Freedom – At Long Lasthypothetical World War III which lasts from 1952 to 1955. A number of notable figures contributed fictional articles about the war and its history.
This story, written in 1951 by Hungarian-born author Arthur Koestler (and published months before the death of Joseph Stalin), is set in 1960 and describes the liberation of Soviet prison camps after the end of World War III in 1955.
From Collier's magazine, October 27, 1951, pp. 32-33, 48-60:
FREEDOM – AT LONG LAST
By Arthur Koestler
With the defeat of Communist imperialism, the victors also won responsibility for humanity's last chance at salvation. They met this challenge with glorious vision
Mr. Koestler has recently returned from a three-month journey through Russia. He traveled extensively through the Ukraine, the Moscow region, and was the first correspondent to be admitted to the "Convicts' Republic" (Kolymskaya Respublika Osoozhdyonnykh) on the Kolyma Peninsula in Siberia, about which, since the liberation began, only vague and fantastic rumors have reached the outside world. Mr. Koestler's visit was sponsored by UNIHOPE—the United Nations Housing and Providing Enterprise. The following are edited extracts from his diary. — THE EDITORS
Kharkov, June 30, 1960
From the air all the cities of the Ukraine—Kiev, Voronezh, Kharkov, Poltava—seem to have been designed according to one pattern. Near the industrial centers you see two or three huge circular patches; their diameters vary between half a mile and three miles. These patches are the areas of total destruction, which have been cleared and plowed up by UNIHOPE's flying bulldozer squads and converted into vegetable plots. "Later on" public buildings and parks are supposed to replace them, but this "later on," which is incessantly on every Russian's lips, still belongs to the distant future.
In the past, at any rate, the potatoes and cabbages grown on these plots saved the lives of thousands of citizens in the devastated towns during the famine years of 1957-'58. From the air, the circular plots look like huge greenish-brown disks. Between and around them sprawl the "old cities" or what remains of them; buildings are propped and patched up by improvised means, with windows boarded up for lack of glass and shattered balconies shaved off the scar-faced facades—the whole looking very dreary and depressing.
Outside the "old cities" you see the new quarters of prefabricated houses—five, ten, twenty thousand mass-produced little dwelling cubes, laid out in geometrical patterns by UNIHOPE's building experts. These "Woolworth villages," as aesthetically sensitive visitors call them because they look as if they had been assembled in the five-and-ten-cent store, are nevertheless colorful and gay—from the air you get the impression of huge polka-dot ties and ribbons fanning out of the old cities into the surrounding steppe.
The living space provided is only 60 square feet per individual, which means that there are two people to a medium-sized room, but for the Russians this is a luxury which they have never known before.
(It should be remembered that in the process of industrialization the Soviet regime herded millions of peasants into the towns without providing dwelling facilities for them, so that in 1950 two entire families of the average lower-income class—in other words, eight to ten people—had to share one room. When the Curtain was lifted and yielded its secret, the Soviet Union stood revealed as one gigantic, chaotic slum.)
Food and housing were the two nightmare problems which faced the United Nations in liberated Russia. So long as these were not solved, the word "liberation" remained a mockery. The historic achievement of our Atlantic civilization was not that we won the war—but that we were able to transform the greatest army ever known into the greatest welfare organization ever known.
The Berlin air lift had proved that the transformation of a destructive force into a providing force was not only technically possible, but also produced quicker results than any philanthropic welfare organization could achieve. UNIHOPE was an enlargement of the Berlin air lift on a scale of approximately 1,000,000 to 1. The flying Bulldozer Squads, "Operation Harvest," "Operation Vitamin C" and "Operation Housing" saved not only the vanquished Russians; they also saved the victors from the moral disasters which previous wars had brought in their wake. The first World War had been followed by an irresponsible jazz age; the second, by half of Europe falling from Hitler's frying pan into Stalin's fire. The third produced UNIHOPE—and restored the shaken self-confidence of our civilization.
Kharkov, July 5th (Election Day)
The elections to the Kharkov Municipal Council—the first free elections since 1917—were a rather disappointing affair with touches of crude comedy. No fewer than 22 parties and "programs" competed for the six council seats; among them:
The Unified Monarchist Great-Russian Party.
The Ukrainian Separatist Party.
The Peasant Party (individual farmers and small-holders).
The Agrarian Co-operative Party.
The Liberal Democratic Party and The Democratic Liberal Party. (The program of these two parties of the urban middle classes is undistinguishable, but their leaders are involved in a mortal personal feud.)
The Democratic Workers' Party (free Labor Unionists).
The Syndicalist Workers' Party (followers of Kropotkin's theory of ideal anarchism).
The Avengers of Trotsky. (This group preaches in a more or less disguised form that Communism was a good thing under Lenin and Trotsky and only became a bad thing under Stalin. They are a minor headache for our security service.)
The "Kontry" (former political prisoners and deportees; derived from the abbreviation of "counterrevolutionary element," which was their designation under the Soviet regime. This influential group is held together by a kind of esprit de corps; no definite political program).
