- This is an article about the region commonly known as
Kolyma. For river it is named after, see Kolyma River
Kolyma (pronounced koh-lee-MAH)
region ( ) is located in the far north-eastern
area of Russia in what is
commonly known as Siberia but is
actually part of the Russian Far
East. It is bounded by the East Siberian
Sea and the Arctic Ocean in the north and the Sea of Okhotsk to the south.
An approximate location of the Kolyma
An approximate location of the Kolyma region
The extremely remote region
gets its name from the Kolyma River
mountain range, parts of which were not discovered until 1926.
region consists roughly of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and the Magadan
The area, part of which is within the Arctic Circle
, has a subarctic climate
with very cold winters
lasting up to six months of the year. Permafrost
a large part of the region. Average winter temperatures range from
-19°C to -38°C (even lower in the interior), and average summer
temperatures, from +3°C to +16°C. There are rich reserves of
, and peat
. Twenty-nine zones of
possible oil and gas accumulation have been identified on the
Total reserves are estimated at 3.5
billion tons of equivalent fuel, including 1.2 billion tons of oil
and 1.5 billion m3 of gas.
principal town, Magadan, with a
population of 99,399 and an area of 18 square kilometers, is the
largest port of north-eastern Russia.
It has a large fishing
fleet and remains open year-round with the help of icebreakers.
served by the nearby Sokol Airport.
There are many public and private farming
enterprises. Gold mining works, pasta and sausage plants, fishing
companies, and a distillery form the city's industrial base.
Under Joseph Stalin
's rule, Kolyma
became the most notorious region for the Gulag
. A million or more people may
have died en route to the area or in the Kolyma's series of
, road building, lumbering,
and construction camps between 1932 and 1954. It was Kolyma's
reputation that caused Aleksandr
, author of The Gulag Archipelago
characterize it as the "pole of cold and cruelty" in the Gulag
system. The Mask of
Sorrow monument in Magadan commemorates all those who died in
the Kolyma forced-labour camps and the
recently dedicated Church of the Nativity remembers the victims in its icons and Stations of the Camps.
Emergence of the Gulag camps
discovered in the region in the early 20th century. During the time of the
USSR's industrialization (beginning with Stalin's First
Five-Year Plan, 1928-1932) the need for capital to finance
economic development was great.
The abundant gold resources
of the area seemed tailor-made to provide this capital. A
government agency Dalstroy
( , acronym for
Far North Construction
) was formed to organize the exploitation of the area.
Prisoners were being drawn into the Soviet penal system in large
numbers during the initial period of Kolyma's development, most
notably from the so-called anti-Kulak
and the government's internal war to force collectivization
on the USSR's
peasantry. These prisoners formed a readily available
The initial efforts to develop the region began in 1932, with the
building of the town of Magadan by forced
. (Many projects in the USSR were already using
forced labor, most notably the White Sea-Baltic Canal.) After a gruelling train ride (on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest
in the USSR), prisoners
were disembarked at one of several transit camps (such as Nakhodka and later Vanino) and transported across the Sea of Okhotsk to the natural harbor chosen for Magadan's
Conditions aboard the ships were harsh.
In 1932 expeditions pushed their way into the interior of the
Kolyma, embarking on the construction of the Kolyma Highway
, which was to become known as
the Road of Bones. Eventually, about 80 different camps dotted the
region of the uninhabited taiga
The original director of the Kolyma camps was Eduard Berzin
, a Chekist
. Berzin was later removed (1937) and shot
during the period of the Great Purges
The Arctic Death Camps
In 1937, at the height of the Purges, Stalin
ordered an intensification of the hardships prisoners were forced
to endure. Aleksandr
quotes camp commander Naftaly Frenkel
as establishing the new law
of the Archipelago: "We have to squeeze everything out of a
prisoner in the first three months — after that we don't need
him anymore." The system of hard labor and minimal or no food
reduced most prisoners to helpless "goners" (dokhodyaga
, Yevgenia Ginzburg
, Anne Applebaum
, Adam Hochschild
and others (see
bibliography) describe the Kolyma camps in some detail. The
suffering of the prisoners was exacerbated by the presence of
ordinary criminals, who terrorized the "political" prisoners. Death
in the Kolyma camps came in many forms, including: overwork,
starvation, malnutrition, mining accidents, exposure, murder at the
hands of criminals, and beatings at the hands of guards. A director
of the Sevvostlag
complex of camps,
colonel Sergey Garanin
is said to
have personally shot whole brigades of prisoners for not fulfilling
their daily quotas in the late 1930s. Escape was difficult, owing
to the climate and physical isolation of the region, but some still
attempted it. Escapees, if caught, were often torn to shreds by
camp guard dogs. The use of torture as punishment was also common.
