Ep. 35 Gerhard learns to survive


prisoners clearing rocks

After three days in the punishment cell, Gerhard knew he needed to save himself anyway he could.

Exceeding the norm set out by the bosses earned additional rations, but that strategy too was often fatal because the additional nutrition did not replace the energy spent and clearly Gerhard was incapable of that goal. He went to the only person he knew: a Mr. Dederer.

GERHARD My friend Dederer got me out of there. He knew the engineers and after three days I was placed in the Project Office and put in charge of the Archives where I stayed until 1936. The engineers were friendly to us Germans because many of them had studied in Germany and in America. I was willing to do anything they asked from chopping firewood to bringing them food from the kitchen as well as my own work of copying drawings and organizing the archive. Here the rations were better and for two years I had a warm place to work. And so, because of my youth, I became the darling of the office until 1936.

Gerhard may have become the “darling” of the office, working inside and out of the cold, but in the gulag moral code nothing is free. Gerhard doesn’t mention the price he paid for his new position. Had he become a cooperator? A collaborator?

Many camp functions were given to a hierarchy of trusties: prisoners who had various authorities over their fellow prisoners, depending where they fell in the hierarchy. Many of the camp trusty positions belonged to the criminal prisoners because they were “more capable of being reformed into good Soviet citizens”[1] than the politicals. Perhaps because so few criminals were literate, the administration kept Gerhard in the archive because of his education.

GERHARD Then in 1936 something happened to the party bosses in Leningrad and Kirov was shot by a Jew named Nikolaev, as far as I can remember 72 people were shot. Now Yezhov came to power. Now those of us who were “enemies of the people” were required to perform hard labour.

Something had happened in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), but Kirov was  shot in 1934 and replaced by Genrikh Yagoda as minister of internal affairs who now directed the regular police and the NKVD. Stalin was unhappy Yagoda wasn’t killing Trotskyites as quickly as he would have liked, so he fired Yagoda and hired Nikolai Yezhov, who ushered in a two-year period during which more than half the Russian armed forces officer corps was demoted, exiled or executed.

In 1937 and 1938 alone at least 1.3 million were arrested and 681,692 were shot for ‘crimes against the state’. The Gulag population swelled by 685,201 under Yezhov, nearly tripling in size in just two years, with at least 140,000 of these prisoners (and likely many more) dying of malnutrition, exhaustion and the elements in the camps (or during transport to them).[2]

A few months after Yagoda’s demotion, Stalin ordered him arrested for diamond smuggling, corruption, and spying for Germany ever since joining the party in 1917. Evidence collected from his residences – a lifetime supply of porn and sex toys – was enough to convict him of treason and conspiracy against the state.

GERHARD In the camp there were also many exiled Jews. They always stuck together. Whenever there was easy work to be done, the Jews were there. Until Kirov’s killing the Jews always got the better jobs, for example in the kitchen, the supply depot, tailor shop, or the upholstery shop, et cetera. [3] But from the day it became known that Nikolaev was a Jew, the Jews were collected from wherever they were and sent to the Far North to do the most difficult work – to build the railway. As I recall 72 Jews were shot and anyone who knew them or had been to school with them was interrogated and remained under suspicion. They laid the lines by hand and most of them never came back. When I first arrived at the Ukhta Pechora Camp in 1934 we had to walk the last three hundred kilometers, but five years later upon my release the tracks were already laid, and built mostly by the Jews. What they had to go through must have been terrible. In three-and-a-half years the railroad was completed. Only God knows how many died.

Although Gerhard believes it was Kirov’s assassination that prompted his return to hard labour, it was actually Yezhov’s rise to power and the Great Purge.

GERHARD Now that Nikolaev shot Kirov, all the “enemies of the people” subject to Section 58 of the Soviet criminal code were forced to do hard labour. Thanks to the engineers and their large circle of friends I was placed on a transportation team with three others. Our job was to transport raw gypsum blocks from the quarry to the processing plant by boat. We hitched the horse to the boat and towed it up river for 12 kilometers where it was loaded with three tons of gypsum. Then we loaded the horse into the boat and floated downstream. Our only responsibility was to make sure we arrived at the processing plant with the load intact, so we were free to enjoy the wonderful scenery of the Ukhta River. The river also had some rapids so we had to be careful not to get hung up on the rocks. We made the 25 kilometre round trip every day, and since it was summer it was a pleasure to observe the natural world. The river was so clean you could see every fish in the water.
Ukhta River

Ukhta River


Breaking gypsum.

GERHARD At the processing station, other exiles broke up the gypsum into small pieces with hammers. These pieces were poured into water troughs 12-18 inches wide and six inches deep suspended 12 feet up. The water was pumped up out of deep wells and ran over the crushed gypsum into large tanks approximately 75 cubic meters in size. When the water came in contact with the gypsum it produced a foam which flowed into the eight or ten large tanks. The tanks were set so that the water from one would flow into the next, retaining the foam. This process took several months and then the water was carefully let out and the foam carefully recovered and placed in a special oven. The exiles who worked at the ovens received more food but still didn’t last very long before they were relieved by other exiles. The dried material was then brought to the Crystallisation Unit and produced various materials, but mainly radium. In the second year this process was used, it was said 18 grams of radium were produced. It took several thousands of people to produced 18 grams of radium.

 Ours was the second commercial branch, the first and third were to produce oil.

Gerhard’s description of the process coincides with the descriptions of the 30 scientists who today are using the area as a field laboratory to conduct radiological investigations into “technologically enhanced, natural radioactivity.”[4]

High concentrations of radium in the water was detected around 1927 and by 1934, when Gerhard arrived here, 59 wells were pumping radium rich water over bits of gypsum in hopes of separating the radium from the water. By the 1940’s 150 wells were producing 17 grams of radium per year.[5]

Over the years attempts to limit radiation exposure and reduce contamination by wind have included applying sand and gravel covers, deep plowing and paving the streets and various sites with asphalt.

* * * * *

In the next episode we look at the gulag moral code: slow death vs. slower death. What would you choose?



[1] Applebaum, Anne, Gulag, A History, Anchor Books, 2003, New York, page 364.

[2] Figes, Orlando (2007) The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia ISBN 0-8050-7461-9, page 234, quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Nikolai_Yezhov#/Early_life_and_career, accessed January 23, 2017.

[3] It is not lost on me that Gerhard also sought out the “better jobs” with the best chance for survival. Yet he singles out Jewish people.

[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] Ibid.

One thought on “Ep. 35 Gerhard learns to survive

  1. These last number of episodes bring back the stories my grandmother and parents told me. I particularly remember their descriptions of what it felt like, Physiologicaly and emotionally, to be starving with very little time left to live unless food was found.

    Liked by 1 person

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