So much for the "political parties" as we understand the term. The remaining "independent candidates"—cranks, religious sectarians and world reformers—who, since the liberation, are sprouting like mushrooms after rain, might be classed as "religious and miscellaneous." They included:
The Pupils of Tolstoi (a pacifist and vegetarian Christian group, rejecting religious dogmatism).
The Theocrats (followers of the Orthodox church, who hold that Russia should be ruled by the Patriarch Sergei).
The "Old Believers" (a traditionalist sect of religious Zealots).
The Servants of God (who refuse to have family names).
The Doukhobor (who refuse to wear clothes).
The Esperantists (who hold that introduction of a universal language would solve all problems).
The Pavlovites (who hold that the whole of mankind should be made to have uniform opinions through controlled reconditioning of their reflexes by Professor Pavlov's famous method of training dogs).
In short, Russia is having its exuberant honeymoon with democracy.
The most remarkable thing about the electoral campaign was its atmosphere of nearly complete calm. Only one or two minor clashes occurred between Monarchists and Separatists. Electoral propaganda was in the main confined to hand-printed leaflets, stenciled posters and suchlike primitive means. Measured by the standards of American or French electoral campaigns, it was an idyllic affair.
This is probably due to the fact that the man-in-the-street is still unable to take elections seriously. As far back as he can remember, elections were a kind of compulsory ritual which resulted in 99.8 per cent of the population casting its vote for the only existing party. He simply cannot believe that the elections have any influence in determining his and his nation's future. What really interests him is the next draw of the Great Lottery, scheduled for the coming Sunday.
Kharkov, July 8th
The final results of the elections were announced yesterday. They are, to say the least of it, unexpected.
The counting of the votes started with a solemn ceremony in Freedom House (the former Soviet House), in the presence of the local authorities. The first sealed ballot box was opened by Colonel Dalcroix, who is the local CO of UNITOC (United Nations Temporary Occupation Command). Next to him sat Krupnik, mayor of Kharkov, a broad-faced, impassive man of Ukrainian peasant stock.
All went well at the beginning; the colonel made a short speech, and after the clapping had subsided, pulled the first ballot paper from the box and handed it solemnly to the mayor, to read the vote. I must explain that each ballot paper contained a list of the 22 parties, each preceded by a little square in which the voter was to mark by a cross the party he had chosen. There was a tense silence, for everybody felt that the first vote had a kind of symbolic significance. Krupnik looked at the paper and announced the vote: "Da."
"Comment?" asked the colonel. "What does he mean by 'da'?"
"'Da' means 'yes,'" the translator explained amiably.
"Mais comment? For which party did the person vote?"
"The citizen voter voted for them all. He just wrote 'da' on top of the paper."
There was a pained silence.
"Eh bien," said the colonel, "let's try the next one." He pulled out a second ballot paper and handed it to the mayor.
"Da," Krupnik read impassively.
The female representative of the Peasant party began to giggle; this exploded the tension, and the whole room burst into laughter. Every second or third vote turned out to be a "da"; other voters had obediently marked all the 22 little squares with crosses. Krupnik continued to read out stolidly the "da-da's" with a kind of unconscious approval on his square face. It sounded strangely reassuring, like a child's babbling: "Da-da-da."
The result was announced this morning. The largest number of votes went to the Monarchists and to the Ukrainian Separatists, with the Peasant party, the former deportees, and the Theocrats as runners-up. Over 50 per cent of the votes were "da's" and had to be invalidated. According to the radio it was the same story everywhere: 50, 60 and up to 70 per cent invalid votes.
Dinner with Isaakovich, the translator. Wizened little man of fifty, former schoolteacher from Minsk, lost his whole family in the pogrom years 1954-'55 (the famous Jew-killings, organized as a diversion during the Red Army's retreat). He is an intelligent, well-read man, so I was surprised when he said that he had voted for the Pavlovites.
"What do you want?" he said with a shrug. "The elections were the best proof of the truth of Pavlov's theory. You give a dog a series of electric shocks and sound a gong with each shock; after a while the sound of the gong alone will send the dog into convulsions. Similarly, when you say to a Russian the word 'election,' he will twitch with fright and yell 'da.'"
Had I myself made this comparison, Isaakovich would have rightly been offended; but Isaakovich, who loves Russia, spoke with scientific detachment.
What he said brought home to me that this is an age of science fiction come true. Not because of the war—on the whole, the war was fought with more conservative weapons and methods than previously expected. The fantastic and fascinating novelties are those of mass psychology. The confessions at the Soviet show trials were only a small foretaste of the unholy miracles which a determined modern tyranny can produce by processing the minds of its subjects.
Moscow, July 14th
What happened to Communism in Russia? The reason why everybody here yawns with boredom when a visitor asks this hoary question is that the answer is so obvious to every Russian. The answer is that there never was Communism in Russia; there were only Communists. When the Communists disappeared, Communism disappeared.