Soviet dissident historian Roy Medvedev has compared the conditions in the
Kolyma camps to Auschwitz.
Prisoners at a Kolyma goldmine
Many of the prisoners in Kolyma were academics or intellectuals.
Among them was Mikhail Kravchuk
(Krawtschuk), a Ukrainian mathematician who by the early 1930s had
received considerable acclaim in the West. After a summary trial,
apparently for not being willing to take part in the accusations of
some of his colleagues, he was sent to Kolyma where he died in
1942. "Hard work in the Soviet labor camp, harsh climate and meager
food, poor health, and last but not least, accusations and
abandonment by most of his colleagues, took their toll. Krawtchouk
perished in Magadan in Eastern Siberia, about 4,000 miles (6,000
km) from the place where he was born. Krawtchouk's last article had
appeared soon after his arrest in 1938. However, after this
publication, Krawtchouk's name was literally stricken from books
The prisoner population of Kolyma was substantially increased in
1946 with the arrival of thousands of former Soviet POWs liberated
by Allied forces or the Red Army at the close of World War II.
Those not summarily executed frequently received ten or twenty-five
year prison sentences to a gulag, including Kolyma.
There were, however, some exceptions. Léon Theremin, an inventor, who had been
seized by Soviet agents in the United States and forced to return to the Soviet Union was, on Joseph
Stalin's order, imprisoned at Butyrka and later sent to work in the Kolyma gold
Although rumors of his execution were widely
circulated, Theremin was, in fact, put to work in a sharashka
or secret research laboratory, together
with other scientists and engineers, including aircraft designer
and rocket scientist
(also a Kolyma
inmate). The Soviet Union rehabilitated Theremin in 1956.
The Kolyma camps were converted to (mostly) free labor after 1954,
and in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev
ordered a general amnesty that freed many prisoners.
was the agency created to manage
exploitation of the Kolyma area, based principally on the use of
In the words of Azerbaijani prisoner Ayyub Baghirov, "The entire
administration of the Dalstroy
administrative, physical and political — was in the hands of
one person who was invested with many rights and privileges." The
officials in charge of Dalstroy, i.e. the Kolyma Gulag camps were:
- Eduard Petrovich Berzin,
- Karp Aleksandrovich Pavlov, 1937-1939.
- Ivan Fedorovich Nikishev, 1940-1948.
- Ivan Grigorevich Petrenko, 1948-1950.
- I.L. Mitrakov, from 1950 until Dalstroy was taken over by the
Ministry of Metallurgy on 18 March 1953.
Calendar of historical events
A detailed calendar of events is presented at the Polish internet
site, Forum. Of particular interest are:
- 1928-1929: Gold mines established in the Kolyma River region.
Commencement of regular mining operations
- 13 November 1931: Establishment of Dalstroy
- 4 February 1932: Eduard Berzin, Manager of Dalstroy, arrives
with the first 10 prisoners.
- 1934: The headcount increases to 30,000 inmates.
- 1937: The number of inmates increases to over 70.000; 51,500 kg
of gold mined
- June 1937: Stalin reprimands the Kolyma commandants for their
undue leniency towards the inmates.
- December 1937: Berzin is charged with espionage and
subsequently tried and shot in August 1938.
- March 4, 1938: Dalstroy is put under the jurisdiction of
- December 1938: Osip Mandelstam,
an eminent Russian poet, dies in a transit camp en route to
- 1939: Number of inmates now 138,200.
