May 2, 2011


The last prisoner: Pavel Galitsky spent fifteen years in the brutal labour camps of Kolyma, Siberia. Against the odds, the 100-year old dissident is still alive and Skype'ing, having outlived both his contemporaries and tormentors. He recounts the full horror of his experience to oDR writer Ekaterina Loushnikova. (Ekaterina Loushnikova, 28 April 2011, Open Democracy)

“Kolyma is Auschwitz without the ovens. Prisoners travelled in batches of 1500; within 3 months only 450 people of our batch were left alive. They died of cold, hunger and the backbreaking labour. We extracted gold in mines and in quarries. The norm was 150 carts and if you didn’t make it, then you stayed on for the second shift to make up your quota. Then you had to drill two or three drillholes in the permafrost. Then you were sent to the forest to get firewood for the hut and for the kitchen. We worked 16 hours a day. Men turned into animals, dumb cattle. Your only thoughts were of food, of an extra bowl of balanda [thin soup].”

“What is balanda and how is it made?”

“It’s soup made of flounder, which comes straight from the barrel and is boiled up, guts and all, with salt. Then red cabbage is added in and you have your gruel – greasy and delicious!”


“Of course not! It’s unbelievably bitter. You wouldn’t be able to eat it, but we did, because there was nothing else. Each person got a ladle of this brew. It was dished out by a fellow prisoner: if he liked you, he’d dig down so you got a thicker soup, if he didn’t he’d take it from the surface and it’d be sloppier. The canteen was cold and filthy with icicles on the floor, so you had to pick you way like a mountaineer. By the time you got to the table the soup was cold. In the morning you got runny slops, tea, a piece of sugar and 600-900 grammes of bread. You mix it all up so your tin is full, then you eat it and feel as though your stomach’s full, though you’re just as hungry as you were. I used to collect up herring heads and eat them.

“You can’t get to sleep, when you’re so hungry, then you sleep for a hour and have to rush to the toilet. That’s a pit in the ground surrounded by poles and that’s the toilet. The filth was indescribable. There were mounds of s[**]t all round and outside the barrack there were veritable mountains. In the spring the goners had to hack at it.”

“But where did the prisoners sleep and did you have a blanket?”

“At first we slept in a tent, then we built a hut. The bunks were in two layers and made of poles. Mattresses were stuffed with straw and the ceiling was covered with peat. If it rained, the peat got soaked through and started to drip. The stoves smoked, it was airless, steamy and the stench was unbearable. We did have blankets, but when it was cold we slept in our clothes. We were issued with padded clothes: trousers, a jerkin and a short jacket. We even got fur coats, but what good are they when it’s 70° below freezing? Someone’s ear fell off once, but life goes on without it,” laughed Pavel Kalinkovich. “What you can’t live without is….”

“What?” I interrupted in horror.

“Boots. I remember a Jewish man, a railway engineer. He was so polite you couldn’t believe it. One evening we were issued with boots, but when he woke up in the morning – no boots! They’d been stolen! ‘Comrades, who’s taken my boots? It’s not funny. Give them back!’ Of course no one did and there was much mirth in the hut. He was sent out to work barefoot, got frostbite, lost the will to live and then died.

“What was bad was that educated, cultured people…gave up more quickly and died. The peasants knew how to survive, no matter what. There was one Siberian, a strong lad – he did his shift in the mine, had dinner and then sawed wood for the kitchen. For that he got 3 litres of balanda. He ate it and went to sleep. When he woke up, he went to heat up the remains. He poured it into the bowl and then….pulled out a mouse! A mangy dead mouse, which he’d cooked with the soup. And what do you think? He fished the mouse out and carried right on eating as if nothing had happened. Would you have been able to do that?”

My hundred-year old looked at me with curiosity.

“I would! A starving man can eat anything”, I assured him.

I remembered a documentary about Auschwitz. Skeletons in striped prison clothes look with inflamed eyes at the camera. In that state one could probably eat anything. But Pavel Kalinkovich doesn't believe me.

“Katya, you'd have been sick! You would, really. But then you'd have got used to it anyway”. The voice of Pavel Kalinkovich, which had hitherto been calm and even cheerful, turned into a shriek, “I saw a man picking grains out of his faeces. He was an engineer, a railway boss and a cultured man. I had come to pee and he was sitting on the john, picking out the grains and eating them. He looked at me and burst into tears ‘Pavlik, I’m not a human being any more…I’m not!’”

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Posted by at May 2, 2011 8:07 PM

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