Why is this so self-evident to every Russian and so difficult to understand for people abroad? Because people outside Russia never understood the true nature of the Communist regime. They thought of it as a political movement in the Western sense; or as some miscarried attempt to establish social justice; or as a kind of secular religion. It was, of course, nothing of the sort—except for a short period in the beginning, long since forgotten. For the last 30 or 40 years—that is, as far back as the memories of the present generation can reach—it was simply a rule of terror.
It was not a political movement, for it had no opponents in Russia against which it could be measured in terms of ideas or power. It could not teach the masses any program or philosophy, for the line changed incessantly in a dizzy zigzag; yesterday's truth became today's heresy, so that the very fundaments of faith and belief were destroyed. Whatever logical meaning and emotional aspirations the word "Communism" possessed in the beginning were torn to shreds by the hurricane of the Great Purge which began in the thirties and was to rage until the end.
In a primitive community you can sometimes replace political thinking by a kind of simple loyalty to the government. But that loyalty too was destroyed when again and again men who were one day members of the government confessed the next that they had always been traitors, spies, saboteurs and enemies of the people.
When in the early years of the Revolution the priests vanished from the Russian scene, religion did not vanish with them; it remained alive in the people. But when the Communists vanished from the scene, Communism vanished with them because as a faith it had never existed among the Russian people.
Communism as a faith had, during the last generation, existed only among people outside Russia. It existed outside because large parts of the population of the world lived in squalor and misery, and wanderers in the desert are always ready to believe in a mirage. The rulers of Russia kept the country hermetically closed for decades to keep up the illusion and to hide the reality behind the mirage. It was so cunningly done that even violent opponents of the Communist regime had no idea of the full extent of horror which it contained. The truth about Russia was the best-kept secret in history.
When I said that Communism in Russia has vanished with the Communists I did not mean that the results of 40 years of indoctrination from the cradle to the grave have vanished with it. The mental ravages caused by that indoctrination are visible at every step here. But that indoctrination did not teach the people Communism. It taught them one word: "da." To achieve a 99.8 per cent unanimous, roaring "da" for Comrade Ivan's promotion and the same roaring "da" for his execution; "da" for the crusade against the Nazis and for the pact with the Nazis; "da" for everything which the omniscient Stalin decided. This aim was achieved not by propaganda as we understand it, but by mental processing. The tyrant did not want Communists; he wanted robots. It may take at least a generation to change the robots back into humans again.
Moscow, July 17th
Three days in bed with flu, plagued by klopy, the famed Russian bedbugs. The Muscovites say it is a new strain of super-klopy—a mutation caused by radioactivity after the atom bombs, like the famous red forget-me-not. At any rate, they are formidable beasts and seem to thrive on DDT.
Being ill, I could not attend the drawing of the Lottery, but am told it was as always a huge success, with the usual speeches, concert recitals, dancing, etc. The Lottery is an institution which has come to stay. As people at home seem to have some misconceptions about it, here's a brief history of this most popular feature of contemporary Russian life:
Next to food and housing, the third vital postwar problem was the Bezprizorniye—the locust plague of waifs and strays turned into juvenile delinquents. These hordes of little savages of every age from seven upward have been a specific feature of Soviet life ever since the Bolshevik Revolution. After the Civil War in the early 1920s, their number was estimated at over a million. At first the Russians tried to re-educate them in reformatory schools, but this laudable effort was abandoned when the mass deportations during the collectivization years and the ravages of the second World War produced new waves of the plague.
In 1935 the Soviet government decreed that capital punishment for common crimes as foreseen in the penal code could be inflicted on children from the age of twelve upward. A few years later the age limit for capital punishment was raised to eighteen. But in the Siberian forced-labor camps, to which juvenile delinquents were then summarily dispatched, offenders under eighteen were sometimes sentenced to be shot as soon as they reached their eighteenth birthday.
This unbelievable fact—the bullet into the head as a birthday gift—was for the first time revealed through the testimony of Ludwig Golubowitsch, a former MVD official, before the "International Commission against Concentration-Camp Regimes" held in Brussels in 1951. At the time this seemed so fantastic that with one exception—the New York Times—American newspapers refrained from printing the testimony.
The collapse of the Soviet regime in 1955 and the subsequent years of famine and chaos led to a resurgence of the plague on a scale never equaled before. Gangs of juvenile criminals who had reverted to a stage of primitive savagery roamed the countryside. In the towns, they emerged at night from their hiding places among the ruins to thieve, rob and loot. Martial law was ineffective against them, for soldiers won't shoot at children. No effective steps could be taken against the black market, the dope peddlers, the hooch peddlers, so long as hordes of corrupted children were used by the racketeers as their agents, receivers and informers. The Bezprizorniye were the yeast on which crime, drunkenness and prostitution thrived during the famine years.
The occupation authorities fought a losing battle against the Bezprizorniye. They were rounded up, sheltered and fed in improvised rehabilitation camps during the winter of 1956-'57. But when spring came, they escaped in droves and swarms from the camps and took to the roads again. The authorities were faced with the loathsome necessity of putting barbed wire, watchtowers and armed guards around the children's camps.
