died in prison camps in harshest Siberia. The once-taboo topic is now
in the open, the anguish even shared with visiting Americans.
September 15, 1990
By CHARLES HILLINGER, TIMES STAFF WRITER
CAMP, Soviet Union — Thousands died in this Stalin-era death camp,
bleak and desolate on a wind-swept mountain top in Siberia. They were
beaten to death, or shot or died from the extreme cold, from disease
and from hunger. Human bones still litter the ground.
Robbins, 45, a medical ethics specialist from Farmington Hills, Mich.,
who recently visited Vostochny (pronounced Vos-TOACH-knee ), the sight
of the camp's ruins and rusted barbed wire renewed his grief over the
loss of most of his Russian-Jewish grandfather's family.
grandfather's seven brothers and sisters were murdered, apparently
because they were Jews, Robbins said. His grandfather survived only
because his train broke down and he arrived home a day later than
"I cry for the Soviet Union," Robbins said, wiping away
tears. "I feel the pain of sorrow and despair for those who suffered so
much in this place, for my grandfather's brothers and sisters, for all
the useless brutality and lack of humanity on Earth."
Khokhorina, 34, a Soviet interpreter visiting from the port of Magadan,
about 1,000 miles to the southwest, also was moved to tears.
cannot express my innermost feelings seeing these human bones, knowing
what happened here. I was a real Soviet patriot growing up in school. I
loved my country. I considered it the best country on Earth. I never
heard about these camps until five years ago. I am so sad for my
country . . . ."
Vostochny lies beyond the Arctic Circle, near
the edge of the Magadan Oblast, a region almost three times the size of
California in the remote, easternmost reaches of Siberia. For years
travel was strictly controlled, both for Soviet citizens and
foreigners. This was because of the area's dark history as a center of
the Gulag, as the labor-camp system is called, because of its
militarily strategic location close to Alaska, China and Japan and
because of fears that gold might be smuggled from the mineral-rich area.
although glasnost and perestroika have not brought complete freedom of
movement in this vast region of tundra and permafrost, more and more
people have been given access to it. Recently, 31 American medical
personnel visited the region for 17 days. Among them was Robbins, who,
along with several other members of the group, visited the Vostochny
site in the company of some Soviet doctors.
visited different parts of the region under the auspices of the
University of Alaska's Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies, an
organization founded on the premise that medical personnel in countries
at the top of the world can learn from one another about such shared
problems as the remoteness and poor communications of the areas they
serve, the long periods of darkness in winter and of perpetual daylight
in summer and the common incidence of alcoholism.
Union's reform policies have also opened the subject of the dreaded
Gulag system to discussion. In Magadan City, Dr. Alexander (Sasha)
Nochevnoy, 42, told how only in recent years have people living in the
Magadan Region been allowed to "talk about the camps with one another.
Before, if the authorities heard us discussing the camps, we would be
sent to prison."
Scattered throughout the mountains and
glacier-sculptured river valleys in the Soviet Union's northeastern
corner, from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Arctic Ocean, are the ruins of
more than 100 Gulag camps in which an estimated 3 million men, women
and children were executed or died.
At Vostochny, one of the
Soviet doctors traveling with the American visitors recalled that the
camp was "one of the deadliest of the infamous Gulag camps of the
Kolyma River area described by Solzhenitsyn."
To some Soviet citizens, the names Magadan and Kolyma have the same ring as the names Buchenwald or Dachau to a Jew.
in eastern Siberia was the largest camp area in the U.S.S.R., had the
highest death rate. Whole camps perished to a man," wrote Alexander
Solzhenitsyn in his novel, "The Gulag Archipelago." "Prisoners worked
at 75 degrees below zero, in six-foot snow, beneath it only permafrost.
One bowl of gruel a day. Kolyma camps were known for executions and
At one Kolyma camp, Solzhenitsyn wrote, "the
prisoners were so famished they ate the corpse of a horse lying dead
for more than a week in summer, which not only stank, but was covered
with flies and maggots. They ate a half-barrel of lubrication grease
brought there to grease the wheelbarrows . . . ."
camp, the bone fragments, bleached white by time and the elements, lie
everywhere on the rock-strewn ground. The doctors, American and Soviet,
agreed they were human, but, beyond the assumption that they were the
remains of the camp's victims, no one could explain how they had come
to be exposed.
Beyond the barbed wire, on the summit of the
treeless mountaintop, rests what once was called "the living zone." It
is a row of single-story stone barracks with rusted iron bars in window
The roofs and walls of many of the buildings have
collapsed from heavy snow and howling winds. Shreds of clothing, shoes,
rusted bedposts, tin dishes, shovels and other debris are mute
reminders of life before the camp was abandoned. Barracks with roofs
still intact were filled with snow and ice unmelted despite the 24-hour
At any given time, 800 to 1,000 prisoners were
incarcerated at Vostochny, working long hours with primitive tools to
mine gold under the harshest conditions.
