Spring 2006 (14.1)
Off to the Unknown
Stalin's Notorious Prison Camps in Siberia
Ayyub Baghirov (1906-1973)
Arrested in 1937, sentenced under false
charges in 1939 to eight years of corrective labor in Kolyma.
In reality, he was in exile for 18 years as he was not released
until 1955, two years after Stalin's death.
Author of "Bitter Days in Kolyma" (Gorkiye Dni Na Kolime)
in Russian, which was published in 1999. A shorter version came
out in Azeri in 2001.
Ayyub Baghirov's book, "Bitter Days of Kolyma", was
first published in 1999 in Russian as "Gorkiye Dni Na Kolime".
To our knowledge, it was the first personal narrative by an Azerbaijani
author about his years spent in exile in the notorious prison
system of Kolyma located in Siberia's unbearably cold landscape.
The author Ayyub Baghirov (1906-1973) had been the Chief Financial
Officer for the BakSovet (Mayor's office). In 1937, he was arrested
on false charges of anti-revolutionary activities as an "Enemy
of the People". Kept in Baku's notorious NKVD prison, he
was interrogated and tortured for nearly a year and a half before
being sentenced to eight years in a hard labor camp. Unfortunately,
the eight years stretched into 18 years, as was true for many
prisoners. He was not released until 1955, two years after Stalin's
death. He returned to Baku.
Ayyub did not live to fruits of his careful analysis of those
difficult years published. His book came out almost 25 years
after his death. We have his son Mirza to thank for the enormous
job of editing and publishing this personal glimpse into the
Kolyma camps and for providing us with his father's insights
about life under such unbearable situations.
We publish the first chapter here. Chapter I: Arrest. Journey
To the Far North: Butigichag Camp (pages 5-50). Translation from
Russian by Aysel Mustafayeva, editing by Betty Blair.
The thought - provoking sculpture shown here was created by Azerbaijani
artist Fazil Najafov (1935- ). Though Fazil was not repressed
himself, he was born during the years when the purges were so
prevalent. To read more about his works in Azerbaijan International,
see "Frozen Images of Transition," (AI 3.1 (Spring
1995). Also "The Expressive Magnificence of Stone,"
AI 7.2 (Summer 1999). Search for both articles at AZER.com. For
more samples of Fazil's works and 170 other Azerbaijani artists,
visit AZgallery.org. Contact Fazil Najafov: Studio: (994-12)
466 -7109, Mobile: (994-50) 342-8999.
One dark cloudy day in late autumn 1939, a steamboat named Dalstroi
[One of many ships that were used especially in the 1930s-40s
to transport tens of thousands of slave laborers to Magadan and
on to the Kolyma camps in the Far North East of Russia] entered
the Nagaev Bay [In Magadan in the Sea of Okhotsk is where the
ships docked so prisoners to disembark on their journey to Kolyma.
The bay and Nagaev Port are named after Russian hydrographer
and cartographer Admiral Aleksei Ivanovich Nagaev (1704-1781)].
wind was blowing. The large boulders along the coast appeared
as dark foreboding shadows. The nearby hills were already covered
with the first snow. The place had an eerie silence about it.
Where were the usual sounds characteristic of port life and a
residential bay town?
Left: In memory of the victims of World War
II, 25 years later, by Azerbaijani sculptor Fazil Najafov, 1965.
Contact Fazil at his studio: (994-12) 466-7109, Mobile: (994-50)
Many passengers were on board - people of various fates, professions
and ages from all corners of our vast country. And then, there
were us southerners [Here it means anyone who came from any of
the republics in South Caucasus as well as other republics in
the southern part of the USSR-Turkmen, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks,
and Kirghiz] as well.
The majority of passengers were political prisoners - those who
had been arrested for "counter-revolutionary activities"
and charged with Article No. 58 of the Penal Code [Article 58
of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR) Penal
Code was put into force on February 25, 1927, to arrest anyone
suspected of counter-revolutionary activities. In reality, it
was a "catch-all phrase" that enabled authorities to
arrest anyone and bring criminal charges against them].
Finally after that difficult trip, we arrived at our destination-Kolyma
[Kolyma is a region in far northeastern Russia. It is bounded
by the Arctic Ocean on the north and the Okhotsk Sea on the south.
Other than Antarctica, its climate is believed to be the most
severe in the world. Under Joseph Stalin's rule, Kolyma became
the most notorious region of the GULAG [Wikipedia].
Millions of prisoners are believed to have passed through Kolyma
working as slave labor]. Upon arrival, many prisoners breathed
more easily, despite the fact that the name "Kolyma"
frightened them. Those who had never been to the North [Siberia]
were troubled the most.We young people didn't have a clue as
to what to expect. We tried to hang close together as much as
possible, and to help those who were exhausted from the long
trip - the elderly and our friends. Our generation had grown
up during the struggle for Socialist reforms in the Soviet Union.
We had been involved in major projects and had coped with the
difficulties of forced collectivism in the villages.
Whenever the Party had beckoned, we had struggled to help in
these situations, sometimes even risking our lives. And now,
after "Ten Victorious Years of Stalin", we ourselves
had been arrested and exiled along with other prisoners to develop
the Far North regions of Eastern Siberia - Kolyma and Chukotka
[The farthest northeast region of Russia, on the shores of the
Bering Sea. The region was subject to collectivization and forced
settlement during the Soviet Era. It has large reserves of oil,
natural gas, coal, gold, and tungsten [Wikipedia. Wikipedia entries
were quoted from April 15, 2006].
We political prisoners knew that we really were not "Enemies
of the People", nor enemies of the Soviet government. Even
in the white wilderness of the Kolyma camps - dying from hunger,
cold, slave labor, tortures and illness - most of us still didn't
have any idea why we had been brought out here to die.
Actually, our situation was quite ironic. After the continuous
years of brainwashing that had influenced us as children and
citizens of Soviet republics, we had tried to forget the bad
things that were happening to us personally and devote our energy
to the common interests of our Homeland. Most of us had been
educated in the spirit of true Stalinism: first came the Party,
then Homeland, and only after that came family - mother, father
We had been fed the official line and indoctrination of the Party
about Komsomols and the Soviet Union being "the most just
community in the world". We had been educated in this way
from childhood as Pioneers [A mass youth organization for children
ages 10-15 that existed in the Soviet Union between 1922 and
1990 [Wikipedia]. I also considered myself innocent. All my life
I had lived under Soviet authority and served this power and
authority with all my strength and belief.
I was born in the city of Lankaran [A city located near Azerbaijan's
southern border with Iran] in Azerbaijan [around 1906]. I wasn't
even a year old when I lost my father Hazrat Gulu. He had been
a rather wealthy merchant. After the Revolution [Refers to April
1920 when the Bolsheviks took control of the power in Azerbaijan]
- from early childhood onward - I grew up in poverty and deprivation.
My mother didn't know how to manage her husband's property.
Being rather trustful and naïve by nature, she soon was
hounded by enterprising relatives and soon ended up on the brink
of poverty. She never did figure out how her material wealth
had slipped through her fingers.
As a child during the years that followed the Revolution, I used
to peddle Ritsa cigarettes on a little tray that hung from around
my neck. I would wander through the narrow lanes of Lankaran.
Career in Finances
My first real job was that of an accountant in the Lankaran Regional
Finance Department. At the beginning of 1930, I came to Baku
and soon was promoted to the position of Manager of the Baku
Finance Department. Later on, I was appointed as a member of
Presidium of BakSovet [BakSovet (via Russian-Bakinskiy Sovet)
meaning the Council of Baku, the Mayor's office], and confirmed
as a member of People's Commissariat of Finance USSR on December
31, 1936, by the decision of SovNarKom [SovNarKom (via Russian-Sovet
Narodnikh Commissar) meaning Council of People's Commissars.
After 1946 the title was changed to Council of Ministers] which
bore the signature of V. M. Molotov Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov
(1890-1986). Soviet politician and diplomat, was a leading figure
in the Soviet government from the 1920s, when he rose to power
as a protégé of Joseph Stalin, to the 1950s, when
he was dismissed from office by Nikita Khrushchev [Wikipedia].
Whatever assignment I was ever given, I was very conscientious
to fulfill my responsibilities.
Above: Shipping routes in the Arctic used
to bring prisoners to the Kolyma forced labor prison camps.
It was especially difficult for anyone working in the field of
finances during the period of collectivization when the villagers
had to give up their land, their animals and property. In addition
to such demands, the government imposed artificial loans that
totally bankrupted the peasant economy. The government applied
every known method to squeeze and suppress farmers.
