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The Last Prisoner
May 2, 2011 3:38 AM   Subscribe

100 year old Pavel Galitsky, the last survivor of Kolyma, tells his story. "Kolyma was Auschwitz without the ovens. Prisoners traveled 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."
posted by joannemullen (35 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
What a life! A story very worth reading. Imagining the extremes this man has experienced in his life is absolutely mind blowing.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:58 AM on May 2, 2011


It seems that the sever hosting this URL isn't gonna make its 150 carts.
posted by three blind mice at 4:33 AM on May 2, 2011




"Kolyma is often compared with Auschwitz, but without the ovens and the gas chambers."

So basically it wasn't Auschwitz. I don't know how I feel with comparing bad things to the holocaust. I kinda feel like saying "yeah, that sucks...but really...it wasn't Auschwitz. You shouldn't say that".
posted by hal_c_on at 4:49 AM on May 2, 2011


Stalin sent nearly 1 in 3 russian citizen to the gulag. Hitler did not send 1 in 3 german citizen to the ovens. In terms of intent to murder large swaths of population, Stalin was certainly comparable to Hitler. Holocaust victims do not have a monopoly on suffering and horrible fate.
posted by knz at 4:52 AM on May 2, 2011 [11 favorites]


I don't know how I feel with comparing bad things to the holocaust.

It's probably fair for a prisoner of Stalin's gulag to make that comparison, but I don't think it serves the rest of us to do so.
posted by three blind mice at 4:58 AM on May 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


tbm,

makes sense.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:59 AM on May 2, 2011


The link didn't load for me but Chrome offered a cached version instead.
posted by selton at 5:07 AM on May 2, 2011


If there's anything one can compare to Auschwitz and the holocaust camps it's certainly the gulag. I don't think doing so diminishes the suffering of the victims of the holocaust any, in fact, it places them into a greater context of inhuman violence and human courage.

See, for example, associations like Gardens of the Righteous which work towards the remembrance and recognition of all genocides.
posted by lydhre at 5:34 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


One of the reason that Holocaust comparisons suck is that every time someone makes one, you end up discussing the comparison and not the atrocity that's being compared to the Holocaust.

The gulags were a massive crime against humanity in their own right. They don't need the added oomph of Holocaust comparisons to make them seem sufficiently horrible.
posted by craichead at 5:34 AM on May 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


The gulags were a massive crime against humanity in their own right. They don't need the added oomph of Holocaust comparisons to make them seem sufficiently horrible.

Thats what I've noticed about things that are compared to the holocaust. Why make the comparison when you will spend all your time sorting out the differences?
posted by hal_c_on at 5:57 AM on May 2, 2011


If there's anything one can compare to Auschwitz and the holocaust camps it's certainly the gulag.

The Killing Fields in Cambodia. In terms of percentage of population, it makes both the Gulag and the Holocaust look small. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 20% and 30% of the entire population of Cambodia was killed by the Khmer Rouge -- 1.7-2.5m out of 8m.

The only reason the Khmer Rouge didn't kill 10 million is there weren't 10 million people for them to kill. And yet, the west hold the Holocaust as the one true horror, and everything else as less.

I refuse to let other horrors be diminished by the Holocaust. It was a true horror. But so were the Gulags. So were the Killing Fields.

Forgetting any of them is unforgivable.
posted by eriko at 6:14 AM on May 2, 2011 [14 favorites]


I refuse to let other horrors be diminished by the Holocaust.
What the fuck?
posted by craichead at 6:36 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is it worth pointing out that the same political party is still in charge in Russia?

Imagine, if you will, that Germany was still ruled by the National Socialists.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:03 AM on May 2, 2011


Thats what I've noticed about things that are compared to the holocaust. Why make the comparison when you will spend all your time sorting out the differences?

BECAUSE THIS FUCKING GUY WAS ALIVE FOR BOTH. Jesus, it's not the author that made that comparison, it's the guy. He was giving contemporaneous context.
posted by spicynuts at 7:12 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Against the odds, the 100-year old dissident is still alive and Skype'ing, having outlived both his contemporaries and tormentors.

OK, the story was full of horror, but that made me smile.

I think the best reasons not to invoke the Holocaust in reference to other atrocities is

a) you risk the comparison battle, as described above

b) you risk a "my atrocity is worse than your atrocity" battle, which does no one good

c) the Holocaust is so horrible, even from our vantage point 60+ years on, that it's difficult not to have your brain just shut down. "Geeze, that's horrible," you think and then think about anything else, because it's so appalling. The gulag was also horrible; so was Cambodia; so was Munster in 1535, so were many many moments in history that if we always reach for the image of the Holocaust to make sense of it, we are also pulling that veil of numbness over the proceedings, and we should be pushing through that veil to really look at it and say "never again," even though that we know that it will happen again somewhere, but all we can do is try, with what ever tools we have, to stop it.

