Marilyn in Her Own Words

May 18, 2011

The flashback scenes with Marilyn Monroe in Altar of Bones are some of my favorite I’ve ever written. Many of Marilyn’s lines in the book are things she actually said. Here are some more memorable quotes from her:

“A career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night.”

“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”

“I don’t know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot.”

“All a girl really wants is for one guy to prove to her that they are not at all the same.”

“If you’re gonna be two-faced at least make one of them pretty.”

“Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.”

“I think cheesecake helps call attention to you. Then you can follow through and prove yourself.”

“It’s far better to be unhappy alone than unhappy with someone – so far.”

“I never intentionally mean to hurt anyone, but you can’t be too nice to people you work with, else they will trample you to death.”

“Sex is part of nature. I go along with nature.”

“Men who think that a woman’s past love affairs lessen her love for them are usually stupid and weak. A woman can bring new love to each man she loves, providing there aren’t too many.”

“That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather it sex than some of the things we’ve got symbols of.”

“Only the public can make a star. It’s the studios who try to make a system out of it.”

“I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.”

“Fame is fickle and I know it. It has its compensations, but it also has its drawbacks and I’ve experienced them both.”

“I always felt insecure and in the way – but most of all I felt scared. I guess I wanted love more than anything else in the world.”

“I was a mistake. My mother didn’t want to have me. I guess she never wanted me. I probably got in her way. I know I disgraced her. A divorced woman has enough problems getting a man, I guess, but one with an illegitimate baby…. I wish, I still wish, she had wanted me.”

“I always felt I was nobody and the only way for me to be somebody was to be… well, somebody else.”

“Well behaved women rarely make history.”

“My great ambition is to have people comment on my fine dramatic performances.”

“I am a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me because of the image they have made of me and that I have made of myself, as a sex symbol. Men expect so much and I can’t live up to it. They expect bells to ring and whistles to whistle, but my anatomy’s the same as any other woman’s. I can’t live up to it.”

“You can’t sleep your way into being a star. It takes much, much more. But it helps a lot of actresses get their first chance that way.”

“No one ever told me I was pretty when I was a little girl. All little girls should be told they are pretty, even if they aren’t.”

“I don’t mind making jokes, but I don’t want to look like one.”

“I want to grow old without face-lifts… I want to have the courage to be loyal to the face I have made. Sometimes, I think it would be easier to avoid old age, to die young, but you’d never complete your life, would you? You’d never wholly know yourself.”


Marilyn Monroe’s Last Months

April 22, 2011

In the novel, Marilyn Monroe drinks from the altar of bones and it fundamentally changes her. This change correlates with what really happened in the life of this tragic film icon in the last months of her life.

Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson (quickly changed to Baker by her mother), had a difficult childhood. Her mentally unstable mother was in and out of institutions, and her father (whose identity is subject to question) was not in the picture. Young Norma Jeane spent much of her childhood in foster homes and with various relatives. She may have suffered sexual abuse.

From this difficult back ground, Norma Jeane achieved success as a model and then, under the name Marilyn Monroe, as an actress. But by 1960 her life was unraveling. She had had two miscarriages in recent years and her third marriage, to playwright Arthur Miller, was foundering. She suffered from acute insomnia and relied heavily on prescription drugs. She also drank a great deal. She and Miller separated after the filming of the movie The Misfits. Their divorce was finalized in January 1961. The movie opened to mixed reviews and was not a box office success. Her co-star, Clark Gable, died of a heart attack before the film was released.

In the winter of 1961, Marilyn spent time in the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic. She later described this time as a “nightmare.” She contacted Joe DiMaggio, to whom she had been married (he was the second of her three husbands), and he helped her transfer to the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.

Marilyn needed money and was restless without work. In 1962 she was hired for $100,000 to appear opposite Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse in the movie Something’s Got to Give (in contrast, Elizabeth Taylor was paid $1,000,000 for Cleopatra). During filming, Marilyn was ill, running a 101 degree fever, and suffering from horrible insomnia and crippling menstrual periods. After three weeks of shooting she had only managed six days of work. She was so heavily dependent on barbiturates that they had to hide notes around the set to help her remember her lines. And yet the odd thing was, she looked sensational in the rushes.

