“Lasciate ogni speranza”
—Inferno, by Dante Alighieri
The history of gold mining in Russia—a record of the greatest abuses of human rights ever perpetrated—has seldom been told. The use of slave labor in state-owned Russian mines goes back to the 19th century, when Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukrainian patriots who rebelled against Russian occupation were put to work mining gold while chained to their wheelbarrows. But it was not until after the Socialist Revolution of 1917 and the discovery in 1928 of the gold fields of Kolyma in the Arctic region of northeastern Siberia that Soviet authorities made gold mining the purpose of the most horrible system of death camps in all human history. Between 1931 and 1957 five to seven million captive non-Russian peoples perished working in the Kolyma gold mines of the Dal’stroi (Far East Construction). “Kolyma znachit smert'” (“Kolyma means death”)—such was the sinister reputation among Russian held colonies of Latvia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Moldavia, Kazakhstan, and others. Though Western governments and the news media knew during the mid-1940’s the horrors of Kolyma, they suppressed the reports and misinformed the public—as they continue to do. Meanwhile, scores of American business organizations as well as individual professionals eagerly collaborated with the Soviet authorities with the Dal’stroi in operating the mines.
But the communist practice of turning gold mines into cemeteries reversed an old Russian precedent. For it was grave robbers who first discovered the precious metal at the beginning of the 18th century in artifacts taken from the burial mounds of some unknown earlier inhabitants of the Ural Mountains. When Czar Peter I (1672-1725) heard about it, he issued a ukase forbidding—under penalty of death—further depredations on the graves. Whereupon, he promptly sent his own men to carry on this work.
Czar Peter I did, however, encourage prospecting for minerals, especially for gold and silver. In 1719 he decreed “the gomaia svoboda,” a law granting prospectors the right to search for, mine, and smelt metal ores on any land, regardless of ownership. This right remained till 1782, when it was severely restricted by Catherine II. Concentrating in the Central Urals, gold mining continued to develop during the 1700’s and early 1500’s. By 1800 some 50 hard-rock gold mines were active in the Berezov district alone. But it was only after Lev I. Brusnitsin, a miner in the Berezov district, demonstrated the profitability of placer mining that the industry found its real strength.
The search for new placer deposits soon took prospectors east into Siberia. This upsurge in prospecting and mining was encouraged by brief restoration in 1812 of miners’ right of eminent domain. Gold production increased dramatically. Between 1754 and 1813, Russia produced only a total of eight tons, but between 1814 and 1861, 620 tons were produced. By 1897 the czarist government finally had enough gold to place the Russian ruble on the gold standard. Among approximately 40 companies that worked the Lena Basin, the largest was the British-owned Lena Gold Fields Ltd. lt was chiefly this company that intro duced mechanical methods of placer mining into Russia. By 1913 Lena Gold Fields operated 47 mines in this region, producing some 12 tons of gold annually.
During the Russian Revolution, the Socialists purpose fully resorted to hyperinflation in order to debase· the Russian ruble. Mikhail Bukharin explained the strategy: “The Socialist government must use the money printing presses as machine guns to attack the bourgeois system from the rear.” Gold was denied any monetary role, while Lenin predicted that after the Socialist victory gold bricks would be used as tiles for the lavatories of the victorious proletariat. However, as soon as the Socialist regime consolidated its power, the restoration of a sound ruble became the first order of the day. Under the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1922, Russian currency was placed again on a partial gold standard. Each ruble in circulation was to be backed up to 25 percent by gold or by gold-convertible hard currency.
In 1921, the Russian Socialist government ordered speedy resumption of gold and platinum mining. Large geological exploration parties were organized and instructed first to reexamine older gold mining districts and then to carry out expeditions to entirely new regions, especially in Siberia. In 1926, Communist authorities presided over the first convention of the Russian gold mining industry.
But in order to enlist the help of the Western countries in this gold-mining effort, Lenin tried for the first time “the detente.” (This strategem—it goes without saying—has often been successfully repeated.) Behind Lenin’s dealings with the West was always his conviction that “when the time comes for us to hang the remaining few capitalists, they themselves will compete with one another to sell us the rope on credit.” Lena Gold Fields Ltd. did not disappoint him. When they were approached in the early 1920’s about again reactivating their placer mines at Bodaibo, the company brought in from the West essential new equipment, including a large modern Bucyrus dredge; and went to work. No sooner were the mines restored to full operation than were the British forced out of Russia, their mines and equipment all seized with little compensation.
