp Division No. 2. The departments set to work. The first few days were particularly hectic: there was so much planning and arranging to be done.
First of all they had to fortify their position. (Mikheyev, in expectation of the inevitable military action to crush them, was against creating defenses of any kind, but Sluchenkov and Knopkus insisted.) Great piles of mud bricks had risen, where the breaches in the inner walls were widened and cleared. They used these bricks to make barricades facing all the guard points — exits from within, entrances from without — which remained in the hands of the jailers, and any one of which might open at any minute to admit the punitive force. There were plenty of coils of barbed wire in the service yard. With this they made entanglements and scattered them about the threatened approaches. Nor did they omit to put out little boards saying: “Danger! Minefield!”
This was one of the first of the Technical Department’s bright ideas. The department’s work was surrounded by great secrecy. In the occupied service yard the Technical Department set aside secret premises, with a skull and crossbones drawn on the door, and the legend “High Tension — 100,000 volts.” Only the handful of men who worked there were allowed in. So that even the prisoners did not get to know what the Technical Department’s activities were. A rumor was very soon put about that it was making secret weapons of a chemical nature. Since both zeks and bosses knew very well what clever engineers there were in the camp, it was easy for a superstitious conviction to get around that they could do anything, even invent a weapon which no one had yet thought of in Moscow. As for making a few miserable mines, using the reagents which were there in the service yard — what was to stop them? So the boards saying “Minefield” were taken seriously.
Another weapon was devised: boxes of ground glass at the entrance to every hut (to throw in the eyes of the Tommy-gunners).
The teams were kept just as they had been, but were now called platoons, while the huts were called detachments, and detachment commanders were named, subordinate to the Military Department. Mikhail Keller was put in charge of all guard duties. Vulnerable places were occupied, according to a precise roster, by pickets, which were reinforced for the night hours. A man will not run away and in general will show more courage in the presence of a woman: with this masculine psychological trait in mind, the rebels organized mixed pickets. Besides the many loud-mouthed women in Kengir, there proved to be many brave ones, especially among the Ukrainian girls, who were the majority in the women’s camp.
Without waiting this time for master’s kind permission, they began taking the window bars down themselves. For the first two days, before the bosses thought of cutting the power supply to the camp, the lathes were still working in the shops and they made a large number of pikes from these window bars by grinding down and sharpening their ends. The smiths and the lathe operators worked without a break in those first days, making weapons: knives, halberds, and sabers (which were particularly popular with the thieves; they decorated the hilts with jingles and colored leather). Others were seen with bludgeons in their hands.
The pickets shouldered pikes as they went to take up their posts for the night. The women’s platoon, on their way at night to rooms provided in the men’s camp, so that they could rush out to meet the attackers if the alarm was raised (it was naively assumed that the butchers would be ashamed to hurt women), also bristled with pikes.
All this would have been impossible, would have been ruined by mockers or lechers, if the stern and cleansing wind of rebellion had not been blowing through the camp. In our age these pikes, these sabers, were children’s toys, but for these people, prison — prison behind them, and prison before them — was no game. The pikes were playthings, but this was what fate had sent — their first chance to defend their freedom. In the puritanical air of that revolutionary springtime, when the presence of women on the barricades itself became a weapon, men and women behaved with proper dignity, and with dignity carried their pikes, points skyward.
If anyone during those days entertained hopes of vile orgies, it was the blue-epauleted bosses, on the other side of the fence. Their calculation was that left alone for a week, the prisoners would drown in their debauchery. That was the picture they painted for the inhabitants of the settlement — prisoners mutinying for the sake of sexual indulgence. (Obviously, there was no other lack they could feel in their comfortable existence.)* [*After the mutiny the bosses had the effrontery to carry out a general medical examination of all the women. When they discovered that many were still virgins they were flabbergasted. Eh? What were you thinking of? All those days together! … In their judgment of events they could not rise above their own moral plane.]
The main hope of the authorities was that the thieves would start raping women, that the politicals would intervene, and that there would be a massacre. But once again the MVD psychologists were wrong! And we ourselves may well be surprised. All witnesses agree that the thieves behaved like decent people, but in our sense of the term, not in their own traditional sense. On their side, the politicals and the women themselves emphasized by their behavior that they regarded the thieves as friends, and trusted them. What lay below these attitudes need not concern us here. Perhaps the thieves kept remembering their comrades bloodily murdered that first Sunday.
If we can speak of the strength of the Kengir revolt at all, its strength was in this unity.
Nor did the thieves touch the food stores, which, for those who know them, is no less surprising. Although there was enough food for many months in the storerooms, the Commission, after due consideration, decided to leave the allowances of bread and other foodstuffs as before. The honest citizen’s fear of eating more than his share of public victuals, and having to answer for this waste! As though the state owed the prisoners nothing for all those hungry years! On the other hand (as Mikheyev recalls), when there was a shortage outside the camp, the supply section of the camp administration asked the prisoners to release certain foodstuffs. There was some fruit, intended for those on higher norms (free workers!), and the zeks released it.
The camp bookkeepers allocated foodstuffs on the old norms, the kitchen took them and cooked them, but in the new revolutionary atmosphere did not pilfer, nor did emissaries from the thieves appear with instructions to bring the stuff for the people. Nothing extra was ladled out for the trusties. And it was suddenly found that though the norms were the same, there was noticeably more to eat!
If the thieves sold things (things previously stolen in other places), they did not, as had been their custom, immediately come along to take them back again. “Things are different now,” they said.
The stalls belonging to the local Workers’ Supply Department went on trading inside the camp. The staff guaranteed the safety of the cashier (a free woman). She was allowed into the camp and went around the stalls with two girls, collecting the takings (in vouchers) from the salespeople. (But the vouchers, of course, soon ran out, and the bosses did not let new stocks through into the camp.)
The supply of three items needed in the camp remained in the hands of the bosses: electricity, water, and medicines. They did not, of course, control the air supply. As for medicines, they gave the camp not a single powder nor a single drop of iodine in forty days. The electricity they cut off after two or three days. The water supply they left alone.
The Technical Department began a fight for light. Their first idea was to fix hooks to fine wires and sling them forcibly over the outside cable, which ran just beyond the camp wall — and in this way they stole current for a few days, until the tentacles were discovered and cut. This had given the Technical Department time to try out a windmill, abandon it, and begin installing in the service yard (in a spot concealed from prying eyes on the towers, or low-flying observation planes) a hydroelectric station, worked by … a water tap. A motor which happened to be in the yard was converted into a generator, and they started supplying the camp telephone network, the lighting in staff headquarters, and . . . the radio transmitter! (The huts were lit by wood splints.) This unique hydroelectric station went on working till the last day of the revolt.