In May 1962 Marilyn flew to New York to sing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in Madison Square Garden. The way she sang the song more or less announced their love affair, with the result that Kennedy was pressured to end the relationship. There were rumors that Marilyn later had an affair with Robert F. Kennedy, but it has never actually been proven one way or another. They certainly were close and spent a great deal of time together.

On Monday, June 1, Marilyn had her own birthday party on the set of Something’s Got to Give. But she didn’t go to work for the next few days and on Thursday, June 4, she was fired.

This is the point in the book when Katya Orlova gives Marilyn the altar of bones because she is dangerously ill following an abortion. Though Marilyn is known to have had abortions, there’s no evidence that she had one at this point in her life. What is consistent with the historical record is that Marilyn’s life began to turn around. She started working out. A masseuse said her muscle tone was the best it had been in years. Photos taken in a swimming pool right before she died show how much slimmer she was. She managed to get hired back for Something’s Got to Give. The plan was to resume filming in September after Dean Martin’s nightclub tour ended.

During the summer months she was seeing her psychiatrist, Dr. Greenson, daily and sometimes more than once a day. He and her physician, Dr. Engelberg, were trying to wean her off her dependency on prescription drugs. The part in Altar of Bones about her being unable to fall asleep except in absolute darkness is true. She would staple the drapes to the window frames to shut out even the barest hint of light.

In 2005 some transcripts of one of Marilyn’s last sessions with Dr. Greenson were released. Many of the things she says in Altar of Bones come directly from these transcripts. For instance, her revelation that she’d never had an orgasm until her psychiatrist told her about masturbation. “I never cried so hard as I did after my first orgasm,” she said. “It was because of the years I had never had orgasms. What wasted years. How can I describe to you, a man, what an orgasm feels like to a woman.” She went on to say, “Speaking of Oscars, I would win overwhelmingly if the Academy gave an Oscar for faking orgasm. I have done some of my best acting convincing my partners I was in the throws of ecstasy.”

She also talked in the session about wanting to do Shakespeare. She planned to take a year to study Shakespeare with Lee Strasberg. “I’ll pay him to work only with me,” she said. “He said I could do Shakespeare. I’ll make him prove it.” Her line in Altar of Bones (in the Brown Derby scene) about wanting to do a Marilyn Monroe Shakespeare Festival is something she really said. She planned to play Juliet first. She said she’d create a Juliet who was an innocent virgin but whose budding womanhood was fantastically sexy.

She also confided in Dr. Greenson that she wanted him to get rid of her housekeeper Eunice Murray (whom Greenson employed). Marilyn said they didn’t like each other, and she couldn’t put up with Mrs. Murray’s insolence and disregard for anything Marilyn asked her to do.

Marilyn said that the day before she had stood naked in front a full length mirror and liked what she saw. She decided wanted to be the highest paid actress in Hollywood—double what Taylor got and a piece of the gross. She added that she’d thrown all her pills in the toilet, and he’d see how serious she was.

Not long after this session, Marilyn was dead, at the age of thirty-six. Lee Strasberg gave the eulogy at her funeral. “Others were as physically beautiful as she was,” he said, “but there was obviously something more in her. Something that people saw and recognized in her performances and with which they identified. She had a luminous quality—a combination of wistfulness, radiance, yearning—that set her apart and yet made everyone wish to be a part of it, to share in the childish naiveté that was at once so shy and yet so vibrant.”

The Death of Marilyn Monroe

March 29, 2011

The original coroner’s report ruled that Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, but there is enough mystery still surrounding her death that it could have been suicide, accidental overdose, or perhaps even murder. In Altar of Bones, KGB general Nikolai Popov and Mike O’Malley (Ry’s father) orchestrate Marilyn Monroe’s murder. That, of course, is fictional, but I tried to match the circumstances of the murder to what is known about Marilyn’s death. For instance when her body was discovered she was completely nude, yet she was known to always sleep in a brassiere for fear her breasts would sag. So in Altar of Bones, Popov takes off Marilyn’s bra to see her breasts.