The discovery of gold placer deposits in 1928 was opportune for the Soviet leaders. After the Revolution of 1917, they had decided—as a preventive and terror inspiring measure—to decimate the different non-Russian captive nationality groups in the Ukraine and in Transcaucasia and Central Asia: mining of gold in the Arctic North could well serve this purpose. As a method of extermination the Dal’stroi operation proved much more profitable than the gas chambers used later by the German Socialists. Though the average prisoner died within two years of his arrival at the Kolyma mines, he could still produce between 1. 5 and 2 kilograms of gold for the Russian treasury. At one time, Karl Marx had defined capital as “congealed labor of the exploited proletarian workers.” In Kolyma the Socialists gave the metaphor a bitterly ironic reality. The vis vitae drained from each deported Ukrainian worker, Kazakh peasant or slave from some other nationality group congealed at the mine into the purest form of capital—gold.
In preparation for this “great Kolyma gold rush,” the Russians completely reorganized the government agency in charge of gold mining, the Soyuz-Zoloto or State Gold Monopoly. In I927 Professor Aleksandr Serebrovskii, origi nally from the Moscow Academy of Mining, was appointed as the agency’s new director. The former Bolshevik boss of the Russian petroleum industry, Serebrovskii was a true Socialist Stakhanovite. He organized the training of thou sands. of Russian technicians to direct the slave labor at-the mines. With the help of the executives of the Standard Oil Company and of the American Ambassador in Paris, Serebrovskii was also able lo come to the U.S. to look at the modem placer mining technology and to recruit for the Soyuz-Zoloton a number of American placer mining engineers from Alaska and California.
Once prisoners for the Soyuz-Zoloto placer mines were assigned by the Soviet Chief Labor Camp Administration, or GULAG, Serebrovskii was able to disband all private prospecting parties (the “artels”) and replace them entirely with slave labor. By 1933 the Soyuz-Zoloto had rehabilitated hundreds of old mines and had brought dozens of new ones in production. Between 1927 and 1933, Russia’s gold output rose spectacularly. It surpassed that of the U.S. and Canada; only South Africa kept producing more gold. In 1935, Russian gold output reached 6. 2 million troy ounces. In 1940, gold production of Kolyma alone was probably close to 10 million troy ounces.
Simultaneous with the launching of the new “great Siberian gold rush of 1929” was a massive government effort to confiscate all private gold. About one half million people were arrested by the Russian Socialist terror police, the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB), on suspicion of gold ownership. Jewelers, watchmakers, and dentists especially suffered. Those who actually did not have any gold fared the worst. Unable to give up what they did not have, they were tortured to death by incredulous NKVD interrogators.
After 1931 the government greatly intensified its program of exterminating the non-Russian captive peoples in the death camps. It was for that purpose that Dal’stroi was established in Kolyma, administered jointly by the Soyuz Zoloto, the NKVD, and the Red Army. From 1938 on, this organization was also responsible for geological exploration throughout all of northeast Siberia. Before it was disbanded in 1957, the Dal’stroi brought to Kolyma, Northern Yakutia, and Chukotka a total of five to seven million slaves.Virtually all of them died there in gold and tin mines.
The policy of extermination was applied relentlessly during the 1939-1945 joint Russian-German war of aggression against Poland. Altogether, some two million Poles were deported or imprisoned in Russia. In the fall of 1941, following Hitler’s breach of the Russian-German Military Alliance Against Poland, the Russians promised the Allies that they would free all of the Poles. The Polish Free Government, then in London, started to organize a Polish Army made up of these ex-prisoners. But of the two million deportees, only about 160,000 reported at the Polish military camps. Of the 10,000-12,000 soldiers sent in 1940 to the death camps of Kolyma, only 171 came back, and of the 3,000 sent to Chukotka not a single Polish POW returned. “Kolyma znachit smert”‘ indeed.
