Rare witness to Stalin’s Gulag prisons horror dies

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Moscow, July 25 (IANS) A rare survivor of the harshest Stalin-era labour camps has died aged 89 in Russia’s far east.

Vasily Kovalyov had survived icy punishment cells and beatings in the former USSR’s notorious Gulag prison system. He died of a stroke in a Magadan city hospital on Monday, the BBC reported.

During an escape attempt in 1954 he spent five months hiding in a freezing mine with two other prisoners. His story was featured in Vesma, a news website.

The communist regime shipped thousands of “enemies” to prison camps via Magadan, a port city.

In 1950, Kovalyov, then 20, was found guilty of anti-Soviet sabotage — one among the millions of victims of Stalinist terror. An old sabre that he had used to chop vegetables was enough to condemn him, the BBC reported.

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First he was sent to Norilsk, in the Russian Arctic, he told Vesma. But he ended up in Kolyma, a notoriously harsh network of labour camps north of Magadan, after guards uncovered an escape plot.

In 1954 he and two other inmates hid in a mine and prepared an armed uprising, but someone tipped off the guards, who then came looking for them, the BBC report said.

“Miners who knew the place inside out accompanied them and said we wouldn’t be able to stand the permafrost there longer than a week,” he told Vesma.

“They blocked all the entrances with grills… We spent five months underground, in the dark, starving. After three months we had eaten all our food, and in the end we were chewing wood shavings.”

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He said they managed to dig a way out through the permafrost and emerged “half-blind, like moles”. They made it to a nearby town, but were arrested there.

During a punishment beating the guards let loose a huge sheep dog on him, he said. “It leapt at me, but I had protective metal studs on my boots, and kicked the dog down. In a flash I dived at its throat and bit hard. I heard a crunch and the dog shuddered then died.”

Kovalyov was released in 1957, when Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev declared an amnesty for Gulag prisoners, in the post-Stalin “thaw”.

He stayed in Magadan, where he worked as a heating engineer. Kovalyov took the Vesma reporter on a tour of the grim prison — a ruin still reeking of cruelty.

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Millions died during Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship — in deportations, famine, forced collectivisation, executions and prison camps. The terror he unleashed involved massive purges of the Communist Party and state institutions, the BBC report added.

–IANS

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