Azerbaijan International

Spring 2006 (14.1)
Pages 58-71


Off to the Unknown
Stalin's Notorious Prison Camps in Siberia
by Ayyub Baghirov (1906-1973)

Arrested in 1937, sentenced under false charges in 1939 to eight years of corrective labor in Kolyma. In reality, he was in exile for 18 years as he was not released until 1955, two years after Stalin's death.

Author of "Bitter Days in Kolyma" (Gorkiye Dni Na Kolime) in Russian, which was published in 1999. A shorter version came out in Azeri in 2001.

Ayyub Baghirov's book, "Bitter Days of Kolyma", was first published in 1999 in Russian as "Gorkiye Dni Na Kolime". To our knowledge, it was the first personal narrative by an Azerbaijani author about his years spent in exile in the notorious prison system of Kolyma located in Siberia's unbearably cold landscape.

The author Ayyub Baghirov (1906-1973) had been the Chief Financial Officer for the BakSovet (Mayor's office). In 1937, he was arrested on false charges of anti-revolutionary activities as an "Enemy of the People". Kept in Baku's notorious NKVD prison, he was interrogated and tortured for nearly a year and a half before being sentenced to eight years in a hard labor camp. Unfortunately, the eight years stretched into 18 years, as was true for many prisoners. He was not released until 1955, two years after Stalin's death. He returned to Baku.

Sadly, Ayyub did not live to fruits of his careful analysis of those difficult years published. His book came out almost 25 years after his death. We have his son Mirza to thank for the enormous job of editing and publishing this personal glimpse into the Kolyma camps and for providing us with his father's insights about life under such unbearable situations.

We publish the first chapter here. Chapter I: Arrest. Journey To the Far North: Butigichag Camp (pages 5-50). Translation from Russian by Aysel Mustafayeva, editing by Betty Blair.

The thought - provoking sculpture shown here was created by Azerbaijani artist Fazil Najafov (1935- ). Though Fazil was not repressed himself, he was born during the years when the purges were so prevalent. To read more about his works in Azerbaijan International, see "Frozen Images of Transition," (AI 3.1 (Spring 1995). Also "The Expressive Magnificence of Stone," AI 7.2 (Summer 1999). Search for both articles at For more samples of Fazil's works and 170 other Azerbaijani artists, visit Contact Fazil Najafov: Studio: (994-12) 466 -7109, Mobile: (994-50) 342-8999.

Nagaev Bay
One dark cloudy day in late autumn 1939, a steamboat named Dalstroi [One of many ships that were used especially in the 1930s-40s to transport tens of thousands of slave laborers to Magadan and on to the Kolyma camps in the Far North East of Russia] entered the Nagaev Bay [In Magadan in the Sea of Okhotsk is where the ships docked so prisoners to disembark on their journey to Kolyma. The bay and Nagaev Port are named after Russian hydrographer and cartographer Admiral Aleksei Ivanovich Nagaev (1704-1781)].

In memory of the victims of World War II, 25 years later, by Azerbaijani sculptor Fazil Najafov, 1965. Contact Fazil at his studio: (994-12) 466-7109, Mobile: (994-50) 342-8999.A cold wind was blowing. The large boulders along the coast appeared as dark foreboding shadows. The nearby hills were already covered with the first snow. The place had an eerie silence about it. Where were the usual sounds characteristic of port life and a residential bay town?

Left: In memory of the victims of World War II, 25 years later, by Azerbaijani sculptor Fazil Najafov, 1965. Contact Fazil at his studio: (994-12) 466-7109, Mobile: (994-50) 342-8999.

Many passengers were on board - people of various fates, professions and ages from all corners of our vast country. And then, there were us southerners [Here it means anyone who came from any of the republics in South Caucasus as well as other republics in the southern part of the USSR-Turkmen, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kirghiz] as well.

The majority of passengers were political prisoners - those who had been arrested for "counter-revolutionary activities" and charged with Article No. 58 of the Penal Code [Article 58 of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR) Penal Code was put into force on February 25, 1927, to arrest anyone suspected of counter-revolutionary activities. In reality, it was a "catch-all phrase" that enabled authorities to arrest anyone and bring criminal charges against them].

Finally after that difficult trip, we arrived at our destination-Kolyma [Kolyma is a region in far northeastern Russia. It is bounded by the Arctic Ocean on the north and the Okhotsk Sea on the south. Other than Antarctica, its climate is believed to be the most severe in the world. Under Joseph Stalin's rule, Kolyma became the most notorious region of the GULAG [Wikipedia].

Millions of prisoners are believed to have passed through Kolyma working as slave labor]. Upon arrival, many prisoners breathed more easily, despite the fact that the name "Kolyma" frightened them. Those who had never been to the North [Siberia] were troubled the most.We young people didn't have a clue as to what to expect. We tried to hang close together as much as possible, and to help those who were exhausted from the long trip - the elderly and our friends. Our generation had grown up during the struggle for Socialist reforms in the Soviet Union. We had been involved in major projects and had coped with the difficulties of forced collectivism in the villages.
Whenever the Party had beckoned, we had struggled to help in these situations, sometimes even risking our lives. And now, after "Ten Victorious Years of Stalin", we ourselves had been arrested and exiled along with other prisoners to develop the Far North regions of Eastern Siberia - Kolyma and Chukotka [The farthest northeast region of Russia, on the shores of the Bering Sea. The region was subject to collectivization and forced settlement during the Soviet Era. It has large reserves of oil, natural gas, coal, gold, and tungsten [Wikipedia. Wikipedia entries were quoted from April 15, 2006].

