The Soviet Penal Colonies : Comrade Koliada’s letter

Dear comrades!

You would like more detailed information as to what is currently going on in Russia. First of all, let me tell you Russia stands on the brink of a fresh revolution. Day by day the unhappiness and anger of the worker and peasant masses grow. The soviet press would have us believe that it is the masses themselves who are voluntarily doing everything across the country. A bare-faced lie! The famed industrialisation, plus the collectivisation are imposed by dint of the greatest violence. This is a new serfdom in the fullest sense of the term. The people has no freedom. Everything is decided by the communist cells, albeit that the resolutions are supposedly passed in the name of all the workers.

And things are so arranged that in actual fact the masses have no part in this “creativity”. Anyone daring to contradict the opinion of the cell is damned as a counter-revolutionary, arrested and dispatched to the penal colonies or banished. In view of which folk almost always keep mum, knowing well that a mere word might cost them 3 to 5 years’ banishment.

The decision was made at the centre to launch a campaign to spread the obligations of the State Loan around the workers. The requisite pressure was promptly brought to bear through the cell and every worker inveigled into contributing the equivalent of a month’s pay towards those obligations. Occasionally the workers have nevertheless protested: “We’re already starving to death! … We haven’t enough to feed ourselves! …” But the response is always the same: “Those refusing to cough up will be the first ones to be sent packing.” In the face of which threat, they cough up, albeit with gritted teeth. Whereupon the agreed sum is docked from their pay, allegedly in accordance with the determination of the general meeting. As for the latter, any dissenting voice is rendered impossible there too, since it is declared from the outset that only an enemy of soviet power could oppose the loan.

Likewise with collectivisation. With a rather different procedure there. Not “sent packing” but “boycotted”. Anybody speaking out against collectivisation is subject to being boycotted (as a “bourgeois” or as a “kulak”, etc.). He is driven from the village: allowed to settle only on the poorest soil in the area. Denied access to the well. His children driven from the school, etc. In short, the moon is the only refuge left to him. In addition, he is declared to be “without rights” and this is stamped in his documents. Such an outcast can find neither work, nor assistance, not so much as a card from the cooperative affording him access to basic necessities.

The prisons and convict settlements are overflowing with so-called “counter-revolutionaries” (meaning, of course, all who have made a stand in opposition to the bolshevik authorities). Every single political party has been harried into a clandestine existence. None exists within the law. True, certain publishing houses survive, but this is an optical illusion meant primarily for foreign delegations. Thus, the “Golos Truda” publishing house still exists, but all who buy and read its publications (old anarchist texts, in that they are never allowed to publish modern authors) are likely candidates for prison, the imprint’s entire customer base being recorded by the GPU. In short, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, etc.. has been utterly done away with.

Before moving on to describe the Solovki [Solovetsky Islands], let me say a few words about “Proletarian Justice”. There are self-styled “people’s courts”, whose staff are always CP members. They handle exclusively criminal cases and insignificant civil cases. As to “political” offences, they are the sole preserve of the GPU. Notably, there is a “College” (a sort of a central committee) which delivers its verdict by way of a rejoinder to the report from the investigating magistrate and the accused is never even afforded the opportunity to appear before this “court”. As for the investigating magistrate, he inserts in his report only what suits him. Should the accused refuse to sign the interrogation record, that is of no matter. The investigating magistrate is the omnipotent master. Anybody falling into his clutches and accused of having thoughts contrary to the government’s ideas is doomed to long years of imprisonment and hardship. In short, the Bolsheviks are nothing but a new stratum of nobility, a new privileged caste.

Now for a description of the convict settlements and banishment in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

(to be continued) [from La Voix Libertaire, Quatrieme annee, No. 97, Samedi 3 Janvier 1931.]


As you know, I have been through convict settlement and banishment. Instead of “convict settlement”, the bolsheviks prefer to say “camp”, but it is a camp worse than any convict settlement.

The Solovki Special Camp is an extensive fort. Taking in not only the Solovki Islands proper but also the entire Murmansk coastline. The main island, the location of the famous monastery currently used as a convict prison, is referred to by inmates as “Torture Island”. A very apt description.

