Gulag Uprisings - Norilsk, Vorkuta, Kengir Rebellions in the USSR
Formally established in April of 1930, subsequently dissolved in January of 1960, the Glavnoe Upravleniye Lagerey, the Main Administration of Camps, otherwise known as the Gulag, was in charge of the incarceration of prisoners in the USSR and was notorious for its harsh, often inhumane conditions, and extreme labour in tough climatic conditions. Seemingly synonymous with the Soviet Union in the minds of many, the Gulag system epitomizes the totalitarian nature of the Stalin regime, subjecting millions to repressions, including arrest and even execution on what would amount to dubious charges of anti-Soviet activity, espionage, and sabotage, often without even a semblance of due process. Millions of Soviet citizens passed through the camps and colonies of the Gulag in its almost 30-year history, with most of those people focused on merely trying to survive the conditions. However, over those years, several notable instances of major resistance and rebellion occurred and we are going to look at three of them which occurred in the wake of Stalin’s death. Grab your vatnik and your valenki, we are going to talk about the prisoner uprisings at Vorkuta, Norilsk and Kengir. This is...The Cold War. So, to start with, we are going back to...that’s
right, the end of the Second World War. What a shock to most of you, I’m sure. The victory of the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War, as we’ve mentioned in other episodes, brought about hopes for many people of the Soviet Union that the blood and sweat expended would be enough to prove their loyalty to Stalin and the regime. These hopes however, were in vain. Repressions continued and targeted a variety of different groups including not
only doctors and the intelligentsia but also former Soviet prisoners of war who had been released from captivity and were being repatriated, only to find themselves under criminal suspicion, with many ending up in the Gulag system. This continued apace until 1953 at which point Stalin, well...died. Those hopes from 1945 were revived as the architect of repression was no longer among the living. In the Gulags, prisoners hoped that the regime might begin to reform with milder conditions and even amnesties for those deemed wrongfully imprisoned or those arrested under politically motivated charges. In fact, rumours circulated about
amnesties, with an official announcement coming only weeks after the Moustaches death. Joy turned sour for many however, when it became clear that the amnesty would only apply to those imprisoned for non-political crimes or those with short-term sentences. Their hopes for freedom dashed, many began to plan more drastic action to, if not solve their problems, at least improve their conditions. We are going to talk about three different rebellions but what we should note here is that they all had common core features. They
all took place after Stalin’s death but before Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956. All three were politically motivated. And they were all driven by desperation after the hoped-for amnesties fell well-short of expectations. We’ll start in July of 1953 in the Vorkuta Rechlag Camp, or Vorkuta River Camp. For those who don’t know, Vorkuta is located in the Komi Republic, just above the Arctic Circle and 1,880km North-East of Moscow. The camp focused its labour on coal mining and forestry and by July of 1953, it had approximately 56,000 inmates, most of whom were serving sentences for political crimes. As such, the amnesty that had been offered didn’t apply
to the vast majority of them. When Lavrenty Beria was arrested on June 26 1953, prisoners gained hope yet again that reforms would come now that the head-gaoler had been removed. When this hope was also dashed, resentment really set in. So, by July of 1953 there are
tens of thousands of upset and despondent prisoners who are beginning to feel that they have nothing to lose. Add one more piece however. There was a significant influx of Ukrainian nationalist prisoners. Denied their homeland and imprisoned for their beliefs, they would be a major catalyst in the uprising that was to occur. Now, we should also talk about the prisoners themselves, just to be clear on who they were and WHY they were in Vorkuta. As already noted, the vast majority of the prisoners who would participate in the uprising had been sentenced for political crimes, largely under the notorious Article 58 of the Soviet Penal Code. And keep in mind, these weren’t just people arrested during the Purges of the 1930’s. They included both nationalist groups, like the already
mentioned Ukrainians or Baltic nationalists who may have collaborated during the German occupation. It also included large numbers of Red Army POWs who had been captured by Axis forces during the war. Vorkuta, due to its isolated location was deemed an ideal place to hold these “untrustworthy” elements, and with many of the zeks - prisoners, holding sentences of at least 10-15 years, many saw death as their only way out of the Gulag. They literally had nothing to lose by revolting. June 30th saw the first signs of what was
to come. Leaflets began to appear and spread calling for a halt to coal production and also demanding freedom for inmates. This was coupled with graffiti around the camps calling for an amnesty. Tensions began to increase, but not only between the prisoners and the guards but among the prisoners as well. On July 17, it all kicked off when a group of inmates beat up another inmate who was calling for a halt to “work sabotage” and for everyone to get back to work. Two days later on the 19th, 350 inmates outright refused to go out to work and demanded a meeting with the prison administration as well as the public prosecutor. When the meeting was actually agreed to, the inmates then refused
to go through with the meeting as they knew that those people were not in any position of sufficient authority to solve any of the inmates’ real issues and instead, they demanded a meeting with both central government and Communist Party officials. The inmates by this time had formed an Action Committee, which had drafted a list of demands. They wanted 1) A review of all inmate cases by a commission from Moscow, 2) Permission for correspondence with family, 3) the removal of bars from the barracks windows as well as the removal of communal toilets in the barracks and cells, 4) The removal of numbers and letters from the inmates’ prison uniforms, 5) restraint to be shown by the prison guards, and 6) better food and nutrition for the inmates. From those six demands, you can see that five of them are regarding living conditions and lifestyle however, we cannot overstate enough that the first demand was by far the most important. This is why the inmates rejected the initial meeting; while the living conditions could have been handled by the local camp administrators, full case reviews for all inmates required much greater authority. The