We political prisoners knew that we really were not "Enemies of the People", nor enemies of the Soviet government. Even in the white wilderness of the Kolyma camps - dying from hunger, cold, slave labor, tortures and illness - most of us still didn't have any idea why we had been brought out here to die.

Actually, our situation was quite ironic. After the continuous years of brainwashing that had influenced us as children and citizens of Soviet republics, we had tried to forget the bad things that were happening to us personally and devote our energy to the common interests of our Homeland. Most of us had been educated in the spirit of true Stalinism: first came the Party, then Homeland, and only after that came family - mother, father and children.

We had been fed the official line and indoctrination of the Party about Komsomols and the Soviet Union being "the most just community in the world". We had been educated in this way from childhood as Pioneers [A mass youth organization for children ages 10-15 that existed in the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1990 [Wikipedia]. I also considered myself innocent. All my life I had lived under Soviet authority and served this power and authority with all my strength and belief.

I was born in the city of Lankaran [A city located near Azerbaijan's southern border with Iran] in Azerbaijan [around 1906]. I wasn't even a year old when I lost my father Hazrat Gulu. He had been a rather wealthy merchant. After the Revolution [Refers to April 1920 when the Bolsheviks took control of the power in Azerbaijan] - from early childhood onward - I grew up in poverty and deprivation. My mother didn't know how to manage her husband's property.

Being rather trustful and naïve by nature, she soon was hounded by enterprising relatives and soon ended up on the brink of poverty. She never did figure out how her material wealth had slipped through her fingers.

As a child during the years that followed the Revolution, I used to peddle Ritsa cigarettes on a little tray that hung from around my neck. I would wander through the narrow lanes of Lankaran.

Career in Finances
My first real job was that of an accountant in the Lankaran Regional Finance Department. At the beginning of 1930, I came to Baku and soon was promoted to the position of Manager of the Baku Finance Department. Later on, I was appointed as a member of Presidium of BakSovet [BakSovet (via Russian-Bakinskiy Sovet) meaning the Council of Baku, the Mayor's office], and confirmed as a member of People's Commissariat of Finance USSR on December 31, 1936, by the decision of SovNarKom [SovNarKom (via Russian-Sovet Narodnikh Commissar) meaning Council of People's Commissars. After 1946 the title was changed to Council of Ministers] which bore the signature of V. M. Molotov Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov (1890-1986). Soviet politician and diplomat, was a leading figure in the Soviet government from the 1920s, when he rose to power as a protégé of Joseph Stalin, to the 1950s, when he was dismissed from office by Nikita Khrushchev [Wikipedia]. Whatever assignment I was ever given, I was very conscientious to fulfill my responsibilities.

Shipping routes in the Arctic used to bring prisoners to the Kolyma forced labor prison camps.

Above: Shipping routes in the Arctic used to bring prisoners to the Kolyma forced labor prison camps.

It was especially difficult for anyone working in the field of finances during the period of collectivization when the villagers had to give up their land, their animals and property. In addition to such demands, the government imposed artificial loans that totally bankrupted the peasant economy. The government applied every known method to squeeze and suppress farmers.

Baku's German Church
I'll never forget an ordinance related to the closure of the German Protestant Church [German Protestant Church. This church still stands today and is familiarly known as "kirka", the German word for church. The Nobel Brothers in Baku donated some of the funds to construct this chapel. Fortunately, during the Soviet period, this church was not destroyed although many others were. Instead, the building, which houses a pipe organ and has outstanding acoustics, was converted into a music concert hall] in Baku. It was quite a remarkable building in the center of town located on Telephone Street [now 28th of May Street]The 28th of May Street is named to commemorate the date of Independence of Azerbaijan, when it won its independence over the Russian Czar in 1918. This day is still commemorated today after Azerbaijan regained its independence from the Soviet Union, though the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union is officially August 30, 1991]

Both the government and the NKVD [NKVD: Russian for Narodniy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) was a government department which handled a number of the Soviet Union's affairs of state. It is best known for the Main Directorate for State Security (GUGB), which succeeded the OGPU and the Cheka as the secret police agency of the Soviet Union and was followed by the KGB. The GUGB was instrumental in Stalin's ethnic cleansing and genocides, and was responsible for massacres of civilians and other war crimes. Many consider the NKVD to be a criminal organization, mostly for the activities of GUGB officers and investigators, as well as supporting NKVD troops and GULAG guards] tried various tactics to close down the church. At first, they claimed that the churches were hotbeds of anti-Soviet thought. Then they spread rumors that the priests and some of the parishioners were German agents.

Finally, early in 1937, the All-Union Prosecutor A. Y Vishinskiy got involved and solved the problem once and for all by obliging the financial organs to assess the German church with such a huge tax bill that they were not be able to pay. The church soon had no choice but to close its doors.