The Solovki (or Solovetzki) Islands currently house nearly 50,000 prisoners of every description. The main island has: a small machine factory employing about 150 men; a power station giving work to about a hundred; a tannery (around thirty men), a brickyard (around 100) and a peat quarry employing around 200 workers in peak season. In addition there is a shoe factory and a garment shop, with around 300 workers. In winter, all the remaining inmates are used in forestry operations and, in summer, in building roads between the villages along the Murmansk coast. Besides these latter two forms of work, all the other jobs listed are regarded as privileged. Only very highly skilled workers are taken on there, or else beneficiaries of the “old boy network” (thanks to cash or personal connections). Normally, all new arrivals are first deployed on ordinary tasks, except for those who have previously served in soviet the soviet prison services (the militia, GPU, etc.). Thus does the “camp” administration (every man jack of them a former Chekist convicted of thievery) look after “its own”.

The moment a fresh batch of prisoners arrives at the camp and dismounts from the train, and before people can get their bearings, a curt, military-style order instructs them to stack their baggage and form ranks. Whereupon they are ordered: “Right to left, number off!” As a rule, the count misfires: in fact, among the newcomers, there will be many who do not know Russian; others have no notion of what is happening … Whereupon the “manoeuvres” start: “Off you go, you scum! At a run!” And they are kept running until many of them collapse from weariness.

Then comes a further command: “Form ranks!” and, again: “Number off!” And, finally, a welcome to the camp: “Hello, such-and-such company!” To which they are all required to answer, as one man: “Hello!” Which also is botched, of course. So the “at the double” order is issued once more, and once more people are running around and collapsing from exhaustion until the authorities pretend to show mercy and finally order them to line up in order to … start all over again! And so it continues for several hours. And, throughout, ears ring with orders such as “Forget that you are a man!”, “This isn’t a prison, this place, it’s a GPU special camp!” “Here, nothing belongs to you!” “Drop dead!”,“Utter silence!”, “Do as you are ordered, without grumbling!” etc., etc.

Then, unrested, after a long journey (8 days or more) in a goods wagon, with men squeezed together like sardines, 100 to each wagon, they are shuttled off, right there and then, to work a shift of 24 hours or more. Scarcely have they returned from working through the night and helped themselves to a little hot water than again the men hear the command “Up!” and they are off for a further day’s toil. That is the rule in these parts: ship all newcomers off for two days’ work without sleep or rest and keep them on their feet at all times.

The work is very dirty and more than most of them can bear. They must load and unload coal at the docks, haul sacks of flour, etc. No work clothes are issued. The men are forced to work in the clothes in which they arrived and it is not long before their best clothes are in tatters.

They are housed in huts, 700 to 800 men in each. There are two levels of planks around the walls and these serve as bunks where each man enjoys a space at least a half a metre across, so that he can only sleep on his side. The place teems with lice and fleas and bugs, etc. There is little ventilation. Stifling. No water … not just drinking water, but any sort. Normally, they wash in the snow and, for drinking water, they melt the snow in their mess-tins. Hot water is dished out just once every two or three days, for there is no sweet water spring on the island. It is brought in from Kem, 12 kilometers from the Islands. I mean the Kem concentration camp, the first point of arrival for all the inmates. This is the heartland of the soviet convict settlement. The Solovki camp administration - which also engages in forestry and road-building - is based there. From here the vast majority of the inmates are shipped on to various locations in the Murmansk region on all sorts of jobs. And as for the Solovki Islands proper, they now house no more than 4,000 people.

The “drill” I have just been describing, plus the military-style monitoring, are mandatory for all inmates: morning and evening they are “forming ranks”, “numbering off” and “saluting” and so on.

(to be continued) [from La Voix Libertaire, Quatrieme annee, No. 98, Samedi 10 Janvier 1931.]

Solovki (Continued)

As to the forestry work, it is carried out in the following conditions: all work is carried out along the lines of a lesson, which is to say that every inmate is required to meet a given target within a fixed time. A time is short that many fail to meet their target. Now, the authorities pay this no heed: all failing to meet their targets are made to spend the entire night out in the forest and are promptly sent back to their work in the forest. Furthermore, those who fail to meet their targets are very often beaten by the overseers and guards. On occasion, they are beaten to death, as it is not hard to finish off men spent from labours that they have not the strength to carry out and from hunger and who are in addition deliberately kept out in the forest in “cold storage”. We might add that the guards do not let the convicts get near the campfire, even when the temperature falls below zero degrees.

In desperation, several of them nevertheless rush for the fire … only to be felled with rifle butts. Following which they are dragged away under escort and given a further beating until they feign unconsciousness. There have been cases where convicts have hacked off their own fingers with axes in hope of ending this torment. But as a reward for such “exploits”, they are beaten worse and dispatched back to camp, half-dead. One such case was that of our comrade Nikolai Tumanoff. His mind made up to break free of this life, he threw himself into the fire. Only to be hauled out again by the guards, with severe burns.