members of the Action Committee of the Vorkuta uprising were politically knowledgeable and understood that only the Central Government and central Party leadership would be in a position to agree to that particular demand. By July 23rd, the number of inmates effectively on strike had risen to over 3,000. As the number of zeks participating increased, separate leadership groups emerged, each representing the different camp populations. Due to the efforts of an informant still working with the camp administration, the presence of the three main headquarters were known and identified. The three largest groups represented members of the OUN or the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, the AK which was the Polish Home Army, and a loose grouping of Baltic and anti-Soviet inmates. On the 24th, the Soviet Ministry of the Interior ordered the camp administration that it was prepared to implement changes, including the introduction of a 9-hour work day, the removal of numbers from uniforms, permission for family correspondence and meetings, permission to transfer money earned to family members, and even wage increases for camp labour. So, do
you think this was the end of the uprising? Nope. Instead of halting the uprising it only added gasoline to the fire. The day after the Ministry announcement, the number of participating zeks had surged to over 9,000 people. On the 26th, the first deaths of the uprising occurred. Inmates made the decision to release 77 men who had been sent to a maximum-security penal cell for their active participation in the uprising. 2 inmates were killed by prison guards during their attempt to break the men out. These deaths however did not
deter the protestors and following the concessions the government had already agreed to, morale soared. It was widely felt that the protests were working because the inmates were fighting back and their main goals were attainable if they continued to hold out. On the 29th as the number of protestors in the camp exceeded 15,000, a commission from the Ministry of Internal Affairs arrived, led by Deputy Minister General Maslennikov. Meetings were held that day and the next between the Commission and representatives from the various prison units. The main point of discussion was the need for a decision surrounding the review of cases, although demands for the release of all prisoners from the Rechlag were also made. The authorities, seeing the demands continuing to escalate, began to make plans to deal with the protests and work stoppages in a way other than negotiation.
On the morning of the 31st of July, the Soviet authorities demanded that the inmates get back to work and included a warning that weapons would be used if any attacks were carried out against the prisoner convoys still going out to the work sites. At the same time, unarmed camp guards, supported by armed soldiers, entered the various prisoner compounds and began making arrests. Activists and organizers were targeted and resistance began to collapse as many inmates decided to return to work duties. In fact, in the face of armed soldiers, some inmates captured and handcuffed other inmates themselves, fearful of what they knew would be coming. On August 1, the last of the resistance was forcibly put down, with firearms being used against the most stubborn of the protestors. In total 53 inmates were killed while a further 153 sustained injuries. Of the arrested inmates,
they were sent into maximum security cells, but overall suffered no further punitive consequences for their actions. While conditions in the camps eased somewhat, the uprising brought about no major changes before the overall emptying of the camp as the Gulag system was closed. Comparable to the uprising in Vorkuta was a camp uprising that took place around the same time in the Gorlag camps of the Norlilag system in Norilsk. The Gorlag, or Mountain Camps, were specialized for Political Prisoners
and focused their labour on the extensive nickel mines that were being exploited. Norilsk, for those who may be interested, is located well above the Arctic Circle, in Krasnoyarsk Krai, 2,878 kilometers northeast of Moscow. The Norilsk camps were larger than those in Vorkuta, with some estimates reflecting over 100,000 inmates in total and between 30 and 40 thousand of them in the Gorlag. In total Norilag consisted of 35 camp units, with 14 correction and labour units, with an additional 5 units coming from the Gorlag. Similar to the camp in Vorkuta, the inmate population was composed of a variety of different groups, some of whom had been on opposite sides during the war years. There were former Red Army POWs, both soldiers and officers, partisans, inmates from the German concentration camps, collaborators with the Germans, traitors to the motherland, and even members of groups who had sided with neither the Soviets or the Nazis. Regarding the Norilsk Uprising
however, researchers single out the transfer of approximately 1,200 prisoners from the Steplag and Peschanlag camp systems in Kazakhstan as a major factor in the uprising that was to come. These prisoners were being transferred into Norilag as punishment for disobedience. Instead of being cowed into submission in the harsh conditions of northern Siberia however, as was expected, they brought with them their enthusiasm for rebellion and would play a crucial role as members of the strike committees, as authors of lists of demands and as negotiators. Now, for the uprising itself. Putting dates on it is a bit more complicated than in Vorkuta
because of different starting points in different parts of the camp. In general, the 25th and 26th of May 1953 are recognized as the key dates when the formation of inmate committees occurred, however, in some units these didn’t form until as late as the 4th or even the 8th of June. The reasons for forming the committees in Norilsk were similar to those in Vorkuta; dashed hopes for an amnesty that wasn’t going to appear and a population that saw no way out of their situation, save death.
