Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Alexander Dolgun

Introduction

Alexander Dolgun was a U.S. citizen working as a junior employee of the American Embassy in Moscow when he was arrested in 1948 and charged with being a socially dangerous element. Dolgun was initially incarcerated at Lefortovo and Lubyanka prisons in Moscow until he was sent to Steplag in Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. He was released from the Gulag in 1956 but was not allowed to leave the country until 1972 and only then because of the continual efforts of his sister, an official at the United Nations.

Arrest

Alexander Dolgun was arrested in Moscow in 1948 while walking to lunch just two blocks from his job at the American Embassy. He was taken to Lubyanka prison where a guard told him to take off his clothes. “It was clear he meant it. I sat down on the chair and began to pull them off. When I looked up he had my jacket spread on the table and was ripping the seams with a knife…He felt inside the lining and the lapels. He ripped out the shoulder pads. Then he picked up my shoes and went at the soles with his knife. He pulled out the steel reinforcing shank and put the shoes back on the floor, the soles flapping. Then he took my tie and shoelaces and belt and knocked for the door to be opened. ‘Can I get dressed now?’ I asked.”

Labor

“The work was much too hard for the amount of food and rest we got. People died every day, especially the older men. As the weather got colder the rate of deaths increased. We were issued gloves and padded jackets and trousers, but they were badly worn and not much protection as the temperature began to drop. My hands were always cold. At those altitudes, with no bodies of water and no vegetation to moderate the temperature, September slips into winter very quickly. Cold numbed fingers could not hold onto handles and levers and timbers and crates, and there were many accidents, often fatal. One man was crushed when we were rolling logs off of a flat car, using two logs as a ramp. He was buried when twenty or more logs let loose at once and he was not fast enough.”

Suffering

“If you made your norm you were given basic ration, known as 100 per cent, and this was sufficient to keep you going. If you dropped below your norm, you got a lower ration. With lower rations you would be too weak to maintain whatever percentage of the norm you had been achieving, and so your ration would be lowered again. Finally it would be reduced to the starvation ration. At that point, without some supplementary food, a prisoner would simply starve to death. The food was scarce unless you were ingenious, and even then it lacked vitamins. Vitamin-deficiency diseases like scurvy and pellagra were common and sometimes fatal.”

Propaganda

“If you made your norm you were given basic ration, known as 100 per cent, and this was sufficient to keep you going. If you dropped below your norm, you got a lower ration. With lower rations you would be too weak to maintain whatever percentage of the norm you had been achieving, and so your ration would be lowered again. Finally it would be reduced to the starvation ration. At that point, without some supplementary food, a prisoner would simply starve to death. The food was scarce unless you were ingenious, and even then it lacked vitamins. Vitamin-deficiency diseases like scurvy and pellagra were common and sometimes fatal.”

Solidarity

Communication between prisoners was strictly monitored. A kind of Morse code had been developed of the letters of the Russian alphabet. A prisoner in the cell next to Dolgun’s constantly tapped on his wall but it took him some time to understand the code. “Five rows of six letters. Of course! That’s what he sends the every night! The whole goddamn alphabet! How could I have missed it for so long? A pure rush of love in my chest for a man who has been asking me for three months now who I am, and I can’t even tell him.”

Conflict

“The cell that I and about fifteen others were taken to opened directly on the yard. My first impression was of bedlam. The cell reverberated with chatter. Later I counted and found that we were 129 people in a cell sixteen feet wide and about forty feet long. Two layers of bunks, which were nothing more than hard plank platforms, ran down each of the long sides and across the end. At the far end was a large window, open in the warm air, with bars on the outside. In the glare from the window it was hard to see the far end of the cell clearly, but I know that it was already packed with people standing on the floor and sitting or lying on or under the sleeping platforms.”

Guards

“At the work site the guards often came in and walked around the shop or the welding yard or wherever we were working. They looked at us as if we were exhibits in a zoo. They were rotated from post to post frequently, and from camp to camp, to ensure that they formed no friendships with the prisoners. It would have been bad for morale if the guards discovered that we were human beings and that most of us were serving our sentences for modest offenses or for no offense at all.”

Survival

Solitary confinement was especially difficult for prisoners. Dolgun devised numerous ways to remain sane. “Almost every day now, I told myself the plot of a movie. A favorite was 13 Rue Madeleine, a story of commandos and the Gestapo and parachuting into occupied France. I held my own private screening several times. I found that each time I ‘saw’ this movie I remembered more detail, and after a while I could almost have written out the screenplay. I started lectures in world geography, calling up everything I could remember about rainfall, population, industry, vegetation, rivers, towns, political structure, and all the rest.”

Fates

Dolgun’s sister had moved to the U.S. to work at the United Nations. Once she became aware that he had been arrested, she tried to get him released from prison but was told by U.S. officials that she could make his situation worse. He was released from prison in 1956 but was not allowed to leave the country until 1972. He was married in 1965. He finally received his American passport in 1972 and was flown to the U.S. with his wife and son.

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