Encounter with Mir Jafar
In regard to my own arrest, I always suspected that there had been a link between my responsibilities related to financial affairs that caused Mir Jafar Baghirov [Mir Jafar Baghirov: Secretary of the Communist Party for Azerbaijan, who served as Stalin's "right hand man" in Baku] - the tyrant of the republic - to order my arrest.

However, the NKVD arrested me and officially accused me of "participating in an anti-Soviet organization". One day in autumn 1937, Mir Jafar Baghirov called me to his office and asked me to check into the financial affairs of the former representative of the BakSovet - Arnold Petrovich Olin. You see, even the city officials were not spared from Stalin's Purges [Stalin's Purges: Term used for the waves of repressive measures carried out by Stalin, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the main dates associated with Stalin's Repressions is 1937; however, there were other dates, both before and after, which probably resulted in even more deaths. Millions of people died in Stalin's purges. Many people were executed by firing squad [actual statistics are unknown but are estimated to be in the millions], and millions were forcibly resettled]. Of the 11 members of the Presidium of the Baksovet, only two of us had not yet been arrested. I was one of them.

Others had already been repressed [Many were imprisoned and tortured or sent to labor camps, both functioning as part of the GULAG system. Many died in the labor camps due to starvation, disease, exposure and overwork. The Great Purge was started under the NKVD chief Henrikh Yagoda, but another major campaign was carried out by Nikolai Yezhov, from September 1936 to August 1938, and others followed. However the campaigns were carried out according to the general line, and often by direct orders, of the Party politburo headed by Stalin [Wikipedia].

Pedestal of Kirov's statue on the highest hill in Baku overlooking the Caspian. Note that the bas-relief relates to oil drilling. Kirov's statue was dismantled in 1992.
Left: Pedestal of Kirov's statue on the highest hill in Baku overlooking the Caspian. Note that the bas-relief relates to oil drilling. Kirov's statue was dismantled in 1992.

18 Repressed: Term used to describe the people who were arrested by government organs, imprisoned, shot or sent into exile. This term is especially to describe the abuse of power against ordinary citizens during Stalin's purges. The term "repression" was officially used to denote the prosecution of people recognized as counter-revolutionaries and "Enemies of the People".

Purges were motivated by the desire on the part of the leadership to remove dissident elements from the Party and what is often considered to have been a desire to consolidate the authority of Joseph Stalin. Additional campaigns of repression were carried out against social groups, which were believed or were accused of to have opposed the Soviet state and the politics of the Communist Party [Wikipedia].
Olin was also arrested and accused of being an "Enemy of the People".

Mir Jafar Baghirov gave me one month to check his financial records and ordered me to provide this summary to him personally. During our conversation, he mentioned that Olin was a morally depraved person and that not only had he carried out activities which were hostile to the government, but that he had accessed the city's finances for personal use.

After checking the Baksovet financial records, I told Mir Jafar that I had not discovered any financial violations in that regard. Mir Jafar interrupted our telephone conversation and started swearing at me. When there was a pause, I clearly heard him on another phone addressing the People's Commissar Sumbatov Topuridze: "Eyyub Baghirov from the Baksovet should be investigated himself."

I understood only too well what that meant. It was then that I understood that I was to share the same fate as my colleagues from the Presidium of Baksovet, along with thousands of other people who were struggling behind the prison walls of the NKVD.

Mir Jafar Baghirov was a loyal follower of Stalin. In meetings and gatherings, he used to refer to Stalin as the embodiment of Lenin. I remember one such meeting that took place in the Baku Opera Theater. The style and methods of Stalin's administration were widely introduced in Azerbaijan by Baghirov.

Opposition to any of his plans was severely punished. I remember the outrageous and sacrilegious decision that Baghirov made to demolish Baku's oldest cemetery, which is located on the hill above the bay[Cemetery: After Black January 1990 when Soviet troops attacked civilians in Baku in an effort to squelch the independence movement in Azerbaijan, the area that once had been set aside for Kirov Park was used to bury Black January victims. Today the cemetery is known as "Shahidlar Khiyabani" (Martyrs' Cemetery). Also some victims of the Karabakh war are buried there. Foreign dignitaries are usually taken to Shahidlar Khiyabani as part of their official tour in Baku].

In its place, Baghirov proposed that a cultural and leisure park be constructed and named after Kirov Sergey M. Kirov (1886-1934) was instrumental in bringing Bolshevik troops to Baku, which took control of Azerbaijan in 1920. Kirov became the head of the Azerbaijan Bolshevik Party in 1921. He was a loyal supporter of Stalin. His rise in popularity aroused Stalin's jealousy. On December 1, 1934, Kirov was murdered, and it is widely believed that Stalin ordered his death, although this has never been proven [Wikipedia]. And that's exactly what they did. They even made us - the workers of BakSovet - work as subbotniks [Russian for unpaid voluntary work done on Saturdays] to construct the park.

The Kirov Amusement park which Eyyub Baghirov complained about as it was originally a cemetery. Only after Black January 1990 was it converted back to a cemetery, today known as Cemetery of the Martyrs (Shahidlar Khiyabani). Mir Jafar Baghirov, Stalin's right hand man in Azerbaijan had created the park in the 1930s.

Above: The Kirov Amusement park which Eyyub Baghirov complained about as it was originally a cemetery. Only after Black January 1990 was it converted back to a cemetery, today known as Cemetery of the Martyrs (Shahidlar Khiyabani). Mir Jafar Baghirov, Stalin's right hand man in Azerbaijan had created the park in the 1930s.