In the very early days of the mutiny, the generals would come into the camp as though they owned it. True, Kuznetsov was not at a loss. When the first parleys took place he ordered his men to bring the bodies from the morgue and loudly ordered: “Caps off!” The zeks bared their heads, and the generals, too, had to take off their peaked caps in the presence of their victims. But the initiative remained with Gulag’s General Bochkov. After approving the election of a commission (“You can’t talk to everybody at once”), he demanded that the negotiators tell him first how their cases had been investigated (and Kuznetsov began lengthily and perhaps eagerly presenting his story); and further insisted that prisoners should stand up to speak. When somebody said, “The prisoners demand . . .” Bochkov touchily retorted that “Prisoners cannot demand, they can only request!” And “The prisoners request” became the established formula.
Bochkov replied to the prisoners’ requests with a lecture on the building of socialism, the unprecedentedly rapid progress of the economy, and the successes of the Chinese revolution. That complacent irrelevancy, that driving of screws into the brain which always leaves us weak and numb. He had come into the camp* to look for evidence that the use of firearms had been justified. (They would shortly declare that in fact there had been no shootings in the camp: this was just a lie told by the gangsters; nor had there been any beatings.) He was simply amazed that they should dare ask him to infringe the “instruction concerning the separate housing of men and women prisoners.” (They talk this way about their instructions, as though they were laws for and from all time.)
Shortly, other, more important generals arrived in Douglas aircraft: Dolgikh (at that time allegedly head of Gulag) and Yegorov (Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs for the U.S.S.R.).
A meeting was called in the mess hall, and some two thousand prisoners assembled. Kuznetsov gave the orders: “Silence, please! All stand! Attention!” and respectfully invited the generals to sit on the dais, while he, as befitted his subordinate rank, stood to one side! (Sluchenkov behaved differently. When one of the generals casually spoke of enemies present, Sluchenkov answered in a clear voice: “How many of your sort turned out to be enemies? Yagoda was a public enemy, Yezhov was a public enemy, Abakumov was a public enemy, Beria was a public enemy. How do we know that Kruglov is any better?”)
Makeyev, to judge from his notes, drew up a draft agreement in which the authorities promised not to transfer people to other camps, or otherwise victimize them, and to begin a thorough investigation, while the zeks in return agreed to return to work immediately. However, when he and his supporters started going around the huts and asking prisoners to accept his draft, they were jeered at as “bald-headed Komsomols,” “procurement agents,” and “lackeys of the Cheka.” They got a particularly hostile reception in the women’s camp, and found that the separation of the men’s and women’s divisions was by now the last thing the zeks would agree to. (Makeyev angrily answered his opponents: “Just because you’ve had your hand on some wench’s tits, d’you think the Soviet regime is a thing of the past? The Soviet regime will get its own way, whatever happens!”)
The days ran on. They never took their eyes off the camp grounds — soldiers’ eyes from the towers, and warders’ eyes, too (the warders, knowing the zeks by sight, were supposed to identify them and remember who did what), and even the eyes of airmen (perhaps equipped with cameras) — and the generals were regretfully forced to conclude that there were no massacres, no pogroms, no violence in there, that the camp was not disintegrating of its own accord, and that there was no excuse to send troops in to the rescue.
The camp stood fast and the negotiations changed their character. Golden-epauleted personages, in various combinations, continued coming into the camp to argue and persuade. They were all allowed in, but they had to pick up white flags, and between the outer gate of the service yard (now the main entrance) and the barricade, they had to undergo a body search, with some Ukrainian girl slapping the generals’ pockets in case there was a pistol or a hand grenade in them. In return, the rebel staff guaranteed their personal safety! . . .
They showed the generals around, wherever it was allowed (not, of course, around the secret sector of the service yard), let them talk to prisoners, and called big meetings in the Camp Divisions for their benefit. Their epaulets flashing, the bosses took their seats in the presidium as of old, as though nothing were amiss.
The prisoners put up speakers. But speaking was so difficult! Not only because each of them, as he spoke, was writing his future sentence, but also because in their experience of life and their ideas of truth, the grays and the blues had grown too far apart, and there was hardly any way of penetrating, of letting some light into, those plump and prosperous carcasses, those glossy, melon-shaped heads. They seem to have been greatly angered by an old Leningrad worker, a Communist who had taken part in the Revolution. He asked them what chance Communism had when officers got fat on the output of camp workshops, when they had lead stolen from the separating plant and made into shot for their poaching trips; when prisoners had to dig their kitchen gardens for them; when carpets were laid in the bathhouse for the camp commander’s visits, and an orchestra accompanied his ablutions.
To cut out some of this disorganized shouting, the discussions sometimes took the form of direct negotiations on the loftiest diplomatic model. Sometime in June a long mess table was placed in the women’s camp, and the golden epaulets seated themselves on a bench to one side of it, while the Tommy-gunners allowed in with them as a bodyguard stood at their backs. Across the table sat the members of the Commission, and they, too, had a bodyguard — which stood there, looking very serious, armed with sabers, pikes, and slingshots. In the background crowds of prisoners gathered to listen to the powwow and shout comments. (Refreshments for the guests were not forgotten! Fresh cucumbers were brought from the hothouses in the service yard, and kvass from the kitchen. The golden epaulets crunched cucumbers unselfconsciously. . . . )
The rebels had agreed on their demands (or requests) in the first two days, and now repeated them over and over again:
• Punish the Evangelist’s murderer.
• Punish all those responsible for the murders on Sunday night in the service yard.
• Punish those who beat up the women.
• Bring back those comrades who had been illegally sent to closed prisons for striking.
• No more number patches, window bars, or locks on hut doors.
• Inner walls between Camp Divisions not to be rebuilt.
• An eight-hour day, as for free workers.
• An increase in payment for work (here there was no question of equality with free workers).
• Unrestricted correspondence with relatives, periodic visits.
• Review of cases.
Although there was nothing unconstitutional in any of these demands, nothing that threatened the foundations of the state (indeed, many of them were requests for a return to the old position), it was impossible for the bosses to accept even the least of them, because these bald skulls under service caps and supported by close-clipped fat necks had forgotten how to admit a mistake or a fault. Truth was unrecognizable and repulsive to them if it manifested itself not in secret instructions from higher authority but on the lips of common people.