Baku's German Church
I'll never forget an ordinance related to the closure of the
German Protestant Church [German Protestant Church. This church
still stands today and is familiarly known as "kirka",
the German word for church. The Nobel Brothers in Baku donated
some of the funds to construct this chapel. Fortunately, during
the Soviet period, this church was not destroyed although many
others were. Instead, the building, which houses a pipe organ
and has outstanding acoustics, was converted into a music concert
hall] in Baku. It was quite a remarkable building in the center
of town located on Telephone Street [now 28th of May Street]The
28th of May Street is named to commemorate the date of Independence
of Azerbaijan, when it won its independence over the Russian
Czar in 1918. This day is still commemorated today after Azerbaijan
regained its independence from the Soviet Union, though the declaration
of independence from the Soviet Union is officially August 30,
Both the government and the NKVD [NKVD: Russian for Narodniy
Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (People's Commissariat for Internal
Affairs) was a government department which handled a number of
the Soviet Union's affairs of state. It is best known for the
Main Directorate for State Security (GUGB), which succeeded the
OGPU and the Cheka as the secret police agency of the Soviet
Union and was followed by the KGB. The GUGB was instrumental
in Stalin's ethnic cleansing and genocides, and was responsible
for massacres of civilians and other war crimes. Many consider
the NKVD to be a criminal organization, mostly for the activities
of GUGB officers and investigators, as well as supporting NKVD
troops and GULAG guards] tried various tactics to close down
the church. At first, they claimed that the churches were hotbeds
of anti-Soviet thought. Then they spread rumors that the priests
and some of the parishioners were German agents.
Finally, early in 1937, the All-Union Prosecutor A. Y Vishinskiy
got involved and solved the problem once and for all by obliging
the financial organs to assess the German church with such a
huge tax bill that they were not be able to pay. The church soon
had no choice but to close its doors.
In regard to my own arrest, I always suspected that there had
been a link between my responsibilities related to financial
affairs that caused Mir Jafar Baghirov [Mir Jafar Baghirov: Secretary
of the Communist Party for Azerbaijan, who served as Stalin's
"right hand man" in Baku] - the tyrant of the republic
- to order my arrest.
However, the NKVD arrested me and officially accused me of "participating
in an anti-Soviet organization". One day in autumn 1937,
Mir Jafar Baghirov called me to his office and asked me to check
into the financial affairs of the former representative of the
BakSovet - Arnold Petrovich Olin. You see, even the city officials
were not spared from Stalin's Purges [Stalin's Purges: Term used
for the waves of repressive measures carried out by Stalin, especially
in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the main dates associated with
Stalin's Repressions is 1937; however, there were other dates,
both before and after, which probably resulted in even more deaths.
Millions of people died in Stalin's purges. Many people were
executed by firing squad [actual statistics are unknown but are
estimated to be in the millions], and millions were forcibly
resettled]. Of the 11 members of the Presidium of the Baksovet,
only two of us had not yet been arrested. I was one of them.
Others had already been repressed [Many were imprisoned and tortured
or sent to labor camps, both functioning as part of the GULAG
system. Many died in the labor camps due to starvation, disease,
exposure and overwork. The Great Purge was started under the
NKVD chief Henrikh Yagoda, but another major campaign was carried
out by Nikolai Yezhov, from September 1936 to August 1938, and
others followed. However the campaigns were carried out according
to the general line, and often by direct orders, of the Party
politburo headed by Stalin [Wikipedia].
Left: Pedestal of Kirov's statue on the
highest hill in Baku overlooking the Caspian. Note that the bas-relief
relates to oil drilling. Kirov's statue was dismantled in 1992.
18 Repressed: Term used to describe the people who were arrested
by government organs, imprisoned, shot or sent into exile. This
term is especially to describe the abuse of power against ordinary
citizens during Stalin's purges. The term "repression"
was officially used to denote the prosecution of people recognized
as counter-revolutionaries and "Enemies of the People".
Purges were motivated by the desire on the part of the leadership
to remove dissident elements from the Party and what is often
considered to have been a desire to consolidate the authority
of Joseph Stalin. Additional campaigns of repression were carried
out against social groups, which were believed or were accused
of to have opposed the Soviet state and the politics of the Communist
Olin was also arrested and accused of being an "Enemy of
Mir Jafar Baghirov gave me one month to check his financial records
and ordered me to provide this summary to him personally. During
our conversation, he mentioned that Olin was a morally depraved
person and that not only had he carried out activities which
were hostile to the government, but that he had accessed the
city's finances for personal use.
After checking the Baksovet financial records, I told Mir Jafar
that I had not discovered any financial violations in that regard.
Mir Jafar interrupted our telephone conversation and started
swearing at me. When there was a pause, I clearly heard him on
another phone addressing the People's Commissar Sumbatov Topuridze:
"Eyyub Baghirov from the Baksovet should be investigated
I understood only too well what that meant. It was then that
I understood that I was to share the same fate as my colleagues
from the Presidium of Baksovet, along with thousands of other
people who were struggling behind the prison walls of the NKVD.
Mir Jafar Baghirov was a loyal follower of Stalin. In meetings
and gatherings, he used to refer to Stalin as the embodiment
of Lenin. I remember one such meeting that took place in the
Baku Opera Theater. The style and methods of Stalin's administration
were widely introduced in Azerbaijan by Baghirov.
Opposition to any of his plans was severely punished. I remember
the outrageous and sacrilegious decision that Baghirov made to
demolish Baku's oldest cemetery, which is located on the hill
above the bay[Cemetery: After Black January 1990 when Soviet
troops attacked civilians in Baku in an effort to squelch the
independence movement in Azerbaijan, the area that once had been
set aside for Kirov Park was used to bury Black January victims.
Today the cemetery is known as "Shahidlar Khiyabani"
(Martyrs' Cemetery). Also some victims of the Karabakh war are
buried there. Foreign dignitaries are usually taken to Shahidlar
Khiyabani as part of their official tour in Baku].
In its place, Baghirov proposed that a cultural and leisure park
be constructed and named after Kirov Sergey M. Kirov (1886-1934)
was instrumental in bringing Bolshevik troops to Baku, which
took control of Azerbaijan in 1920. Kirov became the head of
the Azerbaijan Bolshevik Party in 1921. He was a loyal supporter
of Stalin. His rise in popularity aroused Stalin's jealousy.
On December 1, 1934, Kirov was murdered, and it is widely believed
that Stalin ordered his death, although this has never been proven
[Wikipedia]. And that's exactly what they did. They even made
us - the workers of BakSovet - work as subbotniks [Russian for
unpaid voluntary work done on Saturdays] to construct the park.
The Kirov Amusement park
which Eyyub Baghirov complained about as it was originally a
cemetery. Only after Black January 1990 was it converted back
to a cemetery, today known as Cemetery of the Martyrs (Shahidlar
Khiyabani). Mir Jafar Baghirov, Stalin's right hand man in Azerbaijan
had created the park in the 1930s.
Once I expressed some doubts about the feasibility of the construction
of the park from a financial point of view. Immediately after
that, I was kicked out of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan.
And then the inevitable happened. I didn't have to wait long.
In the early morning hours of December 22 ["Black Ravens":
The government's notorious black cars, which were used to arrest
suspects, often on false charges of being "Enemies of the
People". These "political criminals" were usually
imprisoned, sent into exile or executed. Surprise arrests were
often made in the wee hours of the morning. See the painting
by Boris Vladimirsky (1878-1950) on the front cover of Azerbaijan
International magazine, AI 13.4 (Winter 2005). Also read the
short story, "Morning of that Night", by Anar in Azerbaijan
International AI 7.1 (Spring 1999). Search for both articles
at AZER.com.], 1937, three NKVD agents came knocking on my door.
The fourth agent was waiting in the street beside one of those
cars - a "Black Raven".22 I understood that my turn
had come. I had just returned from an official trip to Moscow
where I had participated in the Annual People's Commissariat
Two NKVD agents went looking through all my stuff in the apartment,
while the third one was writing a protocol about the search.
The guard from the courtyard was called as a witness. He sat
in a chair in the hall entrance. The search was just a formality
for the agents knew in advance that they would find nothing of
During the search, I naively asked why I was being arrested.
One of the agents answered that I could speak with the People's
Commissar of Internal Affairs and maybe I would be sent back
home. I was told to take some warm clothes with me - woolen socks
and sweaters.To me, this was a sign that I would be taken away
for a long period of time. Then I remembered the telephone conversation
that I had had with Mir Jafar Baghirov. Such an encounter could
not be easily dismissed.
Although it was winter, the sun was already up. As I was led
out the door, I told my family: "Always remember that I'm
not guilty of anything." At that moment, my niece Bilgeyis,
who was living with us at the time, started crying. Deep within
me, I genuinely believed that everything that was happening was
some kind of misunderstanding and that I would be released immediately.
Obviously, thousands of innocent people had thought the same
Baku's NKVD Prison
The streets were still empty as we drove through the city. Slowly,
our Black Raven passed through massive steel gates of the NKVD
Building down near the seafront[NKVD building in Baku, located
on the corner of Rashid Behbudov Street and Azerbaijan Avenue,
was originally a building constructed during the Oil Baron period
and today in use as State Frontier Services (Dovlat Sharhad Khidmati)].
