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International Socialist Review, Summer 1963


Trotskyists at Vorkuta

An Eyewitness Report


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.3, Summer 1963, pp.94-97.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


As the 45th anniversary of the October Revolution draws near, the Soviet government has proceeded to “rehabilitate” Bukharin, Radek, Piatakov, etc. To be sure, this is a juridical rehabilitation – but it is certainly not a political rehabilitation. However, juridical rehabilitation is already a dangerous step for the representatives of the Soviet bureaucracy, to which they resign themselves in view of the exigencies of Soviet society today, which sees in the condemnation of Stalin’s methods a guarantee that they will never return:

Double, triple the guard in front of this tomb,
So that Stalin does not arise
and with Stalin, the past.

* * *

We have removed him from the mausoleum
But how shall we remove Stalin
From his heirs?

* * *

While there are so many on this earth
Who are heirs of Stalin,
It will seem to me that Stalin
Is still in the mausoleum.

These lines from Yevtushenko’s poem were published in Pravda on October 21, 1962 with, it would seem, Krushchev’s authorization; the latter resorts to an attack against his former boss every time he find himself in difficulties and wants to arouse the sympathy of the masses.

The recent rehabilitations are all the more dangerous for the bureaucracy, since, unlike the preceding ones – which involved the military men and former Stalinists liquidated after the Seventeenth Congress – they concern, for the first time, the political oppositions in the Bolshevik party: the Right, in the person of Bukharin; and the Left with Piatakov and Radek. And, especially, by dealing a blow to the second and third Moscow trials in which these men were the principal defendants present, it raises the question of the first trial, that of Zinoviev and Kamenev, and still further the question of Number 1 defendant in all three trials – Leon Trotsky.

The Soviet government has proceeded with these rehabilitations in an extremely discreet fashion. The families were notified; foreign correspondents were allowed to cable the news; but in the USSR the news was spread only by word of mouth. This is still far from the monument to the communist victims of Stalin that Krushchev promised to erect after the Twenty-Second Congress. The honor of the October Revolution, the regeneration of communism in the USSR and in the world cannot be achieved through today’s hypocritical proceedings. The whole truth has to be made known and proclaimed aloud.

The fate of the Oppositionists from 1927 on constitutes one of the saddest chapters in the history of the revolutionary movement in the USSR. Before the Second World War, Ciliga’s reports told us something about this. News began to arrive from the time of the liquidation of the forced labor camps in 1956. We publish below an article, signed by M.B., entitled, The Trotskyists at Vorkuta, which appeared in the October-November 1961 issue of the paper of the Russian Mensheviks, The Socialist Messenger.

This report corresponds with information which has reached us from other sources and there can be no doubt about the authenticity of the facts that he brings to light. This report, at the same time both heroic and horrible, is not from a distant period, but a stage in the life of the communist movement and the Soviet Union which has not as yet been left behind and which can not be surmounted until communists all over the world enter upon an examination of this past with courage, without taboos, not only to condemn the crimes of Stalin, but also to root out the social causes which gave rise to these crimes. (Introduction and article translated from the December 1962 issue of Quatrième Internationale.)

* * *

During the middle and at the end of the 1930’s, the Trotskyists formed a quite disparate group at Vorkuta: one part of them kept its old name of “Bolshevik-Leninists.” There were almost 500 at the mine, close to 1,000 at the camp of Oukhto-Petchora, and certainly several thousands altogether around the Petchora district.

The orthodox Trotskyists were determined to remain faithful to the end to their platform and their leaders. In 1927, following the resolutions of the Fifteenth Congress of the party, they were excluded from the Communist Party and, at the same time, arrested. From then on, even though they were in prison, they continued to consider themselves communists; as for Stalin and his supporters, “the apparatus men,” they were characterized as renegades from communism.

Among these “Trotskyists” were also found people who had never formally belonged to the CP and did not join the Left Opposition, but who tied their own fate with it to the very end – even when the struggle of the opposition was most acute.