This much is known to be fact. Sometime after 10 p.m. on the night of August 4, 1962, Marilyn Monroe slipped into a coma caused by an overdose of chloral hydrate in the bedroom of her home at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood. She never regained consciousness.

Marilyn had moved into the house on Helena Drive not too long before. The furniture she’d ordered from Mexico hadn’t arrived yet so, as is described in Altar of Bones, the house had an unfinished look, with piles of records in a corner, magazines strewn about, cartons of books stacked on the floor.

Marilyn had had a love affair with John F. Kennedy (also a major plot point in Altar of Bones). She also had a relationship of some sort, very likely a love affair, with Robert F. Kennedy, which ended just before she died. In the year and a half before her death, she was in and out of psychiatric clinics seeking treatment for her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. She had become addicted to the barbiturate Nembutal in an effort to combat her crippling insomnia. Her psychiatrist, Dr, Greenson, whom she was seeing almost daily, and her personal physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, both liberally prescribed barbiturates for her.

Her addiction had begun to interfere with her work. She was fired from the set of Something’s Got to Give shortly before her death because she either wouldn’t show up at all or would show up so looped up on pills that she couldn’t remember her lines. Also, as she says in her own words in the book, she suffered from a chronic respiratory infection during this time, causing her to miss even more time on the set. However, as is mentioned in Altar of Bones, on August 1st she had struck new deal with 20th Century Fox.

Eunice Murray, who was Marilyn’s housekeeper but was employed by Dr. Greenson, reported that at 7:30 on the night of August 4th she heard Marilyn on the phone sounding happier. Marilyn then came to the door and said good night. By 8:20 Mrs. Murray turned in herself. Marilyn’s friend, model and actress Jeanne Carmen, said that Marilyn called her later that night and asked for more sleeping pills. But Carmen had had a few drinks and didn’t feel comfortable driving, so she told Marilyn she wasn’t able to bring her the pills.

Mrs. Murray said that she went into Marilyn’s room at 3:30 a.m. and found her unconscious with the telephone clutched in her hand. The police were never able to discover whom Marilyn was talking to, and the phone call records from the night of her death were erased, so it’s impossible to verify if she did in fact speak with any of the people who claimed to have talked to her that night or whom else she might have talked to. In Altar of Bones, the phone is on the bed, and Marilyn tries to grab it when Popov and O’Malley attack her, so she is found with the phone off the hook, under her body, as she was in fact found.

After finding Marilyn, Mrs. Murray called Dr. Greenson and Dr. Engelberg who both came to the house. The doctors determined she was dead, but waited half an hour before calling the police. They said they were stunned and were talking over what had happened.

When the police arrived, Greenson and Engelberg told them Marilyn had committed suicide. They led the police into the bedroom where her nude body lay covered by a sheet and pointed out bottles of sedatives. She didn’t appear to have suffered convulsions and vomiting as people often do when they die of an over overdose. No drinking glass was found in the bedroom, but Marilyn was known to open up capsules to speed the effect of the drug. Despite Marilyn’s reported call asking Jeanne Carmen to bring her more pills, the police found a number of pills by her bedside. Engelberg had prescribed the Nembutal that was found (in fact he had refilled a Nembutal prescription just the previous day) but not the other pills.

Apparently actor Peter Lawford, who was married to Patricia Kennedy (sister of JFK and Robert) was called too after Marilyn’s body was discovered. Eventually he told the police he got a call from Marilyn around 7:30 or so the night of her death and that she was groggy and depressed and said to say goodbye to Jack. Lawford admitted he made an early morning sweep through house looking for Marilyn’s diary and that he tidied up and did what he could before reporters got wind of what had happened. Rumors persisted that Marilyn called Robert Kennedy the night of her death. He was in northern California on the 4th, but there were suspicions that he’d gone to L.A. in the afternoon and then quickly returned to northern part of the state.