Once I expressed some doubts about the feasibility of the construction of the park from a financial point of view. Immediately after that, I was kicked out of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan.

And then the inevitable happened. I didn't have to wait long. In the early morning hours of December 22 ["Black Ravens": The government's notorious black cars, which were used to arrest suspects, often on false charges of being "Enemies of the People". These "political criminals" were usually imprisoned, sent into exile or executed. Surprise arrests were often made in the wee hours of the morning. See the painting by Boris Vladimirsky (1878-1950) on the front cover of Azerbaijan International magazine, AI 13.4 (Winter 2005). Also read the short story, "Morning of that Night", by Anar in Azerbaijan International AI 7.1 (Spring 1999). Search for both articles at], 1937, three NKVD agents came knocking on my door. The fourth agent was waiting in the street beside one of those cars - a "Black Raven".22 I understood that my turn had come. I had just returned from an official trip to Moscow where I had participated in the Annual People's Commissariat of Finances.

Two NKVD agents went looking through all my stuff in the apartment, while the third one was writing a protocol about the search. The guard from the courtyard was called as a witness. He sat in a chair in the hall entrance. The search was just a formality for the agents knew in advance that they would find nothing of interest.

During the search, I naively asked why I was being arrested. One of the agents answered that I could speak with the People's Commissar of Internal Affairs and maybe I would be sent back home. I was told to take some warm clothes with me - woolen socks and sweaters.To me, this was a sign that I would be taken away for a long period of time. Then I remembered the telephone conversation that I had had with Mir Jafar Baghirov. Such an encounter could not be easily dismissed.

Although it was winter, the sun was already up. As I was led out the door, I told my family: "Always remember that I'm not guilty of anything." At that moment, my niece Bilgeyis, who was living with us at the time, started crying. Deep within me, I genuinely believed that everything that was happening was some kind of misunderstanding and that I would be released immediately. Obviously, thousands of innocent people had thought the same thing.

Baku's NKVD Prison
The streets were still empty as we drove through the city. Slowly, our Black Raven passed through massive steel gates of the NKVD Building down near the seafront[NKVD building in Baku, located on the corner of Rashid Behbudov Street and Azerbaijan Avenue, was originally a building constructed during the Oil Baron period and today in use as State Frontier Services (Dovlat Sharhad Khidmati)].
Sculpture: Blind Men by Fazil Najafov, bronze.
Above: Sculpture: Blind Men by Fazil Najafov, bronze.

Most Baku residents knew the administrative building of the NKVD Azerbaijan as a building of three stories.

But the exterior of the building hid the existence of another building inside the courtyard - which was the actual prison itself and consisted of four floors with quite thick walls and barred windows. In the courtyard, there was a steam plant, which provided the building with its own source of electricity.

There was also a garage. On the first floor of the prison there were adjunct buildings, such as toilets, showers and a guards' room. The rooms in the basement had originally been used as wine cellars before the Revolution [Pre-revolutionary times: This refers to the Oil Baron days in Baku prior to the Bolshevik takeover in April 1920] and stretched far out beneath the sea.

Now those cells were used as torture chambers. On both sides of the long prison corridors were rows of cells that held 10, 20 or more prisoners.

Because there were many arrests in 1937-1938 in Azerbaijan, the prisons were full... The cells were typical. They had concrete floors. There was a little window in the door through which food could be passed. A dim light bulb hung from the ceiling. A small hole on the door was covered with a leather cloth so that the prisoners could be watched. The cell windows - approximately 30 x 40 cm - usually opened to the courtyard.

On the second floor, the barred windows were completely covered with metallic louvers so that sun could not shine in; it was impossible to see even a small patch of sky. The rooms, which had windows overlooking the courtyard, were used as offices for the investigators.

 "Always remember that I'm not guilty of anything,' I told my family as I was led out the door. Deep within me, I genuinely believed that everything that was happening was some kind of misunderstanding, and that I would be released immediately. Obviously, thousands of innocent people had thought the same thing."

-Ayyub Baghirov
"Bitter Days of Kolyma"

During those years of mass arrests, armed soldiers were posted along the streets near NKVD building. The government did everything possible to prevent prisoners from escaping from this - the cruelest of buildings. There was no possibility to escape. They were determined to prove your guilt by any means possible. Later I learned from my cellmates that executions took place in the basement of the NKVD building, as well as on Nargin Island in the Caspian not far from Baku. No one lived on that island; therefore, there were never any witnesses to these crimes. No one but the executioners ever heard those shots.

Artificial Charges Against Me
As for me, I was accused of participating in an anti-Soviet organization, which was headed by A. P. Olin, representative of the Baku Council. Latvian by nationality, he had been member of the Party since 1918. He had worked as a Latvian Arrow guarding the Kremlin. He had also worked in the political departments of Central Asian and Transcaucasian regions. From 1931 to 1934, he had worked as Secretary of the Transcaucasian region on the Committee VKP, which was responsible for transportation and supplies.

From 1934 to 1936 he had been the representative of Transcaucasia near SovNarKom USSR, and lived and worked in Moscow. In 1936 he had been transferred to Baku, and from July served as Representative of the BakSovet [City Hall]. In the autumn of 1937, he was arrested and sent back to Moscow. They executed him in Tbilisi.