But the Poles were not the only victims. From European Russia, many captive peoples—Ukrainian, Crimean, Moldavian—were transported in box cars via the Trans-Siberian railway, either to the port of Nakhodka on the Sea of Okhotsk or to Vladivostok, and from there, during the summer months, by prison boats to the port of Magadan. Normally 3,000-4,000 prisoners were packed on boats originally built for a few hundred passengers. The first death camp of Kolyma was set up in the Nagaev Bay to help construct the port city of Magadan. After 1931, title number of prisoners brought each year to Kolyma varied from 300,000 to 400,000. Prisoners lived in makeshift barracks at the individual “priiski,” the State Placer Mines. In Kolyma the customary barbed-wire camp enclosures and watchtowers were usually not necessary. From this remote taiga at the Arctic Circle there was no escape. Trained wolfhounds tracked down the prisoners who did attempt escape.
To reach the gold and tin mines, prisoners were driven on foot in the winter over the ice-packed roads from the Arctic ports in Kolyma and Chukotka. Practically all mining was done by hand. A former official of Dal’stroi, V. A. Berzin, has described the conditions: “Pick, shovel, and the wheel barrow were the only tools the laborers of Dal’ stroi had to work with, and they worked year round, even in the winter at temperatures of 60 C below zero.” S. V. Levikov reports that “the placer mines looked like gigantic anthills swarming with hundreds even thousands of people digging, loading, and carting away the overburden.” During the summer washing season, each prisoner had to load and carry in the wheelbarrow 9. 3 cubic meters of gravel per day from the pit to the heap up to 100 meters away. Piles of gravel were then washed by other teams of prisoners. The production norm for the teams working on the washing installation was fixed at 200 grams of fine gold per man per day. During the long Arctic nights, the prisoners had to blast frozen gravel before they could load it on the wheel barrow. In the washing season, from mid-May to mid-August, the daily norm was 120 full wheelbarrows.
The prisoners, hungry and cold, dressed in rags with shoes improvised from shreds of gunnysacks or pieces of old rubber tires, worked 16 hours a day even during the long winter nights. For their exertions, prisoners received 600- 800 grams of bread, hot water in the morning, and a watery soup at night. That was all! The so-called “dokhodiagi,” the dying,.who were too weak to meet the daily work norm, had their bread rations reduced. Lenin had decreed it: “Kto ne rabotaet, tot ne kushaet” (“No work, no food”). As a result, most prisoners died right at the mine and were buried in the gravel. The bodies of these victims—usually perfectly preserved in the permafrost—are now being caught daily on dragline buckets and bulldozer blades, interfering with the present mechanical reworking of these “technogenic” placers of Kolyma.
During the Dal’ stroi period, northeast Siberia became the “monetnyi dvor,” the mint, of Socialist Russia. Accord ing to one source, between 1937 and 1946, the Dal’stroi prisoners produced 250 tons of gold annually. Peak produc tion of 300 tons came in 1940. By 1948, northeast Siberia accounted for 85 percent of Russia’s total gold production.
But following the exhaustion of rich surface placers, the prisoners were driven at many mines to exploit the under ground channel placers by hand, using primitive and dangerous “shaft and drift” method. After 1957 most of the gold mines in northeast Siberia were shut down and remained closed until 1966. During that decade very little gold mining was carried on anywhere in Russia. Since then Kolyma and the other major Russian gold mining areas have revived. Today there are probably about 50 old state placer mines that are again active in Kolyma.
The Russians did not, however, run their death camps without assistance. Between 1929 and 1933, it was Ameri can engineers who ran much of Russia’s mining industry. One such collaborator was John D. Littlepage, an American placer mining engineer. As he related in In Search of Soviet Gold (1938), Littlepage went to work for Serebrovskii and the Soyuz-Zoloto because the pay was two or three times higher than the salary he was earning in Alaska. In fact, several years later, on orders of Serebrovskii, he came to the U.S. to persuade another 10 American mining engineers to join him at the Soyuz-Zoloto. “I had no trouble in finding first-class American mining engineers to come to Russia,” he wrote.
In Russia, Littlepage went first to the Urals where he helped the Soviets to reactivate some of the old mines. He then organized a program for mine technicians at the old Kochkar mine near Cheyabinsk. Later, Littlepage became a troubleshooter for the Soyuz-Zoloto, solving production problems at the different mines. In his book, Littlepage has nothing but praise for Serebrovskii. He calls fue Soyuz Zoloto “a model Soviet trust.” He reserves his criticism for the old Russian mining engineers, who in these early days of Socialist rule still occasionally engaged in industrial sabotage. Yet Littlepage does make reference to the slave laborers from the death camps: “I had former priests and Mohammedan holy men working for me on more than one occasion. Some of them turned out to be excellent miners.”
