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.