I had known Olin as a co - worker at BakSovet for only a few months. He was not a very social person. I found him to be serious and conscientious about his work.

 Family by Fazil Najafov, bronze
Left: Family by Fazil Najafov, bronze

Later on, after sitting behind the walls of NKVD Azerbaijan, I understood that Mir Jafar Baghirov and Sumbatov - Topuridze had wanted to get additional damning material against Olin. So I had been arrested as a member of an imaginary counter - revolutionary, anti - Soviet organization of which Olin was supposedly leading. I had been implicated simply because I was his co-worker.

Interrogations began three or four days after my arrest. They were carried out by Kh. Khaldibanov. The first question during each interrogation was an attempt to reveal how Olin had involved me in his anti - Soviet organization - the main goal of which was to destroy the Soviet power, restore capitalism, and even revive various activities of market economy. The accusations against me were absurd. A wide range of people had accused me - some of whom I didn't even know.

In the non-existent, counter-revolutionist organization of which I, supposedly, was a member, there were 20 other members. There were people of different ages and professions, working at different institutions and enterprises, many of whom were employed in the BakSovet, or regional committees of the party, executive committees, oil sectors, construction and supply organizations.

I felt like a small pawn in a political game being played out by Mir Jafar Baghirov and Sumbatov - Topuridze, in which they tried to gather the most vicious evidence about administrative workers of republic and BakSovet. Based on the deposition that they extracted by torturing Olin and his deputy Kudryavtsev who had been arrested prior to me, the interrogator threatened me with torture if I would not reveal the specific date (supposedly the end of March 1937) when I had joined this fictional anti-Soviet organization.

I remember once being brought to meet with Sumbatov - Topuridze, who demanded: "Confirm that you were a member of the Olin's organization and we will release you". When he didn't get the answer that he wanted, he punched me in the face. That day I was made to stand in my cell for more than 24 hours. When I collapsed, they beat me unconscious. Many times, they took me down to that dark, humid basement, and threatened to shoot me. Then they would bring me back upstairs to the main cell.

Sitting there in the underground cells of the NKVD, eventually we learned how to tap out on the thick stone walls what came to be known as the "alphabet of prisoners" [The "alphabet of prisoners" refers to a system of tapping out code on the prison cell walls, enabling the isolated prisoners to communicate between each other] to get the latest news and discover who were the latest victims that had been arrested.

The interrogations took place day after day. To make the accusations seem to be as true as possible, the interrogator would introduce new "facts" from those who were arrested regarding my case. So many times I requested to meet those people, but the interrogator refused, and no witness was ever called who could confirm my involvement in any counter-revolutionary activity. Later on, to make the "case" appear more serious, they accused me of harboring political motives, "proving" that I had abused and violated the financial and economic activities of BakSovet.

They even accused me of artificially reducing and illegally eliminating debts incurred by the "kulaks" [Kulaks, here, refers to the relatively wealthy peasants of the Russian Empire who owned large farms and hired farmhands. They were the class among the countryside, which were targeted first when the Bolsheviks took power to be collectivization of the farms] in Lankaran and the prosperous peasants in Absheron. They said I had covered up financial crimes of "Enemies of the People" who had been arrested and prevented new pawnshops from being opened in Baku in order to infuriate the people against the Soviet power.

 "Some of our family and friends gathered at the pier when they learned that we would soon be shipped out. Our eyes sought out each other in the crowd. From afar I saw my mother Sughra and daughter Latifa. With tears in our eyes, we waved goodbye to each other. The guards would not allow us to go closer."

-Ayyub Baghirov in "Bitter Days of Kolyma"

In reality, during those years of deprivation, people had no choice but to pawn off their personal belongings in order to have enough money for basic essentials. Long queues would form in front of the pawnshops. People would line up the night before in order to leave some item the next day.

They made such ridiculous claims against me, saying, for example, that people who were applying for government loans had angrily complained about some of their problems, and that I, as the financial officer, had sympathized with them. Moreover, they insisted that I had expressed my indignation and anger about such issues to the workers of the Baku City Financial Department.

During the interrogations, I began to realize that quite some time prior to my arrest, the NKVD had pressured individuals working in various Soviet organs in Lankaran to denounce me in relationship to my past, especially since my father had been a wealthy landowner and owned considerable property. Again, ordered by the NKVD, BakSovet had written up an accusation against me, claiming that I had close relationships with individuals who had been identified as "Enemies of the People".

Appeal to Moscow
Later on, when I arrived at the Kolyma camps and finally got the chance, I wrote many letters to the head of the country and to the NKVD about the absurdity of the accusations that had been brought against me. In one of those letters I even stated that on the specific date of March 25, 1937, when I had supposedly been engaged in counter-revolutionary activities organized by the administrators of BakSovet, Olin as the BakSovet representative had been in Moscow. His deputy Kudryavtsev had been in Ukraine. So they had not even been physically present in Baku on that date.

At times when they threatened me and I would not yield, they would torture me, beating me with rubber truncheons, and kicking me with the spurs on their boots, which made wounds that bled. I still have a scar on my left leg from being kicked by one of the sergeants. Watching this sadist show while I was being tortured, the interrogator dared to tell me: "The People's Commissar ordered us to make 'scrambled eggs' of you." Then there was the NKVD technique called the "Conveyor Belt" which was in widespread use. I was brought into a room that was brightly lit and made to stand although there was a chair available nearby. They would not permit me to sit.