The effects of this measure were of course disastrous. The Soviet regime had deported juvenile delinquents to its remote labor camps in Siberia where they could perish out of sight. The new prison camps for children, which the liberators were forced to establish in the vicinity of every large town, from the Black Sea to the Baltic, were festering sores on their conscience; in Russian eyes they were a hideous reminder of the past and a proof that the future would be no better. By the fall of 1957, the number of children in the camps was approaching the 1,000,000 mark.
On October 15, 1957, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into Conditions in the Children's Camps in Russia published its report. It described with complete frankness a situation which was heartbreaking and hair-raising to Western public opinion. In spite of the efforts of a host of pediatricians, psychiatrists, nurses and educators, the camps were a hotbed for every form of vice and juvenile corruption. The report concluded that no reasonable hope for improvement could be entertained by the forcible herding together of child delinquents behind barbed wire in a desolate country of famine and chaos. The only hope of saving and rehabilitating the children was "to disperse them and transplant them into a healthy environment in countries where life was relatively normal." It seemed a fantastic proposal. But the storm of protest which the report caused in Europe and America put an end to red tape and procrastination, and forced the United Nations to act. The action, once started, was on a grandiose scale.
"Operation Skid" ("Save the Kids") was entrusted to the newly founded UNIHOPE. By Christmas, 1957, the plan for dispersing the Russian waifs and strays to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States was blueprinted in detail. Three quarters of the children were to be billeted with foster parents who had volunteered to take them; the remainder in boarding schools, sanatoria, school farms, etc. The air transport fleet of UNIHOPE, which carried food and prefabs for the "Woolworth villages" to Russia, made their return trips loaded with children—the gallant air crews' nightmare.
By the summer of 1958, six months after the start of Operation Skid, 80 per cent of the children had been evacuated; the remaining 20 per cent, hardened young criminals of over fifteen, were sent to specially created reformatory schools in Russia. On June 1, 1959, the last camp was closed down.
But that was not the end of the story. In the famine areas, despairing Russian, Ukrainian and Armenian mothers disguised their children as waifs and strays and sent them out on the roads to be picked up and sent to the lands of plenty—determined to save them from starvation even at the price of never seeing them again. The flood had diminished to a trickle, but even so, several thousand children were shipped overseas every month.
These pseudo orphans became later on the cause of a dramatic turn of events. It was discovered that nearly all parents, before taking the desperate step of parting with their children, had banded them like migrating birds by some identification mark: amulets, neck chains, even tattooed initials. A year or so later, as conditions gradually improved, they began to flood the authorities with applications for getting their children back. So UNIHOPE had to broadcast and advertise several thousand "wanted" lists over three continents. From early in 1959 onward the children began to come back.
The return of these formerly starved little wretches, their changed physical appearance and mental outlook, their manners and clothes, were a sheer miracle in the eyes of the Russians—and one of the greatest feats of political propaganda brought about unintentionally. UNIHOPE was now swamped with pathetic requests from parents to send their children for a year's health cure abroad. (One should remember that 10 years ago the average Russian's ration was only 2,700 calories per head against the U.S.'s 3,200 per head. Today the average ration is down to 1,800, and in many areas these rations exist only on paper.) It was obvious, however, that UNIHOPE could not go on indefinitely carting children over the world. That is how the idea of the Lottery was born.
Instead of selecting children for the limited number of available places by investigating the economic situation of the parents—which would have been a hopelessly cumbersome procedure leading to jealousies and complaints—the selection of applicants was made by lottery. Each town and administrative district had its small quota, and the lucky ones' names were chosen in public at the quarterly draws. These draws, followed by the distribution of consolation prizes in the shape of toys, picture books and huge quantities of ice cream, became extremely popular not only among children but among grownups as well. The program soon included musical recitals, Punch and Judy shows, and was wound up by a dance. In every town "Draw Day" became a kind of popular festival, replacing the traditional Russian fair.
As the Lottery craze grew, the planning committee of UNIPROD (United Nations Political Re-education Department) decided to cash in on it by extending the "Holidays Abroad" scheme to adults. Having lived cut off from the rest of the world for nearly half a century, the one overwhelming desire of every Russian was to visit the mysterious countries abroad—if only for a month, a day or an hour. The returning children's tales had been the most effective propaganda for the ways of the free world—each of them worth a million dollars spent on UNIPROD's re-education programs based on broadcasts and pamphlets. Obviously, the most direct method of political re-education was to try the same thing with adults—journalists, doctors, teachers, industrial managers, farmers.
The project consists in guided and directed three-month tours for 100,000 professional men per year, in those countries where they are able to learn most in their specialty. The "quotas" are apportioned both by geographical regions and professional groups. In this way we may hope to destroy within a few years the last vestiges of the Curtain, and the tenacious psychological aftereffects of the past. Although the average citizen's chances of having his name drawn is less than one in a thousand, the national craze is still unabated today. The Russians are gamblers at heart, and the Lotereya appeals more to their imagination than lectures and arguments.
