Alexander Snovsky - Dead Track Prisoner

The young student used to desire on thing - to become a veterinarian and work with animals. But his path led him from the lecture halls and classrooms of the university to underground interrogation rooms and from there to labour camps in the far north. He did not let his love of animals to be taken away from him in the hell of the gulag. Eventually he completed his forcibly interrupted studies and became a zoo engineer. He devoted his free life to educating people about the horrors of Stalin's repression and writing his memoirs of his years in the labour camps.

Alexander Snovsky was born on 8 August 1928 in Leningrad into a working-class family. "We lived very modestly, my father worked in a factory and my mother did not work. " In 1941, because of the war, the Snovsky family was evacuated to the village of Velikoje pod Rybinskom in the Yaroslavsky region. On the horse farm where he lived with his parents, his great love for animals and especially horses was born. When the family returned to the city at the end of the war, Alexander, full of anticipation and enthusiasm to devote his life to helping animals, enrolled in veterinary school.

However, he did not enjoy the carefree student life for long. In 1949 he was arrested and accused of anti-Soviet activities. "I was in my second year at the veterinary institute. I am very fond of animals, I have devoted my whole life to them."

Arrest at a Marxism-Leninism lesson

Suddenly, I was summoned from my Marxism-Leninism class at school for interrogation. And they took me to the "Big House", Alexander recalls how he found himself in the headquarters of the NKVD secret police in Leningrad. A place that was notorious for torturing prisoners. And the reason? An acquaintance of Alexander's denounced him for his words questioning Stalin's policies.

Alexander soon discovered that the prison population was very diverse. There were all sorts of people in the cells waiting for the verdict. In addition to those who were there for criminal offences, he met political prisoners who, like him, had been sent to prison by Article 58. "In the cell I met a very interesting person, his name was Shimanovsky and he was a doctor of science. He was already in prison for the second time, he was an Arabist and he had translated the Koran into Russian. There were also two students there, both historians. "

"Do you know where you got to? To the Gestapo!"

In addition to the loss of his freedom, Alexander was faced with a much more material manifestation of the arbitrary nature of the repressive system in the Soviet Union. Interrogations were often not without beatings and torture, in which many interrogators took sadistic satisfaction. "A carved, heavy armchair. Hands cuffed behind the back of the chair ", Alexander recalls how he found himself in one such interrogation. "A huge man with a lock of hair stuck to his forehead. And to his right was a colonel. Do you know where you've got to? " thundered the colonel, whose fearsome reputation preceded him, and all the prisoners feared him. "Yes, I know. " Answered Alexander, who had not yet had any personal experience of the dread commissioner. "Where? " The colonel continued to do what he did best - ask questions. "To the Gestapo. " Alexander could not resist to ask a provocative answer, for which he was immediately punished. "I didn't even see the colonel's right fist flash. I woke up lying on the ground with the armchair, my hands in handcuffs ached terribly. He was nicknamed the hammer-beater. All the prisoners in the Big House knew him. When they called him in, when he came in, he beat us terribly. I learned that for myself. " Alexander was under constant psychological pressure, subjected to cruel physical abuse. Not long after their first meeting, the same violent interrogator dislocated his jaw. "I couldn't eat. I could only drink water sweetened with sugar."

Neither by humiliation nor by beating could they get a confession out of Alexander. So they tried to break his will by isolating him from his fellow prisoners. "I spent three months in solitary confinement. " Even with this strategy, they were unsuccessful and eventually ended the process of examining the evidence and interrogating him. "When the investigation was over, I was not taken anywhere for trial. Right in the prison building, the judge and two observers sentenced me to ten years in labour camps." The so-called Troika, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the NKVD, consisted of three officials whose task was to sentence the accused in an accelerated, simplified procedure that took place behind closed doors without public access. "I received the verdict indifferently, " Alexander recalls his feelings immediately after the members of the Troika, judges and jurors at the same time, pronounced their verdict on him. "The list of articles mentioned in the indictment did not mean anything to me: I am not a lawyer. I was so tired of it all that all I wanted was to see people and get some fresh air."

The beginning of a sorrowful journey

Prisoners were often taken from detention or prison under cover of night or the transport vehicles were disguised in various ways. The illusion of a perfect Soviet society had to be maintained with all its might. And the dream of a just system and equality did not fit the fact of thousands of people heading to Siberia in cattle cars. "I was taken away from the Big House in a car with a sign saying meat or milk, I don't remember. It was somewhere near Moscow. And that's actually where my journey began. " The train was crowded with people heading east to labor camps, many of whom never returned. "There was no room for me, I slept under the bunk beds, on the floor. And when space became available, I moved upstairs to the bunk. " During his imprisonment and transport, the picture of the monstrous machinery of the Soviet repressive system in its horrific complexity began to piece together for the just nineteen-year-old Alexander.

Young and old, poor and rich, workers or intellectuals... all of them could have fallen victim to the purges. Who was guilty or innocent was irrelevant. Some of his encounters with other prisoners were destined to have a profound impact on his future life in the camp. "When we were transported by rail on the Leningrad-Krasnoyarsk route, a Leningrad professor, neurosurgeon Adam Stanislavovich Pashkovsky, was lying on one bunk with me. And he said to me: Sasha, you have no expertise, it will be difficult for you in the camp... did you learn Latin? In the second year we already learned Latin and anatomy. So I'll make a medic out of you!" One accidentally formed friendship in the horrible conditions of the transport could later create the border between life and death in the camp.