In addition to these genuine Trotskyists, there were in the camps of Vorkuta and elsewhere more than 100,000 prisoners who, members of the party and the youth, had adhered to the Trotskyist opposition and then at different times and for diverse reasons (of which the principal were, evidently, the repressions, unemployment, persecutions, exclusion from schools and university faculties, etc.) were forced to “recant their errors” and withdraw from the opposition.

The orthodox Trotskyists arrived at the mine during the summer of 1936 and lived in a compact mass in two large barracks. They categorically refused to work in the pits; they worked only on the surface, and for only eight hours, not the 10 or 12 required by the regulations as the other prisoners were forced to do. They did so on their own authority, in an organized manner, openly flouting the camp regulations. In the main they had already served nearly ten years in deportation.

In the beginning, they were sent into political isolators and then afterwards exiled to Solovka; finally, they arrived at Vorkuta. The Trotskyists formed the only group of political prisoners who openly criticized the Stalinist “general line” and offered organized resistance to the jailers.

The Different Groups

Nevertheless, there were significant divergences within this group. Some considered themselves disciples of Timothy Sapronov (ex-secretary of the Supreme Soviet) and insisted on being called “Sapronovists” or “democratic-centralists.” They claimed to be more to the left than the Trotskyists and thought that the Stalinist dictatorship had already reached the stage of bourgeoise degeneration by the end of the 1920’s, and that the rapprochement of Hitler and Stalin was very probable. Nevertheless, in the event of war, the “Sapronovists” declared themselves for the defense of the USSR.

Among the “Trotskyists” were also found partisans of the “Right Wing,” that is to say of Rykov and of Bukharin, as well as followers of Shliapnikov and of his “Workers’ Opposition” platform.

But the great majority of the group was made up of authentic Trotskyists, supporters of L.D. Trotsky. They openly defended the so-called Clemenceau thesis: “the enemy is in our country. It is first necessary to get rid of the reactionary government of Stalin and only after that to organize the defense of the country against the external enemies.”

Note: The author of the article distorts Trotskyist thought on this question. The “Clemenceau thesis” enunciated in 1926-27, when the opposition was still in the Bolshevik Party, meant that they did not renounce the struggle to change the line of the Party and of the State in time of war. In an article dated September 25, 1939, anticipating the war between the USSR against Nazism, Trotsky wrote: “While arms in hand they deal blows to Hitler, the Bolshevik-Leninists will at the same time conduct revolutionary propaganda against Stalin preparing his overthrow at the next and perhaps very near stage.”

In spite of their differences, all of these groups at the mine lived in a friendly enough fashion under one common denominator, “the Trotskyists.” Their leaders were Socrate Guevorkian, Vladimir Ivanov, Melnais, V.V. Kossior and Trotsky’s ex-secretary, Posnansky.

Portrait of Leaders

Guevorkian was a calm man, very balanced, reasonable, full of good sense. He spoke without hurry, weighing his words, without any affectation or theatrical gestures. Up to the time of his arrest, he had worked as an expert for the Russian Association of the Centers of Scientific Research of the Institute of Human Sciences. He was an Armenian, and, at this time, was at least 40. His younger brother was imprisoned with him.

Melnais, a Lett, was a little younger than Guevorkian. After having been a member of the Central Committee of the Young Communists, he studied at the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of the University of Moscow, where, in 1925-27, he headed a very important group (several hundred people) of Opposition students. At University meetings, when Melnais intervened, the Stalinists stirred up a storm of hues and cries, preventing him from speaking. But obstinately, doggedly, Melnais waited; when the howlers were out of breath, exhausted and silent, the chairman of the meeting rang the bell and told him, “Your time is up!”

Melnais replied, “Excuse me, that was your time. You have conducted yourselves like devils and you have screamed; I have been silent. Now, it is my turn to speak.” He then spoke to the audience.