Already a number of towns and rural centers have their nucleus of men and women whose eyes have seen our way of life, whose minds have been reawakened by the shock of contact with a longed-for dream turned into reality. They have automatically become missionaries of the free world but in their own fashion, their own uniquely Russian way; and it is perhaps not too optimistic to assume that they will gradually replace the defunct "party" in the intellectual leadership of their country.
Item: Who are the best-paid people, the biggest profiteers in contemporary Russia today? The translators of foreign books. When the Curtain rose, the hunger for books, magazines, for every form of printed material which contained information about the mysteries of the Western World can only be compared with the avidity for news of life on a foreign planet which we would experience if space-travel were suddenly established. Nobody wants to read a book by the erstwhile Soviet writers; they have for too long played the part of literary prostitutes. The translators, these former pariahs of the arts, have stepped into the shoes of the poets and novelists. Top of the best-selling list is still a Russian translation of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue (complete and unabridged) with explanatory foot notes.
Magadan, Kolyma, Siberia
On the road to the settlement at "Kilometer 64," Berzin, temporary administrator of the Convicts' Republic of Kolyma, explained:
"There are three basic facts about Kolyma. It is the region where some of the lowest temperatures on earth have been recorded. It is the richest gold-mining region in the world. It is a region, six times the size of France, which was for 20 years administered as a single Forced Labor Camp, with 90 per cent of its population slaves . . ."
He did not speak again for a few miles, when he stopped the car near a group of laborers working on a cabbage patch. We got out in the sweltering heat—for a hundred days, from June to August, the sun does not set over Kolyma. The workmen, like ourselves, wore mittens and mosquito nets to protect their faces against the swarms of insects which were buzzing around them in a dense cloud. These gnats, midges and gadflies are the scourge of Kolyma in summer, as scurvy, frostbite and gangrene are in winter.
Berzin borrowed a spade from the workmen and marched our party across the cabbage field. He halted at the edge of a swamp which filled the bleak landscape until it merged into the dark hue of the taiga—the virgin forest, stretching for almost a thousand miles toward the Arctic Ocean. He handed me the spade and said: "Try it."
Sweating under the thick net and unable to wipe the sweat from my eyes, I dug into the soft, squashy earth. About 10 inches down, the spade suddenly struck a hard surface which felt like rock. Berzin smiled with the nonparalyzed half of his face:
"What do you think it is?"
"I don't know. Gold?"
He explained that even during the summer the earth only thaws to a depth of nine or ten inches—underneath, over this whole Siberian Peninsula, lies a stratum of "geological ice" (permafrost), several hundred feet thick.
During the 10 weeks of the polar night the temperature here often drops below minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The arctic blizzards reach such a savage fury that even in the capital, Magadan, on the coast, ropes have to be stretched from house to house to which people can cling when forced to go outdoors—otherwise they would be swept into the sea. In the winter camps, far inside this land of white death, less than half of the slaves used to survive the long polar night. In some of the camps, numbering several thousand people, not a single living being was found when the roads opened in spring—slaves, guards and dogs were buried under the same indifferent blanket of snow.
During the first years of the colonization in the early 1930s, only one in five of the convicts survived 18 months in Kolyma. Toward the end, the mortality was 30 per cent per annum. That gave a man an average expected life span of about three years; but the average spans of their sentences were 10, 20 and 25 years.
Thoughtless writers have talked of the Soviet regime as reverting to "dark, medieval days." But the Middle Ages had no horrors comparable in extent to the slave continents of Kolyma, of the Baikal-Amur region, of the Vorkuta or Pechora and other camps, with their 15,000,000 to 20,000,000 starving, freezing, tattered, vermin-ridden inmates, condemned to slow death after the last inch of labor had been squeezed out of them. Even in antiquity, even among primitive and barbarian civilizations, such an ocean of suffering was never inflicted on such a mass of human lives. In the Soviet Slave State, human evolution had touched the bottom—and until about 1955 it looked as if it would never recover again.
It is only to be expected that the men and women who have lived under these conditions for five, 10, 15 years, should have developed a special mentality—not to mention those who had been sent to the camps as children or were born in the camps and had never in their lives been past the barbed wire fence and the machine-gun turrets. This special mentality has to be borne in mind if one tries to understand the developments in Kolyma and in some of the other vast convict districts since the war. And it is only fitting that we should also remember the martyr-pioneers who were the first to tell the Western World the truth about the camps—among them a frail girl from Switzerland, Elinor Lipper, who miraculously survived 11 years in Kolyma and published a book about it as early as 1950.
Kolyma, August 2d
The peninsula lies at a distance of 6,000 miles northeast from the center of European Russia. In peacetime the unwilling travelers reached Kolyma by the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, and continued the journey by boat, past Sakhalin and across the Sea of Okhotsk. Since the war, all land and sea communications were cut off, and the sparse supplies which reached Kolyma came by air. Even now, five years after the end of the war, with guerrilla fights still raging in the Urals and around Lake Baikal, the region can only be approached by a somewhat hazardous air journey. Thus, for the approximately 2,000,000 deportees on Kolyma, return to home has so far been impossible.