Still, the obduracy of the eight thousand under siege was a blot on the reputation of the generals, it might ruin their careers, and so they made promises. They promised that nearly all the demands would be satisfied — only, they said (to make it more convincing), they could hardly leave the women’s camp open, that was against the rules (forgetting that in the Corrective Labor Camps it had been that way for twenty years), but they could consider arranging, should they say, meeting days. To the demand that the Commission of Inquiry (into the circumstances of the shooting) should start its work inside the camp, the generals unexpectedly agreed. (But Sluchenkov guessed their purpose, and refused to hear of it: while making their statements, the stoolies would expose everything that was happening in the camp.) Review of cases? Well, of course, cases would be re-examined, but prisoners would have to be patient. There was one thing that couldn’t wait at all — the prisoners must get back to work! to work! to work!
But the zeks knew that trick by now: dividing them up into columns, forcing them to the ground at gunpoint, arresting the ringleaders.
No, they answered across the table, and from the platform. No! shouted voices from the crowd. The administration of Steplag have behaved like provocateurs! We do not trust the Steplag authorities! We don’t trust the MVD!
“Don’t trust even the MVD?” The vice-minister was thrown into a sweat by this treasonable talk. “And who can have inspired in you such hatred for the MVD?”
A riddle, if ever there was one.
“Send us a member of the Central Committee Presidium! A member of the Presidium! Then we’ll believe you!” shouted the zeks.
“Be careful,” the generals threatened. “You’ll make it worse for yourselves!”
At this Kuznetsov got up. He spoke calmly and precisely, and he held himself proudly.
“If you enter the camp with weapons,” he warned them, “don’t forget that half of those here had a hand in the capture of Berlin. They can cope even with your weapons!”
Kapiton Kuznetsov! Some future historian of the Kengir mutiny must help us to understand the man better. What were his thoughts, how did he feel about his imprisonment? What stage did he imagine his appeal to have reached? How long was it since he had asked for a review, if the order of release (with rehabilitation, I believe) arrived from Moscow during the rebellion? His pride in keeping the mutinous camp in such good order—was it only the professional pride of a military man? Had he put himself at the head of the movement because it captured his imagination? (I reject that explanation.) Or, ‘ knowing his powers of leadership, had he taken over to restrain the movement, tame the flood, and channel it, to lay his chastened comrades at their masters’ feet? (That is my view.) In meetings and discussions, and through people of lesser importance, he had opportunities to tell those in charge of the punitive operation anything he liked, and to hear things from them. On one occasion in June, for instance, the artful dodger Markosyan was sent out of camp on an errand for the Commission. Did Kuznetsov exploit such opportunities? Perhaps not. His position may have been a proud and independent one.
Two bodyguards—two enormous Ukrainian lads—accompanied Kuznetsov the whole time with knives in their belts.
To defend him? To settle scores?
(Makeyev claims that during the rebellion Kuznetsov also had a temporary wife—another Ukrainian nationalist.)
Gleb Sluchenkov was about thirty. Which means that he must have been captured by the Germans when he was nineteen or so. Like Kuznetsov, he now went around in his old uniform, which had been kept in storage, acting or overacting the old soldier. He had a slight limp, but the speed of his movements made it unimportant.
In the negotiations he was precise to the point of curtness. The authorities had the idea of calling all “former juvenile offenders” out of the camp (youngsters jailed before they were eighteen, some of them now twenty or twenty-one) and releasing them. This may not have been a trick—at about this time they were releasing such prisoners or reducing their sentences all over the country. Sluchenkov’s answer was:
“Have you asked the minors whether they want to move from one camp to another, and leave their comrades in the lurch?” (In the Commission, too, he insisted that “These kids carry out our guard duties—we can’t hand them over!” This, indeed, was the unspoken reason why the generals wanted to release these youngsters while Kengir was in revolt: and for all we know, they would have shoved them in cells outside the camp.) The law-abiding Makeyev nonetheless began rounding up former juveniles for the “discharge tribunal,” and he testifies that out of 409 persons with a claim to be released, he only succeeded in collecting thirteen who were willing to leave. If we bear in mind Makeyev’s sympathy with the authorities, and his hostility to the rising, his testimony is amazing: four hundred youngsters in the bloom of youth, and in their great majority not politically minded, renounced not merely freedom but salvation! And stayed with the doomed revolt . . .
Sluchenkov’s reply to threats that troops would be used to put down the revolt was “Send them in! Send as many Tommy-gunners as you like! We’ll throw ground glass in their eyes and take their guns from them! We’ll trounce your Kengir troops. Your bowlegged officers we’ll chase all the way to Karaganda—we’ll ride into Karaganda on your backs! And once there, we’re among friends!”
There is other evidence about him which seems reliable. “Anybody who runs away will get this in the chest!”—flourishing a hunting knife in the air. “Anybody who doesn’t turn out to defend the camp will get the knife,” he announced in one hut. The inevitable logic of any military authority and any war situation.
The newborn camp government, like all governments through the ages, was incapable of existing without a security service, and Sluchenkov headed this (occupying the security officer’s room in the women’s camp). Since there could be no victory over the outside forces, Sluchenkov realized that this post meant certain execution. In the course of the revolt he told people in the camp that the bosses had secretly urged him to provoke a racial blood-bath (the golden epaulets were banking heavily on this) and so provide a plausible excuse for troops to enter the camp. In return the bosses promised Sluchenkov his life. He rejected their proposal. (What approaches were made to others? They haven’t told us.) Moreover, when a rumor went around the camp that a Jewish pogrom was imminent, Sluchenkov gave warning that the rumor-mongers would be publicly flogged. The rumor died down.
A clash between Sluchenkov and the loyalists seemed inevitable. And it happened. It should be said that all these years, in all the Special Camps, orthodox Soviet citizens, without even consulting each other, unanimously condemned the massacre of the stoolies, or any attempt by prisoners to fight for their rights. We need not put this down to sordid motives (though quite a few of the orthodox were compromised by their work for the godfather) since we can fully explain it by their theoretical views. They accepted all forms of repression and extermination, even wholesale, provided they came from above—as a manifestation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even impulsive and uncoordinated actions of the same kind but from below were regarded as banditry, and what is more, in its “Banderist” form (among the’ loyalists you would never get one to admit the right of the Ukraine to secede, because to do so was bourgeois nationalism). The refusal of the katorzhane to be slave laborers, their indignation about window bars and shootings, depressed and frightened the docile camp Communists.