At the end of 1927, Melnais was one of the first members of the Opposition at the University to be arrested. His arrest provoked an explosion of indignation among the students. The revolting details of the arrest were repeated in the corridors and classrooms of the University. Melnais was married and lived in a private apartment. His wife, also a student, was pregnant. During the night, her labor pains started. Having phoned for an ambulance, Melnais nervously paced to and fro in the apartment, waiting for the doctor. Hearing the doorbell ring, he eagerly opened the door and let in three people dressed in civilian clothes. “This way please, my wife is really in pain,” he said, showing the way.

“Just one minute!” one of the men stopped him. “For a moment we are not interested in your wife, but in you,” and he showed him a warrant for his arrest. The doctor and ambulance men arrived very soon; Melnais’ wife was taken to the hospital ... and he to the Lubianka prison.

Melnais had been imprisoned ever since. In political isolators and in exile, he spent a lot of time working on economic problems and soon turned out to be an eminent and talented economist.

Vladimir Ivanov was a hearty man, with the round and full face of a successful merchant, with a big black mustache and intelligent grey eyes. In spite of his 50 years, one sensed in him a strong will and the strength of a bear. An old Bolshevik and member of the Central Committee, Ivanov, until his arrest, directed the Eastern Chinese railroad. He, as well as his wife, had belonged to the “Democratic Centralist” group and were among the supporters of Sopranov. When the Fifteenth Congress decided that belonging to the Opposition and to the Party was incompatible, Ivanov quit the ranks of the Opposition, but this did not save him; he was arrested after the assassination of Kirov.

Camp “Trial”

At the camp, he was in charge of the narrow railroad that linked the mine of Vorkuta to the Oussa River. In 1936, following directives from headquarters, the NKVD of the camp concocted a charge accusing Ivanov of sabotage of this laughing-stock of a railroad, 60 kilometers long. A special jury of the high tribunal of the Autonomous Soviet Republic of Komis came to the camp. In secret session, after having read the indictment, they said to Ivanov: “What can you say to justify yourself?”

“You have your orders,” he replied. “You are assigned to carry out all the necessary formalities and to cowardly enforce them with the death penalty. You are forced to do this. You know as well as I that these accusations are manufactured from whole cloth, and have been prepared by compliant Stalinist police functionaries. So, don’t complicate your job; do your business. As for me, I refuse to participate in your juridicial comedy.” Then he said, pointing a finger at three false witnesses taken from among the common criminals: “Why don’t you ask them? In return for a package of makhorka they will not only tell you that I am a saboteur, but also a parent of the Mikado.”

The tribunal could get no more out of him; they could only interrogate the hand-picked “witnesses.” The examination at the hearing was cut short. On the other hand, the deliberation of the jury lasted a very long time. First a telephone call, then a long wait for the answer, and finally, the sentence was pronounced: “Deserves the highest penalty; but taking into account this ... and that ... sentence is commuted to ten years imprisonment at hard labor.” And with shifting eyes, not daring to look at Ivanov, the members of the jury quickly collected their papers and departed trembling. The false witnesses, approached Ivanov, seeking to justify themselves. “Get out of my way, you dirty swine!” he roared, and returned to his barracks.

Kossior was a middle aged man, very short (almost a dwarf), with a large head. Before his arrest, he occupied a leading post in the management of the petroleum industry. His brother, Stanislas Kossior, then sat on the Politburo, and, at the same time, was secretary of the Central Committee of the Ukranian Communist Party. (He was later liquidated by Stalin. His case was mentioned by Khrushchev in his report to the Twentieth Congress.) In the camp, V.V. Kossior worked in the boiler room, carrying coal in a wheelbarrow to keep the boiler going. Also at the camp were both his wives, the first, a Ukrainian from whom he was divorced, and the second, a Russian whom he had married in exile.

Posnansky, a handsome well-built man about 35 to 38 years old, was deeply interested in music and chess. Trotsky’s second secretary, Grigoriev, was also at Petchora.

Trotskyists Confer

In the autumn of 1936, soon after the frame-up trials against the leaders of the Opposition, Zinoviev, Kamenev and the others, the entire group of “orthodox” Trotskyists at the mine, got together to confer with one another.

