Tag Archives: gulag


Now there’s a surprise! Sent to Archangel in 1918, at the end of the First World War and during the Bolshevik Revolution, the troops landed in a foreign country and a civil war that they did not understand. Unable to know who was a baddy they arrested anyone who appeared suspicious and quickly filled the city’s prison. A concentration camp was then set up on the island of Mudyug, 45 miles down river, with the first inmates building their own prison camp. Over a quarter of the 1000 prisoners died from disease, hunger and torture. The camp became known as Death Island by the locals.

mudyug camp

One man who learnt from his time as a prisoner at Mudyug was Mikhail Kedrov, a prominent Bolshevik who was sent to Archangel after the October revolution, and later became a fanatical regional head of the Cheka – the secret police. He went on to set up a number of death camps in the North including a 17th Century convent where over 3,000  people were imprisoned and killed. Many were White Army officers and sailors from the Kronstadt naval fortress near Finland who had rebelled against the Bolsheviks, but others had nothing to do with the military. Some were clergy, some were ordinary people who for some reason had been labelled “counter-revolutionaries”.


With thanks to Lucy Ash and the BBC magazine. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-41271418



Father Placid the Hungarian monk of the gulag

Father Placid

Placid Olofsson, the Benedictine monk who was imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag from 1946 to 1955 has died at the age of 100.

Urszula and Placid were contemporaries, imprisoned at the same time in the same prison system yet thousands of kilometres apart. While reading Father Placid’s obituary I was drawn by the four rules of surviving the Gulag that he and his fellow prisoners devised. These rules or attitudes were all essential to Urszula’s survival.

“Let us not dramatize suffering, because that will only make us weaker.”

“Take notice of life’s small joys.”

“Don’t think that you are different than others, but in certain situations show that this is the case.”

“Hold onto God, because with his help we can survive any earthly hell.”

Father Placid was very humble and described his life thus:-

“I am aware of the fact that I am a simple man of average abilities, I have no special physical or mental skills. But life always demanded more from me than I was capable of; God always stood next to me, and more than once helped me in miraculous ways.”

The world is very short of people like Father Placid. May he rest in peace.

With acknowledgement to Hungary Today.


Dlugi Most, Long Bridge in SiberiaSamples of letters smuggled out of the Soviet labour camps have gone on display in Moscow. Urszula was not so lucky. I am not aware of her sending or receiving a single letter during her 10 year sentence. Even after she was released to the settlement of Long Bridge in the Siberian taiga a parcel sent by her sister was “returned to sender”. That is why we still have the address label pictured here. I am not sure how Urszula’s sister knew her address, but I do know that Urszula’s British friend in Long Bridge, Jane Wilton who had been married to a Russian aristocrat, was visited by her Russian daughter – messages travel in mysterious ways in these circumstances.

Some of the samples displayed at the exhibition are heart renderingly beautiful.

Letter sewed with a fish boneThis piece of cloth sent by Kozlov to his wife and daughters must have taken many days to embroider using a fish bone and thread taken from his socks.

The full article maybe read in The Siberian Times at http://siberiantimes.com/other/others/features/f0020-heartrending-letters-from-within-the-soviet-era-siberian-gulags/


Sir Alex FergusonUrszula could never have guessed as she toiled and froze in the gulags that one day her story would be rubbing shoulders with overpaid ‘fitba’ managers Sir Alex Ferguson, Dennis Bergkamp and Harry Redknapp, plus the actor David Jason OBE and the pop star Morrissey at the top of the Amazon Best Seller list. But then reading on a Kindle would have been as likely as meeting a little green man from Mars in the 1940s!
I am so happy that this memoir is being enjoyed by so many, and that the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Poles deported to Siberia is now better known.


Pussy RiotWhat’s new! Why are they surprised! Was it bravery or stupidity! Back in Februrary 2012 Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and other members of the punk band Pussy Riot sung a dodgy song about Putin in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Hardly a capital offence but the message comes loud and clear – don’t mess with the boss.
When Urszula was imprisoned in the 1940s and 50s millions of innocent citizens were sent to the gulags by Stalin and many died. This is no longer the case, but if you are brave enough to protest against the political establishment they make conditions very unpleasant as Nadezhda has experienced.
• Sewing police uniforms up to 16 hours a day with only 4 hours sleep a night, and one day off every 6 weeks.
• 800 prisoners forced to use a ‘general hygiene room’ designed for 5, and having to unblock the pipes themselves.
• Poor diet of stale and rotten food
• Excessive punishments for complaining or acting out of step such as being kept from the toilet, removal of warm clothes and being kept outside in freezing weather.
• Prisoners beaten up by other prisoners at the behest of the authorities.
On the face of it prison conditions are not as bad as in the heyday of the gulags, but for a number of prisoners the difference is difficult to distinguish.


