The Road of Death between polar myths

The Road of Death between polar myths

Human awareness is easily influenced by myths, and this is becomes noticeable even with regard to the year 1937. “If Stalin came here, he would scatter THESE into all directions for sure” the people say, pointing at the local “white” and “grey” houses. The man on the street, feeling offended by the state, is longing for a repetitionof the year 1937, for he is deeply convinced that in 1937 they did not execute people like him, but just THESE. He does not know and he does not want to know, either, that party functionaries mentioned on the execution lists only just make up 5%, while all the remaining 95% were represented by farmers, workers and the intelligentsia.

Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin myth about the extermination of party members, which was created for understandable economic consideration, produced an anti-anti-Stalin myth. By the way, just like the young generation of Stalinists is being nourished nowadays by entirely dispensible, resourceful ante-Stalinist articles. “Were are they, your hundreds of millions of victims of repressions? Which is the road built on top of human bones? Just show us one tiny piece of a bone! Having told us this lie, you will continue to telling lies in the future. There were no repressions at all, you are all liars, just like Solzhenitsyn”. And then you go and try to explain to this comrade that you have not just mentioned the number of hundreds of millions of victims, but that you are all set to compile a list with the names of all victims of repressions, handling all imprecise numerical data with utmost prudence.

Let me give a concrete example with the Railroad Construction Project N° 503 (Salekhard – Igarka), which is also called “the Road built on Bones” or “the Road of Death”. Media confirmed that the bones of an incredibly big number of prisoners who constructed it were incorporated into the railroad embankment, because they died being at the end of their tether - "a log and a body, a log and a body". It is said that they were buried dirctly in the earth wall. However, it was not at all possible to build such an embankment under permafrost conditions.

Former guards, as well as erstwhile inmates start boiling with rage when they hear people say: “Nobody hastily buried them in the banked up ground!”. But trying to disprove this statement, they tell us just as terrifying things as that, although they sound by far more realsitic: there were no cemeteries; the corpses were simply thrown into the swamp or some ravine, while the gang was moving on. Watchdogs accompanied the prisoners to their workplace in the morning and back to the camp zone in the evening, and they “disposed” of the dead bodies in their way.

Myths “from the other side” – sound somewhat sweet and delightful ad nauseam. One former guard reported that prisoners were fed slightly better than free workers and that former prisoners, after having been released, bought themselves a nice little house on the Crimea peninsula from the salary they had received

There is some grain of truth in his words: The prisoners were fed, even though very badly, and in freedom, particularly in the countryside, the people were perishing and cannibalsim was a rather common affair. Prisoners in post-war camps were, in fact, paid a salary (up to then they had been toiling for their daily food ration), but those little houses on the Crimea peninsula – we better leave them to the teller’s conscience.

The mythologic camp commandant was an unexampled beast, a sadist. And there were many of them. Just think of Granin, the legendary boss of the Kolyma. About the commandant of the Construction Project 503, however, everybody expressed himself positvely, even the prisoners. Many years later, a great number of former inmates of the Pechorlag (camp 503) arrived from the Volga-Don areas and the Far East to attend his funeral. Not many camp commandants were respected and honoured this way.

Barabanov did his job, and for this job he needed people, which he tried to spare and treat with care as best he could. By the way, Ashaev wrote his remarkable novel “Far from Moscow” just about him, though there are no prisoners at all, but men being enthusiastic about construction projects. And Leonid Obolenskiy, one of the well-known prisoners of Camp 503 said about him: “The Barabanow Project was running like clockwork: there were no cases of death. I recall one scene: the polar region, northern lights and – Barabanov standing on his vehicle, shouting: “My friends! Let us build, regardless of whether we are free or unfree, this new connection to communism! Go ahead, my friends!” – This is perfectly true, after all. The other truth is that those, who were not good for any work anymore, that is to say the dead, were simply thrown into the swamp. And from among those, who were still able to work, Konstantin Khodsevich, also former prisoner of the 503 Construction Project, remembers:” There was a seriously ill inmate, unable to get up and march out for work. They treated him this way: get off the blank bed – and off to the disciplinary camp barracks. Precious few survived. Or they would push the sick person from his plank bed, tied his feet with a cord and then dragegd him to his workplace outside the camp zone by horse, where he was forced to toil”. And about the food ration he says:” One year, during the summer, they did not bring any food provisions. In winter all the rivers were freezing up, there was no navigation, a terrible famine set in, the people were at the end of their tether, unable to go to work, many were not even able to keep standing on their feet; they died away in their barracks like flies. The surviving prisoners were clever enough to not immediately report the death of their comrades. In a certain sense the death were feeding the living, for without knowing that some of the prisoners were not among the living anymore, the camp authorites continued to include them in their ration plans and distribute this scanty, fatless watery soup “to them”. The dead bodies were later thrown into ditches, which had been dug out not far from the barracks during the summer, elsewise they were just covered by the falling snow. There was nobody to take care of a condigned burial plot”.