In Kengir as elsewhere, there was a nest of loyalists. (Genkin, Apfelzweig, Talalayevsky, and evidently Akoyev. We have no more names.) There was also a malingerer who spent years in the hospital pretending that “his leg kept going around.” Intellectual methods of struggle such as this were deemed permissible. In the Commission itself Makeyev was an obvious example. All of them were reproachful from the beginning: “You shouldn’t have started it”; when the passages under the walls were blocked off, they said that they shouldn’t have tunneled; it was all a stunt thought up by the Banderist scum, and the thing to do now was to back down quickly. (Anyway, the sixteen killed were not from their camp, and it was simply silly to shed tears over the Evangelist.) All their bile and bigotry is blurted out in Makeyev’s notes. Everything and everybody in sight is bad, and there are dangers on every hand; it’s either a new sentence from the bosses, or a knife in the back from the Banderists. “They want to frighten us all with their bits of iron and drive us to our deaths.” Makeyev angrily calls the Kengir revolt a “bloody game,” a “false trump,” “amateur dramatics” on the part of the Banderists, and more often than any of these, “the wedding party.” The hopes and aims of the leaders, as he sees them, were fornication, evasion of work, and putting off the day of reckoning. (That there was a reckoning to be paid, he tacitly assumes to be just.)
This very accurately expresses the attitude of the loyalists in the fifties to the freedom movement in the camps. Whereas Makeyev was very cautious, and was indeed among the leaders of the revolt, Talalayevsky poured out such complaints quite openly, and Sluchenkov’s internal security service locked him in a cell in the Kengir jailhouse for agitation hostile to the rebels.
Yes, this really happened. The rebels who had liberated the jail now set up one of their own. The old, old ironical story. True, only four men were put inside for various reasons (usually for dealings with the bosses), and none of them was shot (instead, they were presented with the best of alibis for the authorities).
This incident apart, the jailhouse—a particularly gloomy old place, built in the thirties—was put on display to a wide public: it had windowless solitary-confinement cells, with nothing but a tiny skylight; legless beds, mere wooden boards on the cement floor, where it was still colder and damper than elsewhere in the cold cell; and beside each bed, which means down on the floor, a rough earthenware bowl like a dog dish.
To this place the Agitation Department organized sightseeing trips for their fellow prisoners who had never been inside and perhaps never would be. They also took there visiting generals (who were not greatly impressed). They even asked that sightseers from among the free inhabitants of the settlement be sent along: with the prisoners absent, they could in any case do nothing at the work sites. The generals actually sent such a party — not, of course, ordinary workingmen, but hand-picked personnel who found nothing to excite indignation.
In reply, the authorities offered to arrange a prisoners’ outing to Rudnik (Divisions 1 and 2 of Steplag), since according to camp rumors a revolt had broken out there, too. (Incidentally, for their own good reasons both slaves and slavemasters shunned the word “revolt,” or still worse, “rising,” replacing them with the bashful euphemism “horseplay.”) The delegates went, and saw for themselves that all was as it had been, that prisoners were going to work.
Their hopes largely depended on strikes like their own spreading. Now the delegates returned with cause for despondency.
(The authorities, in fact, had taken them there only just in time. Rudnik was of course worked up. Prisoners had heard from free workers all sorts of facts and fantasies about the Kengir revolt. In the same month [June] it so happened that many appeals for judicial review were turned down simultaneously. Then some half-crazy lad was wounded in the prohibited area. And there, too, a strike started, the gates between Camp Divisions were knocked down, and prisoners poured out onto the central road. Machine guns appeared on the towers. Somebody hung up a placard with anti-Soviet slogans on it, and the rallying cry “Freedom or death!” But this was taken down and replaced by one with legitimate demands and an undertaking to make up for losses caused by the stoppage once the demands were satisfied. Lorries came to fetch flour from the storerooms; the prisoners wouldn’t let them have it. The strike lasted for something like a week, but we have no precise information about it: this is all at third hand, and probably exaggerated.)
There were weeks when the whole war became a war of propaganda. The outside radio was never silent: through several loudspeakers set up at intervals around the camp it interlarded appeals to the prisoners with information and misinformation, and with a couple of trite and boring records that frayed everybody’s nerves.
Through the meadow goes a maiden, She whose braided hair I love.
(Still, to be thought worthy even of that not very high honor — having records played to them — they had to rebel. Even rubbish like that wasn’t played for men on their knees.) These records also served, in the spirit of the times, as a. jamming device—drowning the broadcasts from the camps intended for the escort troops.
On the outside radio they sometimes tried to blacken the whole movement, asserting that it had been started with the sole aim of rape and plunder. (In the camp itself the zeks just laughed, but the free inhabitants of the settlement also listened, willy-nilly, to the loudspeakers. Of course, the slavemasters could not rise to any other explanation—an admission that this rabble was capable of seeking justice was far beyond the reach of their minds.) At other times they tried telling filthy stories about members of the Commission. (They even said that one of the “old ones,” when he was being transported by barge to the Kolyma, had made a hole below the waterline and sunk the boat with three hundred zeks in it. The emphasis was on the fact that it was poor zeks he had drowned, practically all of them 58’s, too, and not the escort troops; how he had survived himself was not clear.) Or else they would taunt Kuznetsov, telling him that his discharge had arrived, but was now canceled. Then the appeals would begin again. Work! Work! Why should the Motherland keep you for nothing? By not going to work you are doing enormous damage to the state! (This was supposed to pierce the hearts of men doomed to eternal katorgat) Whole trainloads of coal are standing in the siding, there’s nobody to unload it! (Let them stand there—the zeks laughed—you’ll give way all the sooner! Yet it didn’t occur even to them that the golden epaulets could unload it themselves if it troubled them so much.)
The Technical Department, however, gave as good as it got. Two portable film projectors were found in the service yard. Their amplifiers were used for loudspeakers, less powerful, of course, than those of the other side. They were fed from the secret hydroelectric station! (The fact that the camp had electricity and radio greatly surprised and troubled the bosses. They were afraid that the rebels might rig up a transmitter and start broadcasting news about their rising to foreign countries. Rumors to this effect were also put around inside the camp.)
The camp soon had its own announcers (Slava Yarimovskaya is one we know of). Programs included the latest news, and news features (there was also a daily wall newspaper, with cartoons). “Crocodile Tears” was the name of a program ridiculing the anxiety of the MVD men about the fate of women whom they themselves had previously beaten up. Then there were programs for the escort troops. Apart from this, prisoners would approach the towers at night and shout to the soldiers through megaphones.