Littlepage attained high rank within the Soyuz-Zoloto, becoming the deputy chief engineer responsible for gold production of this entire far-flung Russian state gold monopoly. Finally in 1935, at the peak of one of the great purges (which claimed even the life of Serebrovskii him self), Littlepage was summoned to the Kremlin to receive one of the highest Socialist decorations, “The Order of the Red Banner of Labor.” In 1938, after 11 years of loyal service to the death camps, Littlepage returned with his family safely to the United States.
Many American companies likewise helped the Soviets to rebuild their gold mining and other industries. Companies and banks that offered vital technology and credit shortly after the Revolution included Chase National Bank (later Chase-Manhattan), International Harvester, and Allied American. Occidental Petroleum, General Electric, Ford Motor, Dupont, Radio Corporation of America, Caterpillar Tractor, American Can, Standard Oil of New Jersey, and Alcoa soon joined in the effort. Today the Soviets acknowledge this contribution: “Foreign capital,” writes S.V. Levchenko, “enabled the Soyuz-Zoloto to reactivate many remote gold mining districts such as those of Lena Basin and to develop new areas such as the Aldan.”
In their quest for gold, Russian Socialists also received cooperation from other Western governments. When in 1936, for example, Stalin ordered the Spanish Republicans to transfer the gold of the Spanish treasury to Russia, President Manuel Azaiia and Finance Minister Juan Negrin (both Socialists) promptly complied. During the nights of October 22-24, Republican Red Guards in the Spanish port of Cartagena loaded 510 tons of gold (three-fourths of the entire Spanish reserve) onto Russian ships, which then took it to Odessa in the Ukraine. Stalin allegedly boasted: “Spain will never see its gold again.” Forty-eight years later, Spain is still waiting.
Between 1945 and 1947, English and American military authorities did their part to provide a steady supply of gold miners for Kolyma by surrendering into the hands of the Russian NKVD between two and three million Ukrainians, Kalmuks, Crimean Tartars, and Russian refugees and POW’s found in the West at the end of World War II. This involuntary repatriation carried out under the secret military code “Operation Keelhaul” was ordered by the War Department and Gen. George C. Marshall and carried out with consent of the State Department and with the cooperation of the United Nations Refugee Agency. Concurrently, the British military authorities, War Department, and Foreign Office carried out their own Keelhaul Operation. A gratuitous promise made to Stalin by Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta was thus faithfully kept. Russian authorities immediately executed some of these forcibly returned slaves, sending the rest to the death camps of Soyuz-Zoloto.
For a long time, the American government deliberately withheld the facts about the Kolyma death camps. In 1943, to discredit the grim rumors about Siberia, Roosevelt sent his Vice President, Henry Wallace, on an official mission there. Wallace stopped at Magadan, visited the death camp “Bolshevik” at one of Kolyma’s gold mines, then flew on to Irkutsk. On his return to the U.S., Wallace summarized his trip in Soviet Asia Mission (1946), filled with warm praise for his host, NKVD General I.F. Nikishov, then com mander of all the Dal’ stroi death camps. About the camps the Vice President wrote: “In North Siberia today, Russians have developed urban life comparable in general to that of our own Northwestern States and Alaska.” The Dal’ stroi organization Wallace compared to “our Tennessee Valley Authority.” From his trip to Irkutsk, at that time one of the administrative centers of Siberian death camps, Wallace recorded these impressions: “It was Trinity Sunday, June 4, and the Russian people were celebrating it by walking in the sunshine. The factories were closed, as is usual on Sundays, so the workers could go out and tend their gardens. It was restful to hear the people singing as they strolled along the riverside, the youth playing accordions. In their folk songs one feels the stirrings of the Russian peasant soul.” Given such misinformation from the nation’s highest elected officials, it’s no wonder that Life magazine that same year equated the Russian NKVD and the American FBI.