Above: Sculpture: Blind Men by Fazil Najafov,
Most Baku residents knew the administrative building of the
NKVD Azerbaijan as a building of three stories.
But the exterior of the building hid the existence of another
building inside the courtyard - which was the actual prison itself
and consisted of four floors with quite thick walls and barred
windows. In the courtyard, there was a steam plant, which provided
the building with its own source of electricity.
There was also a garage. On the first floor of the prison there
were adjunct buildings, such as toilets, showers and a guards'
room. The rooms in the basement had originally been used as wine
cellars before the Revolution [Pre-revolutionary times: This
refers to the Oil Baron days in Baku prior to the Bolshevik takeover
in April 1920] and stretched far out beneath the sea.
Now those cells were used as torture chambers. On both sides
of the long prison corridors were rows of cells that held 10,
20 or more prisoners.
Because there were many arrests in 1937-1938 in Azerbaijan, the
prisons were full... The cells were typical. They had concrete
floors. There was a little window in the door through which food
could be passed. A dim light bulb hung from the ceiling. A small
hole on the door was covered with a leather cloth so that the
prisoners could be watched. The cell windows - approximately
30 x 40 cm - usually opened to the courtyard.
On the second floor, the barred windows were completely covered
with metallic louvers so that sun could not shine in; it was
impossible to see even a small patch of sky. The rooms, which
had windows overlooking the courtyard, were used as offices for
that I'm not guilty of anything,' I told my family as I was led
out the door. Deep within me, I genuinely believed that everything
that was happening was some kind of misunderstanding, and that
I would be released immediately. Obviously, thousands of innocent
people had thought the same thing."
"Bitter Days of Kolyma"
During those years of mass arrests, armed soldiers were posted
along the streets near NKVD building. The government did everything
possible to prevent prisoners from escaping from this - the cruelest
of buildings. There was no possibility to escape. They were determined
to prove your guilt by any means possible. Later I learned from
my cellmates that executions took place in the basement of the
NKVD building, as well as on Nargin Island in the Caspian not
far from Baku. No one lived on that island; therefore, there
were never any witnesses to these crimes. No one but the executioners
ever heard those shots.
As for me, I was accused of participating in an anti-Soviet organization,
which was headed by A. P. Olin, representative of the Baku Council.
Latvian by nationality, he had been member of the Party since
1918. He had worked as a Latvian Arrow guarding the Kremlin.
He had also worked in the political departments of Central Asian
and Transcaucasian regions. From 1931 to 1934, he had worked
as Secretary of the Transcaucasian region on the Committee VKP,
which was responsible for transportation and supplies.
From 1934 to 1936 he had been the representative of Transcaucasia
near SovNarKom USSR, and lived and worked in Moscow. In 1936
he had been transferred to Baku, and from July served as Representative
of the BakSovet [City Hall]. In the autumn of 1937, he was arrested
and sent back to Moscow. They executed him in Tbilisi.
I had known Olin as a co - worker at BakSovet for only a few
months. He was not a very social person. I found him to be serious
and conscientious about his work.
Left: Family by Fazil Najafov, bronze
Later on, after sitting
behind the walls of NKVD Azerbaijan, I understood that Mir Jafar
Baghirov and Sumbatov - Topuridze had wanted to get additional
damning material against Olin. So I had been arrested as a member
of an imaginary counter - revolutionary, anti - Soviet organization
of which Olin was supposedly leading. I had been implicated simply
because I was his co-worker.
Interrogations began three or
four days after my arrest. They were carried out by Kh. Khaldibanov.
The first question during each interrogation was an attempt to
reveal how Olin had involved me in his anti - Soviet organization
- the main goal of which was to destroy the Soviet power, restore
capitalism, and even revive various activities of market economy.
The accusations against me were absurd. A wide range of people
had accused me - some of whom I didn't even know.
In the non-existent, counter-revolutionist organization of which
I, supposedly, was a member, there were 20 other members. There
were people of different ages and professions, working at different
institutions and enterprises, many of whom were employed in the
BakSovet, or regional committees of the party, executive committees,
oil sectors, construction and supply organizations.
I felt like a small pawn in a political game being played out
by Mir Jafar Baghirov and Sumbatov - Topuridze, in which they
tried to gather the most vicious evidence about administrative
workers of republic and BakSovet. Based on the deposition that
they extracted by torturing Olin and his deputy Kudryavtsev who
had been arrested prior to me, the interrogator threatened me
with torture if I would not reveal the specific date (supposedly
the end of March 1937) when I had joined this fictional anti-Soviet
I remember once being brought to meet with Sumbatov - Topuridze,
who demanded: "Confirm that you were a member of the Olin's
organization and we will release you". When he didn't get
the answer that he wanted, he punched me in the face. That day
I was made to stand in my cell for more than 24 hours. When I
collapsed, they beat me unconscious. Many times, they took me
down to that dark, humid basement, and threatened to shoot me.
Then they would bring me back upstairs to the main cell.
Sitting there in the underground cells of the NKVD, eventually
we learned how to tap out on the thick stone walls what came
to be known as the "alphabet of prisoners" [The "alphabet
of prisoners" refers to a system of tapping out code on
the prison cell walls, enabling the isolated prisoners to communicate
between each other] to get the latest news and discover who were
the latest victims that had been arrested.
The interrogations took place day after day. To make the accusations
seem to be as true as possible, the interrogator would introduce
new "facts" from those who were arrested regarding
my case. So many times I requested to meet those people, but
the interrogator refused, and no witness was ever called who
could confirm my involvement in any counter-revolutionary activity.
Later on, to make the "case" appear more serious, they
accused me of harboring political motives, "proving"
that I had abused and violated the financial and economic activities
They even accused me of artificially reducing and illegally eliminating
debts incurred by the "kulaks" [Kulaks, here, refers
to the relatively wealthy peasants of the Russian Empire who
owned large farms and hired farmhands. They were the class among
the countryside, which were targeted first when the Bolsheviks
took power to be collectivization of the farms] in Lankaran and
the prosperous peasants in Absheron. They said I had covered
up financial crimes of "Enemies of the People" who
had been arrested and prevented new pawnshops from being opened
in Baku in order to infuriate the people against the Soviet power.
"Some of our family
and friends gathered at the pier when they learned that we would
soon be shipped out. Our eyes sought out each other in the crowd.
From afar I saw my mother Sughra and daughter Latifa. With tears
in our eyes, we waved goodbye to each other. The guards would
not allow us to go closer."
in "Bitter Days of Kolyma"
In reality, during those years of deprivation, people had no
choice but to pawn off their personal belongings in order to
have enough money for basic essentials. Long queues would form
in front of the pawnshops. People would line up the night before
in order to leave some item the next day.
They made such ridiculous claims against me, saying, for example,
that people who were applying for government loans had angrily
complained about some of their problems, and that I, as the financial
officer, had sympathized with them. Moreover, they insisted that
I had expressed my indignation and anger about such issues to
the workers of the Baku City Financial Department.
During the interrogations, I began to realize that quite some
time prior to my arrest, the NKVD had pressured individuals working
in various Soviet organs in Lankaran to denounce me in relationship
to my past, especially since my father had been a wealthy landowner
and owned considerable property. Again, ordered by the NKVD,
BakSovet had written up an accusation against me, claiming that
I had close relationships with individuals who had been identified
as "Enemies of the People".
Appeal to Moscow
Later on, when I arrived at the Kolyma camps and finally got
the chance, I wrote many letters to the head of the country and
to the NKVD about the absurdity of the accusations that had been
brought against me. In one of those letters I even stated that
on the specific date of March 25, 1937, when I had supposedly
been engaged in counter-revolutionary activities organized by
the administrators of BakSovet, Olin as the BakSovet representative
had been in Moscow. His deputy Kudryavtsev had been in Ukraine.
So they had not even been physically present in Baku on that
At times when they threatened me and I would not yield, they
would torture me, beating me with rubber truncheons, and kicking
me with the spurs on their boots, which made wounds that bled.
I still have a scar on my left leg from being kicked by one of
the sergeants. Watching this sadist show while I was being tortured,
the interrogator dared to tell me: "The People's Commissar
ordered us to make 'scrambled eggs' of you." Then there
was the NKVD technique called the "Conveyor Belt" which
was in widespread use. I was brought into a room that was brightly
lit and made to stand although there was a chair available nearby.
They would not permit me to sit.
interrogators would repeat the same questions over and over.
They would press me: "It's stupid not to confess. There
are witnesses who have confirmed that you have been involved
in an 'anti-Soviet organization'. You cannot escape these facts.
Tell us the names of other members of your organization and your
punishment will be reduced."
I insisted that they call witnesses who could support me from
among my close coworkers at the Baku Financial Department but
they wouldn't do it.
Then the next cycle of questions would be repeated while I was
being made to stand there continuously, despite the fact that
the interrogators had already changed several shifts. Finally,
exhausted, I would be taken back to the cell in a semi-conscious
That is how I passed the time, day after day for more than 18
months in this so-called "preliminary interrogation"
inside the walls of NKVD Azerbaijan. That's nearly 600 days and
nights. The interrogators would change. I had three different
ones. Sometimes they would be a bit softer and would not continue
the interrogations all week long. Sometimes, they left me in
peace, unable to get me to confess to anything.