“Should I be crying? All my tears are shed, though actually I don’t remember crying at the time. I used to say to myself ‘Die, you bastards, die! But I shall live!’”

I hope I could do as well.

Anyway, thanks for the link.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:45 AM on May 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


What the fuck?

Would you prefer the statement "I refuse to let other horrors be diminished by the Killing Fields?"

I refuse to hold any horror as untouchable. Talking about these things is the best chance we have of them not happening again, and the statement that "nothing was like the Holocaust" is both true and false.

Saying anything like "You can't compare that to...." is implicitly holding that thing as special and unique, and I refuse to acknowledge that the Holocaust was something that happened because of one madman and can never happen again.

All of them -- Holocaust, the Soviet Repressions, The Killing Fields, The Rwanda Massacre, Armenia and Assyria during and after WWI, Bangladesh in 1971 -- all of them killed over a million people. In real numbers, Stalin probably wins. In percentage of population, Cambodia. We in the US and Europe saw the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust closest, and our European heritage means makes it easier to stick in our mind -- but it was just one of them. One of many.

It was a horror. It was a huge stain on humanity. But I refuse to hold it ahead of, or behind, or in any way more or less "special" than the other great holocausts -- the other stains on humanity.

Why? Because I don't buy "it can't happen again" or "it can't happen here." We may not gas Jews, or smash Cambodians in the head with a rifle, or shoot Russians with 9mm bullets, or hack Tutsi up with machetes -- but pretending that any of them were unique constructs of their time is to assume they cannot happen again.

There was nothing unique about the fundamental cause. They all declared that "That thing!" was undeserving of life. The differences in time, place, and mechanism pales in comparison to the sameness of all genocides. That thing did not deserve to live, so a large number of people made sure that it didn't.

The moment you demote a person to a thing, you are ready to do this. Until all humanity is human, genocide will happen.
posted by eriko at 8:06 AM on May 2, 2011 [10 favorites]


Pavel Kalinkovich laughs again, as if he telling me some amusing incident from his life, rather than talking about torture.

“Why are you laughing?”

“Should I be crying?


Yeah, that's one amazing guy. Btw, if you're looking for a brilliant, utterly grim read, the quote at the beginning of the article is from Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, a collection of brief, slightly fictionalized stories about gulag life. Shalamov spent 17 years there and is a sharp observer and powerful writer. It's a gripping read if you like horror stories.
posted by mediareport at 8:13 AM on May 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


FWIW, the Mrs visited the holocaust museum this weekend and said there were a number of exhibits/halls (not sure the right word ..) that detail other mass-killing/genocide events.
posted by k5.user at 8:22 AM on May 2, 2011


“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."

We weren't there when the interview took place, so none of us know how this hilarious anecdote came off. But it's certainly germane to the whole Holocaust-comparison debate.
posted by turducken at 8:50 AM on May 2, 2011


Would you prefer the statement "I refuse to let other horrors be diminished by the Killing Fields?"
I think that would be a bizarre statement, because nobody pulls this shit with the Killing Fields. People don't use the Killing Fields as a free-floating analogy for anything awful, while at the same time darkly hinting that Cambodians are hogging all the atrocity attention for themselves.
posted by craichead at 8:58 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


while at the same time darkly hinting that Cambodians are hogging all the atrocity attention for themselves.

And yet a story about Kolyma turns into a debate about the Holocaust based on one casual analogy.

I know, I know, I'm worse than Hitler...
posted by codswallop at 9:18 AM on May 2, 2011


People don't use the Killing Fields as a free-floating analogy for anything awful, while at the same time darkly hinting that Cambodians are hogging all the atrocity attention for themselves.

Well The Killing Fields was the name of a film - and a pretty good film at that - you'd have to at least pick a really bad film for an analogy to something really awful.

Kolyma was Battlefield Earth without the popcorn.
posted by three blind mice at 9:50 AM on May 2, 2011


[Couple comments removed. Putting forth a basic effort not to just call each other names: still expected. Abide or take a walk.]
posted by cortex at 10:53 AM on May 2, 2011


"The surprise is not that it happened, but that it doesn't happen more often."
posted by Meatbomb at 11:11 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


One difference that I remember learning about in my Soviet History class is that Stalin and his gang was more directly responsible for signing off books of death sentences than Hitler.

I'm sure there are lots of books on it, but I know of at least one if anyone wants further reading on the hitler/stalin thing. "Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared" by Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick.
posted by aniola at 11:52 AM on May 2, 2011


Would you prefer the statement "I refuse to let other horrors be diminished by the Killing Fields?"

I think what you meant to say "Sorry for saying something clumsy and insensitive that overshadowed the valid point I was trying to make."
posted by nzero at 12:14 PM on May 2, 2011


Stalin sent nearly 1 in 3 russian citizen to the gulag. In terms of intent to murder large swaths of population, Stalin was certainly comparable to Hitler.

