A city built on the bones of prisoners

Komsomolsk-na-Amur is an industrial city in the Russian Far East.  Founded in 1932, it was from 1937 unmarked on maps and off limits to foreigners – not just in Soviet times, but as late as 2003. It underwent sharp economic decline in the late 1990s, when its population dropped from 300,000 to 200,000, but more recently its economic fortunes have revived. Today it is home to steelworks and oil refineries, machine-building factories, a huge shipyard building both civilian and military ships including submarines, and an aircraft factory, which also produces both civilian and military aircraft. There are also 36 schools and two universities.

Komsomolsk-on-Amur

Komsomolsk-on-Amur

The location has a certain natural beauty – it is on a bend in the wide Amur River, which flows eastwards from the Siberian hinterland (where it delineates a large part of the border between Russia and China) turns north at Khabarovsk and empties into the Sea of Okhotsk. The river front could be pleasant enough in summer. But a more inhospitable environment for human settlement could hardly be imagined. The city has recorded temperatures ranging from 38o C in summer to –47o C in winter. Seven months of the year the town is under snow and ice.

It rained constantly throughout my visit. As I waited to meet my hosts at the bus station, I watched as two police wandered among a crowd of no more than twenty people. Eventually they singled out a young man sitting on a bench, and stood over him, one on each side, and began questioning him. They made him take off his jacket. Then his shoes. He avoided looking them in the eye. After about 20 minutes of questioning, they moved on. The name prominently displayed on the cops’ uniforms was Okhrana – the name of the hated political police in tsarist times. Komsomolsk is a town haunted by its terrible past, and a strange, intangible but unmistakable atmosphere of fear and guarded suspicion pervaded the town, in a way tat was quite unlike anywhere else in Russia that I visited. It was the closest I came to stepping back into Stalinist times.

Komsomolsk was a Stalinist industrial colony, an enterprise more akin to the tsarist colonisation of Siberia than to socialist construction. However, when it was founded in 1932 it was promoted as a part of the grand project to build Soviet industry at an accelerated pace. This was the period of Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture and rapid industrialisation, both carried through at a staggering human cost: a vain attempt to overcome the obstacles to industrialisation by sheer act of will.

Mural on building erected in 1960s. Honour the Union of Communist Youth

Part of mural on building erected in 1960s. Slogan: Glory to the Union of Communist Youth Photo: James Robb

For Komsomolsk the plan was to build a large industrial city in a location close to the immense natural resources of Siberia – fossil fuels, ores, and timber – that was also militarily defensible and had access to the ocean. Legions of volunteers were recruited, especially from among the Union of Communist Youth, the Komsomol, to assist in the task of building socialist industry. Hence the name Komsomolsk: it was the City of Communist Youth.

The first two contingents of volunteers arrived in the spring of 1932, one of 300 and another shortly after of 170. There was almost nothing in the way of shelter or amenities when they arrived, just a single Russian village of some 16 families, and a few nearby villages of indigenous people. There was little means of producing food or building materials until forest cover had been cleared. In such harsh conditions, there was a high mortality among these first volunteers. Most of the survivors had left within two years.

Map found in NKVD files showing locations of prison camps in Komsomolsk (black rectangles.

Map found in NKVD files showing locations of prison camps in Komsomolsk (black rectangles.)

Thereafter, the regime relied increasingly on dispatching prisoners to Komsomolsk to meet its needs for labour, since they could be compelled to stay. At first, they were common prisoners. The first three shipments of prisoners, some 2,500 in all, arrived in September 1933, as the weather grew colder. By March 1934 only 57 of these were still alive.

Stalinist poster warning about 'wreckers'. Slogan: Be Vigilant

Stalinist poster warning about ‘wreckers’. Slogan: Be Vigilant

However, there was a constant influx of new prisoners to replenish the labour force, an increasing proportion of whom were political prisoners.  Opposition to the forced collectivisation led to thousands being branded kulaks (rich peasants) and exiled. As the economic dislocations of the forced industrialisation piled up, and the resulting misery increased, the ranks of the discontented grew further. The Stalinist rulers, incapable of recognising the true causes of the disasters in their own bureaucratic planning and utopian goals, blamed the failures on “wreckers” and “saboteurs.” These accused supplied additional prison labour to be deported to Komsomolsk and similar enterprises over the next twenty years.

 

Some of the first rails laid on the BAM in 1934 by prisoners. Photo: James Robb

Some of the first rails laid on the BAM in 1934 by prisoners. Photo: James Robb

As well as building most of the factories and apartment blocks in the city, the prisoners in Komsomolsk and neighbouring towns built the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), an east-west railway line running parallel to the older trans-Siberian line, around the northern end of Lake Baikal to Komsomolsk. The first prisoners in the 1930s laid most of the tracks. Then during the German invasion the rails were removed to supply steel for armaments and rails closer to the theatre of war. After the war, the BAM was re-built by Japanese prisoners of war.