But there was not enough power to put on programs for the only potential sympathizers to be found in Kengir—the free inhabitants of the settlement, many of them exiles. It was they whom the settlement authorities were trying to fool, not by radio but, in some place which the prisoners could not reach, with rumors that bloodthirsty gangsters and insatiable prostitutes (this version went down well with the women)* were ruling the roost inside the camp; that over there innocent people were being tortured and burned alive in furnaces. (In that case, it was hard to see why the authorities did not intervene! . . . ) [*When it was all over and the women’s column was marched through the settlement on the way to work, married women, Russian women, gathered along the roadside and shouted at them: “Prostitutes! Dirty whores! Couldn’t do without it, could you …!” and other, still stronger remarks. The same thing happened next day, but the women prisoners had left the camp prepared, and replied to these insulting creatures with a bombardment of stones. The escort troops just laughed.]
How could the prisoners call out through the walls, to the workers one, or two, or three kilometers away: “Brothers! We want only justice! They were murdering us for no crime of ours, they were treating us worse than dogs! Here are our demands”?
The thoughts of the Technical Department, since they had no chance to outstrip modern science, moved backward instead to the science of past ages. Using cigarette paper (there was everything you could think of in the service yard; we have talked about that already:* for many years it provided the Dzhezkazgan officers with their own Moscow tailor’s shop, and a workshop for every imaginable article of consumer goods), they pasted together an enormous air balloon, following the example of the Montgolfier brothers. [*Part III, Chapter 22.] A bundle of leaflets was attached to the balloon, and slung underneath it was a brazier containing glowing coals, which sent a current of warm air into the dome of the balloon through an opening in its base. To the huge delight of the assembled crowd (if prisoners ever do feel happy they are like children), the marvelous aeronautical structure rose and was airborne. But alas! The speed of the wind was greater than the speed of its ascent, and as’ it was flying over the boundary fence the brazier caught on the barbed wire. The balloon, denied its current of warm air, fell and burned to ashes, together with the leaflets.
After this failure they started inflating balloons with smoke.
With a following wind they flew quite well, exhibiting inscriptions in large letters to the settlement:
“Save the women and old men from being beaten!”
“We demand to see a member of the Presidium.”
The guards started shooting at these balloons.
Then some Chechen prisoners came to the Technical Department and offered to make kites. (They are experts.) They succeeded in sticking some kites together and paying out the string until they were over the settlement. There was a percussive device on the frame of each kite. When the kite was in a convenient position, the device scattered a bundle of leaflets, also attached to the kite. The kite fliers sat on the roof of a hut waiting to see what would happen next. If the leaflets fell close to the camp, warders ran to collect them; if they fell farther away, motorcyclists and horsemen dashed after them. Whatever happened, they tried to prevent the free citizens from reading an independent version of the truth. (The leaflets ended by requesting any citizen of Kengir who found one to deliver it to the Central Committee.)
The kites were also shot at, but holing was less damaging to them than to the balloons. The enemy soon discovered that sending up counter-kites to tangle strings with them was cheaper than keeping a crowd of warders on the run.
A war of kites in the second half of the twentieth century! And all to silence a word of truth.
(Perhaps it will help the reader to place the events at Kengir chronologically if we recall what was happening outside during the days of the mutiny. The Geneva Conference on Indochina was in session. The Stalin Peace Prize was conferred on Pierre Cot. Another progressive French man, the writer Sartre, arrived in Moscow to join in the life of our progressive society. The third centenary of the reunification of Russia and the Ukraine was loudly and lavishly celebrated.* [*The Ukrainians at Kengir declared it a day of mourning.] On May 31 there was a solemn parade on Red Square. The Ukrainian S.S.R. and the Russian S.F.S.R. were awarded the Order of Lenin. On June 6 a monument to Yuri Dolgoruky was unveiled in Moscow. A Trade Union Congress opened on June 8 [but nothing was said there about Kengir]. On the tenth a new state loan was launched. The twentieth was Air Force Day, and there was a splendid parade at Tushino. These months of 1954 were also marked by a powerful offensive on the literary front, as people call it: Surkov, Kochetov, and Yermilov came out with very tough admonitory articles. Kochetov even asked: “What sort of times are we living in?” And nobody answered: “A time of prison camp risings!” Many incorrect plays and books were abused during this period. And in Guatemala the imperialistic United States met with the rebuff it deserved.)
There were Chechen exiles in the settlement, but it is unlikely that they made the other kites. You cannot accuse the Chechens of ever having served oppression. They understood perfectly the meaning of the Kengir revolt, and on one occasion brought a bakery van up to the gates. Needless to say, the soldiers drove them away.
(There is more than one side to the Chechens. People among whom they live—I speak from my experience in Kazakhstan— find them hard to get along with; they are rough and arrogant, and they do not conceal their dislike of Russians. But the men of Kengir only had to display independence and courage—and they immediately won the good will of the Chechens! When we feel that we are not sufficiently respected, we should ask ourselves whether we are living as we should.)
In the meantime the Technical Department was getting its notorious “secret” weapon ready. Let me describe it. Aluminum corner brackets for cattle troughs, produced in the workshops and awaiting dispatch, were packed with a mixture of sulfur scraped from matches and a little calcium carbide (every box of matches had been carried off to the room with the 100,000-volt door). When the sulfur was lit and the brackets thrown, they hissed and burst into little pieces.
But neither these star-crossed geniuses nor the field staff in the bathhouse were to choose the hour, place, and form of the decisive battle. Some two weeks after the beginning of the revolt, on one of those dark nights without a glimmer of light anywhere, thuds were heard at several places around the camp wall. This time it was not escaping prisoners or rebels battering it down; the wall was being demolished by the convoy troops themselves! There was commotion in the camp, as prisoners charged around with pikes and sabers, unable to make out what was happening and expecting an attack. But the troops did not take the offensive.
In the morning it turned out that the enemy without had made about a dozen breaches in the wall in addition to those already there and the barricaded gateway. (Machine-gun posts had been set up on the other side of the gaps, to prevent the zeks from pouring through them.)* [*The precedent is said to have been set by Norilsk; there, too, they made breaches in the wall, to lure out the fainthearted, who would be used to stir up the thieves, and so provide an excuse to introduce troops and restore order.] This was of course the preliminary for an assault through the breaches, and the camp was a seething anthill as it prepared to defend itself. The rebel staff decided to pull down the inner walls and the mud-brick outhouses and to erect a second circular wall of their own, specially reinforced with stacks of brick where it faced the gaps, to give protection against machine-gun bullets.