Mrs. Murray went on a six-month vacation to Mexico right after Marilyn’s death.

The coroner’s report found Nembutal in Marilyn’s liver but not in her intestines or blood stream, indicating she took the pills so much earlier in the evening that they could not have been what killed her. Instead, she died from chloral hydrate, which was found in her blood stream. Dr. Engelberg had been trying to wean Marilyn off Nembutal and replace it with chloral hydrate as a sleep aid. Physical evidence showed that Marilyn died of a rectally administered overdose of chloral hydrate. Which is how she is killed in Altar of Bones.

Marilyn had overdosed in the past because she’d lose track of how much medication, she’d taken. It’s possible that’s what happened the night of her death.

The coroner ruled that Marilyn died of a self-administered overdose of sedative drugs. The coroner’s report, including tissue samples taken during the autopsy, and the police records of her death have gone missing.

Marilyn’s death has been a subject of constant speculation through the years. In 1982 the L.A. District Attorney’s office reexamined Marilyn’s death because there had been so much outcry and so many allegations of conspiracy and cover up. They didn’t find any specific evidence of foul play, but they did conclude that the original investigation wasn’t conducted properly.

Check back next week next week for details about Marilyn’s life in her last years, when the flashback scenes in Altar of Bones are set.

Escape from the Gulag (includes deleted scenes)

March 23, 2011

In Altar of Bones Lena Orlova escapes with her lover from the prison camp at Norilsk and makes her way to China on foot. Lena’s escape is based on primarily the real life stories of Clemens Forell and Slavomir Rawicz.

Clemens Forell was a German Paratrooper whose story is chronicled in As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Escape from a Siberian Labor Camp and His 3-Year Trek to Freedom: “In 1944 [he] was captured by the Soviets in 1944 and sentenced to twenty-five years of labor in a Siberian lead mine. In the Gulags, this was virtually a death sentence. Driven to desperation by the brutality of the prison camp, he staged a daring escape. For the next three years, Forell traveled 8,000 miles in barren, frozen wilderness, haunted by blizzards, wolves, criminals, the KGB, and the fear of recapture and retribution. Only a remarkable will to survive, and a bit of luck, allowed him to reach the safety of the Persian border. The resulting story is a rare document of the horrors faced by POWs in the Soviet Union, and a testament to the human spirit.”

Slavomir Rawicz, a cavalry officer who was captured by the Red Army in 1939 during the German-Soviet partition of Poland, made another escape against seemingly impossible odds, recounted in The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom: “[He] and was sent to the Siberian Gulag along with other captive Poles, Finns, Ukranians, Czechs, Greeks, and even a few English, French, and American unfortunates who had been caught up in the fighting. A year later, he and six comrades from various countries escaped from a labor camp in Yakutsk and made their way, on foot, thousands of miles south to British India, where Rawicz reenlisted in the Polish army and fought against the Germans. The Long Walk recounts that adventure, which is surely one of the most curious treks in history.”

Lena’s escape is a key sequence in Altar of Bones, but that portion of the book was cut down due to the complexity of the overall story. Here’s a glimpse of some scenes that were cut from the published book:


Chapter Five

A full moon silvered the snow when Lena Orlova emerged from behind a tumble of boulders fifty yards down shore from the frozen waterfall. The canyons and hills around the lake were a labyrinth of caverns and tunnels, and there was always another way out, if you knew where it was.

She stood silently, her hands lightly cupping her belly. She saw what the wolves had left of the three dead soldiers, but no sign of Nikolai or the sleigh, only the tracks it had left behind. His escape from Norilsk had been a game, a way to trick her into bringing him to the secret cave, and the soldiers had been a part of it all along. Only in the end he’d betrayed them, too. He’d betrayed everyone.

He would come back later to the cave, now that he knew where the entrance was. It might be buried behind a wall of snow, but he wouldn’t let that stop him from getting back inside. Would he look for her dead bones among all the others strewn among the stalagmites and rotting caskets? Probably not. His whole heart and mind would be focused on one thing: like many before him, he thought he’d seen the altar of bones.