The interrogators would repeat the same questions over and over. They would press me: "It's stupid not to confess. There are witnesses who have confirmed that you have been involved in an 'anti-Soviet organization'. You cannot escape these facts. Tell us the names of other members of your organization and your punishment will be reduced."

I insisted that they call witnesses who could support me from among my close coworkers at the Baku Financial Department but they wouldn't do it.

Then the next cycle of questions would be repeated while I was being made to stand there continuously, despite the fact that the interrogators had already changed several shifts. Finally, exhausted, I would be taken back to the cell in a semi-conscious condition.

That is how I passed the time, day after day for more than 18 months in this so-called "preliminary interrogation" inside the walls of NKVD Azerbaijan. That's nearly 600 days and nights. The interrogators would change. I had three different ones. Sometimes they would be a bit softer and would not continue the interrogations all week long. Sometimes, they left me in peace, unable to get me to confess to anything.

Map of Kolyma, in the Arctic Circle in Siberia not far from Alaska. Ships rought prisoners from the mainland to Kolyma. Much of the year the sea was covered with sick ice. Prisoners describe the journey as unbearable - the crowded conditions, lack of hygiene, noise, and lack of load of food. And then sometimes the sea was very stormy and violent.

Above: Map of Kolyma, in the Arctic Circle in Siberia not far from Alaska. Ships rought prisoners from the mainland to Kolyma. Much of the year the sea was covered with sick ice. Prisoners describe the journey as unbearable - the crowded conditions, lack of hygiene, noise, and lack of load of food. And then sometimes the sea was very stormy and violent.

Sentence - 8 Years Labor

Finally, on March 31, 1939, the NKVD case against me was finalized. I refused to sign it. After that, the case was sent to two other courts - first, to the special collegium of the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan, and then to the Military Collegium of Transcaucasian Military District. I'm sure my case was not really investigated by either of these courts because it would have been impossible for them to offer any proof.

But the fate of political prisoners had been decided beforehand. On June 9, 1939, without even participating in the trial, I was sentenced to eight years of corrective labor camp "for participation in an anti-Soviet organization".

On July 1, 1939, I was informed of the court's decision. After a few days, the long and distant journey to Kolyma began. Somewhere in the depths of our hearts, we still thought that the Party would solve everything. And with that hope and belief, we somehow managed to survive those difficult days.

Let me return to our first days in Kolyma. Obviously, the main question that we were concerned about was where we were being taken and what was awaiting us. For us, this enormous, uninhabited land in northeast Asia with its very cold climate appeared as a big empty blank space on the map.

Later on, we would learn the names that people had given to this part of the world: "Black Planet," "Devil's Hell," and "Caldron within a Caldron." There was also a famous song about Kolyma: "Magic planet, where 12 months of the year are winter, and the rest are summer." Naturally, we had no idea about the living conditions that we would face.

The Sakhalin, after being renamed Krasnoyarsk. It was aboard this ship that Berzin and 150 others arrived in Bleak Nagaev Bay to launch Dal'stroi. Source: U.S. Navy in Bollinger's Stalin's Slave Ships, Praeger, 2003.

Above: The Sakhalin, after being renamed Krasnoyarsk. It was aboard this ship that Berzin and 150 others arrived in Bleak Nagaev Bay to launch Dal'stroi. Source: U.S. Navy in Bollinger's Stalin's Slave Ships, Praeger, 2003.

Having now lived there in Kolyma for nearly 20 years of my life, I know so much about its origins. Its land is rich with rare metals - especially gold and tin [some people suggest uranium as well]. Its natural environment is ideal for the development of reindeer breeding, fishing, the shipping and fur industry, and for hunting.

"Three Wise Men, Limestone by sculptor Fazil Najafov, Size: H-68. The sculpture reflects the climate of secrecy that defined the era. Visit
Left: "Three Wise Men, Limestone by sculptor Fazil Najafov, Size: H-68. The sculpture reflects the climate of secrecy that defined the era. Visit

In the beginning of the 1930s, there was a small town called Magadan, which would become the center of Kolyma. It consisted of only a small number of wooden cabins. In 1932, they began to construct Nagaev Port.

The first houses were situated near the port district. The prisoners - road workers of the Kolyma camps - built the first roads between Magadan and the inner regions of the taiga [Taiga is a general term indicating an ecological region characterized by coniferous forests. Here it refers to remote, previously unpopulated areas in northern Russia and Siberia, where many of the slave labor camps were set up. In such regions, temperatures were extreme, and varied from -50C to 30C (-58F to 86F) throughout the entire year, with eight or more months of temperatures averaging -10C (14F).

The summers, while short, are generally warm and humid [Wikipedia]. They constructed mines, built factories, repair warehouses and electricity stations. In 1938 there was fewer than 1,000 kilometers of roads in Kolyma. Roads were built from the sweat of prisoners with their bare hands and no equipment.

The prisoners worked on roads in all kinds of rugged terrain - mountain, rivers, canyons, boulders and swamps. After the war, these roads extended more than 2,000 kilometers. Geologists did succeed in extracting gold, tin, silver and coal from these extremely difficult and remote regions.