Above: Map of Kolyma, in the Arctic Circle
in Siberia not far from Alaska. Ships rought prisoners from the
mainland to Kolyma. Much of the year the sea was covered with
sick ice. Prisoners describe the journey as unbearable - the
crowded conditions, lack of hygiene, noise, and lack of load
of food. And then sometimes the sea was very stormy and violent.
Sentence - 8 Years
Finally, on March 31, 1939, the NKVD case against me was finalized.
I refused to sign it. After that, the case was sent to two other
courts - first, to the special collegium of the Supreme Court
of Azerbaijan, and then to the Military Collegium of Transcaucasian
Military District. I'm sure my case was not really investigated
by either of these courts because it would have been impossible
for them to offer any proof.
But the fate of political prisoners had been decided beforehand.
On June 9, 1939, without even participating in the trial, I was
sentenced to eight years of corrective labor camp "for participation
in an anti-Soviet organization".
On July 1, 1939, I was informed of the court's decision. After
a few days, the long and distant journey to Kolyma began. Somewhere
in the depths of our hearts, we still thought that the Party
would solve everything. And with that hope and belief, we somehow
managed to survive those difficult days.
Let me return to our first days in Kolyma. Obviously, the main
question that we were concerned about was where we were being
taken and what was awaiting us. For us, this enormous, uninhabited
land in northeast Asia with its very cold climate appeared as
a big empty blank space on the map.
Later on, we would learn the names that people had given to this
part of the world: "Black Planet," "Devil's Hell,"
and "Caldron within a Caldron." There was also a famous
song about Kolyma: "Magic planet, where 12 months of the
year are winter, and the rest are summer." Naturally, we
had no idea about the living conditions that we would face.
The Sakhalin, after being
renamed Krasnoyarsk. It was aboard this ship that Berzin and
150 others arrived in Bleak Nagaev Bay to launch Dal'stroi. Source:
U.S. Navy in Bollinger's Stalin's Slave Ships, Praeger, 2003.
Having now lived there in Kolyma for nearly 20 years of my life,
I know so much about its origins. Its land is rich with rare
metals - especially gold and tin [some people suggest uranium
as well]. Its natural environment is ideal for the development
of reindeer breeding, fishing, the shipping and fur industry,
and for hunting.
Left: "Three Wise Men, Limestone
by sculptor Fazil Najafov, Size: H-68. The sculpture reflects
the climate of secrecy that defined the era. Visit AzGallery.org
In the beginning of the 1930s, there was a small town called
Magadan, which would become the center of Kolyma. It consisted
of only a small number of wooden cabins. In 1932, they began
to construct Nagaev Port.
The first houses were situated near the port district. The prisoners
- road workers of the Kolyma camps - built the first roads between
Magadan and the inner regions of the taiga [Taiga is a general
term indicating an ecological region characterized by coniferous
forests. Here it refers to remote, previously unpopulated areas
in northern Russia and Siberia, where many of the slave labor
camps were set up. In such regions, temperatures were extreme,
and varied from -50C to 30C (-58F to 86F) throughout the entire
year, with eight or more months of temperatures averaging -10C
The summers, while short, are generally warm and humid [Wikipedia].
They constructed mines, built factories, repair warehouses and
electricity stations. In 1938 there was fewer than 1,000 kilometers
of roads in Kolyma. Roads were built from the sweat of prisoners
with their bare hands and no equipment.
The prisoners worked on roads in all kinds of rugged terrain
- mountain, rivers, canyons, boulders and swamps. After the war,
these roads extended more than 2,000 kilometers. Geologists did
succeed in extracting gold, tin, silver and coal from these extremely
difficult and remote regions.
At the beginning, I was assigned to do strenuous manual labor.
Later on, I worked as a civilian on geologic projects in the
remote taiga. It was there that I met many famous geologists
such as Valentin Aleksandrovich Tsaregradskiy, Boris Nikolayevich
Yerofeev and Izrail Yefimovich Drakin.
I worked under very hard conditions alongside Mark Isidorrivich
Rokhlin, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Chumak, Aziz Khozrayevich, Yevgeniy
Ivanovich Kapranov, Konstatin Aleksandrovich Ivanov, Kiloay Yevdakimovich
Sushentsov, Boris Fedorovich Khamitsayev, Dmitriy Ivanovich Kurichev
and others. I am deeply indebted to many of these people for
their help during those difficult days in my life in Kolyma.
Many years after I was rehabilitated and gained access to KGB
archival documents, I found a description of myself, which had
been written by Mark Isidorovich Rokhlin which read: "Upon
arrival at Kolyma, Comrade Eyyub Hazrat Gulu oghlu Baghirov conducted
himself as a worthy son of his Soviet Nation."
For me to be characterized in such a way during the blackest
period of my life by such an honest person, who was a Doctor
of Mineral Sciences and native of Leningrad, came to mean a great
deal to me during the later years of my life.
Journey by Railroad
On July 4, 1939, we left Baku from Pier 15[Pier 15 has since
been replaced by the "Bulvar" (Boulevard) beside the
sea where there is an accompanying park and restaurants]. We
had been taken there in prison cars from the NKVD building, which
is quite close by the sea. I had been held at the NKVD for more
than a year and a half.
Some of our family and friends gathered at the pier when they
learned that we would soon be shipped out. Our eyes sought out
each other in the crowd from afar. I recognized my mother Sugra
and daughter Latifa. With tears in our eyes, we waved goodbye
to each other. The guards would not allow us to go closer.
We were taken to Krasnovodsk[Krasnovodsk (now called Turkmenbashi)
is a city in West Turkmenistan on the Krasnovodsk Gulf of the
Caspian Sea. It was founded in 1869 and now serves as the western
terminus for oil and natural gas pipelines and for the Trans-Caspian
railroad, which links the Caspian region with Central Asia. It
is also a trans-shipment point for agricultural produce], and
then, after stuffing us into railroad cars, we started to move
forward. We had no idea of our final destination.
The train cars had windows that were barred. Three levels of
shelves had been made out of planks that served as our beds.
There were armed guards who often carried out searches. They
would count and recount us like cattle, making us move from one
side of the wagon to the other.
Sometimes they wouldn't allow us to go to the toilet. Sometimes
prisoners couldn't help themselves and went anyway right there
inside the train. The stench was horrid. We each tried desperately
to get a little extra fresh air through the cracks in the doors.
We passed through Turkib Road, Central Asia, Siberia, Baikal
region [Baikal is a mountainous region near Lake Baikal, the
deepest and oldest freshwater lake in the world. It is located
in Southern Siberia in Russia] and the Far East. The trip took
us four months. 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 became so weak
and emaciated, died along the way. Their corpses were left abandoned
alongside the railroad tracks.
Often, villagers would toss bread and other foodstuff to us when
they realized that we were prisoners. This happened especially
in Central Asia despite how much the guards tried to keep them
from doing this. Sometimes our railroad cars would be parked
on railroad sidings in uninhabited places so that no one could
From talking to one of the guards, we discovered that our final
destination was Magadan [Magadan is a city port founded in 1933
on the Okhotsk Sea in northeast Russia. During Stalin's era,
Magadan was a major transit center for prisoners being sent to
labor camps. The operations of Dalstroi-a vast and brutal forced-labor
gold-mining concern-were the main economic source of the city
for many decades during Soviet times.
The city is very isolated and its climate is subarctic. Winters
are prolonged and very cold, with up to six months of sub-zero
and below-zero temperatures, causing the soil to remain in a
permanently frozen state. Permafrost and tundra cover most of
the region. Average temperatures in the interior range from -38°C
in January to 16°C in July (-36°F to 60°F) Today
Magadan has an enormous Cathedral under construction, and the
Mask of Sorrow memorial-a huge sculpture in memory of Stalin's
victims [Wikipedia]. Though years have passed and many experiences
have intervened, time always has a way of remembering the things
which have pierced the heart.
That daunting prison journey that went on and on for four months
has always remained so vivid in my memory. It's a nightmare that
has stayed with me throughout my life.
We arrived in Vladivostok in the evening and were placed in what
was called a "forwarding camp". This was a large area
surrounded by barbed wire. Inside were small wooden cabins and
tents. Armed guards stood watch. This was our introduction to
Kolyma - the slave-labor empire of the GULAG [nne Applebaum explains
in her 2004 Pulitzer prize-winning book "Gulag: A History"
[Penguin: London, 2004, page 4]: "Literally, the word GULAG
is an acronym, meaning Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp
Administration. Over time, the word GULAG has also come to signify
not only the administration of the concentration camps but also
the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and
varieties: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political
camps, women's camps, children's camps, transit camps. Even more
broadly, GULAG has come to mean the Soviet repressive system
itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the
"meat-grinder": the arrests, the interrogations, the
transport in unheated train cars, the forced labor, the destruction
of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary
The peak years for arrests were 1937-1938 so there were several
thousand prisoners at this transit camp who had arrived before
us. The majority of them were political prisoners who had been
arrested for "counter-revolutionary activities" and
had been given sentences from eight to 25 years in exile.