Well, now, he was wrong about that, wasn’t he? And the drunken madman mentioned in the Fontana dossier? He’d been wrong, as well, and Lena smiled at the thought. She hitched the sleeping roll and knapsack higher up onto her shoulder and walked away from the lake. She never looked back.

* * *

It took her five months to walk to the place where the Jenisej River flowed into Mongolia.

She walked only at night, so that her dark, fur-wrapped silhouette wouldn’t stand out against the snow-shrouded tundra. At least the nights were long, even as the winter slowly gave way to spring.

You could get a tin of tea or a bag of wheat, or sometimes a few hundred rubles, for turning in a runaway, so she avoided the scattered native villages. And although the land was locked in ice, she knew how to live off it. From her mother’s people, she’d learned how to build a snow hut and make a fire with moss scraped from the rocks and tree trunks, how to milk reindeer and snare a wild hare and fish from a hole cut in the ice.

A couple of times she spotted the smokestacks from other prison camps in the distance, but she saw no soldiers with their guns and dogs. Once, from a long way away, she heard the wail of a train whistle.

She’d thought the constant cold would be the hardest thing to endure, but instead it was the loneliness. One day, during another purga, she sat hunched in a snow hut with her bent legs drawn up under her chin and she began to talk to the babe she carried in her belly to drown out the shriek of the wind. She told her babe about the toapotror, the magic people, and about her own father who had been a Muscovite doctor, and about her own mother who’d been a witch. And about how she would be born a blessed girl child, from a proud long line, and she couldn’t be the last.

From then on Lena talked to the babe all the time. She told her all the secret things she would tell her later, when she could understand.

* * *

She sat on a grassy hill overlooking the Jenisej River, eating wild potatoes she’d dug up from a field and staring at the red poles that marked the border into Mongolia. The poles, topped by round metal signs painted with the hammer and sickle, were spaced every quarter mile or so. She’d watched for two days and nights, but hadn’t seen any patrols. She felt like the only living creature on the planet, except for the flocks of geese and ducks flying north to summer on the lakes at home.


“They say home is where the heart is,” she told the babe. “And for us that’s how it’s going to be. As long as we’re with each other, we’ll be home.”

In the end she simply walked from one side of the poles to the other, just one more step in a line of thousands she’d taken since Norilsk and the cave, one more step away from Nikolai.

She’d walked another two days down the river when she came across what she thought was an abandoned sampan. Then a shriveled old man stepped out from behind a rotting sail.

She started to run off, more out of habit than anything else, but he called after her in passable Russian. “Wait. The Reds cross over sometimes, for who’s to stop them? And there are bandits who will sell you to them for the price of a button.”

Lena turned back to him. He had the longest, thickest mustaches she’d ever seen, but his head was bald and knobby.

“Does that boat of yours float?” she asked him.

“If it didn’t I would’ve drowned long before now.”

“Will you take me downriver? I can pay you,” she added, thinking of the rubles she still had in her knapsack.

“Depends. Where are you going?”

“To Shanghai,” Lena said, pulling out of her head the only place in China she’d heard of.

The old man looked at her as if she’d just named one of Saturn’s moons. Later, when she saw a map of Asia tacked on the wall in a missionary classroom, she realized that for him Shanghai might as well have been a moon, so far away it was from his little patch of river.

* * *

The sampan man took her as far as he could, then turned her over to a great-nephew who gave her a ride on his vegetable cart as far as Uaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital and a whimsical place to Lena’s eyes, with its modern concrete buildings mixed in willy-nilly among the rows of round, felt tents the nomads called yurts. The great-nephew had a childhood friend who worked as a brakeman on the railroad and he let her ride in a boxcar all the way to Zhengzhou in China, a flat, dusty, crowded city. The brakeman had a brother . . . and so she was passed from one relative or friend to another down the length of China until, eight months after her escape from Norilsk, she found herself floating into Shanghai on a garbage scow.

