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The following article was adapted from a letter by Irina Dubrovina, co-founder of Sovest ("Conscience") a Kotlas organization dedicated to teaching Russians about the Gulag and seeking compensation for its victims. The letter, addressed to Gregor Smith and dated June 10, 1993, was translated by Patricia Hanson.

Starting from the beginning of "universal collectivization" (February 1930) there was deportation to Kotlas. There were primitive huts and barracks, where the deported families of peasants awaited their dispatch. Convoys set out on foot and by barge down the Northern Dvina and up the Vychegda, they took people into the forests, into virgin areas. Here they had to build themselves settlements and work at cutting and rafting timber and building roads. These settlements don't exist any more.

The building of the railroad Konosha-Kotlas-Vorkuta [a distance of over 900 mi.] began in 1939. Imprisoned designers, engineers and laborers built it. [The rail line was completed in only three years, but at a terribly cost. Referring to the section from Kotlas to Vorkuta, Solzhenitsyn wrote that "beneath each tie two heads were left".] The structure of the camp system was spread out along the railroad line. Camps, camp offices, camp stations were every 5 to 10 kilometers along the rails. There were also farm camps.

In 1943, there were 11 camp stations on the territory of the present city of Kotlas, including one farm camp. The largest camp and two camp infirmaries were in the area of the construction of the railroad bridge across the Northern Dvina. The bridge was opened to traffic in 1942. The bridge was built by deported Volga Germans [ethnic Germans whose ancestors had settled along the Volga River in the 18thcentury, but whom Stalin expelled en masse in 1941], political prisoners, and other deportees. Many were there because of "social" statutes, because of decrees about misappropriation of state property. There were also common criminals.

The Kotlas deportation facility continued to function.[Situated at a river/rail junction, Kotlas was a logical location for a transit prison, where deportees were held while awaiting transport to their ultimate destinations farther north and east. While no statistics exist, a few million people are believed to have passed through its portals, with the population peaking during World War II. The prison operated from the late 1920's until 1956.] Many Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians passed through it in 1939. In 1940 the deported Poles (from the "Soviet" parts of Poland) were transferred there to the forestry work camps in the taiga. The more educated and those who actively defended their compatriots were sent to these camps under Article 58 [the section of the Soviet penal code under which political prisoners were tried] for terms of 8 to 10 years. There are archive documents about this.

The conditions under which the prisoners were kept were harsh. The food was skimpy, almost without fat or protein. One's bread ration was normally dependent on one's work output. The maximum was 600 grams per day for a person who did 100% of the work norm. If one did less, one got 300 grams. Those who didn't work didn't receive any bread.

It was dank and cold in the barracks. Dysentery, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and other illnesses took many lives. The impression from the stories of those who survived in these camps is very grim. There was an especially high mortality rate during the war years. The bodies were collected in large boxes, which were put on tractor-drawn sleds, taken off, and thrown into a ditch. In the summer, the bodies were collected the from all the camp stations onto one barge, transported down the river to the southern outskirts of the city, and buried in a common grave.

With the end of construction of the railroad in the Kotlas region the number of camps diminished. By 1953, one large camp remained in the southern part of the city (the Boltinka settlement). The camps were moved to other construction projects. There was a camp in Koryazhma, 40 kilometers from Kotlas, for a long time after that. There the cellulose-paper combine was being built. Prison labor was still used in the 1950's and 1960's for felling timber, and in the city for housing construction. Prisoners were taken to and from work along the streets of Kotlas during these years in large motorized trucks disguised as refrigerator vans.

People's experiences were different. Most of the Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Poles, Germans and Russians who were brought here from 1930-1933 settled in Kotlas, where many of their descendants still live. They had lived about 20 years under the surveillance of the special commands of the N.K.V.D. [predecessor of the K.G.B.] In 1947 to 1949, the majority were taken off the registers of the special commands and were allowed to leave, but in their homelands they no longer had homes. Everything had been confiscated by the collective farms; therefore few of them left.

Those who had been convicted "under the statutes" could leave when they had served out their camp terms, but not all of them did this, since massive repeated arrests were the rule in the southern regions. One who had served out his term could find imself in camp again. Usually a freed prisoner gave a sworn statement that he wouldn't make public anything that he knew about the camps. After that they would take him to work "as a free hire" in the very same system of Gulags where he had up to then been imprisoned. Almost all the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles who had been deported from 1939-1940 either perished in the forests or went back to their native lands.

Testimony from Those Who Were There

The following testimonies and articles were all written between 1992 and 1994. They were supplied by Irina Dubrovina and translated by Patricia Hanson. They are presented here for historical purposes only; the Kotlas Connection regrets that it is unable to assist people looking for information about relatives who are thought to have passed through the Gulags of Kotlas.

  • Gulag 113
    Web site for a documentary by a Canadian filmmaker about his Estonian grandfather's journey through the Gulag Archipelago, including a stay at a Gulag logging camp near Kotlas
  • Life in the Kotlas Gulags
    Excerpts from two memoirs on life in the Kotlas Transit Prison and a railroad camp on the Kotlas-Vorkuta line.
  • The History of One Family
    How two young, dispossessed kulaks from southern Russian met and married in Kotlas
  • In Exile in Kotlas
    Letters from Poles deported to Kotlas from Soviet-occupied Poland in 1940
  • The Archives of the NKVD
    One man's attempt to get official documentation of his exile to Kotlas. Article describes the work of Sovest.
  • The Sleigh Driver's Tale
    Testimony from a teen-aged lad compelled to drive a group of exiles to a deep-woods settlement
  • A Mass Grave in Solvychegodsk
    A mass grave of unknown Gulag exiles is found near Kotlas