Two months as a ship's cargo

The Transpolar Railway, nowadays called the Dead Track because of its incompleteness, was one of the most tragic projects of the whole mechanism of repression in the Soviet Union. The grand plan of the Great Northern Railway was to connect the inhospitable regions of northern Siberia with civilization. The first designs were made in 1928, but construction did not begin until after the war, in 1947. The massive work involved a huge number of workers. At one point, eighty thousand Gulag prisoners were working on the railway in both directions. Almost one thousand five hundred kilometers of railway were intended to connect the towns of Chum, Salekhard and Igarka.

And it was Igarka, beyond the Arctic Circle, that Alexander was heading to in the next transport from Krasnoyarsk, where he had arrived by train from Leningrad. To this isolated and inaccessible area, the prisoners sailed on cargo ships down the Yenisei River for almost two months.

The conditions of the journey were terrible. Lack of food, poor hygiene and the constant threat of violence from both guards and fellow prisoners convicted of criminal activity. Even here there was a strict hierarchy, and although all prisoners were seemingly equal in their plight, the criminal ones had various privileges thanks to stolen items from the transports and the brisk trade with the guards. "There was already a kind of social stratification," Alexander recalls another level of injustice that was impossible to rebel against, let alone fight it. "They gave us crispbreads and water if there was something to put it in. The others drank from a cap, for example. As one could manage. " In the lower decks of the ships, under barred hatches, criminal prisoners kept their catch. Stolen clothes, shoes or belts were thrown up to the guards who stood there with machine guns. "And the soldiers in turn threw down pork fat, salami, bread and cigarettes, " Alexander recalls a mutually beneficial transaction.

A railway doomed to failure

The whole railway project had no real strategic importance. The heavily constructed railway embankments of the intended main line constructed with difficulties, paid for with the deaths of prisoners, were constantly collapsing in the permafrost conditions, and in the summer they were inundated by floods. The arduous and dangerous work was becoming endless. There is no unanimous opinion as to why the construction of such an enormous and impractical project began in the first place. According to one theory, Stalin became frightened of Nazi submarines in the Arctic at the beginning of World War II, and the Transpolar Railway was supposed to lead to a future new port in the Arctic Ocean. Another version says he wanted to connect the nickel mines with factories in the western part of the Soviet Union. But one thing is certain, after his death, construction was suspended and a large number of prisoners who had been involved in the construction of the never-completed railway were released from the camps after a large-scale amnesty. However, many did not live to see their liberation from the camps and died directly on the construction site, in camps around the railway or in the transport camp in Igarka.

Dead on the Dead Track

Working in the forests and swamps in the harsh climate of the far north where the temperature dropped below forty degrees Celsius in winter which lasted half the year was extremely tough. The first prisoners were forced to survive in underground shelters and work long hours in the Arctic cold without being able to warm themselves. Building on permafrost in the inhospitable conditions of the tundra and taiga, with minimal food, cost many prisoners their lives. Alexander was lucky upon his arrival at the camp. Thanks to his acquaintance with a doctor from the transport train, on his advice he asked to be placed among the medical staff and was not assigned to the hard field work at first. Soon, however, his inexperience was exposed and he did not avoid assignment as a line construction worker. "As part of the railway brigade we were building and assembling the railway line. We were laying rails and my job was to hammer the staples with a long hammer. " If two rails laid against each other did not meet, they had to be pulled together, the overlapping parts cut and adjusted. "So imagine what it's like to cut a rail by hand, with a blade. But a Soviet man can do that too!" adds Alexander bitterly.

The desire to survive...and not to forget

Death in the gulag was ubiquitous. "Every day dead bodies were brought out of the camp of seven thousand. In the morning, they would poke a man and he would not wake up. So they look. People slept with their heads covered. If he's got frost on his face, he's alive. If he doesn't, he's dead. " Everyone was trying to survive. Within the limited possibilities offered by the strict camp regime, ways were often found to bend or circumvent the rule or the unwritten law.

Although men and women lived separately in different barracks in the camp, contact between them occurred despite the strict prohibitions. For example, when they exchanged letters. But sometimes the object of these secret exchanges was much more specific "contraband", as Alexander recalls: "We used to throw small bottles with "liquid" from the men's section into the women's. The women hoped that with its help they would become pregnant and be freed from slave labour, at least for a while. " Pregnant women could rely, at least for a short time, on the fact that instead of toiling on the construction of the railway or in the forest, they would be reassigned to less physically demanding work, such as warehouse or kitchen staff.

(3D photogrammetric model of a prisoner's vest found in an abandoned camp during the Dead Track expedition)

Alexander survived six long years in inhumane conditions in the camp. After Stalin's death, construction of the railway was quickly halted and the prisoners were transferred to other Gulag construction sites. Alexander Snovsky got to Dudinka even further north along the Yenisei river, where a separate railway branch led to Norilsk, a place where prisoners mined coal, nickel and other precious metals.

He was finally freed in 1955 and, unlike most former Gulag prisoners, he was allowed to return to his native Leningrad. He worked as a zoology engineer and taught biology. In addition to helping animals, he dedicated his life after the Gulag to education. He wrote his memories of life in the camp in several books and became chairman of the St. Petersburg organization of victims of political repressions. He hoped that the memory of the nearly one million victims of the Gulag would never be forgotten. Alexander Snovsky died in May 2020.

compiled by Judith Krulisova


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