Where the instructions from the authorities have been breached, there is yet another form of punishment, as follows: the prisoner is stripped down to his underwear and placed in a special cell that has no roof and no matter how cold it may be; and is not allowed out - or rather, carried out - until he has lost consciousness.

As a rule, all manner of tortures are carried out in the camp. For instance, after two holes have been made in the ice that covers the sea in winter-time, men are forced to enter the water by one hole and exit via the other.

Escape from the forest is impossible. On every side, virgin forest and bogland stretch away into infinity. The railroad is a long way off. The guards are posted pretty much everywhere. The local populace often helps the guards to recapture runaways, for every runaway caught brings a 100 kilos of flour reward. All who are recaptured are shot out of hand by the guards themselves. Officially, this is prohibited. But the guards suffer no consequences. Naturally, they claim to have opened fire on a man in the act of trying to escape.

It is the same story during the summer, in the bogs and on road building projects. Only the form of the torture changes: instead of keeping those who have fallen short in the forests overnight, they are stripped and left exposed “to the mosquitoes” for several hours at a stretch, under an injunction not to drive off the insects. That punishment is enforced throughout the camp.

Generally speaking, camp life is a never-ending nightmare. Political prisoners suffer the same conditions. We were forever compelled to defend ourselves by means of hunger strikes. But despite several strikes a year, the regime continually deteriorated.

Normally, every political prisoner arriving at the camp immediately declares himself a “political” and, as a result, refuses to comply with the “drill”. For which he is placed in the ‘hole’ for 14 days. Conditions in the ‘hole’ are extremely severe. The prisoner goes on hunger strike. After he had been twenty days on strike, the administration finally puts in an appearance and “negotiations” begin. Usually, the “striker” demands to be exempted from the control procedures and asks permission to work at his trade according to his choice. If the administration is persuaded that the inmate is determined, it normally undertakes to meet his demands.

(to be continued) [from La Voix Libertaire, Quatrieme annee, No. 99, Samedi 17 Janvier 1931.]

Solovki (continued)

But such promises are merely talk. Some time goes by and a new “onslaught” starts: the convict is urged to stand up for roll-call again and to comply with the drill, etc. The prisoner starts his strike again and so it goes. One of our comrades, a Georgian, Albert Kordao. spent 150 days on hunger strike in a single year! The upshot is that he has been left an invalid for life, moving around on crutches. And he is in the camp for ten years!

Hunger strikes often drag on for 40 days and more. On the 25th day, they begin to enforce artificial feeding via the anus, to which the prisoner’s response is to open his veins or resort to other forms of suicide. None of which has any impact on the administration, though.

During my own time in Solovki between 1925 and 1929, there were 20 to 25 of our comrades there. In addition, there were some Georgian Mensheviks and some Left Social Revolutionaries. Shortly before my departure (late 1928) a convoy of 139 Caucasians arrived. Every one of them was a member of the “Musovatist” youth. They mounted a 43 day hunger strike.

Several of our comrades are currently in banishment. Only about eight are still left in the camp. Our comrades are always scattered around a number of sections. But we remained constantly in touch with one another and all our campaigns were mounted jointly.

The women’s lot in Solovki is no better than ours. They too are forced to toil beyond their capacity, especially those of them who refuse to respond to the sexual overtures of the administration staff. Any woman placed in whatever office who refuses to respond to the overtures of a boss is threatened by the latter with being sent “to the bricks”. Meaning that she will be sent to work in the brickyard. Women also work in the turf-cutting section and pretty much all over. Usually they are posted some place, supposedly on domestic duties, such as laundry, cooking, house-keeping, etc. but in actual fact they are held there primarily for the entertainment of the bosses.

Besides the various sorts of ‘dungeons’, Solovki still has the notorious “Mount Sibernaya”, a small hill, the highest point on the island. Once upon a time there was a two storey church there. Nowadays, that former church has been transformed into a lighthouse - the chief lighthouse serving the White Sea - as well as into a penitentiary (actually a “penitentiary isolator”). That penitentiary is a real human zoo. I do not have the words to depict what goes on there and to convey the lengths to which the macabre fanaticism of our tormentors goes.

Inmates who have infringed camp discipline are tossed in there for a year or more and sometimes even for the remainder of their sentences.

(to be continued) [from La Voix Libertaire, Quatrieme annee, No. 100, Samedi 24 Janvier 1931.]