The autumn days were sunny, but cold. The stars shone brilliantly
against the dark night sky. This was a sign of hope, and hope
is always the last thing to die. The huge ships moored here so
prisoners could be transported to the vast wilderness of the
taiga and the forestry mills of Kolyma.
They kept us in the transit camp for several days before we could
leave for Magadan. Among the political prisoners, some former
Bolsheviks had also been arrested. I recognized some of them
such as Ivan Vasilevich Ulyanov (Uncle Vanya), Shirali Akhundov,
Armenak Karakozov and Khalil Aghamirov. Here as well, we witnessed
Stalin's practice of targeting people in society who knew the
history of the Revolution and who had strong opinions about such
The night before we were to sail from Vladivostok to Magadan,
we couldn't sleep. Uncle Vanya, sensing our mood - especially
among the young people - gave us some fatherly advice: "Don't
give up. Be strong in spirit. Brave the difficulties that are
awaiting you. Maintain your devotion to our people to the end,
and show your good work in developing this desolate land."
Uncle Vanya hugged and kissed each of us - his fellow countrymen
- and wished us Godspeed. I had known him since youth when he
had been sent to Lankaran District as Secretary of the Communist
Party Committee during those first years following the Revolution.
We also knew him from Baku, as an official representative of
the Party, a Revolutionist, and a member of the Party since year
Uncle Vanya spoke with passion and confidence. It reminded me
of a speech he had made in December 1934 when he spoke with so
much concern at the BakSovet regarding the murder of Kirov [Sergey
Mironovich Kirov (18861934) was a Russian revolutionary
and high Bolshevik functionary. He was born Sergey Mironovich
Kostrikov, later assuming the name "Kirov" as an alias.
His alleged 1934 assassination marked the beginning of Stalin's
Great Purges, which removed almost all "Old Bolsheviks"
from the Soviet government. By this time, Sergey Kostrikov had
changed his name to Kirov. He had selected it as a pen name,
just as other Russian revolutionary leaders. The name "Kir"
reminded him of a Persian warrior king, and he was to become
head of the Bolshevik military administration in Astrakhan.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, he fought in the Russian
Civil War until 1920. In 1921, he became head of the Azerbaijan
party organization. Kirov loyally supported Joseph Stalin, and
in 1926 he was rewarded with the leadership of the Leningrad
In the 1930s, Stalin became increasingly worried about Kirov's
growing popularity. At the 1934 Party Congress where the vote
for the new Central Committee was held, Kirov received only three
negative votes, the fewest of any candidate, while Stalin received
292 negative votes, the highest of any candidate. Kirov was a
close friend with Sergo Ordzhonikidze, whom together formed a
moderate bloc to Stalin in the Politburo. Later in 1934, Stalin
asked Kirov to work for him in Moscow, most probably to keep
a closer eye on him. Kirov refused, however, and in Stalin's
eyes became a competitor.
On December 1, 1934, Kirov was killed by Leonid Nikolaev in Leningrad.
Stalin claimed that Nikolaev was part of a larger conspiracy
led by Leon Trotsky against the Soviet government. This resulted
in the arrest and execution of Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev,
and fourteen others in 1936. It is widely believed that Stalin
was the man who ordered the murder of Kirov, but this has never
been proven. [Wikipedia].
"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
in "Bitter Days of Kolyma
Due to Kirov's popularity, Stalin took his death as a real tragedy
and buried him by the Kremlin Wall in a state funeral. Many cities,
streets and factories took his name, including the cities of
Kirov (formerly Vyatka) and Kirovograd (Kirovohrad in Ukrainian),
the station Kirovskaya of the Moscow Metro (now Chistiye Prudy)
and the massive Kirov industrial plant in Saint Petersburg (Kirovskiy
For many years, a huge statue of Kirov in granite and bronze
dominated the panorama of the city of Baku. The monument was
erected on a hill in 1939. [Wikipedia: April 28, 2006]. Kirov
came to the Caucasus in 1910 to work as a Communist Party organizer.
Eventually, he helped organize the Red Army's entry into the
Caucasus; they drove out the White Guards in 1920 and subsequently
set up three socialist republics in the region-Armenia, Georgia
Kirov's statue was dismantled in 1992, after Azerbaijan gained
its independence. On August 26, 1991, the Executive Power of
Baku ordered the dismantling of the statues of Lenin, Kirov,
Felix Dzerzhinski and Ivan Fioletov (all revolutionaries involved
with establishing the Soviet government in Azerbaijan) and the
11th Army, which invaded Baku in 1920. This declaration preceded
Azerbaijan's declaration of independence on October 18, 1991
and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union on December 7,
Baku's Sahar newspaper published the announcement of the statue's
removal on January 5, 1992. Although the article did not mention
the actual date of its dismantling, Sahar's current editor presumes
it must have taken place a day or two earlier, since they were
publishing daily at the time. The bronze used in the statue was
turned over as scrap metal to the Baku City Industrial Center.
See "Best View of the Bay: What Happened to Kirov's Statue"
by Faig Karimov. AI 9.2 (Summer 1999). Search at AZER.com.].
His speech was clear to everyone - regardless of whether they
were uneducated peasants, members of the intelligentsia or religious
I never forgot Uncle Vanya's parting words to us during those
horrible days at Vladivostok. Such wise words coming from such
a great, knowledgeable person instilled us with optimism for
the difficult years ahead that we would face in Kolyma.
Value of Labor
Let me add that along with hope, the main thing that helped us
to survive the Far North was labor. Being actively involved with
work was a necessity of life in the severe climate of the North.
Work became a life-saving stimulus for us. Those who understood
this truth from the beginning were the ones who survived in their
struggle against the unforgiving landscape of the Far North.
Left: "Stories of Life", by Fazil Najafov.
Bronze. Happiness and unity are exposed to the public; misery
and discord are hidden. 1987.
During the long journey
to the camps, some of the prisoners fell ill. The camp administrators
realized that some of the elderly would not be productive laborers,
so they were sent back to the Mainland [Mainland here generally
refers to parts of the USSR other than Siberia and the Russian
Far East where the GULAG camps were located. In the case of the
author Eyyub Baghirov, it often implies Azerbaijan or Nakhchivan].
Some of them were left in the transit camps in Irkutsk [Irkutsk
is the administrative center of Irkutsk Oblast, which is located
in southeastern Siberia] and Vladivostok. Many of them were not
able even to finish their sentences and met their deaths in the
taiga forests of Siberia and the Far East. The well-known Azerbaijani
writer and dramatist - the unforgettable Husein Javid - was one
of them. By that time, he was aged and broken from prison. And
he couldn't see well. He was separated from our journey in Magadan
because of illness and then sent on to the transit camp in Irkutsk.
Our ship launched at night from Vladivostok and started heading
towards Magadan. We left Uncle Ivan, Shirali Akhundov, Khalil
Aghamirov and other comrades in Vladivostok. On the way we faced
a ferocious storm in the Okhotsk Sea [Okhotsk Sea borders the
Russian Far East along the Siberian coastline.
Ships carrying thousands of prisoners to work in the GULAG of
the Kolyma region often would dock at the port in the city of
Magadan. Okhotsk Sea is icebound from November to June, and is
often shrouded in heavy fogs]. The unbearable crowded conditions,
the clamor and banging of the ship's engines, tossing from the
rough waves on the sea frightened us to death.
Eight days later, the ship with its thousands of prisoners arrived
at Nagaev Pier, which was still in a very primitive condition.
They delayed unloading the ship.
Finally, the steel doors of
the prisons were opened and the guards escorted us out. Our chests
felt very tight with apprehension. We assumed that we had been
brought there to die.
We continued our journey on foot, carrying handmade sacks on
our shoulders that were filled with our basic necessities. Eventually,
we arrived at Morchekan [Morchekan: a prison base in Siberia
used for quarantine of newly arrived prisoners and for delousing].
After we were processed through a treatment of showers to get
rid of lice, we entered the transit camp of Magadan. This camp
was located not far from the entrance to Kolyma, which was under
Since there were already thousands of prisoners there, no shelters
or even tents were available for us and so we had to sleep under
the open sky. As usual in this kind of situation, we huddled
as close to one another as possible, just to keep warm. Such
a great number of people from so many different backgrounds created
so many difficult situations and, in turn, provided great opportunities
We Southerners were very uneasy and frightened about the prospect
of spending the night outdoors, exposed to the northern climate
of Kolyma. That night was so cold; and in the morning, it snowed.
Actually, it was here in this camp that I first began to realize
that when it snows, the weather is warmer than when the sky is
clear. In the morning some of us, including me, were ill with
fever. Some of the prisoners themselves were doctors who administered
first aid from their Red Cross bags.
