A special place in Hell
In November 2007, I was on my way to visit the worst of the worst of camps from Stalin time. The Kolyma gold mines were the worst in the Slave Empire of Stalin, but within this Hell on Earth, there was a special place. The Butugichag uranium mine. Andrei Vasilievich Kravtsiv told me about his experiences in that horrible camp, while we were sitting in the comfortable and warm Catholic Church in Magadan. Winter was building up outside.
The uranium factory in the middle of a blizzard
“I was born in the Lvivskaia oblast in Ukraine at a large farm in the Carpathian Mountains. I attended music school in Lviv, but I never finished, because I was arrested before exam. I had joined a small literary group, where we studied Ukrainian classic literature and history. One day a fellow student informed about us to the NKVD, the secret police of Stalin, and we were all arrested. It was 1945 and I was 17 years old.” Told Kravtsiv. The first interview lasted only for about 15 minutes. He simply broke down, crying and could not endure more.
From the arrest, he was interrogated by the method of the conveyor line, where the prisoners were kept awake round the clock and lost all contact with time and place. He was convicted by the court of the Troika, the court with three judges, which routinely convicted thousands of innocent people. There were many Troikas in the Soviet Union in those days!
Left: Kravtsiv. Middle: General Titov in centre, leader of the uranium excavation. Right: Miner drilling uranium ore with no protection at all.
Transfer to Hell
Before being transferred to Kolyma, or Magadan, Kravtsiv was in labor camps in Stalino (now Donetsk), Estonia and Taishet in Siberia, West of Lake Baikal. As so many other thousands of prisoners, Kravtsiv was sent by the Baikal Amur Railroad to the port of Vanino, close to the Sakhalin island. This was in 1950, the late years of Stalin when the number of prisoners in the GULAG reached all-time high. In the port, the infamous slave ship “SS Djurma” waited to transport more thousands of prisoners to their cold and horrible destiny.
The “Djurma” was a terrible ship and the death toll was often high. It was an old Dutch steam freighter, where a wooden construction was made in each cargo compartment. Three decks were built in each cargo hold, with each three layers of bunks. Usually there were between 6,000 and 8,000 prisoners on board and it has been claimed, that at one journey, “Djurma” has 12,000 prisoners in her hull. Historians have rejected this high number, but eyewitness reports from sailors combined with calculations based on the drawings of the ship, prove that it really was possible. Needless to say, these conditions have hunted the mind of the surviving victims ever after. Going from Vanino to Magadan, lasted for about 5-7 days.
GULAG prisoners in late 1940’ies were not like the prisoners of the early days of the Kolyma camp system (“Daltroi” was the actual name of it, or “Far East Construction Trust”). On the ships as well as in the camps, the political prisoners were harassed by the criminals, who the system used as KAPO’s like in the Nazi camps. They were easy pray and even the strong Ukrainian farm boys were no match for the dirty trick of the criminals. But times had changed, and during the late GULAG years, many of the politicals were former soldiers who were not afraid of the thieves. The transport where Kravtsiv joined in 1950, should end up as one of the very famous legends of Kolyma camp history.
As usual, the criminals stated stealing and bullying the political prisoners. On the way to one of the coldest places on Earth, losing a pair of warm felt boots (valenki) could mean the difference between life and death. The old and the weak started to yell to the younger prisoners, where there were many Ukrainian nationals on this transport: “Why don’t you do something!? And you call yourself Banderista!!!” Banderista was the term, used for Ukrainian partisans, who had fought for an independent Ukraine under the leadership of Stepan Bandera. Well, they were not partisans, because if they really were, they would have been shot, but there were of course many veterans from the great war. So, the young prisoners took up the
fight against the criminals and beat them up so soundly and effectively, that they had to yell for help from the guards. To calm down the fighting, the crew used high pressure water from the fire hosed and isolated the criminals from the politicals.