Solovki (continued)

The regime inside the penitentiary is as follows. The moment they arrive, in the very hallway (leading into the interior of the building), the prisoners are stripped naked. Their underwear and clothing, etc … are taken from them. Each of them is issued with a shirt and a pair of underpants so louse-infested as to resemble an ant-hill. They are then led inside the building, particularly into a room fitted out with long lines of seats separated by very narrow spaces. All are made to sit there, crammed once beside the other, in such a way as their feet do not touch the floor. With a baton in hand, the boss’s deputy parades continuously between the lines of seats, overseeing the “discipline”.

The latter is rather straightforward: the slightest movement or conversation with one another are strictly forbidden. A deadly silence should obtain in the room. Should the boss’s deputy spot anyone’s lips move, he lashes out with his baton and has him [the offender] tossed into a dark dungeon for 14 days. Furthermore, the crushing of lice is strictly forbidden: hands must remain on the knees. This goes on from 6 o’clock in the morning until noon. At noon, each man is issued with a quarter of a litre of the thinnest soup. Scarcely has the soup been drunk than the order goes out: “Sit down!” And the men return to sitting the way they did all that morning and they remain in this position right until the evening roll-call. After the count has been taken, the cots are fetched and every man is issued with his own bedding and the order rings out: “To bed!” Instantly - and always -the men are put to bed with baton strikes they are so packed together that they can only lie down on one side, their knees against their neighbour’s legs. All of which is done, not out of any shortage of room, but quite simply as a method of torture.

So much for the day to day regimen inside the penitentiary.

[from La Voix Libertaire, Quatrieme annee, No. 102, Samedi 7 Fevrier 1931.]


For as long as this punishment lasts, it is forbidden to utter a single word. The boss of his assistant ambles in between the benches, armed with his cane and there is a soldier on guard at the door with a rifle at the ready. Should anyone dare to “disturb the peace”, he is immediately grabbed, forced into a strait-jacket and soundly thrashed. Then, his head is forced between his legs so that he passes out. Then water is poured over him and when he regains consciousness, he is placed in the dark dungeon, there to spend anything between 14 and 30 days. He is forbidden to smoke or to have purchases made for him from the shop. All correspondence with his nearest and dearest is likewise banned.

There are always 250 to 300 men held in such conditions in this “menagerie”. Officially the term used is “socialist correction” … I should add that all of this is carried out by the inmates themselves, the entire staff of the camp being made up of prisoners, to a man. As I have said, all of the bosses are former Chekists serving 10 years in the Solovki for embezzlement of funds or other “exploits” and turned socialist educators here. There is no appeal against their authority in the camp and they capitalise upon this fact to give free rein to their sadistic instincts.

Naturally, the mortality rate in the Solovki is very high. They arrive in batches of hundreds and depart in ones and twos. In 1926-1927, upwards of 4,000 men perished there. In 1928, in Kond-Ostrov (Kond Island), every last one of the 250 men on the island succumbed. Only the guards were left. This had no more impact than some petty family scandal. They went through the motions of mounting an inquiry and it seems the section leader was found to have been at fault and the prison on the island was shut down. However, it is not known how the tale ended.

Things are no better for those of us in banishment. Conditions there too are such as to render life impossible. Exiles are required to report twice weekly for registration. They are forbidden to leave their place of exile, even to look for work. Which is in any case extremely hard to come by. The labour exchanges do not register us. And there is no hiring done outside of the auspices of the labour exchanges.

The official stipend of 6 roubles 25 kopecks a month arrives haphazardly and is in any case woefully inadequate. Lodgings alone costs no less than 8 roubles a month. Not being entitled to a booklet from the cooperative, we are obliged to pay through the nose on the black market for basic necessities. So it’s a case of muddling through … Our only means of survival is occasional and illegal work for private employers; a ditch may need clearing here or some wood chopping there, and so on.

To conclude, a few words on my own behalf. I ran away from my place of banishment in the Urals region. On the border I stumbled upon a unit of red soldiers. They opened fire at me. Luckily this took place in the forest and I managed to get across the border safe and sound. Now I find myself here, in Poland and my circumstances are much like of an exile. For having crossed the border “by irregular means”, I served two months in prison and now I am under police surveillance and forbidden to set foot outside the area. And, for all their promises, they have yet to return my civilian papers.

I shall stop there for the moment. What I have just been saying about the Solovki is a very brief summary. Later, once my strength has been restored somewhat, I shall provide a more detailed description. My warm thanks to you for your fraternal assistance and I shake your hands most cordially.

Yours: Basil

[from La Voix Libertaire, Quatrieme annee, No. 105, Samedi 28 Fevrier 1931.]

From: La Voix Libertaire. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.