Igor Golomstock: Memoirs of an Old Pessimist

Igor Golomstock
Chapter 2: Kolyma (1939-1943)

It took us twelve days to reach Vladivostok from Moscow by rail. We then spent another three days on board the steamer Felix Dzerzhinsky, headed for Nagaevo Bay. The steamer was famous: built sometime at the start of the century in the Glasgow shipyards (according to a bronze plaque mounted on the wall near the captain's cabin), its colossal cargo hold had transported countless bands of prisoners to the camps. My stepfather had been assigned to work in the Northwest Industrial Mining Administration of the Far North Construction Trust in Magadan. He was to direct a sector called Sportivny at the Vodop'yanovo mine site.

The site was seven hundred kilometers to the north, in the direction of the Kolyma River. We rode out in a truck — which was, at the time, the only means of long-distance transportation in that region. On either side of the road lay low hills, draped with the sparse vegetation of the forest-tundra. Tall mining towers for sifting gold stuck up in the hollows. Narrow wooden planks ran up to the towers on every side — as if a gigantic spider had spun its web between the hills. Hundreds of prisoners dragged wheelbarrows laden with dirt along these wooden tracks, overturning them onto moving conveyor belts. The belts wound their way up the planks and dumped the dirt into large funnels atop each tower, where the soil mixed with water. The rocks and gravel remained on the grids, while the rarified soil rolled down the chutes along with the water. The gold, being heavier than soil, settled at the bottom. This desolate landscape was animated by rows of barbed wire and observation towers surrounding the camp. And so it was for the duration of the journey.

The Khattynakh camp — center of the sprawling Vodop'yanovo mine site, where we arrived late in the summer of '39 — was a conglomeration of wooden houses and huts, occupied by the site's civilian employees and their families. The Sportivny sector, with its three mining towers, was five kilometers from the village.

And all around it lay pristine nature, untouched by human hands: hills, overgrown with dwarf pine — that northern cedar which spreads its branches on the ground, bearing cones full of small, but very tasty pine nuts. In spring, the hills took on a pinkish hue, as entire fields of cranberries, which had survived the winter, emerged from the melting snows. And another regular detail of this idyllic landscape: a glum little horse dragging an oblong object wrapped in a red blanket, flanked by the bent figure of the accompanying driver. That's how they carted back the corpses of prisoners who had fled in the spring and froze to death in the winter.

We young fellows had the run of the place. In the winter, when the temperature dipped to -50o Celsius, school was canceled, and we were completely free. We skied, built caves in the hulking snowdrifts, and even heated them by burning paper and hay. I remember one time when the temperature dropped to -69o, but the air remained dry and the sun shone brightly. We had a snowball fight, but had to keep rubbing our faces with snow to avoid frostbite.

In the summer, our main occupation was digging for gold. There was a lot of it. When the rain washed a layer of soil from a mound of earth, gold flakes gleamed beneath it, and the same flakes glistened in rain puddles. We looked for gold in crevices of slate and underneath rocks, tearing up clods of dirt. Once I found a nugget about the size of my pinky, weighing thirty grams. But the primary method was panning. We used special trays, with bottoms beveled on every side and grooves in the middle. We poured dirt into them, mixed it with water using scrapers, and removed all the rocks and pebbles. When the only thing left was a layer of sand, we carefully washed it, and particles of gold remained in the grooves. There is something astonishing about the strange mystical force that attracts man to gold. Once, they blasted a big chunk of dirt and discovered a vein of gold in the crater. People rushed to the pit from all sides and, pushing and shoving, commenced clawing pieces of metal from the earth. Why, one wonders? We had to take the gold to the gold bank, where we were paid — if I'm not mistaken — a ruble per gram (ten cents for convicts). But the money had a purely symbolic value: there wasn't a thing to buy with it.

There were no stores. All the necessities — groceries, clothes, soap, cigarettes — were distributed not even by ration cards, but according to some list or another. The groceries consisted of dried potatoes, various grains, frozen apples (one had to dip them in cold water, and then they'd develop an icy crust), and, very rarely, meat — venison, horse, bear... Vitamin deficiency was mandatorily treated with a disgusting potion from pine needles, which seemed to me worse than castor oil. The potion supposedly cured scurvy. And this, when there was a heap of vitamins all around: lingonberry, cloudberry, blueberries, nuts, mushrooms... For some reason, though, no one was interested.

