Recollections of Stalin's Labor Camps

Stjepan Sego

      Stjepan Sego (1913-1990), a Croat from Herzegovina, was captured by the Soviet troops in Hungary in 1948 and was taken to the Soviet Union where he spent eight years in labor camps. Thanks to Khrushchev’s destalinization policy, he was freed in 1956, came to the United States, and lived in Chicago till he died in 1990. We bring here the English translation of a text the late Stipe Sego wrote in Croatian about his experiences in the Soviet prison camps.

     After long investigation, hearings, and torture in Hungarian prisons, I, and the others, was to be sent to Russia.

     We arrived at the Hungarian border. It was wrenching to look out from the train and to see the Hungarians being torn from their homeland, and the same was with Austrians. We departed on the road to the unknown. The train moved below the Carpathian Mountains toward Lvov. We were removed from the train and transferred to a huge camp. I don’t know its capacity, but the number of its internees was nonetheless gross. The usual method of counting by barracks was not employed, but rather, the count was by “corps.” I know of six such corps, but, undoubtedly, there were more.

     We were in Ukraine, which, during the war, was well organized with the aim of establishing a free and independent Ukraine. Their beloved leader was Stepan Bandera. Since the Germans, in their blindness, were opposed to an independent Ukraine, Bandera worked against them. Hitler ordered him captured and placed General Meljnik in his place, thus dividing the Ukrainian forces.

     The “Banderites” were a powerful group and were prepared. They spread their organization deeply throughout eastern Ukraine which was under Soviet control. When the war ended, they continued their battle deep in the woods. Since the terrain was favorable to guerrilla warfare, they were able to maintain themselves for a long time. The Soviets had their hands full well into l948. Real battles took place. The Soviets wanted to exterminate them at all costs. Even the slightest hint that a village had any contact with the “Banderites” was cause for it to be destroyed without mercy.

     Those residents not killed in such raids were summarily sent to Siberia. That rule applied to all including mothers with small children, as well as old men and women. We found such persons in the camp to be under the most extreme conditions.

     So that their deportation might be covered by some element of “law,” it was always listed under some sort of “judgment” which carried a penalty, almost consistently, of some 25 years imprisonment. Those fortunate souls to whom no wrong other than that they were from such Ukrainian villages could be attributed, were sentenced up to 5 years and were retained in those camps. All others were sent on the icy road to Siberia.

     Hunger, terrible hunger, reigned in the camp we were in. All that one possessed was given up for a bit of bread. The vast majority, unfortunately, had nothing to give. That horrid camp was my first encounter with the “Russian [socialist] heaven.”

     We found ourselves in this camp for 14 days before our transport moved forward…. Cold and hungry, packed like sardines, our boxcars rolled on for a full two weeks. Ultimately, they allowed us to exit the cars. Half of us were unable to even stand upright. Those who were able to move were taken to another camp. The barracks were empty. There was but one stove in the very center of the barracks. The barracks were infested with bugs eager to get their share of the newly arrived victims.

     Inta was the name of the place we arrived at. That is the name of the place and the province it is part of. Its geographic area is about that of France. Two additional provinces lie before us and the North Sea, namely, Yarkuta and Varkuta. These lie in the sub-polar region.

     When the weather is clear, one can see the Urals. Tundra surrounds us all about. No inhabitants other than prisoner can be found in the regions mentioned. Only the camp’s personnel are free. They founded little villages for themselves and erected schools for their children.

     All three provinces are situated in a coal-rich basin. The prisoners work the mines. The quality of the coal produced is poor. It is said to be too “young,” and, as declared by the experts, would need at least another million years to “ripen.” Nonetheless, it is mined and shipped across Russia.

     The area is that of the Tundra and has no forests. Dwarfed shrubs only are to be found. The climate is bitter cold and is often as cold as minus 50 C.

     Inasmuch as the region is near the Pole, the days are six months in length and the nights as well. Thunder is not heard, nor is there any rain, except occasionally. The Northern Lights are quite common.

     The camp we are situated in is only temporary. The Province has 13 coal mines and each mine has its own camp, the exception being if two mines are in close proximity. One camp then serves both mines. The food at this camp was a bit better and we seemed to improve our health somewhat.

     The residents of our camp were from all corners of the world — Americans, Japanese, Chinese, and others. They were punished for ostensibly spying. A “fertile” source of prisoners for the Russians was Vienna, and, in a similar fashion, Berlin.

     A common destiny haunts all those in the far North, a destiny none of them even dreamed of. We all underwent a physical exam while interred in the camp. We were divided into three groups. The first was to work under ground. The second worked outside, while the third, including those who are sick, worked as servants to the camp.