A very special place in Hell
The fight on the “Djurma”, most likely what brought Kravtsiv into even more serious trouble. From the “4 Km” transit camp, he was sent to the Butugichag uranium camp, north west of Ust Umchug, app. 700 km from Magadan. There are many legends from this evil place, and many of these have never been verified. I had a perfect option to come back a second time and meet an eyewitness with real insight from the administration, but indifference made it impossible to raise the needed funding. Now we only have the legends and we may never get them verified or adjusted.
Butugichag was originally a nickel mine, but in 1944 Stalin initiated the top-secret project for the nuclear bomb. The USSR only found three places with Uranium. All three were in the Kolyma area (Dalstroi) and all were of very poor quality. Butugichag was the best of the poor and the only one to go into production. It was closed down as soon as they found much better ore in Kazakhstan, which coincided with the end of Stalin.
In this camp, prisoners working in “dirty” places, like inside the mine shafts or at the grinding facility at the factory, were all “dead men walking”. Only two months could they work before they were marked and dying and two or three months later, they exhaled. Neither guards lasted for long in this camp.
Left: Skulls in the valley. Centre: Human bone. Right: Prisoner graves.
Punishment even after death!
Not even as dead, the prisoners were treated respectfully. Like in any other GULAG camp, they were not allowed to have a tombstone, nor their names, on their graves. Only the prisoner number was allowed and that was engraved on the lid of a tin can or a small piece of metal on a piece of wood. Adding to the grievances of all prisoners, there were special degradation of the dead in Butugichag. First, all corpses had a rudimental autopsy at the camp’s morgue and the skull was always opened to detect effects of radiation to the brain. A small number of them were interesting for further investigation and these corpses were transferred to Novosibirsk, where an institute made research in effects of radiation on humans. In reality,
the Butugichag prisoners were Ginny pigs. The large majority of corpses were buried in the valley, but as there is next no soil there, they were only covered with a thin layer of stones, inviting the bears for a feast among the dead. Therefore, there are human bones all over the area today and not least the open skulls.
Thousands of them!
Kravtsiv survived because he had the luck to work with geologists making surveys for new ores and in the factory, he worked in the only clean room, where they packed the purified yellow uranium ore in barrels. From here, it was shipped to Chelyabinsk in the Urals, where the ore was processed into high radiation material for weapons.
The grinding facility to grind the ore into powder. The powder or sand, was then processed in a bath of chemicals to extract the uranium from the stone. All machinery has been ripped off and sold as scrap metal.
Going to the place
I visited myself the factory where Kravtsiv had worked. It was November 2007 and there was a fierce blizzard. We went there three persons. Myself, my interpreter and the head of the rangers in the area.
Conditions were hard and we went with no special equipment at all. To see this place in the way the prisoners experienced it in freezing cold is burned into my memory. I shall never forget. There were no bones and no skulls, as all was covered in deep snow, but there was dead silence and I went through the rooms so vividly described by Kravtsiv. This way, I became the only one who could inform him about the place as it is now and my second interview became very different from the first one. We were united in an experience of a horrible kind. I have of course in no way what so ever, had his hardships and I did this out of my free will, but I did know about winter conditions there and it had almost made an end to myself. This
second time, we had a long conversation and I had the feeling that Kravtsiv got ease of mind by this. I wonder if he is still alive.
Freedom of a kind
Kravtsiv was released from Butugichag in 1953 and from there he spent some time in the nearby Matrosovo gold mine, before finally being released. He stayed in Magadan for the rest of his life. Of his 9 brothers and one sister, he was the only survivor in 1960. He managed to give his two sons and one daughter good educations and when I interviewed him in 2007, he was most likely the only survivor from the camp, except of the son of the doctors working at the morgue of the camp.
Even by Ukrainian standards, Kravtsiv had a very hard Soviet experience, but hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians got horrible camp experiences in the GULAG and during the Holodomor, millions were murdered by hunger. Today this hard-hit and proud nation is once again struggling for independence. It is no wonder, they do not want to be part of Putin’s revival of the Soviet Union, which is nothing short of a revival of one of the biggest crimes in World history.