The Trotskyists in Stalin's concentration camps - An eyewitness account of the strike at Vorkuta

As the year draws to an end we would like to remember all those thousands of genuine Communists who perished in Stalin’s camps, butchered simply for defending the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. Old Bolsheviks like Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin were forced to confess to crimes they had not committed. These famous victims were only the tip of the iceberg. Not remembered are the thousands of Trotskyists who languished in brutal concentration camps. They were brave and defiant to the end. The difference with the Trotskyists was that Stalin’s agents could not get them to confess to false crimes, so they were never brought to trial but just callously executed and buried in the wastes.

It is 68 years since Stalin’s notorious purge trials of 1936. Famous old Bolsheviks like Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin were framed and forced to confess to crimes they had not committed. But these famous victims were only the tip of the iceberg. Not remembered are the thousands of Trotskyists who languished in brutal concentration camps in remote areas of Russia.

They were brave and defiant to the end. They even organised an amazing hunger strike through all the scattered camps which forced concessions from the authorities, beginning on October 27, 1936. The difference with the Trotskyists was that Stalin’s agents could not get them to confess to false crimes. They knew that a confession was only required to make the execution look “legal”, so they were never brought to trial but just callously executed and buried in the wastes.

The article below consists of extracts taken from an eyewitness account of those oppositionists’ heroic, but tragic story which first appeared in the October/November 1961 issue of the émigré Menshevik publication ‘Sotsialistichesky Vestnik’ (Socialist Messenger). It was signed only “MB”.


During the middle and the end of the 1930s, the Trotskyists formed quite a disparate group at Vorkuta; one part of them kept its old name of “Bolshevik-Leninists.” There were almost 500 at the mine, close to 1,000 at the camp of Ukhta-Pechora, and certainly several thousand altogether around the Pechora district.

The orthodox Trotskyists were determined to remain faithful to the end to their platform and their leaders. In 1927, following the resolutions of the 15th congress of the party, they were excluded from the Communist Party and, at the same time, arrested. From then on, even though they were in prison, they continued to consider themselves Communists; as for Stalin and his supporters, “the apparatus men,” they were characterised as renegades from communism.

Among these “Trotskyists” were also found people who had never formally belonged to the CP and did not join the Left Opposition, but who tied their own fate with it to the very end – even when the struggle of the Opposition was most acute.

Arrival at Vorkuta

In addition to these genuine Trotskyists, there were in the camps of Vorkuta and elsewhere more than 100,000 prisoners who, members of the party and the youth, had adhered to the Trotskyist Opposition and then at different times and for diverse reasons (of which the principal were evidently repressions, unemployment, persecutions, exclusion from schools and university facilities, etc) were forced to “recant their errors” and withdraw from the Opposition.

The orthodox Trotskyists arrived at the mine during the summer of 1936 and lived in a compact mass in two large barracks. They categorically refused to work in the pits; they worked only on the surface, and for only eight hours, not the ten or twelve required by the regulations, as the other prisoners were forced to do. They did so on their own authority, in an unorganised manner, openly flouting the camp regulations. In the main they had already served nearly ten years in deportation.

In the beginning, they were sent into political isolators and then afterwards exiled to Soiovka. Finally they arrived at Vorkuta. The Trotskyists formed the only group of political prisoners who openly criticised the Stalinist “general line” and offered organised resistance to the jailers.

Nevertheless, there were significant divergences within this group. Some considered themselves disciples of Timothy Sapronov (ex-secretary of the Supreme Soviet) and insisted on being called “Sapronovists” or “Democratic Centralists.” They claimed to be more to the left than the Trotskyists and thought that the Stalinist dictatorship had already reached the stage of bourgeois degeneration by the end of the 1920s and that the rapprochement of Hitler and Stalin was very probable. Nevertheless, in the event of war, the “Sapronovists” declared themselves for the defence of the USSR.

Among the “Trotskyists” were also found partisans of the “Right wing,” that is to say of Rykov and of Bukharin, as well as followers of Shiiapnikov and his “Workers’ Opposition” platform.

But the great majority of the group was made up of authentic Trotskyists, supporters of LD Trotsky.