Railway sleepers laid on the BAM in 1934, rails removed in 1941.. Photo: James Robb

Railway sleepers laid on the BAM in 1934, rails removed in 1941.. Photo: James Robb

Two peaks in the supply of prisoners occurred. The first of these was in 1936-37, after the paroxysm of denunciations and frame-ups known as the Moscow Show Trials, in which tens of thousands of workers and others who had made the revolution, along many others outside the political struggle altogether, were framed up on fantastic charges of supporting counter-revolution, executed and jailed. At the height of the Stalinist terror, the smallest infraction, a joke or a careless comment, could result in deportation to the Gulag.

The original brick-making kiln constructed by prisoners. The factory is still in use as a brickworks today.

The original brick-making kiln constructed by prisoners. The factory is still in use as a brickworks today. Photo: James Robb

In the atmosphere of terror, people denounced their family members and friends to the hated NKVD (the political police) thinking – mistakenly – that it might save them from the same fate. The sheer numbers of new arrivals in Komsomolsk cheapened their lives even further, and the rate at which they were worked to death accelerated.

The lucky ones: Japanese soldiers repatriated in 1946 from Soviet territory. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Japanese_Soldiers_Returning_from_Siberia_1946.jpg

The lucky ones: Japanese soldiers repatriated in 1946 from Soviet territory.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Japanese_Soldiers_Returning_from_Siberia_1946.jpg

The second wave came in the aftermath of the Second World War, and had two components. On the one hand, there were the Soviet Red Army soldiers who had been taken prisoners of war by Germany during the conflict, along with many others who had taken part in the successful defence of the Soviet Union against the German invasion. Despite their sacrifices, they were treated as enemies or potential enemies when they were repatriated, and shipped off to the Gulags. The second component, especially large in Komsomolsk, was the Japanese prisoners of war captured as the army of Imperial Japan collapsed in 1945 and the Red Army advanced through Manchuria and Korea.

Some of the original railway wagons used to bring prisoners on the 24-hour journey from Khabarovsk. They had no heating and no toilet, just a hole in the floor. Many died on the journey. Photo: James Robb

Some of the original railway wagons used to bring prisoners on the 24-hour journey from Khabarovsk. They had no heating and no toilet, just a hole in the floor. Many died on the journey.
Photo: James Robb

Alongside the constant influx of prisoners, in both of these periods ‘volunteers’ continued to arrive in Komsomolsk, driven more by the economic dislocations and hardships of the 1930s and the German invasion than hope in the socialist future. While the huge shipyard was mostly built by convict labour, and completed in 1933, it was volunteers who worked in the factory.

The building used for many years as the administrative headquarters for the Komsomolsk Gulag Photo: James Robb

The building used for many years as the administrative headquarters for the Komsomolsk Gulag
Photo: James Robb

Being a volunteer provided no protection against political persecution, however. In 1936 about 600 of the volunteers were arrested at the shipyard alone; in 1937, 893 more, and in 1938, a staggering 1211 volunteers at the shipyard ended up on the other side of the barbed wire, replacing the prisoners who had died. (These figures have been compiled by Komsomolsk residents from their own studies of the local files of the NKVD recently opened to limited public inspection.) Free adults were not allowed any contact with prisoners, even if they were married, although the child of a prisoner was permitted some contact.

Ruins of a prisoners' barracks, Komsomolsk. Photo: James Robb

Ruins of a prisoners’ barracks, Komsomolsk. Photo: James Robb

The conditions of the Japanese prisoners were slightly different from those of the Soviet prisoners – appalling enough, to be sure: of the nearly one million Japanese taken prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, only 600,000 survived long enough to be repatriated. Yet although they were held much longer than Japanese prisoners taken by other armies – a few up to ten years after the war’s end – their terms of imprisonment were mostly far shorter than those of the Soviet prisoners.  In other significant ways their conditions were not quite as bad as the Russians. The effects of this difference are even felt today.

Since they were protected to a limited extent by international treaties on prisoners of war to which the Soviet Union was signatory, the Japanese prisoners tended to have slightly better food and housing. They often worked in the same factories – for example, in the big steel works – and sometimes shared their food with the Russians.

Metallurgical factory built 1936 by prisoners. Both Russian and Japanese prisoners worked here later. Photo: James Robb

Metallurgical factory built 1936 by prisoners. Both Russian and Japanese prisoners worked here later.
Photo: James Robb

But the biggest difference was in their treatment after death. The Japanese prisoners who died were given a proper burial, and the location of their graves was generally known. Since Komsomolsk opened to foreigners, bereaved families of the Japanese prisoners have organised annual tours to the city to locate the graves of their parents and grandparents. In one big Japanese cemetery containing 1500 graves, about 100 of the graves were exhumed and the remains returned to Japan for reburial in a special combined burial place for former prisoners of war, which has a map of the Soviet Union showing the locations in which they died.

