Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Thomas Sgovio

Introduction

Thomas Sgovio was the son of an Italian immigrant to the United States and grew up in Buffalo, New York. After his father was deported for his involvement in the Communist Party the family moved to Moscow. Thomas Sgovio was arrested in 1938 because he had applied at the embassy to return to the United States. He was held at Kolyma until his release in 1954. After spending some time in Italy, he returned to the United States. An artist, Sgovio completed a series of drawings and paintings on his experiences in the Gulag. He died in Arizona in 1997.

Arrest

Following his arrest Thomas Sgovio was initially taken to Lubyanka prison in Moscow. He was then transported to Taganka via a Black Raven. “I tried to examine the inside as we passed through the small guards’ compartment. There was enough light to notice that it was armored, thus establishing without a shadow of a doubt the fact that the Black Raven was deliberately designed and constructed for the transportation of prisoners. The paint job on the outside even had the name of the Peoples’ Commissariat of Food Industries lettered! During the French Revolution the condemned were carted to the guillotine in carts through the streets and the whole world knew about it. The same can be said of those who were burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Jesus Christ was led to the cross in the open and the whole world knew about it. Here in the Workers’ Fatherland they innovated the Black Raven…”

Labor

“General work was pretty much the same as in Razvedchik. I was on the day shift – twelve hours, plus another two deepening drainage ditches. After work we were put to work in and around the camp carrying timber. There were about a hundred men in the carpenter brigade; most of them were simple, hard working peasants. They worked in groups here, there, and everywhere – in the gold fields building stockades and sluice troughs – in the convict camp site – in the free-citizens’ settlement. There was a shortage of everything except timber. The bulk of the carpenters worked in the gold-fields – that came first. Then the free-citizens’ settlement, and last came the prisoners barracks. As a result, winter came and we slept in tent covered structures.”

Suffering

“I had just dozed off when several officials and guards entered. We had to rise and listen to a lecture. Camp Commandant Sergeyev pointed out that the gold-washing period was about half over. If we wished to return to the great family of Soviet toilers we had to expiate our crimes by fulfilling our work quotas. We were to be fed according to our output. There were six categories of food cards, ranging from Number One, for those having 150% or more overfulfillment – to Number Six, the penal category. The latter was given to those who had under 50% – a bowl of soup and four hundred grams of bread daily – no breakfast, no supper. The Commandant read out the names and work percentages of the newcomers. None of us had over 30%. He assured us however, that we should not lose heart. Realizing we were greenhorns, from the intelligentsia, that none of us had ever worked physically, the Camp Administration would give us time to learn and adjust. For ten days we would be given the 4th food-card category, regardless of our output."

Propaganda

“I had just dozed off when several officials and guards entered. We had to rise and listen to a lecture. Camp Commandant Sergeyev pointed out that the gold-washing period was about half over. If we wished to return to the great family of Soviet toilers we had to expiate our crimes by fulfilling our work quotas. We were to be fed according to our output. There were six categories of food cards, ranging from Number One, for those having 150% or more overfulfillment – to Number Six, the penal category. The latter was given to those who had under 50% – a bowl of soup and four hundred grams of bread daily – no breakfast, no supper. The Commandant read out the names and work percentages of the newcomers. None of us had over 30%. He assured us however, that we should not lose heart. Realizing we were greenhorns, from the intelligentsia, that none of us had ever worked physically, the Camp Administration would give us time to learn and adjust. For ten days we would be given the 4th food-card category, regardless of our output."

Solidarity

“In the evenings when the train was in motion we sang old, Russian folk songs and ballads handed down from previous generations of Russian prisoners, exiled to Siberia by the Czar. They had so much feeling, I got to love them. The song I remember most was Dubinishka. The singing always affected me greatly although I hardly knew any of the songs and never heard them on the Soviet radio because they were prohibited by the regime. My fellow-prisoners explained the meaning history of the songs, originated by prisoners in Czarist times, chained, on their way to Siberia. Here I was following in their footsteps. Was this really the twentieth century? The ballads’ sadness cut into my soul and ground it all to pieces.”

Conflict

“One of the men in our brigade consistently contrived to be under the lighter end of the log. When he found himself in the center, instead of lifting the burden with his hands while passing on uneven ground, he ducked under the log. The entire load was burdened on the man in front and the man in the rear. The old-timers decided to teach him and other would-be shirkers a lesson. They deliberately placed him in the middle. As soon as they arrived at the precipice, the man in front and the other behind him hurriedly shoved the log as hard as they could. The man in the middle was hurtled down, along with the log, and killed instantly. Those responsible were not blatniye [thieves]. They were ordinary peasants, imprisoned for some minor, non-political misdemeanor. The harsh Kolyma environment had turned them into animals. After all – what does one more human life amount to – when so many are dying around you?”

Guards

“My duties sometimes offered me the occasion to listen to the guards’ conversation. It seems that upon completing mandatory military service on the mainland, they had been offered high paying, security patrol posts in the Far North. They were told they would become sentries at military and defense construction projects. Not one word about prisoners and concentration labor camps. Most of them were peasants. Rather than return to the abject poverty of the collective farms, they gladly volunteered, lured by high salaries. Membership in the Young Communist League was mandatory. That summer, during Komsomol meetings, the guards were indoctrinated – to guard us was not enough! No one escapes from Kolyma anyway! And it was drummed into them that we were Enemies of the People – scum – saboteurs – and anyone who threw a stone into the mechanism of Socialism was to be shot!”

Survival

“Again on the verge of becoming a dokhodyaga [goner], I was ordered to report to the Medical Section. I undressed and stood in line. It was scary to look at the walking skeletons. I glanced at my own bones and compared them with those of the others. It seemed mine were covered with a little more flesh than those of my fellows. The male nurse put a stethoscope to my chest and listened to my heart. After whispering a few words to a white-aproned man observing the procedure, he wrote something down and told me to go into an adjoining room. This was the recovery barrack! I was handed a shirt and drawers and assigned a cot. I was to rest for ten days! We received a special diet – a fresh, sweet roll in the morning, yellowish noodle soup with bits of meat at noon, buckwheat gruel with butter in the evening…we felt like kings! How good it felt to just lie there, eat, and rest!”

Fates

“Liberation of the holdovers began in September 1946 – sixteen months after the War’s end. Finally, I was called…eight and a half years I had waited for this. Finger printing – my right thumb was pressed on the left-hand bottom part of my release affidavit. There were about a dozen of us waiting to receive our papers – but no, the Registration Official gathered the green slips and commanded, ‘Come on – follow me!’ In single file we followed him through the gates, down the road to the settlement, and to the Administration building. A woman official waited for us. She grabbed our papers and looked them over. One by one our names were read – ‘Tomas Sgovio? You are hereby notified that although you are now a free-citizen, you fall into the category of those fixed to Dalstroi – without the right to leave the territory…sign here that you have been notified of your status.”