- 11 October 1939: Commandants Pavlov (Dalstroy) and Garanin
(Sevvostlag) sacked from their posts. Garanin subsequently
- 1941: Headcount of inmates reaches 190,000. Also some 3,700
Dalstroy contract workers.
- May 23, 1944: US Vice President Henry A. Wallace arrives for a NKVD-hosted 25-day
tour of Magadan, Kolyma, and the Russian Far East.
- October 1945: Camp for the Japanese prisoners of war is
established in Magadan, to provide extra labour.
- 1952: 199,726 inmates, the highest ever in the history of the
Kolyma camps and Dalstroy.
- May 1952: According to commandant Mitrakov, Sevvoslag is
dissolved, Dalstroy transformed into the General Board of Labour
- March 1953: After Stalin's death, Dalstroy transferred to the
Ministry of Metallurgy, camp units come under the jurisdiction of
the Soviet Ministry of Justice.
- September 1953: Dalstroy camp units taken over by the newly
established Management Board of the North-Eastern Corrective Labour
Camps. Harsh camp regime gradually relaxed.
- 1953-1956: Period of mass amnesties and the release of most
political prisoners. Some camp closures begin.
- 1957: Dalstroy liquidated. Many of the former prisoners
continued to work in the mines with a modified status and a few new
prisoners arrived, at least until the early 1970s.
The Chukot Autonomous Okrug
site provides details of
developments after the official closure of the camps. In 1953, the
(or region) was
established. Dalstroy was transferred to the jurisdiction of the
Ministry of Metallurgy and later to the Ministry of Non-Ferrous
Industrial and economic evolution
Industrial gold-mining started in 1958 leading to the development
of mining settlements, industrial enterprises, power plants,
hydro-electric dams, power transmission lines and improved roads.
By the 1960s, the region's population exceeded 100,000.With the
dissolution of Dalstroy, the Soviets adopted new labor policies.
While the prison labor was still important, it mainly consisted of
common criminals. New manpower was recruited from all Soviet
nationalities on a voluntary basis, to make up for the sudden lack
of political prisoners
men and women were lured to the frontier land of Kolyma with the
promise of high earnings and better living. But many decided to
leave.The region's prosperity suffered under Soviet liberal
policies in the end of the 1980s and 1990s with a considerable
reduction in population, apparently by 40% in Magadan. A U.S.
report from the late 1990s gives details of the region's economic
shortfall citing outdated equipment, bankruptcies of local
companies and lack of central support. It does however report
substantial investments from the United States and the governor's
optimism for future prosperity based on revival of the mining
Last political prisoners
Dalstroy and the camps did not close down completely. The Kolyma
authority, which was reorganised in 1958/59 (31 December 1958),
finally closed in 1968. However the mining activities did not stop.
Indeed, government structures still exist today under the Ministry
of Natural Resources. In some cases, the same individuals seem to
have stayed on over the years under new management.There are
indications that the political prisoners were gradually phased out
over the years but it was only as a result of Yeltsin
's far reaching reforms in the 1990s that the
very last prisoners were released from Kolyma.The Russian author
appears to have been
one of the last high-profile political prisoners
to be sent to
Kolyma. In 1970, he published two books: Will the Soviet Union
Survive Until 1984?
and Involuntary Journey to
. As a result, he was arrested for "defaming the Soviet
state" in November 1970 and sentenced to hard labour, apparently in
Kolyma, for what turned out to be a total of almost five
Accounts of the Kolyma Gulag
and after the Second World War the
region saw major influxes of Ukrainians,
Japanese, and Korean
prisoners. There is a particularly memorable account
written by a Romanian survivor, Michael Solomon, in his book
Magadan (see Bibliography below) which gives us a vivid
picture of both the transit camps leading to the Kolyma and the
, author of the Lost Years
, also recounts the
horrors of Kolyma. His story has also led to a film.
In Bitter Days of Kolyma
, Ayyub Baghirov, an Azerbaijani
accountant who was finally rehabilitated, provides details of his
arrest, torture and sentencing to eight (finally to become 18)
years imprisonment in a labour camp for refusing to incriminate a
fellow official for financial irregularities. Describing the train
journey to Siberia, he writes: "The terrible heat, the lack of
fresh air, the unbearable overcrowded conditions all exhausted us.