     After five weeks, I was sent to a mining camp of some five thousand internees. The very first days were quite difficult since I knew no one.

     The camp was quite extensive and was well fortified. Escape from the camp is impossible, and, ultimately, it would have been futile. It was surrounded by barbed wire four meters wide by three meters high. Watch towers with klieg lights lay behind the fence for the guards. Between the rows of barbed wire trained dogs roamed.

     The mine was about a kilometer distant from the camp. The road leading to the mine was secured in the same manner as the camp. It was, in fact, a corridor through barbed wire.

     I was horrified each morning as I watched the night shift returning. They were as black as the coal they mined. They had no place to wash themselves, the excuse being that the lavatories were not yet completed. Dirty, they consumed their thin soup, and half dead from exhaustion, went to sleep.

     By nationality, one fourth of the prisoners were Russian, one fourth prisoners from western Ukraine, a fourth from the Baltic peoples (Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania), and the final fourth was made of those of us who were from a mixture of peoples outside the borders of the Soviet Union.

     It is said that some 30 to 40 million prisoners were to be found in Soviet camps. Regions under German occupation were especially hit supposedly because they were “collaborators” with the Germans.

     I was told by present inmates of the camp that conditions were notably better than those directly after the war. At that time, prisoners were sent there to build a railroad to be used to transport the coal which was to be mined. Th
ey were simply transported to the site and under armed guard were made to erect the very barbed wire fence meant to keep them in. They lived with the sky as their roof, without barracks or any protection from the elements. It is no surprise that few were able to survive the ordeal. This is why the claim is made that beneath each railroad tie a human skeleton can be found.

     To my good fortune, I discovered a Ukrainian in the camp who had lived in Croatia. He was my helper and my protection in my most difficult moments. May God reward him!

     I was especially pleased that I could finally speak with someone, especially in my own Croatian tongue.

     The prisoners were separated into work brigades. Each brigade had its “strukach” which in Russian meant its “denunciation,” or, as we might say in Croatian, its “cancer.” Even though such a person is never formally known, somehow one always intuited who it was.

     Every prisoner was given a number worn on his back. The numbers were large enough to be easily seen at a distance.

     Should a prisoner utter a word of criticism against the regime, or commit some sort of infraction, the “strukach” would remember his number and the prisoner would be called in the next day for his punishment. The most heavy punishment was the “kaiser.’ That was a room so tiny that a person could not even lie down. The prisoner is left with his own clothes, to the extent he has them, and is made to spend the time in the bitter cold. He is given 300 grams of bread and water each day, and a meal every third day.

     Just as everything in the communist system is done by plan, so too there is a “plan” for everything in the camp. Each mine has its “rules,” that is, how much coal is to be extracted. If it fails to meet its quota, the prisoners are punished, and if the mine exceeds its quota, the managers receive a “premium.”

     A quota of l00% was established. Food was distributed from 5 large cauldrons on the basis of that percentage. If the quota was met, namely, l00%, then we received hot water with a few remnants of beans. If we exceeded our quota, namely 110%, then the second cauldron was used giving us a bit more beans in the hot water. In both cases we ended up hungry. If we aimed for more production, the stomach was somewhat fuller, while at 150%, the prisoners were full. However, to achieve 150% meant to give one’s all, and to work like an ox. One could endure that for a while, but, ultimately, one would succumb.

     The communists would, with sarcasm, quote the Bible and say: “He who does not work, need not eat either.” Further, they would point out that all power descends from God, and hence, so to does that of the communists, and so, the need to obey. They are masters of man’s exploitation.

     Under such a regime of hunger and work, the prisoners had to vie with each other, and hence, our mine carried first prize over the others and was rewarded with a good library. The communists said we had need of good “breeding,” while we simply wished for a generous crust of bread.

     The library was indeed a good one. Along with a good representation of Russian literature, there was a smattering of foreign classics as well. I was amassed at the number of German works: Goethe, Schuller, Heine, and others. I found a copy of our own Gundulic’s “Osman.” We were allowed to borrow the books for a ten day period.

     Newspapers from Moscow, one copy each, were also available. The were placed between panes of glass so that each side could be read. Each barracks had a bulletin board loaded with satirical items, mostly caricatures of foreign leaders. Since Tito was on a wartime footing with Stalin at the time, he was the frequent butt of such satire. One such cartoon showed Tito all bloodied with a hatchet in his hand decapitating someone’s head. The inscription below the cartoon read: “Traitor — Fascist.”

