Ep. 34 At Ukhta-Pechora

Prisoners pull a load through the Izhma River Ukhta expedition 1929

This is the 1929 expedition towing supplies up river.

Five years before Gerhard arrived at his desolate prison location, a cohort of prisoner-scientists led an expedition across the White Sea and up the Pechora River to a tiny settlement called Chibyuskiy [63°33’58.40″N, 53°42’17.03″E]. The camp they established was to become the centre of an industrial empire fueled by slave labour, including Gerhard’s.

When he arrived at this place it was still so remote the prisoners had to walk the last several hundred kilometres on foot. At 24 kilometres per day[1] Gerhard walked for two weeks before arriving at Ukhta-Pechora camp. It was not a single camp at all, but a series of two dozen camps spread across hundreds of kilometres each isolated by days or weeks from the other. Many of the camps had no barbed wire enclosures until 1937 and prisoners walked about freely. Escape was considered impossible, at best suicidal. In 1943 Chibyuskiy was renamed Ukhta and today it is a city of 100,000 inhabitants, many the progeny of prisoners.

All of the roads leading into town [Uhkta] were once built by prisoners, as were all of central Uhkta’s office blocks and apartment buildings. In the very heart of the city there is a park, planned and built by prisoner architects; a theatre in which prisoner actors performed; and sturdy wooden houses, where the camp commanders once lived. Today, the managers of Gazprom, another new Soviet company, inhabit modern buildings on the same leafy street.[2]

Ukhta today

Ukhta today

Yet, look up the Uhkta entry in Wikipedia and you’ll find no mention of slave labour. It seems as if people want to forget where they came from. Anne Applebaum describes her efforts to find any memorial to those who died in Gerhard’s camp complex:

An iron cross has been placed  on a barren hill outside the city of Ukhta, the old headquarters of Ukhtpechlag, commemorating the site of a mass murder of prisoners. To see it, I had to drive down an almost impassable muddy road, walk behind a building site and clamber over a railway track. Even then I was too far away to read the actual inscription.[3]

The main purpose of Ukhta-Pechora camp was to produce oil. The native Komi people used the black sludge that seeped from the earth as a medicine and a lubricant. Europeans first realized the rich potential of the region when they spotted oil oozing from the Ukhta River bed in 1597[4] and by 1745 they constructed works to recover the oil from the surface of the river.[5] It took another 120 years until the first oil-producing well was drilled.

The prisoner-scientists of the 1929 expedition were seeking oil, and found it; but when they tested the water in the bore holes, it contained high levels of radium which was in high demand for medical use and for creating luminous paint for signs.[6] The radium present in the groundwater of the Ukhta Pechora camps was as high as 7,600 pCi/L. If you are wondering what the safe level is, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has proposed a regulation establishing a maximum level for radium in public water supplies of 300 pCi/L.

Expedition member Aleksandr Kulevsky recalled the trip in his memoirs: “We arrived in Chibyu during the day and my heart sank at the sight of the wild and bleak picture we saw. A black, ridiculously oversized single tower and two miserable huts surrounded by nothing but taiga and swamps.”[7]

Also arriving with this group were secret police officials who later became the leaders of the Ukhta-Pechora camp, in fact the leader of the expedition Yakov Moroz, was the camp’s first director.

By 1932 developing the resources and infrastructure of the region was turned over to the OGPU, the secret police. The secret police were responsible for “exploring and developing subsurface resources of commercial value in the Pechora Basin and all auxiliary work related to it; building railroads and dirt roads; constructing housing and cultural institutions; and building repair plants to support existing and future mines, oil fields and river shipbuilding.”[8]

Who better to supply the labour than the secret police? By the middle of 1933 17,852 prisoners were at Ukhta-Pechora camp digging for coal, drilling for oil, harvesting trees and building ships, roads and railways. A few months later a 600-seat theatre was completed by the prisoners and many famous repressed actors and musicians performed there. As the industrial processes became more technical, educational programs were available to the many illiterate captives.