I was essentially left to my own devices. My stepfather spent most of his time at Sportivny, my mother worked in the camp clinic, and I wasn't their concern. My stepfather's position allowed him to take on an orderly — that is, a domestic servant selected from the ranks of criminal, rather than political prisoners. It was they who — if not directly, then indirectly — served as my teachers. There was nothing worthwhile that school could teach me.

The first was a Tartar named Usein, a counterfeiter. Although he didn't manufacture forged banknotes himself, and engaged only in their sale, he pulled down ten years in the camps for it. He and I lived in perfect harmony. But one day my mother, returning home from work, discovered a horrible scene: the room was cold, I lay with a high fever, Usein was snoring on the floor, and someone's feet stuck out from under the table. Usein had found a bottle of alcohol my stepfather had hidden, called friends over, and made a feast. Apparently I was fast asleep and didn't notice a thing. For this offense, the poor soul was sent back to the camp barracks.

The second was Kostya — a handsome young man, modest to the point of shyness — who embroidered napkins and presented them to my mother as a sign of adoration. His entire family — father, mother, and brothers — were executed: the gang robbed cars on Altai roads. As a juvenile (he was not yet sixteen), Kostya was given ten years. His sentence ended in '40, and we parted with him as with a close relative.

And then there was Boris. He was a gang boss, a hood, but had clearly turned bitch for the administration, since a real thief in the law wouldn't stoop so low as to work for a director. He wore silk shirts and enjoyed unquestioned authority among the thieves. When he'd left and our house stood empty, he simply propped a broom up against the door, and no thief dared come near. Such were the life and customs of that region.

In autumn 1941, my mother and stepfather's contractual terms were nearly complete. In order not to interrupt my studies, it was decided that I'd be sent to Moscow toward the start of the school year, along with one of our acquaintance, who was also set to return there.

We arrived in Magadan sometime in the middle of June, and a few days later war broke out. Due to foolish inertia, we decided to continue our journey. But when we arrived in Vladivostok, it turned out that train tickets to Moscow were no longer available. We had no choice but to go back.

I spent several days in Vladivostok while awaiting the returning steamer. By comparison with Hattynakh and Magadan, the city seemed a European capital. I ran from shop to shop, frittering easy money on all sorts of pins, quills, thermometers — from which we extracted mercury — and other trifles we couldn't get our hands on in Kolyma. I returned on the same steamer, the Felix Dzerzhinsky, in a first-class cabin. Once back in Magadan, I found lodging in the barracks of a transit camp and arranged for my return trip with a truck driver. I took great pride in my independence, and was sorely disappointed when I glimpsed my agitated mother, who'd found me after running around the barracks for hours. We returned together — not to Hattynakh, but to a new location.

Yosif Lvovich had by then received a new assignment — directing the Chekai mine site. This site had been established very recently, after the discovery of a rich gold deposit. It was located twenty-five kilometers from the road, so one could only get there in the winter by sleigh — and in the summer, when rain eroded the soil, by tractor or horse. The site was small: around five thousand prisoners and about a hundred civilian employees, including the guards (according to my very rough estimate at the time). And again — hills, towers, barbed wire... I only write of what hasn't irretrievably fallen into nowhere through the leaky sieve of memory, and has instead lodged between the holes — of what now arises in the mind's eye like a vague phantom of things once seen.

Babushkin. He was a huge, radiant, good-humored man, a former pilot. He'd served time for some criminal deed and, upon release, was hired as a camp guard. He'd drink a mug of denatured alcohol in one gulp, take me in his arms, toss me up to the ceiling, and I'd giggle with delight. Many years later, after my mother had died, my son was born, my relations with my stepfather were somewhat restored, he told me about Babushkin: he was a bailiff, that is, an executioner.

Nekrasov. He was head of the camp guards. He'd tell how he and his buddies, stone drunk, would tumble into the barracks at night, lift some convict they didn't like from the plank bed, take him outside, and beat him mercilessly. I heard this story while pretending to be asleep, when a group of my stepfather's co-workers sat around our table, drinking.

One couldn't, of course, expect a school in Chekai. At the start of the school year, I trudged up to the road with Vitaly Kandinsky, the only other boy my age at the site. We then caught a truck to the village of Yagodnoye — the center of the Northwest Industrial Mining Administration.