Before they left the
mountain, the Soviet and American doctors placed a bouquet of flowers
on the barbed wire to the memory of the victims of Vostochny.
are still sent to Siberia and, until 1987, political prisoners were
sent there, too. Poles, Germans, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and
others also were imprisoned in the camps. Solzhenitsyn has written that
as many as 20 million people may have perished in the entire Gulag
"Thousands were sent here for petty theft, for making
jokes about Stalin, for unbelievable inconsequential reasons as
'enemies of the people,' " said Yuri Pavlov, 57, a columnist for the
newspaper Magadanskay Pravda. "All Soviet citizens who had been
captured by the Germans during World War II and later freed were
believed to have been tainted by their Fascist captors, and were
re-arrested on arrival home and sent here and to other parts of Siberia.
liberated many Soviets from German prison camps," Pavlov said. "When
they (the ex-POWS) returned home at war's end, they were sent to the
Gulag in Siberia because Stalin thought they were all spies because the
Americas saved them. It was crazy."
Now, in a new, more open
time, residents of the region are willing to speculate about
suggestions by some in the West that American POWs from the Korean War,
who had been presumed dead, may have been imprisoned in the Gulag.
Times report in July, for example, quoted an American Red Cross
spokeswoman in Seattle as saying that the agency knows of 12 reported
sightings of American POWs in Siberia, some as recently as the 1970s.
The report noted also that the Pentagon and State Department had
dismissed the sightings.)
Pyotr Chagin, 63, for 38 years a
member of the Communist Party and assistant director of the Magadan
television station, insisted that there is no way there could have been
American Korean War POWs in Magadan.
"I would have known about that if it were true," he said. "Somebody would have talked about it."
But Alexander Shornikov, 36, a writer for the Magadanskay Komsomoles, the other daily newspaper in Magadan, was less certain.
believe there is a remote possibility American POWs could have been
shipped here during the Korean War. There were many foreign prisoners
in the camps.
"There were German prisoners from World War II
held in the camps as late as 1956, when (Nikita S.) Khrushchev began
phasing out the camps," he said. "There were Japanese prisoners taken
from the Kurile Islands in the closing days of World War II, who worked
as forced laborers constructing several large buildings along Lenin
Street, the main thoroughfare in Magadan City (constructed) from 1945
Shornikov said that for the North Koreans to make a
deal with the Soviet Union to send American prisoners to the Magadan
region "is believable."
"If they did indeed exist, it's possible
that we would never have heard about special, very secretive labor
camps for the Americans. In the Gulag, anything was possible."
1930 until dictator Josef Stalin's death in 1953, and even a few years
afterward, the Magadan region evolved around the prison camps. Prison
labor built the city of Magadan and other settlements in the far north
that supported the camps. Today, 80% of the structures in the port,
primarily four- and five-story concrete housing and office complexes,
Where in the past prisoners toiled in huge
coal and gold mines, today civilians from throughout the Soviet Union
do the work, attracted to the remote area by wages three times those in
But many volunteers leave as soon as their first
contract is up. Others stay on long enough–and that can be some
time–to save the rubles for a better life elsewhere in the Soviet
And there are many survivors of the Gulag, like Vadim
Kozin, who have opted to stay because they cannot afford to move.
Kozin, 87, lives in one of the typical tiny apartments, as does
everyone except senior officials of the Communist Party.
in Magadan describe Kozin as the "Bing Crosby" of the Soviet Union in
the 1930s and 1940s. He was shipped to Magadan in 1942 because he
refused to write or sing a song about Stalin.
"I admired Stalin,
as did most Soviet citizens," recalled Kozin in his apartment, where he
played his piano and, still in good voice, sang some of his best-known
songs. But "in my heart, I did not think I was good enough to write or
sing a song about our great leader. So, I spent three years in a
Magadan camp still making records that were sold all over the Soviet
Union, with all proceeds going to the government. I wrote and recorded
many popular songs sung in the U.S.S.R. during the Great Patriotic War
(World War II) from my cell."
Kozin said he was not starved or
mistreated as his fellow prisoners were. But "I heard the screams, the
gunshots, the beatings, everything . . . ."
about the singer's performing in a camp theater in "The Gulag
Archipelago": "The local Gulag big shots sat haughtily with their wives
in the first rows and watched their slaves with curiosity and contempt.
And the convoy guards sat behind the scenes and in the boxes with their
automatic pistols. After the performances, those players who won
applause were taken back to camp and those who had fallen on their
faces . . . to punishment blocks.
"Sometimes they were not even
allowed to enjoy the applause. In the Magadan Theater, Nikishov, the
chief of Dalstroi (camp), interrupted Vadim Kozin, a widely known
singer at that time: 'All right, Kozin, stop the bowing and get out!'
(Kozin tried to hang himself but was taken down out of the noose.)"