I should mention here that for the majority of them the word "home" is a pure abstraction. The deportee was cut off from communication with his family, which was not even informed of his death. Besides, all members of a deportee's family were themselves automatically liable to deportation to different camps. So, as a measure of mental self-protection, the convict had to erase all hopes of a happy reunion, and to banish the very word "home" from his mind.
This was particularly true of the Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan and Korean prisoners who, since the beginning of the Great China Purge in 1951, had arrived in growing numbers, until they formed more than 50 per cent of the slave population.
The slaves of Kolyma were not allowed to read newspapers, but prisoners employed in clerical jobs always snatched up bits of information from the radio. After the flight of the government from Moscow, the collapse of organized resistance could no longer be concealed. It led to mass desertions among the guards and a breakdown of discipline.
The first mutiny occurred at the camp of Elgen on the Taskan River, 155 miles northwest of Magadan. The slaves had got hold of an amount of high explosives used on road building, blew up the machine-gun towers and overpowered and killed the remaining guards. The heaviest losses were inflicted upon them not by the demoralized guards but by the pack of wolfhounds which were a standard feature of every Kolyma camp. That is how Berzin, the leader of the mutiny, had half his face lacerated and permanently paralyzed.
After taking possession of Elgen, the insurgents set out in trucks and jeeps, armed with the garrison's weapons, for Yagodnoye, the next big camp, 30 miles away. The guards at Yagodnoye were taken by surprise and surrendered. After a summary trial by the prisoners, all guards, with the exception of two who had a reputation for humaneness, were driven into the marshes and shot.
After Yagodnoye it was the turn of Talon, Balagannoye and finally of the capital, Magadan. Left without authority and directives, and fearful about their own future, the small MVD detachments accepted their fate resignedly and only resisted sporadically. The so-called free populations in Magadan and a few other centers were a tiny minority who were quick to turn their coats with the wind. After the fall of Magadan, the whole huge territory, from the Lena and Aldan Rivers to the Amur and the Pacific Ocean, became an administrative no man's land.
The second and much bloodier phase of the struggle was fought between the nascent Convicts' Republic and the common criminals who represented one fourth of the population of the camps. In all civilized countries, including czarist Russia, political prisoners have enjoyed preferential treatment over criminals. The totalitarian regimes reversed this procedure. In Nazi and Soviet concentration camps the common criminals were put in charge of internal administration as "kapos," barrack elders and foremen of the labor brigades.
Thus, the "urki," as the Russian criminals call themselves, had a free hand to rob, brutalize and denounce the kontry and to work them to death in the brigades under their command. The urki were worse than the wolfhounds, and hardly more humane.
Kolyma, August 3d
After the rebellion, an attempt was made to integrate the urki into the new community, but failed. With the pressure of discipline gone, the criminals became an even more disruptive element who, through theft, drunkenness, rape and murder, made life intolerable. Then, during the polar night of 1957, a ghastly civil war was fought all over Kolyma which ended with the eviction of the urki from the cities and camps. Most of them perished in the taiga; a few went over to the politicals and were accepted; several thousand are said to have made their way to the inaccessible regions of the north where they lived by preying on the native hunting and fishing tribes—the Chukchi and others.
After that, Berzin and his colleagues could start bringing some semblance of order into the vast kingdom which had so unexpectedly fallen into their lap—a kingdom of some 2,000,000 starved and wretched convicts who found themselves temporarily in possession of the richest gold deposits on earth.
At the outbreak of the second World War, the Kolyma mines produced 4,000,000 to 5,000,000 ounces of gold per year; while the total output of the rest of the world, according to authoritative sources, was 32,000,000 ounces. Between the second and third war, the Kolyma output rose further, while gold production in the rest of the world declined; so the Convicts' Republic was in potential control of 20 to 30 per cent of the world's total.
Within the councils of the United Nations, nobody had foreseen this turn of events. In the general blueprint for the occupation period, all natural resources, mines and industries were to be administered by the Provisional Russian Government under the supervision of UNITOC. The Temporary Occupation Command was to see to it that a portion of the provisional government's revenues was set aside and held in escrow against future requirements within the framework of a long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation program.
But the Provisional Russian Government's authority still ends roughly at the Urals; and the UN only controls such portions of Asiatic Russia as are under direct military occupation—Kamchatka, Sakhalin, Vladivostok and a few other scattered points. Thus, the only way of getting control of Kolyma would have been to land troops on the peninsula—a step which ran counter to the agreed plan and was fraught with the danger of international complications.
The future of the Kolyma gold was already the subject of bitter jealousies and intrigues among the Allies, as the Persian oil fields were for decades; besides, a sudden influx of 20 to 30 per cent of the world's gold production would have had a catastrophically disrupting effect on world economy. The godforsaken peninsula on its layer of geological ice thus became one of the biggest headaches for the victors.