How things had changed! The troops were demolishing the boundary wall, the prisoners were rebuilding it, and the thieves were helping with a clear conscience, not feeling that they were contravening their code.
Additional defense posts now had to be established opposite the gaps, and every platoon assigned to a gap, which it must run to defend should the alarm be raised at night. Bangs on the buffer of a railroad car, and the usual whistles, were the agreed-upon alarm signals.
The zeks quite seriously prepared to advance against machine guns with pikes. Those who shied at the idea to begin with soon got used to it.
There was one attack in the daytime. Tommy-gunners were moved up to one of the gaps, opposite the balcony of the Steplag Administration Building, which was packed with important personages sheltering under broad army epaulets or the narrow ones of the Public Prosecutor’s department, and holding cameras or even movie cameras. The soldiers were in no hurry. They merely advanced just far enough into the breach for the alarm to be given, whereupon the rebel platoons responsible for the defense of the breach rushed out to man the barricade—brandishing their pikes and holding stones and mud bricks—and then, from the balcony, movie cameras whirred and pocket cameras clicked (taking care to keep the Tommy-gunners out of the picture). Disciplinary officers, prosecutors, Party officials, and all the rest of them—Party members to a man, of course—laughed at the bizarre spectacle of the impassioned savages with pikes. Well-fed and shameless, these grand personages mocked their starved and cheated fellow citizens from the balcony, and found it all very funny.* [* These photographs must still exist somewhere, gummed to reports on the punitive operation. Perhaps somebody will not be swift enough to destroy them before posterity sees them.]
Then warders, too, stole up to the gaps and tried to slip nooses with hooks over the prisoners, as though they were hunting wild animals or the abominable snowman, hoping to drag out a talker.
But what they mainly counted on now were deserters, rebels with cold feet. The radio blared away. Come to your senses! Leave the camp through the gaps in the wall! At those points we shall not fire! Those who come over will not be tried for mutiny!
The Commission’s response, over the camp radio, was this: Anybody who wants to run away can go right ahead, through the main gate if he likes; we are holding no one back!
One who did so was … a member of the Commission itself, former Major Makeyev, who walked up to the main guardhouse as though he had business there. (As though, not because they would have detained him, nor because they had the means of shooting him in the back—but because it is almost impossible to play the traitor with your comrades looking on and howling their contempt!)* [*Even ten years later he was so ashamed that in his memoirs, which were probably designed to serve as an apologia, he writes that he chanced to put his head out of the gate, where the other side pounced on him and tied his hands. . . .] For three weeks he had kept up a pretense; now at last he could give free rein to his defeatism, and his anger with the rebels for wanting the freedom which he, Makeyev, did not want. Now, working off his debts to the bosses, he broadcast an appeal to surrender, and reviled those who favored holding out longer. Here are some sentences from his own written account of this broadcast: “Somebody has decided that freedom can be won with the help of sabers and pikes. They want to expose to bullets people who won’t take their bits of iron. . . . We have been promised a review of our cases. The generals are patiently negotiating with us, but Sluchenkov regards this as a sign of weakness on their part. The Commission is a screen for gangster debauchery…. Conduct the negotiations in a manner worthy of political prisoners, and do not (!!) prepare for senseless resistance.”
The holes in the wall gaped for weeks; the wall had not remained whole so long while the revolt was on. And in all those weeks only about a dozen men fled from the camp.
Why? Surely the rest did not believe in victory. Were they not appalled by the thought of the punishment ahead? They were. Did they not want to save themselves for their families’ sake? They did! They were torn, and thousands of them perhaps had secretly considered this possibility. The invitation to the former juveniles had a firm legal base. But the social temperature on this plot of land had risen so high that if souls were not transmuted, they were purged of dross, and the sordid laws saying that “we only live once,” that being determines consciousness, and that every man’s a coward when his neck is at stake, ceased to apply for that short time in that circumscribed place. The laws of survival and of reason told people that they must all surrender together or flee individually, but they did not surrender and they did not flee! They rose to that spiritual plane from which executioners are told: “The devil take you for his own! Torture us! Savage us!”
And the operation, so beautifully planned, to make the prisoners scatter like rats through the gaps in the wall till only the most stubborn were left, who would then be crushed—this operation collapsed because its inventors had the mentality of rats themselves.
In the rebel wall newspaper, next to a drawing of a woman showing a child a pair of handcuffs in a glass case—”like the ones they kept your father in”—appeared a cartoon of the “Last Renegade” (a black cat running through one of the holes in the wall).
Cartoonists can always laugh, but the people in the camp had little to laugh about. The second, third, fourth, fifth week went by. . . . Something which, according to the laws of Gulag, could not last an hour had lasted for an incredibly, indeed an agonizingly long time—half of May and almost the whole of June. At first people were intoxicated with the joy of victory, with freedom, meetings, and schemes, then they believed the rumors that Rudnik had risen; perhaps Churbay-Nura, Spassk—all Steplag would follow. In no time at all Karaganda would rise! The whole Archipelago would erupt and fall in ash over the face of the land! But Rudnik put its hands behind its back, lowered its head, and reported as before for its eleven-hour shifts, contracting silicosis, with never a thought for Kengir, or even for itself.
No one supported the island of Kengir. It was impossible by now to take off into the wilderness: the garrison was being steadily reinforced; troops were under canvas out on the steppe. The whole camp had been encircled with a double barbed-wire fence outside the walls. There was only one rosy spot on the horizon: the lord and master (they were expecting Malenkov) was coming to dispense justice. He would come, kind man, and exclaim, and throw up his hands: “However could they live in such conditions? and why did you treat them like this? Put the murderers on trial! Shoot Chechev and Belyaev! Sack the rest….” But it was too tiny a spot, and too rosy.
They could not hope for pardon. All they could do was live out their last few days of freedom, and submit to Steplag’s vengeance.
There are always hearts which cannot stand the strain. Some were already morally crushed, and were in an agony of suspense for the crushing proper to begin. Some quietly calculated that they were not really involved, and need not be if they went on being careful. Some were newly married (what is more, with a proper religious ceremony—a Western Ukrainian girl, for instance, will not marry without one, and thanks to Gulag’s thoughtfulness, there were priests of all religions there). For these newlyweds the bitter and the sweet succeeded each other with a rapidity which ordinary people never experience in their slow lives. They observed each day as their last, and retribution delayed was a gift from heaven each morning.