She wasn’t on deck to see it, though, because the babe was coming and the pains were bad.

The family who lived on the scow feared she was dying, so they left her on the doorstep of a missionary run by French nuns known for having taken in White Russian refugees during the revolution. Sometime during the long hours of wracking labor, a woman with a pocked face and a funny-looking white paper ship on her head bent over her and shouted in butchered Russian, “Imja? Imja?”

Name? Why did they want to know the child’s name when it hadn’t even been born yet? Oh, God, had the babe died in the womb? Was she trying to give birth to a corpse?

“Katya,” she said, pulling a name out of the air, because she couldn’t think and the pain was so bad.

But after it was over and she held her daughter in her arms for the first time, she was glad she’d picked the name Katya. In the long line of Keepers, going back to the first Keeper—a blond-haired Tatar girl captured by a fierce Mongol warlord, who’d carried her off to Siberia and made her his bride—there had been many Lenas, but never a Katya, and this was a good thing. They were alone now, she and her babe, with no tribe and no past. They had only the future and each other.

The next morning, when Lena was about to put little Katya to her breast, the nun with the pocked face burst into her room.

“Get up! Get up! We must hide.”

“Why?” Lena cried, although her finely honed instinct for self-preservation already had her out of the bed, with the babe clutched tightly to her chest. Her legs felt like the wet noodles they’d been feeding her.

“Don’t you hear it?” the nun said, tossing Lena a quilted robe. “Quickly, quickly now . . . ”

To Lena, the teeming city outside the windows of the mission was a constant cacophony of noise, but now she heard it too. Gunfire, and screams.

“The Japanese have come, and may God have mercy on our souls—they’re killing everyone.”


Be sure to check back next week for a behind-the-scenes look at Marilyn Monroe’s role in Altar of Bones.

Life in a Soviet Prison Camp

March 15, 2011

Altar of Bones takes the reader via a flashback into the bleak, frozen world of the Gulag in Norilsk, Siberia, in 1937. The prisoners spent the cold polar nights in crude huts they built themselves. Their beds were nothing but hard boards, with  moss for bedding. The huts had wooden stoves, but the stoves didn’t have any chimneys, so the smoke could only escape through cracks in the ceiling. Once the camp was built, the prisoners were put to work in the mines.

They were sent to the camps in cattle cars or in train cars wrapped with multiple strands of barbed wire. They made the journey without food or water or any bathing facilities. The trains had steel spikes that would shred any prisoner who tried to escape through bottom of the car. Searchlights and magazine guns guarded against escape attempts through the roof.

One of the prisoners who made this terrifying journey was a man who was accused of spying because he collected stamps. Another was a veterinarian who was arrested for attending to dogs belonging to foreigners. A man named Ivan was sent to Norilsk in the late 1930s for gleaning grain after the harvest. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison in the Gulag and then 15 years of exile. By the time he was released he had nothing and no one to go home to, so he stayed on in Norilsk and continued to work in the mines. Another man named Vasily was sent to Norilsk in 1939 for belonging to a subversive organization that probably never existed. When he was arrested, he had been married for only seven days. Janusz, a Jewish soldier fighting the Nazis in Stalin’s Red Army, got his tank stuck in the mud. His tank mate accused him of being a traitor. Instead of being executed he was sent to a camp in eastern Siberia.

Prisoners often arrived at the camps dressed in summer clothes covered with lice, with third and fourth degree frostbite and pneumonia. They were placed in quarantine and given better food and rest before they were sent to work in the mines. Those who were too sick were killed, and even for the others the fatality rate in the first months was almost 80%.

The prisoners subsisted on a diet of 1200 calories a day (the World Health Organization recommends 3100-3900 for those engaged in heavy labor). Breakfast was bread, lunch and dinner often a soup of entrails or grain and rotten cabbage. Sometimes prisoners were given salted fish, but they were rarely allowed more than one mug of water per day, as guards didn’t like having to escort them to the lavatory.

