Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Nina Gagen-Torn

Introduction

Nina Gagen-Torn was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1901. Her father was Russian Swedish and her mother was Russian. Prior to her arrest Gagen-Torn worked as a researcher in one of the leading Soviet research institutes. She was an ethnographer and held a candidate’s degree in history. Gagen-Torn spent five years, from 1937 until 1942 in Kolyma. In 1947 she was arrested again and sent to the Temnikovskii camp. She was released in 1954.

Arrest

“A door key clicks. Last name is called. The person named gets up, alarmed. “Put your clothes on! Come in for interrogation!” The cell turns intensely quiet. “Why is it always at night?” I wondered. “Don’t they have time during the day?” It didn’t cross my mind that this was done on purpose, because night interrogations terrorized us. It is odd to remember now, but for some reason I was not terrified: at that time my faith in Soviet authority was not yet completely broken.”

Labor

“Long tables are arranged in two rows. Sewing machines stand on tables. They are placed in a dense row, allowing one to turn a handle and throw a neighbor a sown piece: a sleeve, pocket, or collar. Bright lights under the low ceiling blind our eyes. Sewing machines rattle. Air is full of dust and small fibers from sown reefing-jackets. It is hard to breathe. There is no time to breath, for a guard keeps coming and demanding fulfillment of the norm, again and again. If the norm is not done in 10 hours, they keep you for an hour or two more. A systematic failure to fulfill the norm gets you a penalty ration: a reduced bread ration and no second meal.”

Suffering

“The prison cell was overcrowded… Into a cell intended for 16 they put 40 people. They lowered the bed frames and put boards on them, making plank-beds out of the entire space. They also put in iron beds, each meant for two. The table was made into a bed at night as well…In 1936 in Kolyma old ideas still echoed in legends about Eduard Berzin… During Berzin’s tenure, a camp inmate who worked hard was allowed to marry and to have his own room. Schools and libraries for prisoners still existed. Communist educational and cultural workers were ready to give their life to reform a prisoner… But Eduard Berzin was invited to Moscow in 1936 and shot.”

Propaganda

“The prison cell was overcrowded… Into a cell intended for 16 they put 40 people. They lowered the bed frames and put boards on them, making plank-beds out of the entire space. They also put in iron beds, each meant for two. The table was made into a bed at night as well…In 1936 in Kolyma old ideas still echoed in legends about Eduard Berzin… During Berzin’s tenure, a camp inmate who worked hard was allowed to marry and to have his own room. Schools and libraries for prisoners still existed. Communist educational and cultural workers were ready to give their life to reform a prisoner… But Eduard Berzin was invited to Moscow in 1936 and shot.”

Solidarity

In postwar men’s and women’s camps we encountered different foreigners, brought there by the war, including Germans, Czechs, Poles and Koreans. Western Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians also felt like foreigners. Erstwhile separation from the Soviet Union and memory about their motherland was still fresh in their minds. At times of adversity this feeling grew stronger, and people tried to find their compatriots and to help their own people. Only Russians dissolved among other prisoners; they didn’t fixate on their nationality or search for their own people.”

Conflict

“Anna Ivanovna didn’t work because she was a “nun”. This doesn’t mean that she was an actual nun; she had a husband and had left children behind at home. “Nuns” were not just those incarcerated in camp “for their religion” but those who refused to work because of their religious beliefs, considering labor camps a “creations of Antichrist”… Anna Ivanovna was placed in my barrack in order to isolate her from her fellows. She sat silently or laid on a top plank bed, when there were people in the barrack. When people left for work, she climbed down from the bed boards and began to pray, looking eastward. Most people disapproved of her: “We are working while she stays a freeloader… We earn the bread and she eats it. Why are we working like dogs when people like her are getting fat? They must also work. They are no better than us… A great sin they discovered—that they are not allowed to work!... “We won’t go to work on holidays either,” Baptists and Sabbatarians said, “but God loves labor on week days.”

Guards

“Mordovka” comes in—the most meticulous and picky among the female guards… She searches our beds: feels under our shirts, turns over our pillows. Klava is sitting on her bed. She carefully moves a pouch with candy in her night stand. “Mordovka” runs to the night stand. She thinks that something is hidden there—otherwise, Klava wouldn’t move the pouch. She grabs the pouch and scatters the candy all over the floor…The officer sent for me. “I promised to return the manuscripts,” he said, “if you want, I’ll return them. However, I wouldn’t recommend it—they can be removed from you during the first search at the transfer point. I suggest you leave them with me, if you trust me. When you arrive at your destination, let me know your address and I’ll send them by mail… I have to say he did keep his promise. Not only did he send the manuscripts, he also sent a confirmation telegram. Thanks to this telegram I was able to obtain the manuscripts from the local administration.”

Survival

“During that tour my memory began to grow weak—whole pieces fell out, and I didn’t have an assistant who could help me restore them. But my cellmates absorbed even these pieces with passion, like dry ground taking in water. Even those who never thought about poetry or rhythm when free began to absorb and recite poems… I read them Blok and Pushkin, Nekrasov, Mandelshtam, Gumilev, and Tiutchev. Their faces brightened…We got used to the agricultural base: domestic customs emerged. We weeded the carrots, ate thin carrots’ tails, sitting right at the ridge. We collected the first harvest of cucumbers and sent them in boxes to the railway station. We ate them by hiding in a sleeve. Our foreman knew, but pretended he didn’t—by rule he could not allow us to eat. We had a silent agreement: don’t get caught!”

Fates

Nina Gagen-Torn was released in 1956. She began to work at her own Institute of Ethnography in Leningrad. She published 35 articles, 2 monographs, and memoirs. She died on June 4, 1986.

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