We were all half starved. Some of the elderly prisoners, who had
become so weak and emaciated, died along the way. Their corpses
were left abandoned alongside the railroad tracks."
A detailed description of conditions in the camps is provided by
in his Kolyma
. In Dry Rations
he writes: "Each time they
brought in the soup... it made us all want to cry. We were ready to
cry for fear that the soup would be thin. And when a miracle
occurred and the soup was thick we couldn’t believe it and ate it
as slowly as possible. But even with thick soup in a warm stomach
there remained a sucking pain; we’d been hungry for too long. All
human emotions—love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellow
man, compassion, longing for fame, honesty — had left us with
the flesh that had melted from our bodies..."
A vivid account of the conditions in Kolyma is that of Brother Gene
Thompson of Kiev's Faith Mission. He recounts how he met Vyacheslav
Palman, a prisoner who survived because he knew how to grow
cabbages. Palman spoke of how guards read out the names of those to
be shot every evening. On one occasion a group of 169 men were shot
and thrown into a pit. Their fully clothed bodies were found after
the ice melted in 1998.
One of the most famous political
in Kolyma was Vadim Kozin
possibly Russia's most popular romantic tenor
who was sent to the camps in February 1945, apparently for refusing
to write a song about Stalin. Although he was initially freed in
1950 and could return to his singing career, he was soon framed by
his enemies on charges of homosexuality and sent back to the camps.
Though released once again several years later, he was never
officially rehabilitated and remained in exile in Magadan where he
died in 1994. Speaking to journalists in 1982, he explained how he
had been forced to tour the camps: "The Polit bureau formed
brigades which would, under surveillance, go on tours of the
concentration camps and perform for the prisoners and the guards,
including those of the highest rank."
Finally, Ukrainian prisoner Nikolai
who spent the years 1945-1953 in Kolyma, records his
testimony in pictures rather than words. But he does have a plea:
"Some may say that the Gulag is a forgotten part of history and
that we do not need to be reminded. But I have witnessed monstrous
crimes. It is not too late to talk about them and reveal them. It
is essential to do so. Some have expressed fear on seeing some of
my paintings that I might end up in Kolyma again — this time
for good. But the people must be reminded... of one of the harshest
acts of political repression in the Soviet Union. My paintings may
help achieve this." The Jamestown Foundation provides access to all
50 of Getman's paintings together with explanations of their
Estimating the number of victims
While comparatively complete lists of the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps
survived, the amount of hard evidence in regard to Kolyma is
extremely limited. Unfortunately, no reliable archives exist about
the total number of victims of Stalinism
all numbers are estimates. In his book, Stalin
Stalin, while systematically destroying his comrades-in-arms "at
once obliterated every trace of them in history. He personally
directed the constant and relentless purging of the archives." That
practice continued to exist after the death of the dictator.
account of a visit to Magadan by Harry Wu
University in 1999, there is a reference to the efforts of
Alexander Biryukov, a Magadan lawyer to document the terror.
He is said to have compiled a book listing every one of the 11,000
people documented to have been shot in Kolyma camps by the state
security organ, the NKVD
. Biryukov, whose
father was in the Gulag at the time he was born, has begun
researching the location of graves. He believed some of the bodies
were still partially preserved in the permafrost.
It is therefore impossible to provide final figures on the number
of victims who died in Kolyma. Robert Conquest, author of The
, now admits that his original estimate of three
million victims was far too high. In his article Death Tolls for the Man-made Megadeaths of the 20th
Century, Matthew White
estimates the number of those who died at 500,000, putting Kolyma
in fifth place after Auschwitz, Treblinka, Leningrad and
In Stalin's Slave Ships
Bollinger undertakes a careful analysis of the number of prisoners
who could have been transported by ship to Magadan between 1932 and
1953 (some 900,000) and the probable number of deaths each year
(averaging 27%). This produces figures significantly below earlier
estimates but, as the author emphasizes, his calculations are by no
means definitive. In addition to the number of deaths, the dreadful
conditions of the camps and the hardships experienced by the
prisoners over the years need to be taken into account. In his
review of Bollinger's book, Norman Polmar independently estimates
there were more than 3,000,000 victims who died at Kolyma. As
Bollinger reports in his book, the 3,000,000 estimate orginated
with the CIA in the 1950s and appears to be a flawed estimate. This
number is also estimated by the last survivors.