The demands made by the workers committees were also similar to Vorkuta. There were the ones regarding living conditions: reduction of working hours from 10 to 12 hours to 7 to 8 hours, payment for labour, adequate healthcare services, and some provision for cultural and educational life in the camps. But more importantly, were the political demands. The zek committees called for a review of every prisoner's case, for the punishment of MVD and MGB employees who had carried out illegal activities against the prisoners, the removal of numbers from uniforms, and the removal of bars and locks from the windows and doors of camp buildings. All pretty familiar from Vorkuta. However, Norilsk also called for the release of women, the sick and the elderly as well as foreigners, for the prohibition of inhumane punishments, and for guarantees of security for the inmate delegates negotiating with the authorities. In addition, they also called for the rehabilitation of war veterans, the ending of excessively long prison terms, the release of those imprisoned based on their family background, including nobles and kulaks, and for the release of those who had been imprisoned not for their actual actions but for their alleged intentions. Now, keep in mind, these demands were not uniform from
camp to camp and committee to committee, showing that the uprising really was a spontaneous event and not preplanned. Like in Vorkuta, the inmate committees demanded to negotiate not with the camp administration but rather central government officials and representatives of the Party. The decision was made to refuse to work until the arrival of a commission from Moscow. So, we’ve already mentioned that each camp at Norilsk operated separately from the others. What this meant as the inmates went on strike is that each camp not only had their own leadership committee but also their own administration to ensure that daily life in the camp would continue. This included looking after services like bath and laundry, healthcare, culture and education including libraries, as well as for distributing information and propaganda. These camp services even went so far as to
organize sporting events, live theater and concerts for the inmates. Now, regarding propaganda, it is also worth mentioning quickly how the demands and slogans issued by the inmates changed through the uprising. At first, these messages tended to be quite anti-Soviet and anti-state. “No More Prisons and Camps” and “Return us to our Families” for example. These were often accompanied with the hanging of black flags, meant to mourn fallen comrades as well as an act of general disobedience. As the uprising continued however, messaging became more pro-Soviet. Black flags changed into
Red flags and slogans became “Long Live the Communist party” or “Long Live Peace and Brotherhood of Nations”. This would indicate that prisoners wanted to demonstrate that they sought justice under the Soviet system and weren’t themselves anti-Soviet. Or they were simply hedging their bets in the hope of leniency in the event the authorities moved against them. The uprising in Norilsk, at its peak, included the participation of up to 16,000 inmates. After two months of protests and strike action,
the authorities were fed up and decided to take action. During a meeting between the authorities and the strike representatives, concessions were made that in exchange for allowing prison guards back into the camp grounds, that a review of cases would be conducted. However, to quote Maury Povich, that “Was determined to be a lie”. Instead the guards and other security agents almost immediately began to use violence to suppress the inmates.
By August 4, all resistance in all Gorlag camps had been put down. In all over 100 people died during the Norilsk uprising, the longest such uprising in the Gulag’s history. The last of three uprisings we are going to talk about today takes us away from the Arctic Circle and brings us instead to the open steppe of the Kazakh SSR and the village of Kengir.