Neizvestny, 65, is considered one of the greatest living Soviet-born
sculptors. He created one of the world's largest sculptures, the
325-foot-high "Lotus Blossom Monument" atop Egypt's Aswan Dam. He did
the headstone for Khrushchev's grave in Moscow. His monumental pieces
stand in many sites in the Soviet Union, Washington, New York, Paris,
the Vatican and Taipei.
He was in Magadan recently to begin his
latest project: three 60-foot memorials to victims of Stalin's death
camps, one in Magadan, to be put up over a mass grave. The others will
be in Sverdlovsk, his hometown, and Vorkuta. The three areas contained
the most notorious concentrations of Gulag camps.
Union never built a monument to what they did wrong. So, it is my
historic duty to do it. These will be spiritual places. I personally
was never a Gulag prisoner, but members of my family and many friends
were. While the tragedy of the Holocaust was going on in Germany, this
was taking place in the U.S.S.R.," said Neizvestny, interviewed at
Magadan Mayor Gennady Dozofeew's home.
The Magadan work,
expected to be completed in two years, will be a gigantic mask adorned
with smaller masks, representing the souls of the thousands of Gulag
victims. A huge tear will flow down the cheek of the 60-foot-high mask
sculpture. Inside the monument will be a giant crucifix.
Author-in-exile Solzhenitsyn, his Soviet citizenship recently restored,
has been invited to attend the dedication.
At the mayor's home
with Neizvestny was Atlis Merum Marcovitch, 62, president of the
Magadan chapter of the Memorial Society, formed two years ago in Moscow
by human rights advocates and former prisoners of the Gulag. Marcovitch
himself spent eight years in the Stalin Gulag.
"To this day, I
vividly recall when Stalin died in 1953. I was alone in a cage (cell)
when word came about Stalin's death. It was the best news ever in the
history of the Gulag," he recalled.
"The Memorial Society has
7,000 members throughout the Soviet Union," he added. "Our purpose is
to bring respect to the victims, to honor their memory by finding the
records and learning who they were. Until now, the records have been
hidden by the KGB and others. We want their names. We are searching the
truth of history. Ours is not a society for vendetta.
these years," he added, "we are just beginning to put the pieces
together of this horrendous puzzle. We want to preserve the ruins so
people will know and remember what happened, so it will never happen
again. The ruins are as they were when abandoned. In some camps, skulls
and bones still lie exposed above the ground. We want proper burials.
We want to know where the secret graves are."
In the city of
Magadan, population 150,000, for the first time there is an exhibit at
a local museum about the Magadan and Kolyma camps.
"We think it
is vitally important that everybody realizes the entire Magadan region
was built on the foundation of Stalin prison camps," said Svetlana
Vladimirova, the museum director.
in Siberia still retain their notoriety. The most hardened criminals
are sent from throughout the Soviet Union to these remote sites in this
land of incredible cold.
Steve Carr, 42, a physician's assistant
with the Alaska State Department of Corrections, was among the
Americans on the recent trip. His goal in coming was to meet with
Magadan penal authorities, to visit their prisons and to get to know
his professional counterpart, the Magadan prison medical officer.
Carr had asked that a journalist be allowed to accompany him on his
tour, in a meeting at the Magadan police headquarters, Police Chief
Vladimir Povazhny gave a firm " Nyet " to the request, saying: "We are
not interested in a journalistic perspective on our prisons. We know
how bad they are. . . . .' "
Carr visited three Magadan prisons,
including one known simply as Colony III, a maximum security prison 217
miles north of Magadan City. It is on the Kolyma High Road, which,
local residents said, was built over 20 years on a foundation of human
bones–those of the thousands of prison camp inmates who died while
Colony III was built by Stalin in 1930. It sits
behind 18-foot-high walls guarded by Interior Ministry troops, backed
up by guards, lights and dogs. And there are also 220-volt trip wires.
said Colony III is the worst prison that he has ever seen: "Pipes are
rusting, concrete is falling off exterior and interior walls, the
toilets and general condition of the dormitories and cells are
primitive and unsanitary. Yet, that's true about most buildings in
"Many prisoners," Carr added, "are employed in a
furniture factory. Others work outside in a courtyard crushing rock for
roadbeds with jackhammers."
He said the food left much to be desired:
was bread and tea; lunch was bread, tea and salted fish; dinner was
broth with potatoes, bread, salted fish and tea. Prisoners are not
allowed to have visitors. Solitary confinement is in a small cell with
a hole in the ground for a toilet, no windows and a bare bulb hanging
from a wire out of the ceiling."
Although it was summer when he
visited, the prison was cold. Carr said he could only imagine what it
would be like in winter when the sun never comes out and temperatures
outside are often 50 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
would say the guards and officers are doing the best they can with what
little they have," Carr said, but he added: "Even (their own) quarters
would fail to pass a housing inspection anywhere in America."