Opening the meeting, Guevorkian addressed those present: “Comrades! Before beginning our meeting, I ask you to honor the memory of our comrades, guides and leaders who have died as martyrs at the hands of the Stalinist traitors of the revolution.”

The entire assembly stood up. Then, in a brief and very trenchant speech, Guevorkian explained that it was necessary to examine and resolve the key problem: what should be done and how should they conduct themselves from now on?

“It is now evident that the group of Stalinist adventurers have completed their counter-revolutionary coup d’etat in our country. All the progressive conquests of our revolution are in mortal danger. Not twilight shadows, but those of deep black night envelop our country. No Cavaignac spilled as much working class blood as has Stalin. Physically annihilating all the opposition groups within the party, he aims at total personal dictatorship. The party and the whole people are subjected to surveillance and to summary justice by the police apparatus. The predictions and the direst fears of our opposition are fully confirmed. The nation slides irresistibly into the thermidorian swamp. This is the triumph of the centrist petty-bourgeoise forces, of which Stalin is the interpreter, the spokesman, and the apostle. No compromise is possible with the Stalinist traitors and hangmen of the revolution. Remaining proletarian revolutionaries to the very end, we should not entertain any illusion about the fate awaiting us. But before destroying us, Stalin will try to humiliate us as much as he can. By throwing political prisoners in with common criminals, he strives to scatter us among the criminals and to incite them against us. We are left with only one means of struggle in this unequal battle: the hunger strike. With a group of comrades, we have already drawn up a list of our demands of which many of you are already informed. Therefore, I now propose to you that we discuss them together and make a decision.”

The Demands

The meeting lasted only a short time; the question of the hunger strike and of concrete demands had already been debated for some months by the Trotskyists. Some Trotskyist groups in other camps (Oussa station, Tchibiou, Kotchmess, etc.) had also been discussing the matter and had sent their agreement to support the demands and to participate in the hunger strike. These demands were ratified unanimously by those present. They stipulated:

  1. Abrogation of the illegal decision of the NKVD, concerning the transfer of all Trotskyists from administrative camps to concentration camps. Affairs relating to political opposition to the regime must not be judged by special NKVD tribunals, but in public juridical assemblies.
  2. The work day in the camp must not exceed eight hours.
  3. The food quota of the prisoners should not depend on their norm of output. A cash bonus, not the food ration, should be used as a production incentive.
  4. Separation, at work as well as in the barracks, of political prisoners and common criminals.
  5. The old, the ill and women political prisoners should be moved from the polar camps to camps where the climatic conditions were more favorable.

It was recommended, at the time of the meeting, that the sick, the invalids, the old should not participate in the hunger strike; however, all those in question energetically rejected this proposal.

The meeting did not decide the day on which the hunger strike should begin; a five member directorate, headed by Guevorkian, was delegated to inform the other Trotskyist groups spread over the immense territory containing the camps of Oukhto-Petchora.

Three weeks later, October 27, 1936, the massive hunger strike of the political prisoners began, a strike without precedent and a model under Soviet camp conditions. In the morning, at reveille, in almost every barrack, prisoners announced themselves on strike. The barracks occupied by the Trotskyists participated 100 percent in the movement. Even the orderlies struck. Close to 1,000 prisoners, of whom half worked in the mine, participated in this tragedy, which lasted more than four months.

The first two days, the strikers stayed in their usual places. Then the camp administration busied itself in isolating them from the rest of the prisoners, concerned lest the latter followed their example. In the tundra, 40 kilometers from the mine, on the banks of the Syr-Iaga River, there were primitive half-demolished barracks, which previously had been used during the preliminary boring of the mines. In great haste, these barracks were put into makeshift condition; a call was sent out to the inhabitants of the region, who, with their teams of reindeer, transported the hunger strikers there, where they soon numbered about six hundred. The others were brought together not far from Tchibiou.