Arrival at the camp

Pechorlag Entrance Gate

Entrance gate to Ukhta-Pechora camp

When Gerhard and his cohort finally arrived at Ukhta-Pechora (aka Ukhtpechlag) camp after weeks of sleeping in their clothes everyone was filthy with lice. “If it was not dark, and if they were interested enough to look up, the first thing prisoners saw on arrival was their camp’s gate. More often than not the gate displayed a slogan.”[9] Anne Applebaum quotes slogans prisoners report they saw:

Labour in the USSR is a Matter of Honesty, Glory, Valour and Heroism

With Just Work I Will Pay My Debt to the Fatherland

With an Iron Fist We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness

Through Labour – Freedom[10]

A thousand bird miles east of Gerhard, one prisoner described his arrival at the Norilsk camp:

As we approached the gate, I thought for a moment I must be having a bad dream: a naked corpse was suspended from the gatepost. Its hands and feet were bound with wire, its head was sunk to one side, the rigid eyes were half open. Above the head was a board with the inscription: “This is the fate of all those who try to escape from Norilsk.”[11]

lazy inmates end up here

This is where lazy inmates reside

National Archives of the Republic of Komi, confirm Gerhard arrived at Corrective Labour Camp Ukhta-Izhma on September 16, 1934.[12] Here he was counted, washed, deloused and shaved over his entire body, given ill-fitting clothes and counted again.

GERHARD They gave us clothes, quilted jackets, for breakfast, porridge. There was no coffee, ersatz coffee wasn’t so bad, but the soup was very watery. You had to pick the maggots out of the dried fish, then you could eat the fish.

 The bedbugs were awful. We slept on straw sacks and sheets. When you pressed your hand against your body, it would be bloody when you pulled it away. When the lights came on the bugs retreated into the wood walls of the barracks.

There were about 60 men in a long narrow barrack. At night the police would come and take one or the other out. In the morning when we saw the empty bed we knew our brother in misery had been sent to a punishment detail, or much worse…

 If you woke up in the morning, you were grateful to be alive.

prisoners in barracks

Gulag prisoners in barracks

Food in camps is described by survivors as consisting of spoiled cabbage and potatoes, sometimes a piece of pig fat or herring heads; sometimes it contained fish or animal lungs, or dog meat.[13] Gerhard found the food was as advertised.

Ukhtpechlag soupline

Prisoner art – soup line at Ukhta Pechora kitchen.

It’s impossible to know how much food Gerhard needed to survive in the camps, but the following assumptions may provide insight into how a person can weaken and surrender to the frigid temperatures and inhumane labour. To maintain Gerhard’s weight as a man of average height (5”9”) and weight (160 lbs.) he required 2,500 calories per day if he was sedentary.[14] Since Ukhta was a labour camp let’s assume Gerhard’s work was no more strenuous than walking the dog for eight hours per day. Now he needs 4300 calories per day to maintain his current weight and fitness. But he wasn’t walking the dog; he was working as hard as he could. If we assume his workload was comparable to cross country hiking, his requirement for maintaining his weight and fitness leaps to 6,600 calories.

What was Gerhard’s caloric intake? We’ll never know. By October 1944, gulag administrators had been ordered to provide each prisoner with the following amounts of food each day because too many workers were dying of starvation.

Regular ration[15] Calories Punishment ration
8 grams sugar 32 calories[16]
550 grams of bread 1458 calories 300
15 grams meat 21 calories (38 if ground beef)
15 grams fish 31 calories
10 grams fat 90 calories
500 grams potato or vegetable 385 calories 170
15 grams salt 0 calories
Total 1,935 calories

Even if the prisoners were fed as ordered they were on a starvation diet.

* * * * *

The next stage was to determine what kind of work Gerhard could do. In theory, work assignments were based on the prisoner’s social origin, the length of the sentence and his health. As a prisoner convicted of a counter-revolutionary crime, Gerhard was ensured the least consideration possible and destined for heavy labour, instead of light work or “privileged.” [17]

gulag inmates sawing wood

Wood cutters


GERHARD Upon arrival everyone was eagerly seeking their countrymen, and I became acquainted with an older gentleman who had already been at the camp for some time – he was a veterinarian by the name of Dederer. He asked my name and what skills I had. Dederer knew my father and promised to get me a “warm nest.” But because I wanted to stay with my fellow sufferers and my friend Kaftan was a carpenter I said I was a wood worker.

