Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Olga Adamova-Sliozberg

Introduction

Olga Adamova-Sliozberg was working as a labor economist at a ministry in Moscow when she was arrested in 1936, after the arrest of her husband, a professor of biology. As the wife of a political prisoner, she was sentenced to an eight-year prison term with strict isolation. After spending four months at Lubyanka she spent time at Solovki, Butyrka, Kasanskaya, and Vladimirskaya prisons, and was finally transferred to the Magadan camp in the Kolyma region. She was released in 1946 but then arrested again in 1949 and after spending time once more in Butyrka prison she was exiled to Karaganda. She was released from exile in 1954 and rehabilitated in 1956.

Arrest

Adamova-Sliozberg was arrested in 1936 after she returned from the congress of award-winning workers (“Stakhanovites”) held in Vitebsk. “They came for me the day after my return to Moscow… While they were searching my apartment for four hours I was organizing the materials from the congress. I could not recognize that my life was over, I was afraid to acknowledge the fact that my children were being taken away from me… I do not know what I thought, the inertia of work, or maybe the turmoil from fear were so strong, that I worked precisely and effectively, as if I was sitting in my own office at the ministry. The detective who conducted the search finally took pity on me: ‘You’d better say good-bye to your children!’”

Labor

“Work was the only human experience we had left. We did not have family or books, we lived in filth, stench, and darkness; awful profanities constantly filled the women’s barrack… But work saved us. Some among the “politicals” refused to work. Many women feared hard labor. They discovered hundreds of illnesses and preferred to get a lower ration rather than work hard. Others (much more rarely) had liaisons with camp officials, who then assigned them other, privileged and easier duties. Almost everyone who tried to avoid work had perished. Those who chose prostitution lost an inner compass, determination, resilience and pride. After the first setback, when they had to go back to work with the rest, they perished under the weight of hard labor.”

Suffering

“Those who fulfilled the norm received 600 grams of bread, those who didn’t received 400 grams. The difference of 200 grams was a matter of life and death because it was impossible to live on 400 grams a day when you worked in the cold of -50 celsius. … The winter of 1943 was very hard. The rations changed from 600 to 500 grams. Besides bread, we got soup with black cabbage and herring heads (a half liter of soup had two or three cabbage leaves and one herring head) and three tablespoons of watery porridge with a half teaspoon of vegetable oil, and for dinner we got a finger-size piece of herring tail. All this time we worked 10-hour shifts in cold of a minus 50 Celsius. People started to waste away [dokhodit’].”

Propaganda

“Those who fulfilled the norm received 600 grams of bread, those who didn’t received 400 grams. The difference of 200 grams was a matter of life and death because it was impossible to live on 400 grams a day when you worked in the cold of -50 celsius. … The winter of 1943 was very hard. The rations changed from 600 to 500 grams. Besides bread, we got soup with black cabbage and herring heads (a half liter of soup had two or three cabbage leaves and one herring head) and three tablespoons of watery porridge with a half teaspoon of vegetable oil, and for dinner we got a finger-size piece of herring tail. All this time we worked 10-hour shifts in cold of a minus 50 Celsius. People started to waste away [dokhodit’].”

Solidarity

“They brought five women, arrested for refusing to work in the kolkhoz on religious holidays… They called each other sisters; ate, slept, and prayed together; and almost every Sunday or religious holiday together went to the punishment cells… They calmly got ready to go to the punishment cells, even though there was little to look forward to: the building was not heated in the winter and in the summer clouds of mosquitoes swarmed into the broken window.”

Conflict

Olga confronted a female criminal when she worked as the brigadier of the field agrarian team. “Once, while surveying the field, I noticed that whole rows of cabbage didn’t have a core where the whole cabbage is supposed to grow from little leaves. At first I thought that another pest is eating them and I would have to immediately start a struggle against them. Suddenly I saw that a member of our crew, a criminal prisoner Valya, is calmly picking these cores and eating them like seeds. ‘Why are you doing this? You will destroy the whole crop!’ She gave me an idiotic smile and replied: ‘Why do we need it? The boss will feed us anyway.’ I almost beat her up, wrath blinded me, but she just smiled innocently.”

Guards

Olga described one of the guards in Magadan: “He was a man of about thirty, healthy and handsome, dressed in a short fur coat, grey karakul hat and high boots. His face was freshly shaved, pink, and calm… He came up and saw right away that I didn’t reach 4 square meters. ‘You didn’t fulfill the norm. Cut down this one tree and then you can go back to the camp.’ I was hauling tree trunks 3 meters long, practically broke my back, while he just stood there, smoking.”

Survival

“We rode to Karaganda [in 1949] for 16 days. At first we were freezing, but then on some small station our train stood with coal. Suddenly, our guard, a Ukrainian, who sometimes spoke a couple of words in Ukrainian with our starosta [elder], Olga Kosenko, gave Olya a bucket and ordered: ‘Collect as much coal as you have time for.’ If we didn’t steal coal with our guard’s blessing, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to our destination alive, with the norm of fuel being one armful of wood per day.”

Fates

Olga was released on April 27 1944 after her mother succeeded in changing her conviction from “terror” to “failure to report.” The latter allowed her, alone in her group, to be released immediately after serving her term. Initially, she was not allowed to go to the mainland. However, in 1946 because of her relatives’ efforts she was able to leave Kolyma. Olga was rehabilitated in 1956, 20 years after she was arrested. “I could not stay calm, it was hard to breathe because of my tears… I cried for my husband, who perished in the Lubyanka’s basement at the age of 37, at the prime of life and talent; for my children, who grew up as orphans, branded as children of the “enemies of the people;” for my parents who died of grief, for twenty years of suffering, for my friends, who did not live long enough to see their own rehabilitation and were buried in Kolyma’s frozen land.”

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