Let me comment about the Kolyma doctors. Most of them upheld
the highest moral standards. The prisoners referred to them as
"the Red Cross". These doctors considered it their
primary goal to offer medical assistance to prisoners - often
under unbearable conditions. And their help extended beyond medical
treatment. For example, they often arranged for people to be
assigned to less strenuous work; in other words, to free them
up from hard physical labor. Doctors often recommended more reasonable
work after a hospital treatment. They did many other things as
well, always demonstrating their commitment to the Hippocratic
These comrades would bring bread, sugar and other necessities
in an effort to keep prisoners alive who were weak with exhaustion
or were already known as "goners"["Goner"
a term used in the prison camps to refer to someone who was beyond
hope of recovery and nearly dead]. To a great extent, the survival
of these prisoners depended upon these medical personnel. They
determined the level of work that a prisoner would be assigned.
They could increase the caloric level of a prisoner's meal. They
could admit a person into the hospital or arrange for someone
who had become disabled to return and visit the Mainland.
Though years have passed, I still remain enormously thankful
for these medical comrades, who through their own bitter fate,
were forced to bear that difficult life with us in Kolyma. Among
them were also some of my fellow countrymen: Professor A. Atayev,
M. Shahsuvarli, M. Mahmudov and others.
In the transit camp in Vladivostok, one of our fellow countrymen
from Baku became ill. It was Gazanfar Garyaghdi who had entertained
us with his robust songs along our journey. He was shaking from
cold and had already started to turn blue.
Our military friends got worried. Despite how freezing the weather
was, they took off their overcoats, put them under sick Gazanfar
and covered him. We took care of him, and little by little, he
began to recover. So often during those critical times, it was
only those deep brotherly ties that saved our lives.
Among the prisoners, there were also those who knew the Far East
very well. One of them - I forgot his last name - was a brilliant
storyteller. He also had a wide range of interests. In our spare
time, which was more than enough those days, he would tell us
stories about the Far North. These fascinating stories saved
our minds. He was a true scientist who knew history and geography
as well as the environmental conditions of Kolyma. He could even
name the first discoverers of the region. His stories, continued
for days when we were stuck in that transit camp, and they became
essential for life in the Far North. Unfortunately, after we
were separated in Kolyma, I never met up with him again.
Left: Propaganda poster encouraging prisoners to reach
their daily quota of work, in this case, cutting timber in Siberia.
Those who did were rewarded with a daily ration of 700-800 grams
of bread, instead of 300 grams
When we got to know
the situation, we discovered that this wide expanse of territory,
which included Kolyma, Chukotka [Chukotka is the farthest northeast
region in Russia on the shores of the Bering Sea. It was formerly
an autonomous district subsumed with Magadan Oblast. It is known
for its large reserves of oil, natural gas, coal, gold and tungsten
[Wikipedia], Indigirka [A region near the East Siberian Sea.
The river by the same name freezes up in October and stays under
the ice until May or June. The region is known for its gold prospecting
industry [Wikipedia], and even part of Yakutia [The Sakha (Yakutia)
Republic is a federal subject of Russia (a republic) in northeastern
Siberian Russia. Its main economic resources are diamonds, gold
and tin ore mining [Wikipedia], had vast natural resources and
was governed by Dalstroi MVD USSR [Dalstroi refers to the GULAG
administration in the Russian Far East; that is, the extreme
eastern parts of Russia, between Siberia and the Pacific Ocean.
The Russian Far East should not be confused with Siberia. It
does not stretch all the way to the Pacific [Wikipedia]-the head
administration of Far North. This administration itself was a
"government with the government".
Since its establishment in 1931, Dalstroi had widely utilized
the labor of prisoners. The real owners of Kolyma-the prisoners
- had been brought to this land by the shipload. In addition
to the prisoners, many contractors flocked to this place drawn
by the high salaries.
Dalstroi with its vast resources in mining, fishing, and forestry,
was developed by the enormous force of cheap labor and made a
tremendous contribution to Stalin's industrialization of the
country. The entire administration of the Dalstroi - economic,
administrative, physical and political - was in the hands of
one person who was invested with many rights and privileges.
The first head of Dalstroi was Eduard Berzin, a Chekist [The
Cheka was the first of many Soviet secret police organizations,
created by decree on December 20, 1917, by Vladimir Lenin and
led by Felix Dzerzhinsky After early attempts by Western powers
(Britain and France) to intervene against the Bolsheviks in the
Russian Civil War (1917), and after the assassination of Petrograd
Cheka leader Moisei Uritsky followed by Fanya Kaplan's attempt
to assassinate Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet leadership and the
Cheka became convinced that there was a wide ranging conspiracy
of foreign enemies and internal counter-revolutionaries. Therefore,
they poured resources into the intelligence service to combat
this conspiracy. The Cheka quickly succeeded in destroying any
remaining counter revolutionary groups [Wikipedia].
Soviet secret policemen were referred to as Chekists throughout
the Soviet period and the term is still found in use in Russia
today. On February 6, 1922, the Cheka was reincorporated into
Ob'edinennoe Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie (OGPU),
State Political Administration, or a section of the NKVD of the
Russian SFSR [Wikipedia]. This was the forerunner of NKVD and
KGB] who was shot later in 1938.
At that time, Magadan was a city known for its cold, dry climate
and strong winds. The buildings were one - and two - stories.
In the late 1930s the virgin taiga started abruptly at the edge
of the city. Today a piece of the taiga remains within the city
as a park.
Three days after our arrival in Magadan, Valentin Aleksandrovich
Tsaregradskiy, who was the head of Main Geological Administration
and Deputy Head of Dalstroi, visited the transit camp to talk
to us. He chose specialists and professionals - first of all,
geologists - to work for the development of the economy of Dalstroi.
We had heard that he was one of the first discoverers of Kolyma.
Somehow Tsaregradskiy was able to gain our trust. He spoke directly
and honestly to us, trying to allay our fears. Although we had
tried our best to anticipate what to expect in the years that
stretched before us; still, there was such a stark contrast between
Baku and the wild taiga of Kolyma, that it put me under tremendous
psychological stress. This feeling never left me.
We were living among people who were physically and mentally
exhausted. They would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified
by nightmares. In those difficult days, the only thing any of
us wanted was a kind word and some humane treatment.
Later on, after being under Tsaregradsky's supervision for a
while, I was convinced that he was a decent human being. He himself
was interested in painting and I heard that in his home, there
were landscape paintings of the Far North that he had painted
himself. He would often walk silently in the taiga, alone, without
any guards. There were times during the geological explorations
that he would sleep in the same tent and eat from the same bowl
as the other workers did. Many Dalstroi workers held him in high
Convoy to Butigichag
One gloomy morning at dawn, we were transported in open trucks
from Magadan. Our route took us through some of Kolyma's uninhabited
virgin territory. We drove for a while, leaving behind the fog
- enshrouded Nagaev pier. The weather became colder; though it
was dry. When the convoy stopped, the guards would get out and
take a rest, and we would go in search of some "gift of
nature", such as cedar nuts. It kept us from becoming weak
We were surprised when the guards didn't pay much attention to
us prisoners when we jumped out of the trucks. Obviously, they
already knew that it was impossible for us to escape anywhere.
They had the right to shoot us any time "for attempting
to escape". Where could one escape in the wild wilderness
of the taiga? If you died, the wild animals would devour you.
If you succeeded in managing to reach civilization, you would
be reported and receive an extended sentence that was even harsher.
In reality, it was practically impossible to escape from the
camps of Kolyma, although such attempts were made, especially
in the spring and summer.
The sites for these camps, which were located out in the middle
of uninhabited taiga forests, had been very carefully selected.
They were situated in sheltered areas between boulders and hills.
With the help of a large staff of armed camp security, thousands
of sheepdogs, Chekists, and army frontier guards, it was so easy
to catch anyone trying to escape.
Besides, there was an enormous network of informers among the
prisoners - secret agents appointed by camp administration who
also helped to prevent the prisoners from escaping. En route,
we saw that on the edge of the road near the ditch, some places
already were covered with gravel.
Later on, roads were constructed with prison laborers, who worked
with practically no equipment - only axes, shovels, trucks and
The Kolyma road construction workers had the most difficult job.
The authorities had in mind for Dalstroi to become the first
government trust for the development and road construction in
the North. For this reason, masses of prisoners were brought
to Kolyma to construct roads through the dense taiga forests,
the boulders and swamps, rivers and canyons.
Among the prisoners in Kolyma there were many road workers. At
any time of the year - day or night - one could see thousands
of laborers working along the roads. In winter, they would clear
the roads of snow to make way for the vehicles. It was very difficult
to look at the prisoners, with their numbed faces covered with
frost and snow, clothed only in torn padded cotton jackets. Sometimes
they would use their shovels pound down the snow or just wave
their shovels back and forth to keep moving so they wouldn't
The guards would often chase the prisoners with their dogs. They
would make them work for many days continuously - not allowing
them to return to warmth to regain their strength. They often
were given a frozen piece of bread and a jug of tinned food,
which had to be shared between two people.