The boarding school, there, was of the urban type. The students came from all those villages of the Administration's vast territory that lacked schools. The student body was heterogeneous. There were the children of civilian employees — like me and Kandinsky — and of prisoner-criminals, whose families decided to settle near by. These latter determined the general atmosphere that prevailed at the school: life was regimented according to the laws of the criminal camp. Our dormitory, where about twenty boys slept, had its own gang boss — a hefty, overgrown fellow. A group of hangers-on bustled around him, "spinning tales" for his entertainment and providing other services, including of the nighttime sort. The staff were also mainly criminals, who got their jobs after serving their sentences.

The school's teachers were probably of a high caliber — doctoral candidate, PhDs, associate professors who had all been political prisoners. But school didn't interest me, and I was a miserable student. It seems I didn't understand what relation all this book-learning bore to the reality — a reality beyond the pale of true human culture — to which my mother, my stepfather and I all belonged... Why do I need all these arithmetics, grammars, histories? Literatures?

I read little. There were no libraries, no bookstores, and besides, Comrade Gaidar and his Kibalchish had robbed me of any desire to read. At some point I got my hands of Dumas's Three Musketeers and didn't like it one bit. That fraternity of swashbuckling bandits seemed to be governed by a criminal code with which I was long familiar: the same strict moral precepts demanded by gang membership, the same smugly contemptuous attitude towards all outsiders (rubes), the same reverence for bosses (King Louis), and the same disregard for human life — which meant you could stick people on sabers as easily as chickens on a spit.

Someone slipped me a copy of Turgenev — Torrents of Spring, I believe. And once again — utter bewilderment. The nature, the life, the people — all of it was quite unlike what lay before my eyes. But first and foremost, the language: it seemed dry, pretentious, and unnatural. People didn't speak that way. The people around me expressed themselves with obscenities. We children spoke in a half-criminal jargon, and profanity hung in the air. This seemed like normal human speech; without cursing, it would have lost its emotional pungency and eloquence. (Once, already in Moscow, in conversation with some of my classmates, I shot back with a vulgarism; my civilized interlocutors gawked at me in amazement. I blushed and couldn't utter a single unprintable word for a few years thereafter.)

I'm probably modernizing my recollections a good deal, projecting the results of later self-reflection onto the past. But in the cultural vacuum of my consciousness during that period, I could find nothing analogous to the things I'd read — there was nothing for them to latch onto.

My stay at the boarding lasted a little less than a year. During this time, my family's life took another turn.

After one year of operation, the Chekai site, which, as I'd mentioned, was situated atop a rich deposit, came in first in the extraction of gold — either in the Administration, or in the whole of Kolyma. The following year, the gold reserves had been exhausted, and production declined sharply. According to that era's rules, a culprit had to be found: my stepfather was relieved of his duty, and his case was transferred to judicial authorities.

So, in the spring of 1942, my mother and stepfather came to fetch me from Yagodnoye, loaded my meager belongings onto a truck, and we traveled down that same road to Magadan. Along the way, I threw my student's grade book into a roadside ditch. ...


In 1934, Igor Golomstock's father, Naum Yakovlevich Kodzhak, fell victim to the first wave of Stalin's terror. He was arrested "for anti-Soviet propaganda," but his real offense was belonging to a well-to-do Crimean Karaite family. Thereafter, nothing remained in Igor's memory but "fragments, snippets of loved ones' meager stories." Igor's mother no longer felt comfortable in Kalinin, where the family had settled; her former friends and acquaintances now knew her as the wife of an "enemy of the state." Consequently, she and Igor moved from one Moscow suburb to another.

Igor's mother, Mary Samuilovna Golomstock, came from a Siberian Jewish family, and received training as a neuropathologist. After her first husband's arrest, she married another Siberian, Yosif Lvovich Taubkin, who had made a middling career in the Party. The couple's "relations were strained — spats, quarrels, swearing…" After one such quarrel, Mary decided to abandon Moscow. She signed up for a two-year stint as a doctor with the Far North Construction Trust, which administered the notorious Kolyma labour camps. The rationale was simple: "They paid good money there, and one kept one's permit to reside in Moscow. My mother had only the vaguest notion of what Kolyma was." Mary and her ten-year-old son set off for Vladivostok in the summer of 1939. Much to Igor's surprise, they were accompanied by Yosif Lvovich, with whom his mother had reconciled, and who had signed up for a stint himself.


Popular posts from this blog

Solzhenitsyn’s cathedrals

Why Stalin Starved Ukraine

Svetlana Alexievich: ‘After communism we thought everything would be fine. But people don’t understand freedom’