... In spite of their differences, all of these groups at the mine lived in a friendly enough fashion under one common denominator, “the Trotskyists.” Their leaders were Socrates Gevorkian, Vladimir Ivanov, Melnais, VV Kossior and Trotsky’s ex-secretary, Poznansky.

Gevorkian was a calm man, very balanced, reasonable, full of good sense. He spoke without hurry, weighing his words, without any affection of theatrical gestures. Up to the time of his arrest, he had worked as an expert for the Russian Association of the Centres of Scientific Research of the Institute of Human Sciences. He was an Armenian, and at this time, was at least forty. His younger brother was imprisoned with him.

Melnais, a Lett, was a little younger than Gevorkian. After having been a member of the Central Committee of the Young Communists, he studied at the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of the University of Moscow, where, in 1925-27, he headed a very important group (several hundred people) of opposition students ...

At the end of 1927, Melnais was one of the first members of the Opposition at the university to be arrested ...

Melnais had been imprisoned ever since. In political isolators and in exile, he spent a lot of time working on economic problems and soon turned out to be an eminent and talented economist.

News of Show Trials reaches camps

Vladimir Ivanov was a hearty man, with the round and full face of a successful merchant, with a big black moustache and intelligent grey eyes. In spite of his fifty years, one sensed in him a strong will and the strength of a bear. An Old Bolshevik and member of the Central Committee, Ivanov, until his arrest, directed the Chinese Eastern Railroad. He, as well as his wife, had belonged to the “Democratic Centralist” group and were among the supporters of Sapronov. When the 15th congress decided that belonging to the Opposition and to the party was incompatible, Ivanov quit the ranks of the Opposition, but this did not save him; he was arrested after the assassination of Kirov ...

Kossior was a middle-aged man, very short (almost a dwarf), with a large head. Before his arrest, he occupied a leading post in the management of the petroleum industry. His brother, Stanislas Kossior, then sat on the Politbureau, and, at the same time, was secretary of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party. (He was later liquidated by Stalin. His case was mentioned by Khruschev in his report to the twentieth congress) ...

Poznansky, a handsome well-built man about thirty-five to thirty-eight years old, was deeply interested in music and chess. Trotsky’s second secretary, Grigoryev, was also in Pechora.

In the autumn of 1936, soon after the frame-up trials against the leaders of the Opposition; Zinoviev, Kamenev and the others, the entire group of “orthodox” Trotskyists at the mine got together to confer with one another.

Opening the meeting, Gevorkian addressed those present: “Comrades! Before beginning our meeting, I ask you to honour the memory of our comrades, guides, and leaders who have died as martyrs at the hands of the Stalinist traitors to the revolution.”

The entire assembly stood up. Then, in a brief and very trenchant speech, Gevorkian explained that it was necessary to examine and resolve the key problem: what should be done and how should they conduct themselves from now on.

“It is now evident that the group of Stalinist adventurers have completed their counter-revolutionary coup d'etat in our country. All the progressive conquests of our revolution are in mortal danger. Not twilight shadows, but those of deep black night envelop our country. No Cavaignac spilled as much working class blood as has Stalin.

Physically annihilating all the opposition groups within the party, he aims at total personal dictatorship. The party and the whole people are subjected to surveillance and to summary justice by the police apparatus. The predictions and the direst fears of our Opposition are fully confirmed. The nation slides irresistibly into the Thermidorian swamp. This is the triumph of the centrist petty-bourgeois forces, of which Stalin is the interpreter, the spokesman, and the apostle.

“No compromise is possible with the Stalinist traitors and hangmen of the revolution. Remaining proletarian revolutionaries to the very end, we should not entertain any illusion about the fate waiting us. But before destroying us, Stalin will try to humiliate us much as he can. By throwing political prisoners in with common criminals, he strives to scatter us among the criminals and to incite them against us. We are left with only one means of struggle in this unequal battle: the hunger strike. With a group of comrades, we have already drawn up a list of our demands of which many of you are already informed. Therefore, I now propose to you that we discuss them together and make a decision.”