So Kaftan and I were to cut wood. My partner was much better at wood cutting than I was. We were given a  team quota: if we made the quota we each received 800 grams of bread per day, if we did not then our bread ration was reduced to 300 grams. Bread was our main nutrition because the soup was so watery. We had a saying: Eat water, drink water, water is very strong, it carries mighty ships.

My partner and I tortured ourselves trying to make our quota, but it was no good. The first day we received 300 grams of heavy not-quite-baked bread. We tried again the second day, but were again rewarded with 300 grams of bread.

After the third day I quit, because my partner could not make his quota and mine also no matter how hard we worked. As punishment for quitting I was put in a tiny closet for three days with little water and 300 grams of bread.

punishment cellOdinochka Solitary Confinement Cell Courtesy of Regina Gorzkowski-Rossi.

Solitary Confinement Cell Courtesy of Regina Gorzkowski-Rossi

Each camp contained a punishment block within its fenced boundaries, and they have survived the ravages of time and the taiga better than other camp structures. The punishment block of Ukhta Pechora Camp No. 7 has survived as the workshop of an Armenian car mechanic.[18] Cells within punishment blocks were designed to be uncomfortable and to convince inmates to return to work. Janusz Bardach describes his punishment cell:

My underwear and undershirt were already damp, and I was shivering. My neck and shoulders got stiff and cramped. The soggy raw wood was decaying, especially on the edges of the bench … the bench was so narrow I could not lie on my back, and when I lay on my side, my legs hung over the edge; I had to keep them bent all the time. It was difficult to decide which side to lie on – on one side my face was pressed up against the slimy wall; on the other my back became damp.[19]

Gerhard needed no further incentive, but to survive he needed to find work he could do. His first survival strategy, sharing a work quota with a stronger person, had failed and, whether he knew it or not, he had little time to find a better way to survive.



[1] Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I., The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956,Harper Row, New York, 1973, page 1646.

[2] Applebaum, Anne, Gulag, A History, Anchor Books, 2003, New York, page 78.

[3] Applebaum, op. cit., page 576.

[4] Taskaev, Anatoli I., Landa, Edward R., Guryev, Denis V., Golovko Butler, Natalia, Kraemer, Thomas F., Vodnyi: A Long-term, Low-level Radiation Exposure Field Site in Russia, Japanese Journal of Health Physics, v. 38, pages 332-343.

[5] Alekperov, Vagit, Oil of Russia, Past, Present and Future, East View Press, translated from the Russian by Paul B. Gallagher and Thomas D. Hedden. – 1st ed., Minneapolis, 2011, page 10

[6] Taskaev, Anatoli I., et. al.,op. cit., pages 332-343

[7]   Alekperov, op. cit., page 88.

[8] November 16, 1932, the USSR Labor and Defense Council resolution, “On the Organization of the Ukhta-Pechora Trust,” http://www.rulit.me/books/oil-of-russia-read-263258-89.html, page 89, accessed January 13, 2017.

[9] Applebaum, op. cit., page 175.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Stajner, Karlo,Seven Thousand Days in Siberia, Edinburgh, 1988 , p. 78 quoted in Applebaum, op. cit., p. 393

[12] Letter from Director V.I. Korobov, National Archives of the Republic of Komi, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Archives of the Republic of Komi, dated March 17, 2017 to Edvin Peter Wall, received October 3, 2017.

[13] Applebaum, op. cit., page 206-07.

[14] These assumptions are based on information provided in https://nutritiondata.self.com/tools/calories-burned, accessed January 20, 2017.

[15] Applebaum, op. cit., page 207.

[16] These calorie amounts are based on United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service , USDA Food Composition Databases, https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list?qlookup=11352, accessed January 20, 2017

[17] Applebaum, op. cit., page 179.

[18] Applebaum, op. cit., page 242.

[19] Bardach, Janusz (with Kathleen Gleeson), Man is Wolf to Man Surviving Stalin’s Gulag, London 1998, pp 213-15, quoted in Applebaum, op. cit., page 245.

4 thoughts on “Ep. 34 At Ukhta-Pechora

  1. I recall purchasing The Gulag Archipelago for my parents as a Christmas gift. I know it was never read but the books were on display in our living shelf for years.

    Liked by 1 person

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