After having isolated the strikers, the GPU took measures to prevent the movement from spreading in the country and from becoming known outside the frontiers. The prisoners were deprived of the right of corresponding with their families; the salaried employees of the camp lost their holidays and their right to leave. Attempts were made to incite the other prisoners against the strikers. At the mine there were food reserves beyond what was required to sustain those who worked in the pits; the camp administration contended that it had to use up its large reserves of fat and sugar, intended for the underground workers, for artificial feeding of the Trotskyists.

At the end of the first month of the strike, one of the participants died of exhaustion; two others died during the third month. The same month, two strikers, non-orthodox Trotskyists, voluntarily gave up striking. Finally, just a few days before the end of the strike, still another striker died.

The Strike Is Won

Having begun the end of October 1936, the hunger strike lasted 132 days, ending in March 1937. It culminated with the complete victory of the strikers who received a radiogram from the headquarters of the NKVD, drawn up in these words:

“Inform the hunger strikers held in the Vorkuta mines that all their demands will be satisfied.”

The Trotskyists were then taken back to the mine, received food reserved for the sick and, after a period of time, they went back to work, but only above ground; certain of them worked in the office of the director of the mine, in the capacity of paid workers, bookkeepers, economists, etc. Their work day did not exceed eight hours; their food ration was not based on their production norm.

New Arrivals

But little by little the other prisoners’ interest in the strikers began to diminish. Everyone’s interest was now focused on the new trial at Moscow, which was being broadcast by radio; besides, new prisoners began arriving at the end of June. Their stories described mass arrests, outrages, executions without trial behind the walls of the NKVD, and this all over the country. At the beginning, no one wanted to believe this, particularly since the new arrivals spoke unwillingly and rather enigmatically. But little by little, the bonds between them became tighter and the conversations franker. Without letup, new prisoners arrived from Russia; old friends and acquaintances discovered each other: it no longer was possible not to believe the stories.

In spite of these obvious facts, a certain number of prisoners waited with impatience for the autumn of 1937 and the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution; they hoped, on this occasion as in 1927, that the government would declare a large-scale amnesty, particularly since a little while earlier the very promising “Stalinist Constitution” had been adopted. But the autumn brought bitter disillusions.

Brutal Repressions

The harsh regime of the camps grew abruptly worse. The sergeants and their assistants in maintaining order – common criminals – having received new orders from the camp director, armed themselves with clubs and pitilessly beat the prisoners. The guards, the watchmen close to the barracks, tormented the prisoners. To amuse themselves during the night they fired on those who went to the toilets. Or else, giving the order, on your bellies, they forced the prisoners to stretch out, naked, for hours on the snow. Soon there were massive arrests. Almost every night, GPU agents appeared in the barracks, called out certain names and led away those called.

Certain Trotskyists, including Vladimir Ivanov, Kossior and Trotsky’s son, Serge Sedov, a modest and likeable youth, who had imprudently refused to follow his parents into exile in 1928, were taken in a special convoy to Moscow. We can only believe that Stalin was not satisfied simply to hurl them into the tundra; his sadistic nature thirsted not only for blood; he wished first to immeasurably humiliate them and torture them, coercing them into false self-accusations. Ivanov and Kossior disappeared without trace behind the walls of the Lubianka prison. As for Serge Sedov, after a “treatment” at the Lubianka, he was “tried” at Sverdlovsk, where he had worked as an engineer at the electric station; according to the newspaper stories, “he recalled having devoted himself to acts of sabotage” and other “crimes,” for which he was condemned to be shot.

Note: The author of the article commits an error, because Serge Sedov was never tried publicly, nor did he make such confessions. Our collaborator and friend, Richards (see Quatrième Internationale No.10, July 1960) told about his meeting with Serge Sedov in February 1937 at the Lubianka prison in Moscow, where they tried to force him to testify against his father. His refusal brought his liquidation.)

Toward the end of the autumn, about 1,200 prisoners found themselves in the old brick field; at least half of these were Trotskyists. They were all lodged in four large barracks; their food ration was 400 grams of bread a day and not every day. The barracks were surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Nearly 100 freshly recruited guards, supplied with automatic arms, watched the prisoners day and night.