The meeting lasted only a short time; the question of the hunger strike and of concrete demands had already been debated for some months by the Trotskyists. Some Trotskyist groups in other camps (Usa station, Chib-Yu, Kochmes, etc) had also been discussing the matter and had sent their agreement to support the demands and to participate in the hunger strike. These demands were ratified unanimously by those present. They stipulated:

  1. Abrogation of the illegal decision of the NKVD, concerning the transfer of all Trotskyists from administrative camps to concentration camps. Affairs relating to political opposition to the regime must not be judged by special NKVD tribunals, but in public judicial assemblies.
  2. The workday in the camp must not exceed eight hours.
  3. The food quota of the prisoners should not depend on their norm of output. A cash bonus, not the food ration, should be used as a production incentive.
  4. Separation, at work as well as in the barracks, of political prisoners and common criminals.
  5. The old, the ill, and women prisoners should be moved from the polar camps to camps where the climatic conditions were more favourable.

It was recommended, at the time of the meeting, that the sick, the invalids, and the old should not participate in the hunger strike; however, all those in question energetically rejected this proposal.

Three weeks later, 27 October 1936, the massive hunger strike of the political prisoners began, a strike without precedent and a model under Soviet camp conditions. In the morning, at reveille, in almost every barrack, prisoners announced themselves on strike. The barracks occupied by the Trotskyists participated 100 per cent in the movement. Even the orderlies struck. Close to 1,000 prisoners, of whom half worked in the mine, participated in this tragedy, which lasted more than four months.

The first two days, the strikers stayed in their usual places. Then the camp administration busied itself in isolating them from the rest of the prisoners, concerned lest the latter followed their example. In the tundra, 40 kilometres from the mine, on the banks of the Syr-Yaga river, there were primitive half-demolished barracks, which previously had been used during the preliminary boring of the mines. In great haste, these barracks were put into makeshift condition; a call was sent out to the inhabitants of the region, who, with their teams of reindeer, transported the hunger strikers there, where they soon numbered about 600. The others were brought together not far from Chib-Yu.

After having isolated the strikers, the GPU took measures to prevent the movement from spreading in the country and from becoming known outside the frontiers. The prisoners were deprived of the right of corresponding with their families; the salaried employees of the camp lost their holidays and their right to leave. Attempts were made to incite the other prisoners against the strikers.

At the end of the first month of the strike, one of the participants died of exhaustion; two others died during the third month. The same month, two strikers, non-orthodox Trotskyists, voluntarily gave up striking. Finally, just a few days before the end of the strike, still another striker died.

Having begun at the end of October 1936, the hunger strike lasted 132 days, ending in March 1937. It culminated with the complete victory of the strikers who received a radiogram from the headquarters of the NKVD, drawn up in these words: “Inform the hunger strikers held in Vorkuta mines that all their demands will be satisfied.”

The Trotskyists were taken back to the mine, received food reserved for the sick and, after a period of time, they went back to work, but only above ground; certain of them worked in the office of the director of the mine, in the capacity of paid workers, book-keepers, economists, etc. Their workday did not exceed eight hours; their food ration was not based on their production norm.

But little by little the other prisoners’ interest in the strikers began to diminish. Everyone’s interest was now focused on the new trial at Moscow, which was being broadcast by radio; besides, new prisoners began arriving at the end of June. Their stories described mass arrests, outrages, executions without a trial behind the walls of the NKVD, and this all over the country. At the beginning, no one wanted to believe this, particularly since the new arrivals spoke unwillingly and rather enigmatically. But little by little, the bonds between them became tighter and the conversations franker. Without let up, new prisoners arrived from Russia; old friends and acquaintances discovered each other: it no longer was possible not to believe the stories.

Executions in the tundra

In spite of these obvious facts, a certain number of prisoners waited with impatience for the Autumn of 1937 and the twentieth anniversary of the October Revolution; they hoped, on this occasion as in 1927, that the government would declare a large-scale amnesty, particularly since a little while earlier the very promising “Stalinist Constitution” had been adopted. But the autumn brought bitter disillusionment.

The harsh regime of the camps grew abruptly worse. The sergeants and their assistants in maintaining order – common criminals – having received new orders from the camp director, armed themselves with clubs and pitilessly beat the prisoners. The guards, the watchmen close to the barracks, tormented the prisoners. To amuse themselves during the night they fired on those who went to the toilets. Or else, giving the order “On your bellies,” they forced the prisoners to stretch out, naked, for hours on the snow. Soon there were massive arrests. Almost every night, GPU agents appeared in the barracks, called out certain names and led away those called.

