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Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Conquest, Robert. Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.


This review was written by Edna Boardman. If you would like to reprint this review and have not already asked the author's permission to reprint her reviews, please send an e-mail of request to eboard@minot.com.

Kolyma (accent on the last syllable), an area supplied by ships that plied the Sea of Okhotsk in far northeastern Russia, was the almost escape-proof site of prison camps that accounted for the deaths of between 3,000,000 and 6,000,000 persons during the Stalin era. Its soils contained ores rich in gold, lead, and even uranium. The Soviet state's need for these metals in the 1930s and 1940s, plus an endless supply of political deportees and petty criminals to dispose of, seemed a perfect match between needs and the means of fulfilling those needs. Conquest delved into professionally collected eyewitness accounts, written reports, and newly available state figures, but could not narrow the very great spread between the greater and lesser death estimates. Almost all persons sent there were innocent of crimes, but the supply of prisoners was fed by the paranoia of Stalin and his cohorts. It has become clear that the purpose of the Kolyma camps was to kill people; the production of mineral products was a secondary purpose.

How did so many die? Although the winter temperatures were the coldest recorded anywhere on earth, the far north had proved a healthful climate when mined in earlier years by well-supplied and housed persons. Megadeath was not inevitable. Prisoners under Stalin died in the process of going to the holding areas near the camps in the jammed cattle cars, a trip that sometimes took more than a month. They died while enduring the life within the camps and experienced summary executions, sometimes of whole groups for minor offenses. Food, raised in part at special farm camps worked almost entirely by women, was short and doled out in proportion to work done. (The more a person needed good food, the less was given.) Medical care and sanitation were poor, and the system did not discourage criminal activity of the most vicious kind by the criminals against the political prisoners. The work in the mines was so onerous that few survived for more than a month. The cold itself killed thousands, especially when work was required in the darkest and coldest part of winter, which had not been the case earlier. Then Stalin decided, in the late 1930s, that warm fur coats and felt boots were luxuries, a mark of "coddling," and warm clothing was replaced by canvas boots and wadding coats, if any.

What could get a person to join the unlucky millions? One could: grumble about the shortages under communism and waiting in line, be a kulak or child of a kulak, be a religious leader or child of one, have fought on a side other than the one which won during the revolutionary times, refuse to join a collective, praise a Russian book published in a foreign country, be unmasked as a "wrecker" if a production unit did not meet its quotas as designated in the Five-year Plan, be a Russian soldier POW who had been exposed to foreign ideas in Germany, be a communist official in the early years of the Bolshevik revolution, be accused of stealing state property because one was caught cutting a few grains of wheat to feed one's own hungry children,... Reasons had to do with both what one did and with one's origins.

Why should German-Russians be interested in reading this book? Conquest frequently mentions that Germans, including Volga Germans, of whose history in Russia he is aware, were among those deported to Kolyma. One German-Russian doctor, a man named Koch, saved thousands, but was shot for trying to keep individuals alive. Conquest notes that, at one camp, all Germans were separated from the other prisoners and put into a separate barracks so others would not have to have contact with Russia's enemies. Still, Russian prisoners tried to get into the German unit because it was the cleanest and most orderly.

Conquest does not slash wildly about. He is a careful scholar who sought the facts about the exact nature of the housing at Kolyma, the work people did, their efforts to cope (and, very occasionally, to escape), and the ways they died. He attempts to learn the names of the ships used in the Kolyma area, where they were made, their capacity, and how many trips they probably made each year. The image of thousands of ordinary people cast into a dehumanizing environment becomes numbing to the reader after awhile, but Conquest does his best to have his facts accurate. He names his sources and weighs his conclusions carefully. He helps us learn the parameters of this period in the life of our people.

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