The Kengir Uprising shares many similarities with both Vorkuta and Norilsk, including the core reasons for the uprising but does differ in two major regards. When it happened and the levels of violence involved. So, let's start by talking about the camp itself. Special Camp Number 4 was established at the village of Kengir in 1948, designed
specifically for the incarceration of political prisoners. The prisoners in the Stepnoy Lager, or Steppe Camp, was primarily used for both construction projects and for ore extraction, but due to the harsh conditions, discipline was high and production was low. After Stalin’s death, discontent spiralled as it became obvious that the hoped-for amnesty was not going to materialize. This affected production even more, to the point that by the end of May,
1954 the construction plan was more than 40% off-target while ore extraction targets were 400,000 tons lower than the quota. Even before any kind of uprising, tensions and violence in the camp were high. The discontent of the inmates was met by suppression from the camp guards leading to a vicious circle. During the winter months of 1953 there were three separate reports of inmates being shot by prison guards. In an attempt to control
the political prisoners, the administration decided to transfer criminal prisoners into the same camps. The idea was that the criminal inmates would be tougher and therefore bully, intimidate and force the political inmates to submit to their will. The authorities intended to control the political prisoners through the criminal ones, using them as informants and even tools of suppression. To this end, on April 22 1954, 494 prisoners who had been sentenced for non-political crimes were transferred from camps in Novosibirsk and Kolyma into the Steplag. As you can guess, the plan backfired. At that particular point in time, almost half
of the camp inmates were Ukrainians, arrested for anti-Soviet activities. The other half of the camp population was made up of Lithuanians, Belorussians, Poles and even Russians. By ethnicity, Russian’s only made up the 3rd largest group in Kengir. As the Ukrainian population was so predominant, there was a core leadership formed around this ethnic group, which was able to include a variety of members from across various political groups; ethnicity was the trump card. Of the Ukrainians in the camp, most were from Western Ukraine,
speaking Ukrainian but since most of the Russian speakers in the camp could understand it, it became the lingua franca in the prison. This is actually demonstrated by the Central Asians in the camp, as well as the foreigners including a Spaniard and an American, learning Ukrainian in order to communicate. So, all this to say that the political prisoners in Kengir were well organized, united, and were on the lookout for camp informants and collaborators.
The criminal transfers into the camp quickly sized this up and decided that instead of working with the camp authorities, they would side with the politicals. The Kengir Uprising began on May 15, 1954, the result of actions taken by the criminal inmates. They had broken out from their camp unit into a storage area. When they were caught, the guards began shooting. This resulted in the immediate deaths of 13 people with a further 33 injured, of which 5 later died. In response to the shootings, the inmates began to arm themselves with whatever they had at hand, including a variety of handmade weapons. The
guards responded by leveling their machine guns towards the inmates. However, despite having the more powerful hand, the administration made the decision to withdraw the guards from the compounds. When they returned several days later in order to repair damage that happened during the shooting incident, the inmates refused to allow them entry, leaving the camps fully under the control of the inmates. The participants in the uprising, as we saw in Vorkuta and Norilsk, elected a leadership committee in order to help maintain structure and order inside the camps. Now, despite the heavy predominance of Ukrainians on the committee, an ethnic Russian name Kuznetsov was elected as the overall leader. He was a former Red
Army officer but his Russian ethnicity helped to prevent the uprising from looking like a pro-Ukrainian, or anti-Russian, rebellion. Like in Norilsk, the leadership committee formed subcommittees to help look after camp services, including security, communication, religious services, health, engineering and maintenance and even outwardly-facing propaganda. This last part consisted of balloons carrying leaflets being floated outside of the camp, calling for the end of Beria-imposed lawlessness and for a commission to come from Moscow to negotiate with the inmates. Negotiations between the authorities and the
inmates were an ongoing process and Moscow was represented by Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Sergei Yegorov. Moscow’s tactic through these negotiations was to appease the inmates, promising to accept their demands, while at the same time sowing dissent among the inmates. However, despite the inmate demands, the government refused to put their promises in writing. As the uprising continued, morale among the inmates dropped, many losing hope that they would achieve any positive outcome. Many of the loyal communist inmates began to abandon their support for the uprising, understanding the likely outcome of continuing to defy the authorities. On the 25th of June, a loudspeaker
announcement was made to the inmates that a meeting with the Central Committee of the communist Party was to be held. This, however, was a lie and only being used to lull the inmates into a false sense of security. June 26, the 40th day of the uprising, saw an assault on the camp by the authorities which included the deployment of 5 tanks. There was only one way this would end. Official reports of casualties indicated the death
of 46 inmates although witness accounts after the suppression pointed to hundreds of dead. The seven most prominent leaders of the uprising were captured and each received death sentences for their role in the strikes. So that is the story of Norilsk, Kengir and Vorkuta, three Gulag uprisings. All three were similar to each other, with similar reasons
for happening and with similar goals. All three ended the same way, being violently crushed by the authorities. Stalin may have been dead but the authoritarian nature of the system could not allow for such a large-scale rebellion, especially by those still considered “enemies of the state”. Of course, as fate would have it, within a few years, government processes were initiated that resulted in the prisoner’s demands being fulfilled anyway and the vast and brutal Gulag system being closed. But, that could not be seen in 1953 and 1954 and a lack of options or hope drove people to desperate action. People with nothing to lose are far more likely to risk it all for a chance to reach their goals.
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