Certain Trotskyists, including Vladimir Ivanov, Kossior, and Trotsky’s son, Sergei Sedov, a modest and likeable youth, who had imprudently refused to follow his father into exile in 1928, were taken in a special convoy to Moscow. We can only believe that Stalin was not satisfied simply to hurl them into the tundra; his sadistic nature thirsted not only for blood; he wished first to humiliate them and torture them immeasurably, coercing them into false-accusations.

Toward the end of Autumn, about 1,200 prisoners found themselves in the old brick field; at least half of these were Trotskyists. They were all lodged in four barracks; their food ration was 400 grams of bread a day and not every day. The barracks were surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Nearly 100 freshly recruited guards, supplied with automatic arms, watched the prisoners day and night.

The prisoners arrested at the mine, at Usa and in other nearby camps were taken to the old brickyard. Those arrested in more distant camps – at Pechora, Izhma, Kozhma, Chib-Yu, etc. were kept near Chib-Yu.

The whole winter of 1937-38 some prisoners, encamped in barracks at the brickyard, starved and waited for a decision regarding their fate. Finally, in March, three NKVD officers, with Kashketin at their head, arrived by plane at Vorkuta, coming from Moscow. They came to the brickyard to interrogate the prisoners. Thirty to forty were called each day, superficially questioned five to ten minutes each, rudely insulted, forced to listen to vile name-calling and obscenities. Some were greeted with punches in the face; Lt Kashketin himself several times beat up one of them, the Old Bolshevik Virap Virapov, a former member of the Central Committee of Armenia.

At the end of March, a list of twenty-five was announced, among them Gevorkian, Virapov, Slavin, etc. To each was delivered a kilo of bread and orders to prepare himself for a new convoy. After fond farewells to their friends, they left the barracks, and the convoy departed. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, not far away, about half a kilometre, on the steep bank of the little river Verkhnyaya Vorkuta (Upper Vorkuta), an abrupt volley resounded, followed by isolated and disorderly shots; then all grew quiet again. Soon, the convoy’s escort passed back near the barracks. And it was clear to all in what sort of convoy the prisoners had been sent.

Two days later, there was a new call, this time of forty names. Once more there was a ration of bread. Some, out of exhaustion, could no longer move; they were promised a ride in a cart. Holding their breath, the prisoners remaining in the barracks heard the grating of the snow under the feet of the departing convoy. For a long time there was no sound; but all, on the watch, still listened. Nearly an hour passed in this way. Then, again, shots resounded in the tundra; this time, they came from much further away, in the direction of the narrow railway which passed three kilometres from the brickyard. The second “convoy” definitely convinced those remaining behind that they had been irremediably condemned.

The executions in the tundra lasted the whole month of April and part of May. Usually one day out of two, or one day out of three, thirty to forty prisoners were called. It is characteristic to note that each time, some common criminals, repeaters, were included. In order to terrorise the prisoners, the GPU, from time to time, made publicly known by means of local radio, the list of those shot. Usually broadcasts began as follows: “For counter-revolutionary agitation, sabotage, brigandage in the camps, refusal to work, attempts to escape, the following have been shot...” followed by a list of names of some political prisoners mixed with a group of common criminals.

Defiant to the end

One time, a group of nearly a hundred, composed mainly of Trotskyists, was led away to be shot. As they marched away, the condemned sang the “Internationale,” joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp.

At the beginning of May, a group of women were shot. Among them were the Ukrainian Communist, Chumskaya, the wife of IN Smirnov, a Bolshevik since 1898 and ex-Peoples’ Commissar; (Olga, the daughter of Smirnov, a young girl, apolitical, passionately fond of music, had been shot a year before in Moscow); the wives of Kossior, of Melnais, etc ... one of these women had to walk on crutches. At the time of execution of a male prisoner, his imprisoned wife was automatically liable to capital punishment; and when it was a question of well-known members of the Opposition, this applied equally to any of his children over the age of twelve.

In May, when hardly a hundred prisoners remained, the executions were interrupted. Two weeks passed quietly; then all the prisoners were led in a convoy to the mine. There it was learned that Yezhov had been dismissed, and that his place had been taken by Beria ...

October/November 1961