We headed up into the Kolyma Mountains, traveling such a long
way, passing through forests. There were no inhabitants. We bumped
and swayed from side to side in the truck.
Despite how exhausted we were, the trucks continued moving forward,
day and night. The drivers constantly had to use their brakes.
Actually, despite our own pathetic situation, we felt sorry for
the drivers who had to navigate such dangerous passes through
the mountains and taiga.
During the short breaks, the drivers wouldn't even get out of
the trucks to stretch their legs. They would just fall asleep
right there on the seat.
They were so tired that we would have to wake them up to start
moving again. Especially when we passed close to the rivers where
the road was so icy and slippery, the drivers had to be so alert
and cautious. They would get out of their trucks, search for
the right place to drive in order to avoid any surprises or accidents.
Sometimes the snow would drift across the road, and the trucks
would get stuck. We would get out and push the trucks out of
the snow with our bare hands. But all in all, the drivers in
Kolyma were very courageous and skillful.
There were still deer darting along the roads of Kolyma as no
truck had ever passed through there before. We would see the
local indigenous people using herds of deer to transport the
equipment of the geologists and construction workers.
At dusk our convoy arrived at the main base, which was located
in the foothills of the Podumay. On the way, we discovered that
we were on the way to Butigichag [Butigichag: the name of the
Tenki Administration of Dalstroi where an ore factory was constructed],
the Tenki Administration of Dalstroi. There were constructing
an ore-concentration factory there. The head of construction
was our fellow countryman Museyib Jafar oghlu Akhundov from Baku.
To arrive in Butigichag, one has to navigate the dangerous mountain
Podumay Pass [Podumay Pass: One of the most treacherous passes
in the Kolyma Mountains. Most of the year, it was closed to vehicular
traffic because of the severe climactic conditions] which is
about 15 km long.
Our long truck convoy continued along the taiga road. It was
already dark when we arrived at the main base, in the foothills
of Podumay, but the pass was already closed due to blizzards
and snowdrifts. It was impossible to drive through it. We had
arrived too late. We would continue the rest of the trip on foot
across the treacherous ice and snow.
"We were living
among people who were physically and mentally exhausted. They
would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified by nightmares.
In those difficult days, the only thing any of us wanted was
a kind word and some humane treatment."
in "Bitter Days of Kolyma"
That night we stayed at the camp and, more importantly, we got
some sleep. We were lucky that the storm had quieted down. The
next day, we started our climb up the Podumay Pass with sunny
weather. We were literally crawling up the mountain, exhausted
and eager to get rid of our heavy clothes. Climbing was so difficult.
To make it easier, we started to rid ourselves of any unnecessary
personal items. On the cliffs of the tortuous winding mountain
road, not only was there fresh snow, but also hardened ice that
still had not melted from previous years.
For the first time here, I gazed out at the amazing panoramic
views of these mountains. It brought back memories of my dear
Caucasus. On these snow-covered peaks, the air is fresher, and
it made us want to become lighter and soar over the mountains,
higher and higher, like a lone eagle.
Finally we reached the final peak of the mountain and before
us lay the taiga valley with its golden hues of autumn. The view
was breathtaking. Rivers snaked through the land, and the sound
of distant rushing waters awakened us from boredom into joy.
It's difficult to describe our feelings at that time. There we
were in such a beautiful corner of the world under escort of
guards and sheepdogs, having been accused of being "Enemies
of the People". It was impossible to bear the irony of such
injustice. Soon we understood that we were "politicals"-a
name given to us by the government. We were treated like actual
enemies of the government-executed, starved, assigned to carry
out their exhausting slave labor. After resting a short while
at the top of the mountain, the guards announced that we would
begin our descent. We started down slowly.
Fortunately, going down was easier than coming up had been. We
were soon at the bottom and felt close to life, warmth and work.
Surviving the Cold
Work? Why do I speak so fondly about labor? It's because, as
I later discovered, without labor in these dense forests, a person
falls apart and starts to go crazy. I recognized that this was
happening especially among those prisoners who were there as
criminals. They didn't want to work. They only wanted "to
get to heaven on the sweat of some one else's brow."
But they soon relented. In such places, a person cannot live
without labor. Work helps you to survive. Obviously, this is
the reason why the organizers of GULAG had wisely located the
camps in the midst of the wildest terrains of the taiga, where
practically no human being had ever set foot before. This is
where they took us as their free slave laborers. Simply, if you
didn't work, you wouldn't survive in the taiga. First of all,
you would die from hunger.
The sun had already set behind the mountains when we arrived
in a virgin forest of tall larch trees. There were three heated
tents that belonged to a group of field geologists. A little
further on in the forest, there were two more official cabins
built of stone. These cabins were probably intended for prisoners
in transit. We were surprised to return to civilization with
cabins, for we had lived in prison cells, prisons on ships, cattle
cars, and tents in transit camps. Now we were accommodated in
cabins where we were able to light a fire and heat some water.
It was the first time we had ever been able to wash with warm
We gathered around to eat something and lie down to sleep. Suddenly
two men entered our cabin, wearing warm clothes that were appropriate
for the North. They greeted us and asked whether any of us were
from the Caucasus.
I admitted that I was, and they came over and greeted me. One
of them - Mammadagha - was from Baku. The second one was from
Tbilisi. His name was Valiko. These young men had arrived in
Kolyma the year before and had overcome the difficulties and
managed to settle down and survive the first winter. They were
friends and were working with the geological exploration team.
Now that the summer exploration work had finished, they continued
their work near the geologists and lived in cabins that were
geared up for winter.
Later I discovered that they always went in search for newcomers
from the Caucasus to learn the latest news about their Homeland
and to reach out to their fellow countrymen and help them in
any way possible.
It was a tradition among the prisoners in Kolyma - especially
those who came from the South - to try to identify other fellow
countrymen among the prisoners. They always did this despite
the rules against it.
With the guard's permission, these two Azerbaijanis took my friend
and me to their heated cabin. The first thing we did was to shave.
Then they brought us food and freshly boiled tea. We started
talking about life on this "magic planet", especially
the rules needed for survival in the Butigichag Valley. We carried
on, talking late into the night. Then they realized that we were
exhausted and tired and soon took us back to our cabin.
Early the next morning when the guards awakened us to continue
the journey, our fellow - countrymen were again near us. They
had brought us food for the journey. We were so touched by their
Under the stars
During the second half of the day, we finally arrived at Butigichag,
which is surrounded by gigantic boulders. Here was our camp:
wooden gates, small cabins, tarpaulin tents, double rows of barbed
wires along the camp boundary and guardhouses. On the left of
the camp was the Vakkhanka River, which was narrow and deep in
the canyon and then stretched out to the taiga towards the mine
where the iron ore factory was being constructed.
It turned out that there wasn't a place for us in the camp cabins,
and nor had they been able to construct new cabins prior to our
A strong, young Chechen from Grozny by the name of Mahammad Mammadaghayev
was responsible for issues related to prisoners. But after the
conversation we had had with our fellow countrymen, the night
before, we weren't worried about spending the night in the taiga.
In such places there was no term for a house with four walls
and a ceiling. Because of that, we had to forget about such structure,
once and for all. We chose a place to sleep for the night on
the hillside and made a fire.
Night fell. The light of the fire and the darkness formed something
like a bronze area. We huddled close to the fire to absorb the
heat. Then we started to make some dinner over the fire. We had
half of a herring and some stale bread. We boiled water for tea
in three-liter tins. Our "tea" was boiled water, darkened
a little with a scorched crust of bread.
We tried to forget our anxieties, worries and boredom, and brace
ourselves for the uncertainty of the coming days. We let our
thoughts dwell on the past, for no one could take our past away
There were some old Party people among us who personally had
known F.E. Dzerjinsky [Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (18771926)
was a Communist revolutionary, who founded Cheka, the Bolshevik
secret police] Y.E. Rudzutak [Yan Ernestovich Rudzutak (1887-1938)
was a Bolshevik revolutionary. In 1937, Rudzutak was arrested
and accused of being a follower of Trotsky and for spying for
He was sentenced to death penalty and executed], P.P. Postyshev,
[Pavel Postyshev (1888-1938) was a Party member from 1904 and
appointed as the Central Committee Secretary (1930-34), and in
served as the Second Secretary of the Communist Party (Ukraine)
1933-37], S.M. Kirov, and S. Ordzhonikidze [Grigoriy Konstantinovich
Ordzhonikidze generally referred to as Sergo Ordzhonikidze (1886-1937)
was a member of the Politburo and close friend to Stalin. He
was appointed to the Politburo in 1926, but by 1936 Stalin began
to question his loyalty; specifically when he discovered that
Ordzhonikidze was using his influence to protect certain figures
that were under investigation by the NKVD.