     Loud speakers were placed in our barracks and they ripped our ears apart and destroyed our nerves. It was unbearable to listen to them at the time of Stalin’s illness and death.

     The Russians did not like Stalin, but they had great fear of him. He was the incarnation of cruelty. He was the infinite ruler over millions of his subjects, and he simply removed all who were not to his taste. He liquidated almost all of the October Revolution’s leadership.

     A popular man in Russia at this time is General Zhukov, a wartime hero. Stalin pushed him into the background. He would like to have liquidated him as well, but it would have been inconvenient.

     Camp life in that far northern outpost was horrid. The worst was the fact that the mines were always damp. A man had to work while soaked as though in the rain, and still wet had to return to the camp. Hunger, exhaustion, dampness, and the cold, worse yet, the hopelessness of the situation, a picture of the blackest future, dogged the men and brought them to despair.

     Even though it was difficult to come by Vodka, and even though it was strictly forbidden, somehow and from somewhere, it appeared. It was of the worst sort, the kind that tears the nerves apart, nonetheless, it was consumed for sake of relief and with resignation. It also brought with it evil consequences which often led to fights which sometimes ended in tragedy.

     To my joy, a fellow Croat from one of the other camps arrived. My joy was short-lived. One of the wagons disengaged while at work and he was killed. When I heard of the accident I went to pay my respects to my lost fellow sufferer. It was hard to recognize his mangled body. Thus my dear Murat Lojo, a son of Bosnia, from Kalinovnik, breathe his last in the far northern regions of Russia. He was a lieutenant in the famous “Black Legion” under the legendary Jure Francetic wherein he spent the entire war.

     Through a Ukrainian friend who had good connections in the camp, I was able to improve my situation somewhat. He was helpful to me in many instances. Through his efforts, I was able to attend a course in “geology” conducted by one of the engineers. I was thus able to rid myself of heavy duty. I was given the task of testing the coal. As the coal passes through a grinder, sample particles are taken and are place in a laboratory kiln to determine its caloric value.

     Because the camp had good production in l950, we realized a significant improvement in our meals. Even the communists came to realize that hungry men are not as productive as satiated men.

     The camp acquired brass instruments. There were musicians among us and when the work brigade exceeded l50% production, the band would greet us at the camp entrance and escort us to the kitchen. The kitchen and its cauldrons are the goal of hungry men.

     When it was to their advantage, the communists tried anything. The camp was quite active, in fact, at times we even had a movie.

     There are those in Russia known as “blatni” (“dirty”). The connotation of this is somewhat akin to the American “gangster.” Such individuals appear strange to the normal person. They deserted during the war and yet achieved political status. They refuse to work, yet when they arrive at the mess hall, the cook must give them that which is best, otherwise they will pay the consequences. Politics really does not concern them, rather they simply live to do evil and to steal. Their bodies are tattooed. They always present a threat to peace-abiding men. Communism tolerates them,
I suppose, for their own reasons. The managers of the camp wish to win them over to their side and thus, give them the better jobs, for the other fear them.

     The “blatni” have their own unwritten law, one that is quite strict. Once inducted into their group, one needs to be subject to their wishes. If you cross them, death is as certain as it would be in the American “syndicates.” It is said that they even take an oath of loyalty. Those who escape the clutches of the group end up working for the regime and are called “sukes.” An open battle between the “blatni” and the “sukes” is commonplace. People end up dead.

     The “blatnis” are unforgiving and harsh. A package arrives from home, of course for either a Russian or a Ukrainian containing boots, and immediately one of the “blatni” say, “I lost my boots while playing cards, pull off your boots.” If a person does not wish to bow to the wishes of the “blatni”, he is in trouble, for all the other “blatnis” are behind their fellow “blatni.”

     In the meanwhile, the Ukrainians who fought in the forests with the revolutionary Bandera, and the Russian prisoners were fiercely opposed to the “blatnis.” These Banderites, for whom the communists could not show direct links with Bandera, else they would have been killed, often fought real battles with the “blatnis”, and frequently prevailed.

     I, myself, was witness to the guards removing four “blatnis” from one of the other camps from the showers. In a flash, five men appeared from one of the barracks and shortly, found themselves in a pool of blood. They killed all of them. The Banderites saw in them a group of “blatnis” of a higher caliber who were “owing” to them. The judgment was swift. There was no inquiry.

     I was forced to live under such conditions and to await my fate. My documents, which followed me to the camp, recorded that fate — 25 years!

     (From American Croatian Review, Year V, No. 1-2, 1998, pp. 48-50)