The believers… prayed, and leaving the outcome of the Kengir revolt in God’s hands, were as always the calmest of people. Services for all religions were held in the mess hall according to a fixed timetable. The Jehovah’s Witnesses felt free to observe their rules strictly and refused to build fortifications or stand guard. They sat for hours on end with their heads together, saying nothing. (They were made to wash the dishes.) A prophet, genuine or sham, went around the camp putting crosses on bunks and foretelling the end of the world. Conveniently for him, a severe cold spell set in, of the sort that a shift in the wind sometimes brings to Kazakhstan even in summer. The old women he had gathered together sat, not very warmly dressed, on the cold ground shivering and stretching out their hands to heaven. Where else could they turn?
Some knew that they were fatally compromised and that the few days before the troops arrived were all that was left of life. The theme of all their thoughts and actions must be how to hold out longer. These people were not the unhappiest. (The unhappiest were those who were not involved and who prayed for the end.)
But when all these people gathered at meetings to decide whether to surrender or to hold on, they found themselves again in that heated climate where their personal opinions dissolved, and ceased to exist even for themselves. Or else they feared ridicule even more than the death that awaited them.
“Comrades,” the majestic Kuznetsov said confidently, as though he knew many secrets, and all to the advantage of the prisoners, “we have defensive firepower, and the enemy will suffer fifty percent of our own losses.”
He also said: “Even our destruction will not be in vain.”
(In this he was absolutely right.-The social temperature had its effect on him, too.)
And when they voted for or against holding out, the majority were for.
Then Sluchenkov gave an ominous warning. “Just remember, if anyone remains in our ranks now and wants to surrender later, we shall settle accounts with him five minutes before he gets there!”
One day the outside radio broadcast an “order of the day to Gulag”: for refusal to work, for sabotage, for this, that, and the other, the Kengir Camp Division of Steplag was to be disbanded and all prisoners sent to Magadan. (Clearly, the planet was getting too small for Gulag. And those who had been sent to Magadan previously—what were they there for?) One last chance to go back to work . . .
Once more their last chance ran out, and things were as before.
All was as it had been, and the dreamlike existence of these eight thousand men, suspended in midair, was rendered all the more startlingly improbable and strange by the regularity of the camp routine; fresh linen from the laundry; haircuts; clothes and shoes repaired. There were even conciliation courts for disputes. Even . . . even a release procedure!
Yes. The outside radio sometimes summoned prisoners due for release: these were either foreigners from some country which had earned the right to gather in its citizens, or else people whose sentence was (or was said to be?) nearing its end. Perhaps this was the administration’s way of picking up “tongues” without the use of warders’ ropes and hooks? The Commission sat on it, but had no means of verification, and let them all go.
Why did it drag on so long? What can the bosses have been waiting for? For the food to run out? They knew it would last a long time. Were they considering opinion in the settlement? They had no need to. Were they carefully working out their plan of repression? They could have been quicker about it. (True, it was learned later that they had sent for a “special purposes”—meaning punitive—regiment from somewhere around Karaganda. It’s a job not everyone can do.) Were they having to seek approval for the operation up top? How high up? There is no knowing on what date and at what level the decision was taken.
On several occasions the main gate of the service yard suddenly opened—perhaps to test the readiness of the defenders? The duty picket sounded the alarm, and the platoons poured out to meet the enemy. But no one entered the camp grounds.
The only field intelligence service the defenders had were the observers on the hut roofs. Their anticipations were based entirely on what the fence permitted them to see from the rooftops.
In the middle of June several tractors appeared in the settlement. They were working, shifting something perhaps, around the boundary fence. They began working even at night. These nocturnal tractor operations were baffling. Just in case, the prisoners started digging ditches opposite the gaps, as an additional defense. (They were all photographed or sketched from an observation plane.)
The unfriendly roar made the night seem blacker.
Then suddenly the skeptics were put to shame! And the defeatists! And all who had said that there would be no mercy, and that there was no point in begging. The orthodox alone could feel triumphant. On June 22 the outside radio announced that the prisoners’ demands had been accepted! A member of the Presidium of the Central Committee was on his way!
The rosy spot turned into a rosy sun, a rosy sky! It is, then, possible to get through to them! There is, then, justice in our country! They will give a little, and we will give a little. If it comes to it, we can walk about with number patches, and the bars on the windows needn’t bother us, we aren’t thinking of climbing out. You say they’re tricking us again? Well, they aren’t asking us to report for work beforehand!
Just as the touch of a stick will draw off the charge from an electroscope so that the agitated gold leaf sinks gratefully to rest, so did the radio announcement reduce the brooding tension of that last week.
Even the loathsome tractors, after working for a while on the evening of June 24, stopped their noise.
Prisoners could sleep peacefully on the fortieth night of the revolt. He would probably arrive tomorrow; perhaps he had come already.. . .* [*Perhaps he really had come? Perhaps it was he who had given the instructions?] Those short June nights are too short to have your sleep out, and you are fast asleep at dawn. It was like that summer thirteen years before.
In the early dawn of Friday, June 25, parachutes carrying flares opened out in the sky, more flares soared from the watchtowers, and the observers on the rooftops were picked off by snipers’ bullets before they could let out a squeak! Then cannon fire was heard! Airplanes skimmed the camp, spreading panic. Tanks, the famous T-34’s, had taken up position under cover of the tractor noise and now moved on the gaps from all sides. (One of them, however, fell into a ditch.) Some of the tanks dragged concatenations of barbed wire on trestles so that they could divide up the camp grounds immediately. Behind others ran helmeted assault troops with Tommy guns. (Both Tommy-gunners and tank crews had been given vodka first. However special the troops may be, it is easier to destroy unarmed and sleeping people with drink inside you.) Operators with walkie-talkies came in with the advancing troops. The generals went up into the towers with the snipers, and from there, in the daylight shed by the flares (and the light from a tower set on fire by the zeks with their incendiary bombs), gave their orders: “Take hut number so-and-so!… That’s where Kuznetsov is!” They did not hide in observation posts, as they usually do, because no bullets threatened them.* [*They only hid from history. Who were these war lords, so swift and so sure? Why has our country not saluted their glorious victory at Kengir? With some difficulty we can discover the names not of the most important there, but of some by no means unimportant: for instance, Colonel Ryazantsev, head of the Security Operations Section; Syomushkin, head of the Political Department of Steplag. …. Please help! Add to the list.]
From a distance, from their building sites, free workers watched the operation.
The camp woke up—frightened out of its wits. Some stayed where they were in their huts, lying on the floor as their one chance of survival, and because resistance seemed senseless. Others tried to make them get up and join in the resistance. Yet others ran right into the line of fire, either to fight or to seek a quicker death.