In December 1944, National Geographic magazine published a lengthy article by Owen Lattimore, who had accompanied Henry Wallace on the State Department sponsored visit to Siberia. Lattimore described the Dal’stroi death camp organization in Kolyma as “a combination of Hudson’s Bay Company and TVA.” At Magadan, the headquarters of the Dal’stroi, Lattimore noticed that “the wharves in the port were stocked high with American equipment.” He also enjoyed “a first-class orchestra and a good light opera company” while at Magadan. About his host, NKVD Gen. Nikishov, the commandant of the death camps, Lattimore remarks: “Mister Nikishov, the head of Dal’stroi, had just been decorated with the Order of Hero of the Soviet Union for his extraordinary achievements. Both Nikishov and his wife have a trained and sensitive interest in art and music and a deep sense of civic responsibility.” And what about the gold fields themselves, where at that very time up to 400,000 prisoners were being worked and starved to death each year? Prof. Lattimore writes: “We visited the gold mines operated by Dal’ stroi in the valley of Kolyma River. Instead of the sin, gin, and brawling of an old-time gold rush, we found extensive greenhouses growing tomatoes, cucumbers, and even melons to make sure the hardy miners got enough vitamins.”
We get a different picture of the NKVD and Socialist death camps from the few ex-prisoners who managed to escape or otherwise survive. One such survivor was S. Rawicz, who in The Long Walk described the death march that followed the transport of 4,000 prisoners to Irkutsk in unheated freight cars in the middle of winter.
[Red Army] soldiers walked down the train removing seals and unbarring freight cars and ordering: All Out! We stumbled out and shrieking whipping wind and a subzero temperature made us gulp and gasp … we shivered uncontrollably. It was the second week of December and Siberia was frost-bound in winter. We met it ill clad only in a pair of trousers, canvas shoes and a thin cotton blouse. Only on the third day in an open potato field buried under two feet of snow were the prisoners finally given an issue of winter clothing. . . On the fourth day a whole convoy of some 60 powerful lorries drove into the field. Soldiers were detailed into sections of about 20 men, each section disposed to guard 100 prisoners strung two abreast behind each lorry. . . . From each lorry was uncoiled a length of heavy steel chain. A soldier walked between the two men at the head of each column, forcing them apart, and then walked through the middle cleaving the prisoners into single lines. Other soldiers followed him running out the chain…. Then 50 men a side, we were handcuffed lo the chain by one wrist. The forward end of each chain was secured to a strong hook attached lo the rear of each lorry. The troops piled quickly into the back of the lorry. We were ready to start. The procession began to move, the lorry at the head setting the pace. . We trudged non-stop through the first night for 12 hours or more.
The chained prisoners were thus driven on foot over 1,000 miles through the snow for two months in the middle of the Siberian winter.
Even as Wallace, Lattimore, and others were spreading their misinformation, the true facts about Kolyma were already well-known and available to the officials of the U.S. and the British governments. Former Polish POW’s who had survived the death camps began to reach the Free Polish Army in 1942. They prepared 62 separate written accounts about the horrendous conditions in the Kolyma camps. Copies of these reports became immediately available both to the Western governments and to the news media. Moreover, the information from former Polish POW’s was fully corroborated by reports from other sources, including Russian officials and sailors who defected to the West. Thus the authors of the contemporary misinformation cannot claim ignorance.
“Kolyma znachit smert'”; Kolyma meant death for five to seven million innocent people. Yet are these victims of Russian communism mentioned prominently in the great books written on modem history or even in the principal reference volumes published since World War II in the West? Under the entry Auschwitz in the 1985 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, we find: “Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camp and extermination camp . . . Estimates of the total number who died at Auschwitz from all causes vary … between 1,000,000 and 2,500,000 but sometimes reaching 4,000,000.” Even Dachau, in which “only” 206,000 prisoners were registered between 1933 and 1945, is named for infamy. But Dal’stroi, the biggest single death camp organization in history, is not mentioned at all by the Encyclopedia Britannica. The entry under Kolyma merely describes the river so named, adding that “the only significant economic activity is gold mining irt its upper basin.” Under Magadan Oblast, we learn that “economic development is almost wholly restricted to mining of gold, silver, tungsten, and mercury.” Maybe the entry Magadan port, will give us some hint about the sinister history of the entire region. But no. “The city was founded in 1933 as the port and supply center for the Kolyma goldfields… There are a teacher-training institute and several research institutes in the city.”
George Orwell predicted that in the “1984” of his fiction the victims of the socialist Big Brother would be eradicated even from memory. Today, in the 1984 of the real world, this fate has actually befallen the victims of Russian Socialism who died in Kolyma. Because of successful censorship in Russia, in her colonies, and in the democratic West, these people have disappeared even from the dustbin of history.