Kulak and Zek

The words literally mean peasant and prisoner. The two terms are connected by the labor camps that form an integral part of Russian twentieth century history—the gulags.

The frightening and wonderful book by Anne Applebaum that describes the history and horrors of the Soviet penal camps leaves no doubt as to the tragedy they inflicted upon innocent generations, and of the cynicism of the ruling cadres. The worst protagonist was  Stalin himself.

I first heard of the camps in 1972, in a book written by an American Jesuit priest called Walter Ciszek who had been imprisoned for decades in the forced labor system of the USSR. His autobiography was published by Readers Digest, an organization that always defended capitalist and religious values—in a country entering its forty-sixth year of fascist dictatorship, books like this were easy to find.

There was an extensive description of the Lubyanka prison, and I learned about the Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. By then, the NKVD had been renamed KGB, much like the PIDE in Portugal had morphed into the DGS.

I first heard the term zek last year, an abbreviation of zaklyuchennyi, or prisoner, and it is a bizarre coincidence that the  word forms part of Father Walter’s surname.

Iron Feliks, in a parade in 1936. By then the gulags were a fearsome juggernaut.

Iron Feliks, in a parade in 1936. By then the gulags were a fearsome juggernaut.

Dzerzhinsky, known as ‘Iron Feliks’, was the man who built up the system. His own story is one of violence and prolonged imprisonment, his face permanently disfigured by beatings from his jailers, so it is unsurprising that he was capable of so much cruelty.

In the words of the Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden, from the poem September 1, 1939.

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Auden wrote wonderful poems, and I think I must impose one other on you today, since it has such a meaning for those Stalinist times: Epitaph on a Tyrant.

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

These timeless verses resonate in today’s world of Assad, Putin, and Boko Haram.

Glavnoye upravleniye ispravityelno-trudovykh lagerey i koloniy, the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Labor Settlements, was understandably shortened to GULag, and the camps themselves were lagerey, reminiscent of the South African word laager.

Penal colonies were already in use by the czars, and Siberia was a favorite destination for both common criminals and opponents of the monarchy, but the post-revolutionary ardor for forced labor, along with the huge escalation in mass executions, took the gulags to a whole new level.

Names such as Solovetsky, on the White Sea, and Kolyma, in Siberia, are emblematic. SLOM, the Solovetsky camp, is of particular importance, since it is classed by Solzhenitsyn and others as the place where many of the techniques later used in the Komi Republic, Siberia, and elsewhere, were tested and tuned.

The Solovetsky Islands are on the White Sea, at a latitude of sixty-five degrees north, directly above Moscow. They were the base from which Stalin launched his grand plan for a canal linking the Barents Sea to the Baltic, connecting through two lakes, Onega and Ladoga—about one hundred-fifty miles of digging, all in all.

The canal was completed in record time, taking advantage of slave labor—as manpower requirements increased, kulaks were arrested en masse, without charge, and freighted to the work site.

The Solovetsky Islands, from which the zeks that built the White Sea Canal were drawn. The facility would mean a major reduction in sailing time from the Barents Sea to Stockholm or Leningrad.

The Solovetsky Islands, from which the zeks that built the White Sea Canal were drawn. The new connection would mean a major reduction in sailing time from the Barents Sea to Stockholm or Leningrad.

The idea for the White Sea Canal, built in the 1930s, had been around for centuries: the sea journey to the Baltic required a long trip west, south along the Norwegian coast, and then east into the Baltic Sea to ports such as Helsinki and St. Petersburg.

In a typical attempt to demonstrate the efficiency of the Soviet proletariat, planning and construction took place almost simultaneously. There were serious errors in surveying, and machinery was nonexistent—the canal was dug with spades, rocks broken with sledgehammers.

The food reward for the zeks was linked to productivity. As workers became less productive, they received less food—the result was a rapid downward spiral toward death—the same approach was later used in the Siberian gulags.

Although the canal was completed in twenty months, at a cost of tens of thousands of casualties, whose bones line the banks to this day, the faulty construction resulted in a waterway that was both too shallow and too narrow to be of practical use.

Through decades of gulag madness, the terror never killed the Russian sense of humor. The Lubyanka in Moscow,  headquarters of the Cheka, and later the KGB, was originally an insurance building. It became infamous during Lenin and Stalin’s time, not least for the prison cells in its catacombs, where torture and murder were commonplace.

Russians called it the tallest building in Moscow, because you could see Siberia from the basement.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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