The Third Camp Division fought—the division which had started it all. (It consisted mainly of 58’s with a large majority of Banderists.) They hurled stones at the Tommy-gunners and warders, and probably sulfur bombs at the tanks…. Nobody thought of the powdered glass. One hut counterattacked twice, with shouts of “Hurrah.”
The tanks crushed everyone in their way. (Alia Presman, from Kiev, was run over—the tracks passed over her abdomen.) Tanks rode up onto the porches of huts and crushed people there (including two Estonian women, Ingrid Kivi and Makhlapa.)* [*In one of the tanks sat Nagibina, the camp doctor, drunk. She was there not to help but to watch-it was interesting.] The tanks grazed the sides of huts and crushed those who were clinging to them to escape the caterpillar tracks. Semyon Rak and his girl threw themselves under a tank clasped in each other’s arms and ended it that way. Tanks nosed into the thin board walls of the huts and even fired blank shells into them. Faina Epstein remembers the corner of a hut collapsing, as if in a nightmare, and a tank passing obliquely over the wreckage and over living bodies; women tried to jump and fling themselves out of the way: behind the tank came a lorry, and the half-naked women were tossed onto it.
The cannon shots were blank, but the Tommy guns were shooting live rounds, and the bayonets were cold steel. Women tried to shield men with their own bodies—and they, too, were bayoneted! Security Officer Belyaev shot two dozen people with his own hand that morning; when the battle was over he was seen putting knives into the hands of corpses for the photographer to take pictures of dead gangsters, Suprun, a member of the Commission, and a grandmother, died from a wound in her lung. Some prisoners hid in the latrines, and were riddled with bullets there.* [*Attention, Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, with your War Crimes Tribunal! Attention, philosophers. Here’s material for you! Why not hold a session? They can’t hear me.]
Kuznetsov was arrested in the bathhouse, his command post, and made to kneel. Sluchenkov was lifted high in the air with his hands tied behind his back and dashed to the ground (a favorite trick with the thieves).
Then the sound of shooting died away. There were shouts of “Come out of your huts; we won’t shoot.” Nor did they—they merely beat prisoners with their gun butts.
As groups of prisoners were taken, they were marched through the gaps onto the steppe and between files of Kengir convoy troops outside. They were searched and made to lie flat on their faces with their arms stretched straight out. As they lay there thus crucified, MVD fliers and warders walked among them to identify and pull out those whom they had spotted earlier from the air or from the watchtowers. (So busy were they with all this that no one had leisure to open Pravda that day. It had a special theme—a day in the life of our Motherland: the successes of steelworkers; more and more crops harvested by machine. The historian surveying our country as it was that day will have an easy task.)
Curious officers could now inspect the secrets of the service yard —see where the electric power had come from, and what “secret weapons” there were.
The victorious generals descended from the towers and went off to breakfast. Without knowing any of them, I feel confident that their appetite that June morning left nothing to be desired and that they drank deeply. An alcoholic hum would not in the least disturb the ideological harmony in their heads. And what they had for hearts was something installed with a screwdriver.
The number of those killed or wounded was about six hundred, according to the stories, but according to figures given by the Kengir Division’s Production Planning Section, which became known some months later, it was more than seven hundred.* [*On January 9, 1905, the number killed was about 100. In 1912, in the famous massacre on the Lena goldfields, which shocked all Russia, there were 270 killed and 250 wounded.] When they had crammed the camp hospital with wounded, they began taking them into town. (The free workers were informed that the troops had fired only blanks, and that prisoners had been killing each other.)
It was tempting to make the survivors dig the graves, but to prevent the story from spreading too far, this was done by troops. They buried three hundred in a corner of the camp, and the rest somewhere out on the steppe.
All day on June 25, the prisoners lay face down on the steppe in the sun (for days on end the heat had been unmerciful), while in the camp there was endless searching and breaking open and shaking out. Later bread and water were brought out onto the steppe. The officers had lists ready. They called the roll, put a tick by those who were still alive, gave them their bread ration, and consulting their lists, at once divided the prisoners into groups.
The members of the Commission and other suspects were locked up in the camp jail, which was no longer needed for sightseers. More than a thousand people were selected for dispatch either to closed prisons or to Kolyma (as always, these lists were drawn up partly by guesswork, so that many who had not been involved at all found their way into them).
May this picture of the pacification bring peace to the souls of those on whom the last chapters have grated. Hands off, keep away! No one will have to take refuge in the “safe deposit,” and the punitive squads will never face retribution!
On June 26, the prisoners were made to spend the whole day taking down the barricades and bricking in the gaps.
On June 27, they were marched out to work. Those trains in the sidings would wait no longer for working hands!
The tanks which had crushed Kengir traveled under their own power to Rudnik and crawled around for the zeks to see. And draw their conclusions . . .
The trial of the rebel leaders took place in autumn, 1955, in camera, of course, and indeed we know nothing much about it. . . . Kuznetsov, they say, was very sure of himself, and tried to prove that he had behaved impeccably and could have done no better. We do not know what sentences were passed. Sluchenkov, Mikhail Keller, and Knopkus were probably shot. I say probably because they certainly would have been shot earlier—but perhaps 1955 softened their fate?
Back in Kengir all was made ready for a life of honest toil. The bosses did not fail to create teams of shock workers from among yesterday’s rebels. The “self-financing” system flourished. Food stalls were busy, rubbishy films were shown. Warders and officers again sneaked into the service yard to have things made privately —a fishing reel, a money box—or to get the clasp mended on a lady’s handbag. The rebel shoemakers and tailors (Lithuanians and Western Ukrainians) made light, elegant boots for the bosses, and dresses for their wives. As of old, the zeks at the separating plant were ordered to strip lead from the cables and bring it back to the camp to be melted down for shot, so that the comrade officers could go hunting antelopes.
By now disarray had spread throughout the Archipelago and reached Kengir. Bars were not put back at the windows, huts were no longer locked. The “two-thirds” parole system was introduced, and there was even a quite unprecedented re-registration of 58’s —the half-dead were released.
The grass on graves is usually very thick and green.
In 1956 the camp area itself was liquidated. Local residents, exiles who had stayed on in Kengir, discovered where they were buried—and brought steppe tulips to put on their graves.
Whenever you pass the Dolgoruky monument, remember that it was unveiled during the Kengir revolt—and so has come to be in some sense a memorial to Kengir.
Source: Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: an experiment in literary investigation (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), Vol. 3, 285-331.