The solution of the dilemma—and of a number of related problems—came with the founding of UNIHOPE. In retrospect, the decision to use the Kolyma gold for financing UNIHOPE's gigantic rehabilitation enterprise seems only logical; but to have taken this logical step at the time was a considerable feat of imagination and statesmanship—and one of the truly great decisions which shaped the future of mankind.
Kolyma, August 4th
Once this decision was taken, the problem of administering the peninsula ceased to be political dynamite, and became a question of technical efficiency. Evidently, the gold could only be mined by the men on the spot. The proclamation of the Autonomous Convicts' Republic, "pending the election by the Constituent National Assembly of an all-Russian central government, and until such a time as this elected government is capable of exerting effective control," was in accordance with Point Seven of the United Nations Temporary Occupation Charter—a product of the Denver Declaration—which encouraged the formation of de facto local administrations in liberated Asia.
In other respects, too, the proclamation of Berzin and his friends was reasonable and businesslike. It was mainly the work of Dr. Hsiao, a former professor of international law at the Peiping National Normal University who had been sentenced to 20 years for "counterrevolutionary, Trotskyite-Maoist propaganda," and had survived five years of Kolyma as a latrine cleaner.
The main points of the proclamation were that the "Temporary Administration" of the republic should be recognized as de facto successor of Dalstroy, the Soviet State Trust which had formerly administered the territory; that it should function under supervision of UNITOC, but enjoy local autonomy under Point Seven of the Charter; that the total amount of gold mined should be surrendered to UNIHOPE in exchange for food, housing, clothing, medical supplies and the gradual repatriation of those desiring to return to their countries of origin as soon as conditions permitted.
Three days after the first radio communication had been received by UN headquarters, the first mission of UNIHOPE landed at the airport of Magadan. It was headed by Brigadier General Sir Robert Manningham-Ward, D.S.O., C.B.E., who had looked at this mission with some misgivings, and was agreeably surprised by the reception he met. In his first letter to Lady Manningham-Ward, he wrote:
"These convict leaders are not only eminently reasonable, but some of them, like Professor Hsiao, are delightful chaps. What's more, Hsiao has been to Eton and has managed to preserve his tie, but had to use it, I am sorry to say, for foot rags. He says it saved his remaining six toes."
Kolyma, August 5th
Berzin's reputation was originally based on the fact that he was one of the handful of inmates of Elgen camp really guilty of the charge which led to his conviction. He was convicted at the age of sixteen under Articles 7, 10 and 11 of Paragraph 58 of the Soviet Criminal Code: Sedition; Counterrevolutionary Agitation and Propaganda; and Organization of Counterrevolutionary Groups. As a schoolboy in Odessa he had participated in the short-lived activity of a group of adolescents whose parents had fallen victims to the purge. The group called itself "Revenge for our Parents" and was promptly rounded up after issuing its first stenciled leaflet. He got 15 years which, after he had served them, were automatically extended by another 10.
The irony of Berzin's story is that his own parents had not been purged; he had joined the organization for the sake of his girl friend, Masha. After he was caught, his parents, both respected party members, were, of course, arrested too; he has never heard of them since. He is now forty-one years old, 25 of which were spent in the camp; an unparalleled record of longevity in Kolyma which made him into a legendary figure. He is short, stocky, has immense physical strength and a masklike face in which the only expression is caused by the discrepancy between the paralyzed half and the other. He speaks little and listens impassively to others; it is quite impossible to form an idea of the mental world in which he lives—the private universe of a man who for a quarter century has been a galley slave and has yet preserved his dignity and remained a man. They say he is an "anarchist" though he himself never talks about politics. In this respect Berzin is not an exception. Hardly anyone among the ex-convicts to whom I talked is interested in politics, and most of them confess somewhat dubiously that they are "anarchists" and "followers of Tolstoi and Prince Kropotkin." If pressed for an explanation, they will say hesitantly that the source of all evil and the main enemy of man is the state; if the state were abolished, all would be well and all men become brothers. If you try to argue with them, they become confused and subside into silence.
The reason for this is, I believe, that their knowledge of "anarchism," as they understand it, is entirely vague and based on nebulous hearsay. The Chinese majority is mostly illiterate; those who come from the former Soviet Empire never had an opportunity to read about anarchism—or any other "ism" except the official version of Communism. And from the moment of their arrest they were not allowed any reading matter at all—in Berzin's case since the age of sixteen. Thus, it is impossible for them to have any clear political ideas; politics, like most questions beyond their narrowed horizon, makes them feel bored and mentally helpless. Their minds, starved of reading, entertainment and contact with the outside world, have become sluggish; the amazing thing is that the intellect has not completely atrophied for lack of exercise.
Those who have spent more than 10 years here are afraid of going back into the world from which they have become estranged. Before their liberation, they worked 12 to 14 hours a day on starvation rations and under unimaginable conditions of hardship. Now they work six to seven hours, are well fed, clad and housed in a manner which seems to them undreamed luxury. But their physical and mental rehabilitation is a slow process, and many are past recovery in one way or another.