Ivan Panikarov, director of the Pamyat Kolymy
or Memory of
Kolyma museum in Magadan, has collected thousands of documents,
photographs and artifacts which record the history of the Kolyma
camps. He hopes that his collection will assist researchers in
documenting the authentic record of the prison camps.
One of the most thorough investigations has been carried out by
, a journalist and
member of the editorial board of the Washington Post
. She has spent considerable
time and effort examining available archives and visiting Gulag
camps and museums. However, as she explained in a lecture in 2003,
it is extremely difficult not only to document the facts given the
extent of the cover-up but to bring the truth home. "If we do not
study the history of the Gulag, some of what we know about mankind
itself will be distorted," she stated.
- Applebaum, Anne, Gulag: A History, Broadway Books,
2003, hardcover, 720 pp., ISBN 0-7679-0056-1.
- Bardach, Janusz / Gleeson, Kathleen Man Is Wolf to Man :
Surviving the Gulag, University of California Press, c1998,
392 p., ISBN 0520213521
- Bollinger, Martin J., Stalin’s slave ships : Kolyma, the
Gulag fleet, and the role of the West, Praeger, 2003, 217 p.,
- Conquest, Robert: The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the
- Conquest, Robert: The Great
Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press, May 1990,
hardcover, ISBN 0-19-505580-2; trade paperback, Oxford, September,
1991, ISBN 0-19-507132-8
- Conquest, Robert: Kolyma:
The Arctic Death Camps, Viking Press, 1978, 254 p. ISBN
- Getman, Nikolai: The Gulag Collection: Paintings of the
Soviet Penal System, The Jamestown Foundation, 2001, 131 p.,
- Ginzburg, Eugenia, Journey
into the whirlwind, Harvest/HBJ Book, 2002, 432 pp., ISBN
- Ginzburg, Eugenia, Within
the Whirlwind, Harvest/HBJ Book, 1982, 448 pp., ISBN
- Hochschild, Adam, The
Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 2003), 304 pp., paperback: ISBN 0-618-25747-0
- Kizny, Tomasz, Gulag, Firefly Books, 2004, 495 p. ISBN
- Khlevniuk, Oleg, The History of the Gulag: From
Collectivization to the Great Terror, Yale University Press,
c2004, 418 p., ISBN 0300092849
- MacCannon, John: Red Arctic: Oxford University Press, 1998,
- Radzinsky Edvard, Stalin: the
first in-depth biography based on explosive new documents from
Russia's secret archives, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, 594 p.,
- OstEuropa, various authors (in German): Das Lager schreiben,
Varlam Šalamov und die Aufarbeitung des Gulag. Berlin (BWV) 2007 (=
Osteuropa 6/2007), 440 p., ISBN 978-3-8305-1219-6
- Medvedev, Roy: Let History
Judge: the origins and consequences of Stalinism, New York,
Vintage Books 1973, c1971, ISBN 039471928X
- Shalamov, Varlam, Kolyma
Tales, Penguin Books, 1995, 528 pp., ISBN 0-14-018695-6.
