Life in a Soviet Prison Camp

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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.

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