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.
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.'”