Immediately after the liberation, as food, medication and warm clothing began to pour in, the death rate, for a few weeks, rose steeply. Thousands of slaves who previously had kept a precarious hold on life by sheer instinct of survival died when the tension in them snapped and their will relaxed. A short while later, a wave of alcoholism swept Kolyma, until Berzin and his colleagues were forced to resort to prohibition. Other fashions and crazes followed. To be constantly hurried by the guards and urki had become second nature to the kontry, so that they did not know what to do with the long hours of leisure which were suddenly theirs.
Boredom and restlessness, particularly during the months of the polar night, led to a mania for gambling, knitting and embroidery; the men also took to keeping many animal pets and to the preparation of complicated culinary inventions—the longer it took to prepare these dishes, the better.
Kolyma, August 6th
One of the curiosities of Kolyma is the immense popularity of the "storytellers" who, in the absence of books, had become a standing institution in all Soviet prisons and labor camps. The storyteller rarely invented his yarn; mostly he gave his own version of novels and stories which he had read in bygone days. Thus, the age of slavery had led to a revival of the ancient bards.
In the camps, the storyteller was the only person whose life and possessions were safe even from criminals. In the free Convicts' Republic he has become a highly paid professional. Having lost the reading habit, large numbers of the workers prefer to gather in the evenings in the recreation room to listen to the bard's condensed, but all the more colorful, version of Anna Karenina, Hamlet or The Arabian Nights.
Kolyma, August 8th
The main problem, and an unsolved one, which prevents return to full normality is the absence of women. The proportion of female to male prisoners in the camps was about one to a hundred. This led to certain developments otherwise only found in primitive societies. One of them is polyandry—several husbands sharing one woman—and a cult of womanhood that has all the earmarks of an emergent matriarchy.
Kolyma, August 9th
Five years have passed since the mutiny of Elgen brought liberation to the slaves of Kolyma. Even this sketchy report may convey an idea of the deep injuries which the bodies and souls of these men have suffered, of the slowness of the process of recovery, and the great number of those in whom the human substance has deteriorated beyond repair. If one considers the total of over 20,000,000 former slaves, and the mental deformation of the so-called "free citizens"—then one wonders what another two or three generations of this regime would have done to the human species.
But there is a certain comfort in the thought that although we wanted to avoid this war at almost any price, it was the Soviet regime itself which, by running amuck, forced us to destroy it; that apparently there is a law which compels such regimes to commit suicide in their insatiable lust for power. All tyrannies carry the seed of their own destruction—but at what price, at what terrible price for humanity . . .
Kolyma, August 10th
Hsiao gave a small party in his house; Berzin was there and two other members of the Temporary Administration. One was a tall, fidgety man, a former schoolteacher from Latvia, who is in charge of the public re-education program; he made a somewhat dispirited impression.
The other was Mother Seraphimova, an old Russian peasant woman with a wrinkled face and young eyes, who hardly said a word during the whole evening and probably understood little of what was said, but whose presence radiated a strange feeling of peace and quietude. Seraphimova is illiterate and has no particular function in the government, but she was unanimously elected because of this undefinable quality which seems to have a purifying effect on everybody who comes in contact with her. In short, she is perhaps as nearly a saint as people can be at this time and in this place. I ought to mention here that every slave camp seemed to have its "saint" just as it had its storyteller.
We drank tea and talked; the conversation was rather halting. Toward the end of the evening I asked Hsiao what the main lesson was which Kolyma had taught him. He smiled embarrassedly; it was then that Seraphimova spoke for the first time. She said:
"Show him your pictures."
Hsiao rose and came back after a little while with some ink drawings which he had made. They were landscapes in the classic Chinese tradition: a few of the sad, sparse larch trees of Kolyma; tattered men being marched to work; in the background the monotonous sky line of the taiga, and the desolate cliffs which close in the harbor of Magadan.
"They are quite unworthy," said Hsiao, actually blushing. "But this is what Kolyma taught me."
He pointed a thin, narrow finger at the figures in the foreground, and then I saw what he meant. The men and the trees in the landscape had shadows. From time immemorial, Chinese painters had made their pictures without shadows in them.
"You see," he explained, "for three months in summer the sun never sets in Kolyma. The light is almost horizontal; so the objects throw very long shadows. One day I suddenly saw these shadows and I discovered that my picture would not be complete without them; so I put them in. For a painter grown up in the classic Chinese tradition, this is a very daring and revolutionary thing to do. All real revolutions happen in the eyes and minds of people. They will happen as long as there are men—even in Kolyma. Everything else is of little importance."
Moscow, August 15th
Back from Kolyma.
I must have caught some kind of fever in the gnat-infested swamps, for last night I was plagued by a recurrent nightmare. I dreamed that UNIHOPE, and the free Convicts' Republic, and the rescue of the children, and the Great Lottery, only existed in my own imagination—a dream born out of frustration and despair; and that, in reality, vengefulness, rapacious greed and blindness of the heart have made the victors repeat the blunders of the past and throw away humanity's last chance of salvation. I woke up, drenched in cold sweat, among the crawling bedbugs. — THE END