The prisoners arrested at the mine, at Oussa and in other nearby camps were taken to an old brickyard. Those arrested in more distant camps – at Petchora, Ijme, Kojve, Tchibiou, etc – were kept near Tchibiou.

The whole winter of 1937-38 some prisoners, encamped in barracks at the brickyard, starved and waited for a decision regarding their fate. Finally, in March, three NKVD officers, with Kachketine at their head, arrived by plane at Vorkuta, coming from Moscow. They came to the brickyard to interrogate the prisoners. Thirty to forty were called each day, superficially questioned five to ten minutes each, rudely insulted, forced to listen to vile name-calling and obscenities. Some were greeted with punches in the face; Lt. Kachketine himself several times beat up one of them, the old Bolshevik, Virab Virabov, a former member of the Central Committee of Armenia.

The “Convoys”

At the end of March, a list of 25 was announced, among them Guevorkian, Virabov, Slavine, etc. ... To each was delivered a kilo of bread and orders to prepare himself for a new convoy. After fond farewells to their friends, they left the barracks, and the convoy departed. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, not far away, about half a kilometer, on the steep bank of the little river Verkhniaia Vorkuta (Upper Vorkuta), an abrupt volley resounded, followed by isolated and disorderly shots; then all grew quiet again. Soon, the convoy’s escort passed back near the barracks. And it was clear to all in what sort of convoy the prisoners had been sent.

Two days later, there was a new call, this time of 40 names. Once more there was a ration of bread. Some, out of exhaustion, could no longer move; they were promised a ride in a cart. Holding their breath, the prisoners remaining in the barracks heard the grating of the snow under the feet of the departing convoy. For a long time there was no sound; but all, on the watch, still listened. Nearly an hour passed in this way. Then, again, shots resounded in the tundra; this time, they came from much further away, in the direction of the narrow railway which passed three kilometers from the brickyard. The second “convoy” definitely convinced those remaining behind that they had been irremediably condemned.

The executions in the tundra lasted the whole month of April and part of May. Usually one day out of two, or one day out of three, 30 to 40 prisoners were called. It is characteristic to note that each time, some common criminals, repeaters, were included. In order to terrorize the prisoners, the GPU, from time to time, made publicly known by means of the local radio, the list of those shot. Usually these broadcasts began as follows: “For counter-revolutionary agitation, sabotage, brigandage in the camps, refusal to work, attempts to escape, the following have been shot ...” followed by a list of names of some political prisoners mixed with a group of common criminals.

One time, a group of nearly a hundred, composed mainly of Trotskyists, was led away to be shot. As they marched away, the condemned sang the Internationale, joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp.

Women Not Spared

At the beginning of May, a group of women were shot. Among them were the Ukranian communist, Choumskaia, the wife of I.N. Smirnov, a Bolshevik since 1898 and ex-People’s Commissar; (Olga, the daughter of Smirnov, a young girl, apolitical, passionately fond of music, had been shot a year before in Moscow); the wives of Kossior, of Melnais, etc. ... one of these women had to walk on crutches. At the time of execution of a male prisoner, his imprisoned wife was automatically liable to capital punishment; and when it was a question of well-known members of the Opposition, this applied equally to any of his children over the age of 12.

In May, when hardly a hundred prisoners remained, the executions were interrupted. Two weeks passed quietly; then all the prisoners were led in a convoy to the mine. There it was learned that Yezhov had been dismissed, and that his place had been taken by Beria ...

Among the survivors of the old brickyard, several orthodox Trotskyists found that they had escaped execution. One of these, the engineer R., was very close to Guevorkian and was one of the five leaders who had organized the great hunger strike. At the mine, it was said that R. had saved his life at the cost of treason to his comrades; these suspicions were probably well founded since after the executions, R. enjoyed the confidence of the camp administration and rose to the rank of a director.

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