CHAPTER 5


    All effort of the system was geared towards more efficient production of gold. Lack of modern methods and equipment drove the masters to resolve the mines' inefficiency by increasing the number of the slave workers. They counted that such primitive means would ensure the maximum production at the minimum cost to the state. The basic idea was that this enterprise had to take care of itself, and produce lucrative returns to the state.

    The organization called "Dalstroy" (mentioned earlier), was by then in full operation. Its first director, Edward P. Berzin, was fully aware that well-fed and well-provided-for laborer secures best production. Guided by this idea he created reasonable living conditions for the prisoners. Basic food like bread and fish was in sufficient supply; accommodation, although primitive, provided fair protection against cold and other adverse weather conditions; and many prisoners were issued such warm clothing as sheepskin coats, fur hats and felt boots. This period, in the prisoners' terms, was later called the "golden era of Kolyma." It ended with Berzin's disappearance in one of the labor camps built for the prisoners under his supervision.

    His successor, Pavlov, a typical "aparatchik" (functionary) of Stalin's repressive regime, faithfully followed the policies of the secret police (NKVD) for the destruction of undesirable political elements in the country. He was the originator of the terror within Stalin's terror, which lasted in Kolyma from 1937 to 1942 and in its lesser edition to 1952. At the time of his directorship another Gulag organization came into being. Its purpose was to administer and control the penal system of the northeastern region, as a semi-independent institution within the general administration. In other words this was a subsidiary political structure to the original "Dalstroy." Its name was USWITL, which in translation meant "Administration of North East Corrective Labor Force."

    The directors of USWITL were changed frequently. Each new director tried to exceed his predecessor in the production of gold and did this by introduction harsher measures against the prisoners. The first and the most sadistic director were an official by the name Garagin. The era of his harsh reign came to be known in Kolyma's penal tradition as "Garaninshchina" meaning "the time of sadistic terror of Garanin."

    His successors were hardly an improvement on the system introduced by him. None of them ever tried to bring in innovations that would improve the living conditions of the prisoners. Such names as Wishniowiecki, Gakajev and Drabkin established themselves in the history of Kolyma as brutal administrators, always demanding and never compromising. The reign of the last one was contemporary to the presence of Polish prisoners in his labor camps from 1940 to 1942.

    This period of Kolyma's history was exposed to the world by the Poles who left the shores of the gold land, thanks to an unusual political arrangement that took place between the Soviet Union and the Polish Government in London. In 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany, Poland and Soviets found themselves on the same side of the fighting factions - and so rather unwillingly became allies. A Treaty was signed in London that secured the release of all Poles from prisons and labor camps. It terms, which called for the immediate release of Polish prisoners, were not always carried out by promptly the Soviet penal administrators. However, eventually, a large proportion of those remaining alive joined the Polish Army and left the Soviet Union for the Middle East.

    At the time, the British and Americans took no depositions from those who left Soviet Union camps. The Polish reports were ignored by the West and often dismissed as false propaganda against the Soviet Union, spread intentionally by the anticommunist Poles. About ten years later the British Intelligence Service questioned some Poles in England about their experiences in the Soviet Union - for reasons known only to itself.

    Returning to the organization USWITL, for the sake of efficiency, it was divided into smaller administrative units according to regions. In Kolyma there was four such regions called "uczastok," each being the seat of the regional director. These in turn were divided into smaller units like "prorabstwo". Each of them supervised several mines and labor camps of various nature and purpose.

    The basic unit in the system was the single labor camp. Its productivity determined the success or failure of the entire mining enterprise in Kolyma. It also proved or disproved the efficiency of the controlling apparatus. Such a camp - its construction, its functioning and the role of its prisoners - as the labor unit on which the system existence depended, deserves a more detailed description.

    Basically a camp, built in an isolated place in the taiga where gold placers were discovered, was neither a costly nor a complicated proposition. From its very inception it was self-sustaining organization, relying in every respect on the labor provided by the prisoner. He provided the labor for its construction; the basic material, the lumber, was also the product of his lumbering effort. The process of setting the camp was simple and was carried out with utmost speed once the slave labor was there.

    It started with a certain number of prisoners being dropped off in the frozen wilderness of the taiga at the beginning of the short lasting summer season. The first task of the men was to erect barbed wire fences, to build log barracks as accommodation for the prisoners and utility services, as well as the outside barrack for the guard and their commander. Another group of prisoners was immediately engaged in building primitive gold-mining equipment, opening the ground and beginning the mining of the gold containing layer of soil. This meant that the production of gold started almost immediately after the arrival of men. The needs of the prisoners were usually the last concern of the camp's overseers. The operation had to start quickly because, as the sign above the gate stated "The country needs metal". And in the word "metal" was intentionally disguised the meaning of gold. The short story of the gold mine "Pioneer", or "Pryisk Pioneer" as called in Russian, located 400-500 kilometers north of Magadan in the valley surrounded by snow clad mountains runs like this:

    In the summer of 1941, the first group of Polish prisoners arrived at that camp. There they found that of the original men who started the camp two years earlier, only a few remained alive. These were mainly the camp functionaries who for providing essential service to the camp were given better food rations, better clothing and better accommodations. At the time two barracks for the working men still had provisional roofs of tree bark, the kitchen barrack was half finished and the medical room was set in a shack by the gate. The barbed wire fences and the watchtower were solidly in place, and the barrack for the guards on the high grounds was furnished with all conveniences allowed by the circumstances.


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