In temperatures that could reach minus 50 degrees Celsius, the prisoners were given a long sleeved jerkin lined with wadding, a cap with earflaps, wadded trousers, waterproof gloves of sailcloth, and felt boots.

At night the guards withdrew outside the fence that surrounded the camp. Inside the fence, the criminals preyed on the political prisoners. Murder, torture, and rape were not uncommon. A number of women were gang-raped to death.

But though the guards might leave the camp at night, they and the free workers (such as Lena Orlova in Altar of Bones) were not free from privation. It was a harsh, unforgiving life, and the bitter cold and food shortages in the camps affected the guards and free workers as well as prisoners.

Although any attempt to escape from the camps meant almost certain death, some prisoners still tried. And a very few, like Lena, actually made it. Check back next week for deleted scenes of Lena’s escape, along with true stories from the real prisoners who managed to escape and make their way across the frozen wastelands of Siberia to freedom.

For more about the death trains to Siberia, click here.

The World of the Gulag

March 5, 2011

The World of the GulagAfter a brief sequence in present-day San Francisco, the early chapters of Altar of Bones go back in time to Norilsk in frozen 1937 Siberia and to the desolate world of the Gulag. The term Gulag referred to an archipelago-like network of 476 prison camps that stretched throughout Russia with many of the camps in Siberia and in the Soviet far east.. Gulag is an acronym for Glavnoye upravlyeniye ispravityel’no-trudovih lagyeryey i koloniy (Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies).

About 28,000 people were serving sentences for hard labor at the time of the Russian Revolution. After the revolution, the Bolshevik government set up prison camps for common criminals, prisoners of the civil war, officials accused of corruption, sabotage, or embezzlement, political enemies, dissidents, former aristocrats, and large landowners. By 1928 about 30,000 prisoners were in these camps. An appendix to the minutes of a Politburo meeting on June 27, 1929, (repeated in a secret decree of Sovnarkom on July 11) laid the legal groundwork for “corrective labor camps.” On April 25, 1930, the Gulag was officially established (first called the Ulag and renamed Gulag in November).

The number of prisoners held in the camps increased dramatically through the Stalin era. In 1931–32 approximately 200,000 prisoners were in the Gulag; by 1935 the number had grown to approximately 800,000 in the camps and an additional 300,000 in the colonies (prisoners were sometimes released early for good behavior; they were not allowed to return home but became “free settlers” outside the camp; in addition, sometimes those who had served out their sentence were denied the choice of where to live and given land near the camp); by 1939 there were approximately 1.3 million in the camps and 350,000 in the colonies. Those culled from communist party cadres in Stalin’s purges joined common criminals and millions of male intellectuals, professionals, and ordinary individuals arrested for “crimes” as minor as a joke or as vague as a charge of anti-Soviet agitation. In 1946 Soviet prisoners of war survived Nazi camps only to be sent to the Gulag on their return home for “crimes of desertion” or “collaboration.” So many innocent people were sent to the Gulag that it was a common joke that prisoners would say “I got a 25 year sentence, and I haven’t done anything.” To which guards would reply, “That’s nonsense—for nothing you only get 10 years.”

Women made up seven to 26 % of the prisoners in the camps (the higher percentage was during the war when men were released to fight). There were also camps for children and  “mother zones” where children up to three-years-old were kept beside their mothers. Even though they were kept in close proximity, the mothers were only allowed to see their children once a month and were denied these visits for not keeping up with work quotas.

An estimated 1.6 million died in the Gulag from 1929 – 1953. This doesn’t include those who survived their sentence but died shortly after release due to the privations they had suffered in the camps.

Stalin died in March 1953. An amnesty that same month freed non-political prisoners and prisoners with sentences of less than five years. In 1954 political prisoners began to be released. Their release accelerated after Krushchev denounced Stalinism in February 1956 at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. By the late 1950s, almost all the camps were gone, though colonies continued to exist. MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) order No 020 in January 1960 officially liquidated the Gulag.

Further reading:

Gulalg: A History by Anne Applebaum

Check back next week for details about life in the Gulag at the time the sequence in Altar of Bones takes place.