1937 – Kolyma, that Pole of Cold and Cruelty

By Lisa Green

For there, lying upon the rotting prison
straw, I came to realize that the object
of life is not prosperity as we are made
to believe, but the maturity of the human

The Gulag Archipelago


The northerly gale shrieks past the high barbed wire fences of Kolyma and collects dirt and snow, scattering loose earth into the sunken eyes of the slaving men. Viktor is momentarily blinded and he stumbles, slipping on the icy plank. His heavy wheelbarrow anchors Viktor to the ground and saves him from drowning in the thick blanket of snow that had formed overnight. He steadies himself, and continues pushing his wheelbarrow full of dirt up the narrow plank.

Up and down.

Back and forth.

Only four months have passed since Viktor was arrested and imprisoned for being a class enemy. These first few months are known to be the hardest, as the relentless weather and guards shattered the spirit of each man until they were nothing but empty shells with blank eyes and forgotten hopes. Escape is futile; nestled in the northern most corner of Siberia, landlocked by mountainous terrain, only the treacherous wind is free to enter and leave Kolyma. Viktor is confused about why he was sent here – detained around him are murderers, spies, and conspirators. He is just a man who had resisted work on the kolkhoz, charged with being a social parasite that lived off the healthy Soviet Union.i

Viktor fixes his eyes on the plank before him, the dull repetition of his steps a lifeline to save him from his rampant thoughts.

He talks to himself as he works: “Load the wheelbarrow with dirt, walk up the plank, empty the wheelbarrow, walk down the plank.”

As he toils, he can see how the mound of dirt at the other end is growing, a measure of progress. The summit of the earth mountain just touches the morning sun, the ball of fire balancing precariously as if any moment it could roll down the side of the mound, melting the snow and ice that formed in the hours he had been working.

He is dragged from his reverie, the piercing wind tossing him back into reality. Blinking, he turns back to the Sisyphean task before him. Around him hundreds of other men follow an identical routine to his, a scattered assembly line of dirt and men.

There was a camp rumour that one hundred and sixty-two prisoners had been shot and buried in a pit one day and dirt had been dumped over their corpses just behind the mess hall. Their deaths served as a warning to the other prisoners: Work hard. Do not be lazy. See what happened to lazy and disobedient workers? They ended up in a pit with one hundred and sixty one other men, frozen in the place where they were dumped.

Viktor pays heed to this lesson, even if there is no proof that it had happened. It isn’t that he is afraid of dying; he had come to accept that he might never leave Kolyma alive. In four or five years he too would probably rest beneath the very soil he carries, with no epitaph carved in stone to say ‘here lies Viktor, a condemned man.’ Rather, he fears how his death will be reduced to a statistic, a death toll for the morbidly curious. He will be as anonymous in death as he is in life, forgotten amongst the dirt and snow.

What was the point to all this labour, if all they would become was a tale to frighten other zeks?ii The soil that was building up has no use, the hole he was digging served no real purpose. Sometimes the guards tipped the soil he had dug up back into the hole – out of all the horrors of Kolyma, this was the most painful to a zek. Unlike the boxed ears from a beating for stealing an extra bowl of skilly, this punishment left no physical scars.iii But mentally it tore at the prisoners’ egos, telling them that there was absolutely no need for their labour, that they were expendable and irrelevant. Each day’s progress was wiped clean by the evening roll call, a palimpsest of invisible actions.

Yet the guards insisted, “Dig until you reach gold.”

Viktor smiles to himself. There is something romantic about a field of gold under his feet, lying dormant beneath metres of soil. He hates that they had to disturb its peaceful slumber. It was precious, one of the few things that made Kolyma beautiful. He saw Kolyma as an egg, the hard, porous shell cradling the nutritious golden yolk. Viktor and his team were the spoons that attacked the shell, cracking and destroying. Half the time the yolk would burst before they got there – it was a waste. No matter how many yolks broke or how many men were wasted, the guards still pushed them on and on.

That’s what this government does – it takes the beauty from the earth of his nation and turns it into weapons of war, melting people down like metal into one solid working unit, gears greased by the blood and sweat of men, women and children to ensure that the nation functions smoothly.

Building our nation, they call it. The zeks were the mortar for the teetering structure of the Soviet Union – over looked, but they keep everything from falling to pieces. He wishes he were a brick, not mortar. He wants to be seen again, to be recognised as Viktor, not by the number stitched onto his wadded jacket.


The distant voice of a guard hurtled through the air towards Viktor, and he imagines the syllable crashing violently against his body. Each ‘you’ stabs blindly at his miserable heart – he is Viktor Fetuovich Petrov.

Viktor turns towards the disembodied voice, his eyes lowered.

“Should have known it was you eh, Petrov?”

The guard draws closer, close enough for Viktor to see the yellowing teeth standing sentinel to the man’s wide mouth. He had something against Viktor – he is a swine of a guard. Viktor says nothing in return, waiting for the guard to continue.

“Got nothing to say, hm? That’s called insolence.”

Each word is punctuated by a poke to Viktor’s arm as the guard tries to rile him up. But Viktor does not react, he remains calm – his face is frozen.

“Answer when you’re spoken to. Two days.”

Two days in the cell! Viktor is shocked, but he remains silent. Words of stubborn refusal were pressing against his tight lips but the reminder that those who disobeyed orders end up six meters underground always lurked in the recesses of his memory. His body burns with the desire to do otherwise, but he could not reign in his will to survive.

He wants to walk as a free man again.


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