The gate through which Soviet and Japanese prisoners entered the metallurgical factory. It once bore the slogan "Let us honour labour" - not unlike the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' on the gate of the Auschwitz death camp.

The gate through which Soviet and Japanese prisoners entered the metallurgical factory. It once bore the slogan “Let us honour labour” – not unlike the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ on the gate of the Auschwitz death camp. Photo: James Robb

Even a few of the elderly Japanese ex-prisoners themselves have returned. On one of these visits, in a very emotional moment a prisoner was able to identify a wooden house he had built, in Japanese architectural style. He died a few months later. The Japanese government funded a campaign to search for descendants of mixed marriages with the Japanese prisoners, though it never found any in Komsomolsk. Some families of ex-prisoners visiting in the 1990s asked about a Belarussian nurse who had worked in the hospital for Japanese prisoners, and whom the prisoners had remembered with affection. It turned out that the nurse still lived in Komsomolsk, and they were able to meet her. Many monuments commemorating the Japanese prisoners and their sacrifices have been built.

The Gulag prisoners' 'hospital,' from where few returned alive. Photo: James Robb

The Gulag prisoners’ ‘hospital,’ from where few returned alive.
Photo: James Robb

Such reconciliations and actions to put the horrors of the past to rest have not been possible in the case of the Russian prisoners, however. Part of the reason for this is because of the awful history of betrayals and false accusations which landed the prisoners in the camps in the first place – which is harder to forgive than being captured as a prisoner of war. But the bigger reason has been the systematic, decades-long efforts by the Stalinist authorities to obliterate these people from the ranks of the human race.

The intention of the Stalinist persecutors always was that theirs was a sentence for life, and a death sentence, and it was even to continue after death. Not only was no record kept of where they were buried, but the locations of the mass graves in which their bodies were dumped was deliberately, and energetically, concealed.

Gynaecological hospital built on the site of prisoners' burial ground Photo: James Robb

Gynaecological hospital built on the site of prisoners’ burial ground
Photo: James Robb

Local people have a fair idea where the main burial grounds are. But throughout the years since the massive deaths of the 30s and 40s, the authorities have kept the secret secure. In the 1970s, a factory making cinder blocks was built right on top of the known site of the largest mass grave, and a few years later a gynaecological hospital was built over the second-largest site. Alternative sites for these buildings were not lacking – the intention was to bury the evidence permanently under the concrete. All human remains that were uncovered during these constructions were destroyed and the records suppressed. Komsomolsk is a city built on the bones of its prisoners, in the most literal sense.

The numbers involved are huge: official records show that in 1948 there were 937,000 people living in Komsomolsk. In 1985 there were 311,000 – and in the period in between, very few Komsomolsk residents were permitted to leave the city. Even allowing a generous margin for recorded deaths, unrecorded escapes and migrations, and errors, the unrecognised dead must number in the hundreds of thousands.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Gulag system was scaled down significantly throughout the Soviet Union. Mounting resistance in the camps themselves, led by the battle-hardened Red Army veterans imprisoned after the war, was a more important factor behind this decision than the death of the dictator: all of Stalin’s successors did their best to retain as much as they could of it.

Vodka factory built in 1943 by prisoners. Photo: James Robb

Vodka factory built in 1943 by prisoners.
Photo: James Robb

In Komsomolsk, little changed for a long time after Stalin’s death, largely due to the closed nature of the city itself, where because it was a military production centre even its ‘free’ residents were not free to come and go without special permission of the authorities. The few prisoners who survived to complete their sentence were given a choice of continuing to live in Komsomolsk as a free worker, or transferring to another prison or labour camp near their home city to endure a further indefinite period of detention. Added to this was the fact that in many cases they knew their spouses and families had also been arrested and killed or were sent to other camps and were probably dead. There were a few cases of where prisoners were eventually reunited with their families, but they were very rare.

The big majority stayed in the city, formed new relationships, and made new lives as best they could. Many people living in Komsomolsk today consequently have long-buried questions about their past, and unearthing those stories is a slow and sensitive process. Some of the residents have started examining the records of the NKVD, assisting with the visits of the Japanese families and any others interested, and do what they can to prevent the buildings built by the prisoners being destroyed. It is a difficult task. One of the signs of the economic crisis across all of Siberia was the way many of the fine old wooden buildings were falling into decay.

Monument to the Victims of Political Repression, Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Photo: James Robb

Monument to the Victims of Political Repression, Komsomolsk-on-Amur.
Photo: James Robb

They have erected a simple stone monument in a city park dedicated to the victims of political persecution. They would like to name a city square in their honour, mark the burial sites, and organise educational activities, but the city administration says there are insufficient funds for any of this. Clearly, the resistance goes a lot deeper than lack of funds.

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