At the beginning, I was assigned to do strenuous manual labor. Later on, I worked as a civilian on geologic projects in the remote taiga. It was there that I met many famous geologists such as Valentin Aleksandrovich Tsaregradskiy, Boris Nikolayevich Yerofeev and Izrail Yefimovich Drakin.

I worked under very hard conditions alongside Mark Isidorrivich Rokhlin, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Chumak, Aziz Khozrayevich, Yevgeniy Ivanovich Kapranov, Konstatin Aleksandrovich Ivanov, Kiloay Yevdakimovich Sushentsov, Boris Fedorovich Khamitsayev, Dmitriy Ivanovich Kurichev and others. I am deeply indebted to many of these people for their help during those difficult days in my life in Kolyma.

Many years after I was rehabilitated and gained access to KGB archival documents, I found a description of myself, which had been written by Mark Isidorovich Rokhlin which read: "Upon arrival at Kolyma, Comrade Eyyub Hazrat Gulu oghlu Baghirov conducted himself as a worthy son of his Soviet Nation."

For me to be characterized in such a way during the blackest period of my life by such an honest person, who was a Doctor of Mineral Sciences and native of Leningrad, came to mean a great deal to me during the later years of my life.

Journey by Railroad
On July 4, 1939, we left Baku from Pier 15[Pier 15 has since been replaced by the "Bulvar" (Boulevard) beside the sea where there is an accompanying park and restaurants]. We had been taken there in prison cars from the NKVD building, which is quite close by the sea. I had been held at the NKVD for more than a year and a half.

Some of our family and friends gathered at the pier when they learned that we would soon be shipped out. Our eyes sought out each other in the crowd from afar. I recognized my mother Sugra and daughter Latifa. With tears in our eyes, we waved goodbye to each other. The guards would not allow us to go closer.

We were taken to Krasnovodsk[Krasnovodsk (now called Turkmenbashi) is a city in West Turkmenistan on the Krasnovodsk Gulf of the Caspian Sea. It was founded in 1869 and now serves as the western terminus for oil and natural gas pipelines and for the Trans-Caspian railroad, which links the Caspian region with Central Asia. It is also a trans-shipment point for agricultural produce], and then, after stuffing us into railroad cars, we started to move forward. We had no idea of our final destination.

The train cars had windows that were barred. Three levels of shelves had been made out of planks that served as our beds. There were armed guards who often carried out searches. They would count and recount us like cattle, making us move from one side of the wagon to the other.

Sometimes they wouldn't allow us to go to the toilet. Sometimes prisoners couldn't help themselves and went anyway right there inside the train. The stench was horrid. We each tried desperately to get a little extra fresh air through the cracks in the doors.

We passed through Turkib Road, Central Asia, Siberia, Baikal region [Baikal is a mountainous region near Lake Baikal, the deepest and oldest freshwater lake in the world. It is located in Southern Siberia in Russia] and the Far East. The trip took us four months. The terrible heat, the lack of fresh air, the unbearable overcrowded conditions all exhausted us. We were all half starved. Some of the elderly prisoners, who became so weak and emaciated, died along the way. Their corpses were left abandoned alongside the railroad tracks.

Often, villagers would toss bread and other foodstuff to us when they realized that we were prisoners. This happened especially in Central Asia despite how much the guards tried to keep them from doing this. Sometimes our railroad cars would be parked on railroad sidings in uninhabited places so that no one could approach us.

From talking to one of the guards, we discovered that our final destination was Magadan [Magadan is a city port founded in 1933 on the Okhotsk Sea in northeast Russia. During Stalin's era, Magadan was a major transit center for prisoners being sent to labor camps. The operations of Dalstroi-a vast and brutal forced-labor gold-mining concern-were the main economic source of the city for many decades during Soviet times.

The city is very isolated and its climate is subarctic. Winters are prolonged and very cold, with up to six months of sub-zero and below-zero temperatures, causing the soil to remain in a permanently frozen state. Permafrost and tundra cover most of the region. Average temperatures in the interior range from -38°C in January to 16°C in July (-36°F to 60°F) Today Magadan has an enormous Cathedral under construction, and the Mask of Sorrow memorial-a huge sculpture in memory of Stalin's victims [Wikipedia]. Though years have passed and many experiences have intervened, time always has a way of remembering the things which have pierced the heart.

That daunting prison journey that went on and on for four months has always remained so vivid in my memory. It's a nightmare that has stayed with me throughout my life.

We arrived in Vladivostok in the evening and were placed in what was called a "forwarding camp". This was a large area surrounded by barbed wire. Inside were small wooden cabins and tents. Armed guards stood watch. This was our introduction to Kolyma - the slave-labor empire of the GULAG [nne Applebaum explains in her 2004 Pulitzer prize-winning book "Gulag: A History" [Penguin: London, 2004, page 4]: "Literally, the word GULAG is an acronym, meaning Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration. Over time, the word GULAG has also come to signify not only the administration of the concentration camps but also the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women's camps, children's camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, GULAG has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the "meat-grinder": the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated train cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths."].

The peak years for arrests were 1937-1938 so there were several thousand prisoners at this transit camp who had arrived before us. The majority of them were political prisoners who had been arrested for "counter-revolutionary activities" and had been given sentences from eight to 25 years in exile.

