No Escape For Gulag's
Former Prisoners
By Julius Strauss
The Telegraph - UK
More Than 50 Years After They Were Deported By Stalin, Hundreds Of Freed Inmates Remain Trapped In The Frozen North
VORKUTA -- When Lidya Wittman was 20 years old she was loaded into a railway goods wagon in central Russia and shipped to a gulag in the Arctic.
It was 1943, the Soviet Union was locked in a fight to the death with Hitler's army, and her crime was to be an ethnic German.
Vorkuta was the last of Stalin's infamous gulags and its name still resonates with menace for older Russians.
Women such as Mrs Wittman were treated like slaves, laying railway lines and toiling without wages in mines and factories. The camp closed in 1962, but decades later thousands of former inmates are still marooned in the decrepit northern settlement.
To get to where she lives from the nearest shop or bus stop in Vorkuta, Mrs Wittman, now 80, must hobble for more than half an hour down a frozen, rutted road. The temperature is minus 10C and a biting wind whips up the snow. "I've been here for 60 years," she said. "I'd leave tomorrow if I could."
After their release, most of the women tried to return to their homes in Ukraine, the Baltic States and central Russia. But the harsh Soviet registration system meant that as former "enemies of the state" they were barred from migrating.
Their only option was to stay and find work, sometimes in the very mines and factories they had been slaving in before their release.
When communism fell, the restrictions were gradually lifted. But by then hyperinflation had wiped out the former inmates' life savings, making an expensive move south all but impossible.
Today there are 40,000 pensioners in Vorkuta. Memorial, a Russian charity that compiles statistics on the Stalinist era, estimates that as many as four out of five are trapped former gulag inmates, or their descendants.
Even in the context of the times, the suffering at the Vorkuta camps was extreme. In the winter, temperatures on the tundra can drop to minus 50C.
Inmates were provided with ill-fitting, poor quality clothes and forced to work 12 or 14 hours a day on a starvation ration. During the 1940s and 1950s a million prisoners passed through the Vorkuta gulags, according to Memorial.
At least 100,000, perhaps many more, died. They were buried in the rock-hard permafrost or simply left by the roadside to be covered by snow.
"For 15 years I shovelled coal into the furnaces," said Mrs Wittman, who still speaks faultless German, but poor Russian.
"At night we used to sleep on hard wooden shelves. So many people died of hunger and cold."
When she was released, like thousands of others she was barred from leaving Vorkuta. Eventually she got a job as a cleaner in a mine.
Later she married another former gulag inmate, also an ethnic German, and they lived together until he died 17 years ago. Today she lives with her son. "This is what Stalin did to me," she said. "I know I can't undo the past, but I'd move to the south if only I had the money."
Yaroslav Volagodsky, 73, a Ukrainian, is another former gulag inmate trapped in Vorkuta. He was charged with "anti-Soviet activities" as a young man and given a 10-year sentence.
"You can't imagine what it was like," he said, tears running down his face. "We had no proper winter clothes, our boots were full of holes and to eat we had crushed, salted fish and a small, frozen potato a day. All my teeth fell out because of lack of vitamins.
"They made us work 14 hours a day in the mines and many men simply died. At night we slept with our clothes on, on a mattress stuffed with wood chips."
Mine 29, where Mr Volagodsky was interned, was notorious for its brutality. When in the summer of 1953 a wave of strikes swept the Soviet gulags, the inmates of Mine 29 joined in.
Four days later, on Aug 1, hundreds of troops surrounded the camp and opened fire, killing at least 53, and injuring hundreds.
Mr Volagodsky was hit in the leg and the ear, but survived. Afterwards he was forced to build coffins and dig graves for his dead colleagues.
Today there is little left of Mine 29. Only some broken brickwork around the shaft entrance marks where it once stood.
A memorial has been put up nearby by relatives of Lithuanians who died there. But the camp itself is unmarked, a mass of broken wooden beams not far from an old railway line.
When, in 1957, Mr Volagodsky was finally released he was refused permission to return home. Later he was told that he could return, but his wife, also a Ukrainian former gulag inmate, could not, so he remained.
"For 50 years this place has been like a coffin for me," he said. "I have no money to go and the local authorities tell me I don't qualify for help."
Yevgenia Khaidarova of Memorial said: "These people would all leave tomorrow if they could. But they haven't the means.
"For years Vorkuta was a political gulag. Today it has become an economic gulag."
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2004.


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