- Solomon, Michel, Magadan, Princeton, Auerbach
Publishers, 1971, 243 p. ISBN 0877690855
- Kolyma; the Land of Gold and Death A personal
on-line account in nine chapters by Stanislaw J. Kowalski, a Polish
prisoner in Kolyma, with numerous references
- The Soviet Gulag Era in Pictures, 1927-1953
Photographs, several of Kolyma, collected by James Duncan
- Crimes of Soviet Communists Wide collection of sources
and links about GULAG also in Kolyma
- The White
Crematorium Background information on the Gulag and the Kolyma
camps by Jens Alstrup who cycled across Russia to Magadan in 1997
and has frequently returned to continue his research. Retrieved 26
- Kolyma, Mikhail Mikheev's 1995 documentary film
winner of both the Amsterdam and Berlin film festivals
- Work in the Gulag from the Stalin's Gulag
section of the Online Gulag Museum with a short description and
images of Kolyma
- GULAG: Many
Days, Many Lives, Online Exhibit, Center for History and New Media,
George Mason University
- Virtual Gulag Museum The Saint-Petersburg Research and
Information Centre “Memorial” linking to museums in Russia, eastern
Europe and Asia on the history of Soviet Terror, the Gulag and the
- Gulag prisoners at work, 1936-1937 Photoalbum
at the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery
- Kolyma - Off to the Unknown - Stalin's Notorious
Prison Camps in Siberia by Ayyub Baghirov (1906-1973)
- Italian-American artist Thomas Sgovio (1916–1997) created
a series of drawings and paintings, based on his life as a prisoner
in the Soviet Gulag
- Russian-language history of Dalstroy from
Links to Maps
Book of Books: Rasequin’s Chronicles
dark fantasy novel
involving details from camp life
- Magadan Region from Kommersant, Russia's Daily
Online. Retrieved 22 January 2007.
- Ludwik Kowalski: Alaska notes on
StalinismRetrieved 18 January 2007.
- According to a 1987 article in Time Magazine: "During the 1930s the
only way to reach Magadan was by ship from Khabarovsk, which created an
island psychology and the term Gulag archipelago. The prison ships
were crowded hell-holes in which thousands died. One survivor's
memoir recounts that the prison ship Dzhurma was caught in
the autumn ice in 1933 while trying to get to the mouth of the
Kolyma River. When it reached port the following spring, it carried
only crew and guards. All 12,000 prisoners were missing, left dead
on the ice." It turns out that this incident, widely reported since
it was first mentioned in a book published in 1947, could not have
happened as the ship Dzhurma was not in Soviet hands until
mid 1935. A detailed analysis of this legend can be found in the
book Stalin's Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet, and the Role of
the West (Praeger, 2003). James O. Jackson on a visit to Magadan, Time
Magazine, April 20, 1987, article entitled Soviet Union.
Retrieved 18 January 2007.
- Case Study: Stalin's Purges from Genderside Watch.
Retrieved 19 January 2007.
- Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, p.
- Campo di detenzione speciale "La Kolyma"
1931 – 1955 Alexander Langer Foundation (in Italian).
Retrieved 17 January 2007.
- Krawtchouk story : How a scientist received a job
offer from the American Mathematical Society, was accused of being
a foreign spy, and sent to GULAG by Ivan Katchanovski, George
Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia
- Conquest, Robert, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps,
Viking Press, (1978), ISBN 0670414999, pp. 228-229
- История Дальстроя (History of Dalstroy) from the
kolyma.ru website. Retrieved 14 February 2007.
- Why Auschwitz, Kolyma, Kosova? From Forum, a Polish
internet site. Retrieved 20 January 2007.
- Yakutia ASSR and the Sakha Republic from Cosmic Elk.
Retrieved 23 January 2007.
- Magadan Region Update by Bisnis Vladivostok Representative
Svetlana Kuzmichenko, 1998, U.S. & Foreign Commercial
Service and U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 23 January
- John Keep: Andrei Amalrik and "1984", Russian Review, Vol.
30, No.4. (Oct., 1971), pp. 335-345. Retrieved 21 January
- George Bien, Gulag Survivor in the
Globe, June 22,
- Documentary film Walk on Gulagland Kolyma by
Szalkai. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
- Br. Gene Thompson: The Road to Death- Retrieved
17 January 2007
- Vadim Kozin, One Way Trip from Petersburg to Magadan
from the Little Russia in US site. Retrieved 13 February 2007.
- The Gulag Collection: Paintings of the Soviet Penal
System by Former Prisoner Nilolau Getman
- Nikolai Getman: The Gulag collection. Retrieved
13 February 2007.
- Norman Polmar "Stalin's Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet, and
the Role of the West (review)", Journal of Cold War
Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, Summer 2007, pp. 180-182
- Gulag: Understanding the Magnitude of What
Happened, 16 October 2003. Retrieved 23 January 2007.