Meanwhile, rumors suggested that Ordzhonikidze was planning to
denounce Stalin in his speech at the April 1937 Plenum. However,
he was found dead before he could make that speech; his death
was ruled as suicide [Wikipedia]. Some of them told us about
other staff of the Caucasus that we didn't know, who also had
become victims of Stalin's "cult personality".
Dawn was still hours away. The dry branches of a larch tree crackled
in the fire. When we sat too close to the fire, it was too hot,
and our backs suffered from the cold.
So we decided to engage in lively conversation so that we wouldn't
fall asleep. And that's how we passed the night, nestled close
to the fire - thinking, dreaming, and talking until dawn. Finally,
the unfriendly, dull autumn morning came - so characteristic
of the North. Rainy days in the North are very depressing and
make your heart weigh heavily. Sometimes you become indifferent
to others, especially when there's no work to do.
Work in the Camp
In the morning they started sending us out to work. That evening
Pavel Ivanovich, the person responsible for the labor force,
who was supervisor of the civilian guard of Kolyma, gathered
the prisoners in his room in groups to talk to us.
He explained the routine and regime of production in this zone.
Our situation turned out to be impossibly difficult. Our tent
was not heated. There was only a steel barrel in the middle of
the tent. The water in its cracks would freeze during the night.
When we tried to sleep, we had to put up with prisoners snoring,
moaning, coughing and swearing in their sleep. We would finish
our work and come back to camp very tired. Rarely could we change
our clothes. Then we would lie down on the cold boards of the
bed. Theft was common in those hungry Kolyma camps - a piece
of bread, a lump of sugar, cigarettes, slippers, cotton - padded
jackets and other clothing items would disappear.
were used immediately, exchanged or stolen by criminals, never
to be returned. Even when the blankets were exchanged for clean
ones, criminal prisoners usually would take the good ones and
leave the rags for the political prisoners.
We started to work building the iron ore factory [Based upon
information from press in recent years, the ore at Butigichag
was radioactive and dangerous for life (note by Mirza Baghirov,
the author's son)] where we were divided into productive brigades
of 30 people each. Ours was made up of Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kazakhs,
Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Ukrainians, Belarusians,
Armenians, Finns, Buryat-Mongols, Chechens, Ingush and Ossetians.
There were even two Gypsies.
All of these prisoners had had the misfortune of being sent to
the Far North and needed warmer accommodations, especially those
who were from Central Asian Republics and who weren't used to
cold climates. Keep in mind that we had to work outside all day
long and somehow had to organize a way to deal with these natural
Butigichag was located in a valley and totally cut off from the
outer world. The only connection with Magadan was through that
terrible mountain road via Podumay Pass, which I described earlier
but it had already been closed to trucks since November. The
road would not re-open until May the next spring.
Supplies, technical equipment and construction materials were
loaded onto tractors. The bare necessities of life were "packed"
on people and carried by foot. Literally hundreds of exhausted
prisoners were made to march over Podumay Pass, walking 20 km
in a 24-hour period just to deliver 10-20 kilos of flour, wheat,
sugar, tinned food and other products that were necessary to
This was done for more than six months of the year by prisoners
bravely carrying heavy loads on their backs across these perilous
mountains. It's difficult to describe how difficult their assignment
was. There were many, many deaths during those frequent severe
The Mongols, Buryats and Kazakhs, who were used to the colder
weather, were put in charge of repairing the roads. Despite the
difficult conditions, they made us laborers work with all our
strength. That's how they managed the camp food. Prisoners worked
14-16 hours a day. If they didn't fulfill their norm, they would
receive only 300 grams of bread [instead of 700-800 grams] as
their daily ration, along with some prison gruel.
"Let me add that
along with hope, the main thing that helped us to survive the
Far North was labor. Being actively involved with work was a
necessity of life in the severe climate of the North. Work became
a life-saving stimulus for us. Those who understood this truth
from the beginning were the ones who survived in their struggle
against the unforgiving landscape of the Far North."
in "Bitter Days of Kolyma"
Many of the prisoners died merely from the severe cold and hunger.
Soon there were many graves of our fellow prisoners clustered
along the foothills of Kolyma. The only record of the deceased
was a wooden tag, with the case number (no name) attached to
the left foot, an annotation written in the NKVD files of Archive
No. 3, and a note made on the prisoner's card.
Free Labor Force
It's no longer a secret that during those years that the nation
lost hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of its sons
and daughters because of the inhumane conditions of the labor
camps. The tragedy was that these innocent, honest, respectable
individuals were also devastated psychologically by being branded
as "Enemies of the People". That's the way they were
portrayed to their families, friends, and to the entire nation.
This was one of the most radical ways by which Stalin's propaganda
sealed the eyes, ears and minds of the citizens of his country.
And here, as unbelievable as it might seem, in this boundless
terrain of Kolyma, the prisoners who were dying still believed
in the Soviet authority. They still clung to the hope that sooner
or later everything would be all right.
Stalin had called Dalstroi an industrial complex in a special
setting. The residents of the Kolyma camps understood this setting
very well and reached the same conclusion themselves. Regardless
of the incredible difficulties related to the political situation
of the country, the people who had been arrested arbitrarily
and brought to these corrective labor camps worked honestly.
They should be judged accordingly, based on their own clear consciences.
Left: Sculpture by Fazil Najafov entitled "Violence
Emerges from Stupidity", Bronze.1939 the political prisoners started to hope for
release. Lavrenty Beria was assigned as the People's New Commissar
of Internal Affairs. He repealed some of Yezhov's decisions in
order to raise his own political prestige. Some of the political
prisoners from the Kolyma camps were called to Moscow to be examined.
But all this soon turned into bitter illusion. During the years
between 1939-1940, I wrote many letters to the head of the nation
and also to Beria requesting a re-examination of my case.
My elderly mother Sugra also
wrote them from Baku. A few months later, I would receive a very
brief reply to my requests: "Your status remains unchanged."
In 1941, I wrote five more letters and sent a telegram, complaining
and begging them to send me to the war front so I could atone
for any guilt with my blood. I received no reply.
Time passed. Winter came to Kolyma with its long, dark nights
and short gray days. We suffered frostbite and temperatures,
which dropped to below -50°C (-58°F). It was very difficult
for the prisoners who were spending their first year in the North,
even though they had already lived in these places for four months
The year 1939 passed and the construction of the iron ore factory
was coming to an end. More than half of all prisoners in the
camp were assigned to haul products on a daily basis on their
backs over the mountain road via Podumay Pass.
On one of those winter days in the beginning of 1940, those pedestrian
couriers were caught in a terrible blizzard on the mountain road.
It's difficult to describe this terrible tragedy.
Some of the prisoners survived, but at least 30 people were lost
and no trace was left behind. They had lost their way, and then
frozen to death, left to die under the snow. In spring, their
bodies were found scattered along mountain slopes. Not all of
them were found.
Later, on the same mountain road Museyib Akhundov as Head of
Construction got caught in a blizzard along with a group of people
on the way to Magadan. Somehow, they got separated from their
tractor. Akhundov's arm and leg got frost bitten. Miraculously,
"We tried to block
out any anxieties and worries along with the boredom, and to
brace ourselves for the uncertainty of the coming days. We let
our thoughts dwell on the past for, at least, no one could take
that away from us."
in "Bitter Days of Kolyma"
It was our geological exploration team who rescued him. Through
the howling blizzard winds, they barely were able to hear his
shouts for help. With enormous effort, they climbed over the
boulders, crawled to the injured people and literally rescued
them from clutches of death.
The blizzards, driven by ferocious winds, were quite normal especially
near the Okhotsk Sea. Winds could whip up to 30-35 meters per
second. There were times when people had to hang on to ropes
as they went from one house to another one nearby; otherwise,
they would never have been able to find the entrance.
the last half of March 1940, when the days in Kolyma were becoming
relatively longer and skies brighter, all the laborers of the
construction station were assigned to clear the roads for the
entire length of the mountain pass.
About 1,500 prisoners worked at this task for several days. With
an enormous effort, we were able to finish the construction of
the road so vehicles could pass through the mountain pass.
First came the tractors, then trucks carrying food products,
technical equipment, materials for the mine and the iron ore
factory. Nedbaylov, the head engineer supervised this difficult
Many people worked so hard under these severe conditions in construction,
conscientiously trying to provide life's basic necessities.
Sometimes people-especially those from the South - went to the
edge of death, but then bravely survived these severe adversities
If someone got ill or was too weak and unable to work, we would
smother him with attention, helping him in whatever way we could.
We would take on his workload along with our own for that day
just so they would not reduce his daily ration of bread. Otherwise,
the meager rations would have condemned that person to a slow,
but certain death.
Dr. Mirza Baghirov (1927- )
published the memoirs of his father Ayyub Baghirov (1906-1973),
"Bitter Days of Kolyma" (Gorkiye Dni Na Kolime, 1999).
He holds a doctorate in technical sciences and is the former
Rector of both the Polytechnic Institute and Lankaran State University.
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