Where the hell did you get this number from? The total number of Gulag detainees was around 10 million, for the 30 years the system existed--and the number of political prisoners was a fraction of that. Total deaths are estimated at around 2 million. So no, this is no way like the Holocaust, although of course it was an atrocity.

As for intent to murder, there were certainly large groups Stalin did intend to murder (anti-Soviet Poles and members of the anti-Soviet Ukrainian resistance, for example). And of course the expectation in the gulags was that a large proportion of the inmates would die. But if they hadn't actually been executed, they weren't specifically intended to die--they were primarily disposable forced labor.


Is it worth pointing out that the same political party is still in charge in Russia?

Imagine, if you will, that Germany was still ruled by the National Socialists.


Sorry, but the ignorance of this statement is breathtaking. Please don't opine on the political situation in Russia if all you know about it comes from reading Cold War-era propaganda.


In real numbers, Stalin probably wins.

Well, if anything, Mao probaably wins, but whatever.
posted by nasreddin at 12:18 PM on May 2, 2011 [5 favorites]


the number of political prisoners was a fraction of that

Specifically, 3-4 million inmates were sentenced for political crimes.

Of course, you have to put these statistics in the context of the many other Stalin-era repression campaigns (deportations, dekulakization, direct NKVD executions, etc.). But post-1991 archival evidence does not support the Robert Conquest figure of 54 million (or whatever it was) by any stretch of the imagination.
posted by nasreddin at 12:25 PM on May 2, 2011



Where the hell did you get this number from?


Oh, I see now. One of the blue bits I assumed was a pullquote was actually plagiarized, incorrectly, from Russian Wikipedia, whoop dee doo. "V. P. Pavlov" refers to a 1992 article by a V. P. Popov, but I have no idea who the guy is and I see no reason to trust his figure of 40 million over any other arbitrary number. 40 million sounds possible, but that's a figure that apparently includes everyone ever convicted of anything under Stalin, which is very far from a number like the 6 million Holocaust dead. (Stalinist attempts at enforcing labor discipline were heavily repressive (laws on theft of socialist property, showing up late to work, etc.) but should they be considered genocidal per se? Their intent was to boost productivity.)
posted by nasreddin at 12:59 PM on May 2, 2011


What a stupid thread (in large part)... but nasreddin has made the points I was going to, so I'll just say thanks for the link. (Minor quibble: Galitsky is certainly not "the last survivor of Kolyma"; Dalstroy, the administration that ran it during Stalin's time, was shut down in 1957, but new prisoners were still arriving in the 1970s, and I'm pretty sure they didn't all magically vanish in the last few decades. Surviving the Gulag and making it to 100 is pretty fucking impressive, though, and I take off all my hats to the guy.)

Oh, and by all means read Shalamov. Even Solzhenitsyn deferred to him.
posted by languagehat at 2:08 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


People picking nits about who's death camps were worst are missing the point of the post. This is about an individual surviving a terrible ordeal, a monsterously inhuman ordeal, and coming out the other side with a sense of humor and love of life to rival anyone's. This guy has lived to tell his tale for a history in need of this very perspective. We have all the dry numbers of the dead we need. First person survivor stories may be the best shot at prevention. That's what I got out of reading the FA, anyway
posted by Redhush at 2:44 PM on May 2, 2011


Sorry, but just to comment one last time on this. I love OpenDemocracy for some of their reporting, which is often excellent. But the "Pavlov" thing is just absolutely typical of their work. They rushed to the Wikipedia article on "Stalinist repression" (the Russian one) and picked the highest number they could find on the page, without any consideration of source, meaning or context, then threw it up there for the Western reader to wring her hands over. It's shameful.

People picking nits about who's death camps were worst are missing the point of the post. This is about an individual surviving a terrible ordeal, a monsterously inhuman ordeal, and coming out the other side with a sense of humor and love of life to rival anyone's. This guy has lived to tell his tale for a history in need of this very perspective. We have all the dry numbers of the dead we need. First person survivor stories may be the best shot at prevention. That's what I got out of reading the FA, anyway

The article was a fun read, but the idea that the Stalinist repression could have been prevented by jus' plain folks learnin' them some Life Lessons is totally wrongheaded, even if it makes you feel good in a Reader's Digest kind of way. Remember that many of the revolutionaries were graduates of the Siberian exile system, which was often much milder (for politicals) but not qualitatively different. And the persistence in the West of the notion that all repressive systems are just one big totalitarian cartoon, and nuances and differences between them just don't matter, is a big part of why political discourse (especially in the West) is so stereotyped and impoverished.
posted by nasreddin at 2:51 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


er, especially in the US is what I meant to say.
posted by nasreddin at 2:52 PM on May 2, 2011


I was hoping vainly for a better future, man. The only thing history seems to show is change aint coming from those in power. And I don't know about readers digest, but stories from people living through strike a louder note than a pile of rotting corpses, whatever the country of origin
posted by Redhush at 3:08 PM on May 2, 2011


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