It almost sounds as if we are talking about different camps, but we are talking about one and the same. Or about different camp commandants – no, we are talking about one and the same person.

Barabanov was a man of his time, he did “what needed to be done”, and he did it “at any price”. The fact that he did not take this “at any price” with a grain of salt but tried to keep this price down - that’s another story. We do not know, whether he behaved this way for being a philanthrophist or for reasons of pragmatic consideration (huge volume of work, reduced term of imprisonment and the awareness that the “contingent” was suopplied only once a year), but he at least made the effort. That is way the prisoners esteemed him, and that is why they hated the previous commandant who had announced: “I do not need your labour, I want to see how you agonize!”.

One man alone, however, even if he was the most good-natured person in the world, was unable to achieve any basic changes within the camp system. Aside from Barabanov there were the commandants of the camp sub-sectors, which were all more or less touched in their heads; there were those operative chekists, who were unfailingly revealing and unmasking; there were the guards comprising the whole spectrum of either egregious sadists or awkard greenhorns. And ther were all kinds of prisoners – representatives of the intelligentsia who were serving their sentence for “having talked too much” and dangerous criminals, who somewhat felt at home in the camp. This motley crush had to be formed into some uniform mechanism, in order to achieve the aims.

This unifirm mechanism, this unity was created and guaranteed by cruelness.

Barabanov’s cruelness was rational. And, on account of this, it did not stop being cruel.

We will not find the truth somewhere in the middle, but in an entirely different place. “The middle” means – reject myths and, instead, carefully trade off, compare, sieve, verify, in order to reveal the whole truth about Construction Project N° 503. And this has to be done unconditionally. However, one must not forget about the most essential thing.

No matter whether or not bones were spilled under the railroad embankment, whether the prisoners were fed well or starved – we must never forget that in these places people were deprived of their freedom, for crimes they had never committed (like most of the political prisoners) or for having committed disproportionally insignificant “crimes” (like most of the criminal offenders). It means that the very fact of becoming and being a prisoner was unjust.

And the method by which the state tried to solve his problems was criminal, too: instead of free work done on the basis of dignified motivation – nothing but slave labour and unmercifulness. The tell us: “There was no other way to do it” and “It wasjust a phenomenon of that time”. Sorry, but why was there no other way? There we have the town of Norilsk after the camps had been closed down: workers who receive a salary (plus polar premium), social benefits, warm and solid houses, and there is a mighty, profit-making industry. There are still enough problems to be solved nowadays, but it is not necessary to hastily bury corpses of people who died from pellagra, at the foot of the Schmidtikha Mountain.

They could have built Norilsk, as well as the complete railway line from Salekhard to Igarka (and the whole clear future in general) in an entirely different way – by means of well-paid specialists, who could have done their work without faking statistics (in order to fuilfill the norms). Everything could have been done differently, but under a different regime. This regime pinched and scraped, but it did not saveon people’s lives. And it was a criminal system. Even if you try to soften, to optimize such a system, it is and will always be a criminal system, and you, taking part in it, are one of its complices. This is all the tragedy with people like Barabanov.

Thus, the railroad line remained unfinished. And, as it seems, Barabanov did everything in vain. The truth was to be found in an entirely different place …

Aleksei Babiy, Chairman of the Krasnoyarsk “Memorial” Organization.

Our inquiries

Vasiliy Arsentevich Barabanov was born in the village of Altufevo, Leninsk District, Moscow Region on the 21 April 1900. He was the son of a wealthy peasant. In 1924 he obtained different posts with the OGPU, NKVD and the GULAG administration. He worked as deputy commandant for the NKVD Dmitrovsk Corrective Labour Camp, as head of the Railroad Construction Project Vorkuta – Ust-Usa, assistant of the head of the Administration of Fareast Railroad Construction (town of Svobodnyi, Khabarovsk Region), commandant of the NKVD Nizhne-Amur Corrective Labour Camp (town of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Khabarovsk Region), commandant of the NKVD Saratov Corrective Labour Camp (town of Saratov), head of the NKVD North Pechora Corrective Labour Camp and commandant of the Northern Administration of Railroad Construction and Camps.

“New newspaper”, 07.11.08