Cover photoThis recent book by Piotr Eberhardt was first published by The Polish Academy of Sciences in 2010 and then translated to English the next year. It is an in depth review of lately available records by a man who was himself deported, although he doesn’t say whether east or west.

The chapter concerning those deported east from Kresy has a concise overview of categories, destinations and numbers. Due to my family history I notice that those on the Ukrainian Katyn list and murdered at Bykownia are not included with the other Katyn sites. I will try and ask why not.

The numbers deported make sense, but may not please those who hold to the previously higher post war estimates. I am also pleased to discover that the numbers known to have died (at 12% if I understand the figures correctly) are less than I had guessed, although I realize that this is not the total number. He does give 3 examples of horrifically high death rates within this total

  • In February 1940 all the Poles in a train (about 1,050 persons) and some of the Soviet guard froze to death while stuck in snow drifts on the Kotlas-Vorkuta line.
  • Of 10,000 Poles transported to the Kolyma camps only 171 individuals survived.
  • Of 3,000 sent to Chukotka, nobody returned.

With 15 more chapters on migrations including to the German Reich; the Jewish, Ukrainian and Belarusian populations, plus repatriations, there is something for everyone who has an interest in the subject. The book is available free online in English from http://rcin.org.pl/igipz/dlibra/docmetadata?id=15652&from=publication


Polish deportations

from Kresy-Siberia.org

From September 1939 – July 1941 Stalin and his Soviet administration controlled Kresy, the eastern borderlands of Poland. They used this period to deport many families to Siberia and Kazakhstan, with educated and upper class citizens targeted to pre-empt any opposition to their dictatorial rule. The deportations were based on four mass arrests, but the reported numbers arrested have varied widely over the years.

10th February 1940. Osadniks (ex military given land to farm on leaving the army), foresters and their families were sent to gulags and forest camps, mostly in the north of Siberia. This group had the highest death rate due to the unexpected night arrest in the middle of winter.

13th April 1940. Mostly women and children were arrested as “dangerous social elements” and sent to forced labour on the kolkhozy of Kazakhstan. These were mainly the families of the 22,500 men murdered in the Katyn Forest massacre. As Urszula says, ‘It appeared that the Russians had arrested the husbands of nearly all the women in the wagon.’ My father aged 14 was one of these deportees along with his younger sister.

Urszula writes that she was arrested on the 13th Aprilin Rawa Ruska, changed trains in Lwow on the next day, and arrived at Alga 13 days later. Karta lists 49 trains leaving eastern Poland 13-20 April 1940. The one that has the closest match is listed as having left Rawa on the 20th. I cannot explain the discrepancy, but a single train from Rawa to Alga is not possible because of the change of track width in Lwow. This train carried 1333 deportees, slightly above the average number.

June/July 1940. Refugees who had escaped from German occupied western Poland, including many Jews, and were now living in the Kresy.

June 1941. Sent from the Lithuanian SSR to gulags and work camps.

Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum*

Victims of Repression 2009**

10 Feb 1940



13 Apr 1940



Jun/Jul 1940



Jun 1941






It is important to qualify that there is documentation of 320,000 deportees but we don’t know the full number because some archives remain closed and some documents no longer exist.

* Based on figures previously used by the Polish Government

** The publication of Institute of National Remembrance “Poland from 1939 to 1945. The Personal Losses and Victims of Repression under Two Occupations “, edited by Wojciech Materski and Tomasz Szarota, Warsaw, 2009. Based on research of NKVD train records by Dr. Alexander Guryanov and published by Karta. Some observers claim that the NKVD records are incomplete.

These four mass deportations by no means account for all the hundreds of thousands of Poles deported and murdered, the total is probably over a million. The death rates are estimated at 16-50%,  and maybe a quarter escaped from the USSR, mostly with General Anders.