The Ice Forge | The Nation


The Ice Forge

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A windswept hillside on the edge of Norilsk is a good vantage point from which to behold this sprawling mining town in Arctic Siberia. Factories, smokestacks, cranes and industrial debris clutter the terrain to the horizon, blanketed by a misty smog thick with the smell of sulphur. Settled a mere seventy years ago, Norilsk has a short but notorious past, and it comes partly into view on the edge of this hillside. Some local residents refer to this spot as Golgotha. Below ground lie the remains of thousands of prisoners sent here during Stalin's reign to mine the area's rich pockets of nickel and platinum. Many died right on this spot. They would slip and fall from the icy ladders leading up toward the mines, shattering their limbs. Only the fortunate were taken to the camp hospital. Some of the injured, lying paralyzed on the permafrost, would have their coats stripped from them while they were still alive. Warm clothing was in short supply in the Norilsk camp.

Jochen Hellbeck has visited the city of Norilsk twice: in November 2005 and October 2007.

About the Author

Jochen Hellbeck
Jochen Hellbeck, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author of Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary...

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Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows is a searching and humane investigation of the totalitarian condition.

Stephen F. Cohen's Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives surveys a political landscape of reform, struggle and reconciliation.

Today the spot features a smattering of memorial sites honoring the prisoners who died in Norilsk. There is a Polish monument dedicated to Poles, and there are crosses and plates installed by each of the Baltic states honoring their dead, but there is no Russian monument for the Russian victims, nor is there a memorial site devoted to the gulag prisoners as a whole. The few visitors who do come to this forlorn place are local newlyweds, who tour its monuments and have their picture taken. Shivering in their thin formal garments, a young couple and their friends trudge through the snow, giddy and seemingly oblivious to the site's horrific legacy.

Were it not for the largely forgotten army of peasant exiles who were forcibly made into colonizers of the Soviet Far North, Norilsk and other industrial outposts in the Arctic steppe would not exist. "Not even the traditional three stones mark the crossroad where they went in creaking carts to their doom," Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said of their fate. Solzhenitsyn knew of no reliable sources to document what happened to the peasant exiles; his Gulag Archipelago mentions them only in passing: "This wave poured forth, sank down into the permafrost, and even our most active minds recall hardly a thing about it." As it turns out, the Stalinist state generated and assiduously stored accounts of that wave. Marked "top secret" throughout the Soviet period, these records were declassified in the 1990s. Using them with great sensitivity and skill, Lynne Viola, a leading scholar of the Soviet peasantry, has created a monument to the residents of Stalin's lost settlements. Her book, The Unknown Gulag, is an indictment of the utopian folly and criminal neglect of Soviet officials, and a moving account of human suffering.

Viola's story begins in villages across Russia in the late 1920s, when the Communist regime decided to administer its dream of a socialist society free of exploitation and private gain. Stalin's collectivization campaign targeted those who were identified as kulaks--peasants who were better off than others, who employed seasonal help or who had rubbed Communist officials the wrong way. Varvara Sidorova was a child in the winter of 1930 when "they" came for her family. Countless others went through what she described in an interview conducted decades later. "Pounding on doors and windows," Viola writes, armed local officials roused the Sidorovas from sleep, herding them into the bathhouse and then expropriating "the household's stores of grain, oats, hay and firewood." According to Sidorova, Viola continues, "They took everything. They even took the children's felt boots and tore the feather pillows from her mother's arms." With nothing but the clothes on their backs, the family was sent by cart to the nearest railroad station, where they fell in with scores of other dispossessed peasant families. When Varvara's parents protested, the police "brandished a whip and roughly shouted, 'Shut up, you kulak mug.'"

A driving force of the collectivization campaign was ideological hatred. Kulaks, Lenin had said, were "'avaricious, bloated, and bestial'...'spiders,' 'leeches' and 'vampires,' determined to subvert Soviet power." The local officials charged with the "liquidation of the kulak class" believed in these demonic images, and only after the class enemies had been expelled from their homes did it occur to their tormentors to think about what to do with them next. Secret police chief Genrikh Iagoda came up with the idea of exiling the kulaks to the Far North. Realizing how difficult it would be to maintain a voluntary labor force in the remote and hostile territories, he proposed establishing colonies of "special settlers" who would extract the rich local natural resources for the Soviet state and support themselves through agriculture. That system, he reckoned, would be less costly to maintain than a forced labor camp.

It was in such fashion, as an afterthought to collectivization, that a massive penal system came into being--populated by several million laborers and subsequently eclipsed only by the labor camp as the principal node of the Stalinist gulag. There was a terrible chasm between Soviet Communism's grandiose goals and the reality of the "special settlements." That name itself was a horrific euphemism, covering up the conditions under which 2 million peasants were deported, without food or other supplies, to the most distant towns in the most inhospitable climates of the empire. The able-bodied males were pushed farther north to uninhabited forest zones where they were to build the settlements. What they saw, Viola writes, "filled them with dread for their own fate and the fate of their families. 'They tell us that they will transport you here to us,' wrote one young man to his family back in a Northern Territory exile town. 'No matter what, don't come. We are dying here. Better to hide, better to die there, but no matter what, don't come here.'" The letter was intercepted by the secret police; it never reached its destination.

The regime was aware of the appalling conditions on the ground. Internal reports addressed the staggering death rate among the exiles, which a special Politburo commission put at "not less than 15 percent." Proposals for a change in policy followed. By no means humanitarian in spirit, the reports worried that economic growth rates were not being met. Ultimately, Viola writes, the regime's disregard for the fate of millions of its own people stemmed from the fact that the Communists, along with many members of the Russian intelligentsia, abhorred the peasantry. "You'll pardon my saying so, but the peasant is not yet human," Viola quotes Maxim Gorky as saying. "He's our enemy, our enemy." With Gorky's explicit support, the Stalinist regime established forced labor camps, such as the infamous White Sea Canal construction site, where kulaks and petty criminals were to be transformed in spirit by the work they performed "for society." In reality, the ideology of reforging, while invoked rhetorically, was overshadowed by a much stronger state tradition of repression, lawlessness and negligence.

The peasantry, Viola explains, was Russia's internal colony--an abundant resource, ruthlessly exploited by a regime fantasizing about an ideal of industrial modernity. Viola notes that the special settlements progressively diminished in size, partly because they proved to be an economic fiasco, partly because many kulak settlers were eventually rehabilitated, having proven their loyalty to the regime during the war against Nazi Germany. She also explains that many settlement school students worked hard enough to win state-sponsored prizes that allowed them to leave the settlements and re-create their lives elsewhere. Yet her absorbing account does not fully explore two issues: what became of those who survived deportation and exile, and whether the exiles embraced or resented the role of colonizers the regime had foisted upon them.

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