of the Gulag
The CAMP PRISONERS RESIST
After 1944, there were many prisoners in the camps who had been sentenced to long terms of hard labour for taking part in civil and armed resistance against the Sovietisation of Western Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The arrival in the camps of these political prisoners with recent experience of war and the underground struggle against Soviet rule played a major role in increasing all sorts of infringements of rules and resistance: group escapes, hunger strikes, work strikes and uprisings. Problems of order and discipline gradually became a major obstacle to the running of the camps and the achievement of production plans.
Once they were in the camps, the political prisoners reorganised their underground networks on national and political-military bases: Ukrainian, Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian and Latvian organisations and those composed of Vlasov army veterans and former Soviet soldiers. The organisations had a number of purposes: disrupting the work of the intelligence officers by eliminating informers, gaining the respect of the administration and professional criminals, helping the weakest prisoners when they left the isolation blocks or discipline huts, and reacting against the abuses of local administrations by organising acts of resistance.
Many acts of resistance occurred in the camps before Stalin’s death, but it was during the summers of 1953 and 1954 that the uprisings were most significant – in the special camps of the Gorlag (Norilsk), Rechlag (Vorkuta) and Steplag (Kengir) – and posed major difficulties for the system.
Underground life at Kengir camp
Antanas Petrikonis describes his arrival at Kengir camp in the Kazakhstan Steplag, where there was a major prisoner uprising in summer 1954.
“At the start, they kept us in quarantine, it was compulsory for 20 days. There were Lithuanians who came and asked us where we came from, why, how. We immediately joined the underground. The underground organisation there was strong. I was introduced, they asked where I came from, why and how. I said I was a partisan, I’d been captured and arrested. I gained more of their confidence in that way. We joined the struggle straight away.”
Antanas Petrikonis: the Kengir uprising put down
“That morning, 26 June, I think I was in the women’s area, Hut 5. Suddenly we heard a loud noise, the sound of tanks, gunfire, blanks obviously. When a tank fired, the cloth wadding went up in the air. They were loaded with wadding, what mattered was the noise. They drove past at top speed, without looking to see if there were any men, with their tracks covered in blood. There was a Latvian woman, they drove over her and afterwards there were only strips of clothing left, no woman. They put us in huts and surrounded them. I was in a hut with a Ukrainian man, soldiers all around. I looked at the soldiers, they were in front of us, the hut door was open. The man put his head out to look, the other asked him how many they were. He put his head out and bang, right in his head, he fell down. He only had one year’s camp to do. We took him and laid him on wooden slats. He just gurgled, that’s all, he died. I say, a good thing it wasn’t my head. That’s what a man’s fate can be sometimes.”