Days and Lives :: Fates

Prisoner: Lev Kopelev

Kopelev was released in January 1947 but after a short freedom was told that his case was to be retried. A few months later he was arrested again. He did have an opportunity to defend himself at his trial but was sentenced to three more years in corrective labor camps with an additional two years loss of civil rights. This sentence was voided as being too lenient. He was re-tried and sentenced to ten years in the camps and then five years loss of civil rights. “I came to understand that my fate was just because I did deserve to be punished – for the many years I had zealously participated in plundering the peasants, worshiping Stalin, lying and deceiving myself in the name of historical necessity. Gradually I lost my awe for those ideas which, in ‘capturing the masses,’ can become ruinous to whole peoples.” After Stalin’s death, Kopelev was finally released from the Gulag.

Crosses in Forest

The Gulag’s Ultimate Victims

Historians have established that at least 1.6 million died in the Gulag camps. The real number may be higher, as camp authorities had many ways to hide true death figures, including releasing prisoners who were on the verge of dying. In this way, a prisoner reduced to the point of death by labor and starvation would die outside the camp and thus be excluded from official Gulag mortality statistics. Many of the unmarked graves will never be found.

In this excerpt from Stolen Years, Nikolai Getman describes the anonymous markings placed on prisoner graves.

When the guard filled out a report on the burial, he wouldn’t say that the corpse had a name like Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov. Instead, he would write down a certain designated number. Such as M3720. This number, M3720, was then stenciled into a tin can, using a hammer and nail. Usually the perforated number would appear on the lid, but sometimes people would go through the trouble of cutting apart the whole can, thereby leaving more room for the inscription. This piece of metal was attached by wire to the foot, and that was proof that a certain person, M3720, was buried right there under the hill. I can still hear the sound of this piece of wire and can lid tinkling in the wind.