The autumn days were sunny, but cold. The stars shone brilliantly against the dark night sky. This was a sign of hope, and hope is always the last thing to die. The huge ships moored here so prisoners could be transported to the vast wilderness of the taiga and the forestry mills of Kolyma.

Uncle Vanya
They kept us in the transit camp for several days before we could leave for Magadan. Among the political prisoners, some former Bolsheviks had also been arrested. I recognized some of them such as Ivan Vasilevich Ulyanov (Uncle Vanya), Shirali Akhundov, Armenak Karakozov and Khalil Aghamirov. Here as well, we witnessed Stalin's practice of targeting people in society who knew the history of the Revolution and who had strong opinions about such issues.

The night before we were to sail from Vladivostok to Magadan, we couldn't sleep. Uncle Vanya, sensing our mood - especially among the young people - gave us some fatherly advice: "Don't give up. Be strong in spirit. Brave the difficulties that are awaiting you. Maintain your devotion to our people to the end, and show your good work in developing this desolate land."

Uncle Vanya hugged and kissed each of us - his fellow countrymen - and wished us Godspeed. I had known him since youth when he had been sent to Lankaran District as Secretary of the Communist Party Committee during those first years following the Revolution. We also knew him from Baku, as an official representative of the Party, a Revolutionist, and a member of the Party since year 1903.

Uncle Vanya spoke with passion and confidence. It reminded me of a speech he had made in December 1934 when he spoke with so much concern at the BakSovet regarding the murder of Kirov [Sergey Mironovich Kirov (1886­1934) was a Russian revolutionary and high Bolshevik functionary. He was born Sergey Mironovich Kostrikov, later assuming the name "Kirov" as an alias. His alleged 1934 assassination marked the beginning of Stalin's Great Purges, which removed almost all "Old Bolsheviks" from the Soviet government. By this time, Sergey Kostrikov had changed his name to Kirov. He had selected it as a pen name, just as other Russian revolutionary leaders. The name "Kir" reminded him of a Persian warrior king, and he was to become head of the Bolshevik military administration in Astrakhan.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, he fought in the Russian Civil War until 1920. In 1921, he became head of the Azerbaijan party organization. Kirov loyally supported Joseph Stalin, and in 1926 he was rewarded with the leadership of the Leningrad party.

In the 1930s, Stalin became increasingly worried about Kirov's growing popularity. At the 1934 Party Congress where the vote for the new Central Committee was held, Kirov received only three negative votes, the fewest of any candidate, while Stalin received 292 negative votes, the highest of any candidate. Kirov was a close friend with Sergo Ordzhonikidze, whom together formed a moderate bloc to Stalin in the Politburo. Later in 1934, Stalin asked Kirov to work for him in Moscow, most probably to keep a closer eye on him. Kirov refused, however, and in Stalin's eyes became a competitor.

On December 1, 1934, Kirov was killed by Leonid Nikolaev in Leningrad. Stalin claimed that Nikolaev was part of a larger conspiracy led by Leon Trotsky against the Soviet government. This resulted in the arrest and execution of Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, and fourteen others in 1936. It is widely believed that Stalin was the man who ordered the murder of Kirov, but this has never been proven. [Wikipedia].

"The terrible heat, the lack of fresh air, the unbearable overcrowded conditions all exhausted us. We were all half starved. Some of the elderly prisoners, who had become so weak and emaciated, died along the way. Their corpses were left abandoned alongside the railroad tracks."

-Ayyub Baghirov in "Bitter Days of Kolyma

Due to Kirov's popularity, Stalin took his death as a real tragedy and buried him by the Kremlin Wall in a state funeral. Many cities, streets and factories took his name, including the cities of Kirov (formerly Vyatka) and Kirovograd (Kirovohrad in Ukrainian), the station Kirovskaya of the Moscow Metro (now Chistiye Prudy) and the massive Kirov industrial plant in Saint Petersburg (Kirovskiy Zavod).

For many years, a huge statue of Kirov in granite and bronze dominated the panorama of the city of Baku. The monument was erected on a hill in 1939. [Wikipedia: April 28, 2006]. Kirov came to the Caucasus in 1910 to work as a Communist Party organizer. Eventually, he helped organize the Red Army's entry into the Caucasus; they drove out the White Guards in 1920 and subsequently set up three socialist republics in the region-Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Kirov's statue was dismantled in 1992, after Azerbaijan gained its independence. On August 26, 1991, the Executive Power of Baku ordered the dismantling of the statues of Lenin, Kirov, Felix Dzerzhinski and Ivan Fioletov (all revolutionaries involved with establishing the Soviet government in Azerbaijan) and the 11th Army, which invaded Baku in 1920. This declaration preceded Azerbaijan's declaration of independence on October 18, 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union on December 7, 1991.

Baku's Sahar newspaper published the announcement of the statue's removal on January 5, 1992. Although the article did not mention the actual date of its dismantling, Sahar's current editor presumes it must have taken place a day or two earlier, since they were publishing daily at the time. The bronze used in the statue was turned over as scrap metal to the Baku City Industrial Center. See "Best View of the Bay: What Happened to Kirov's Statue" by Faig Karimov. AI 9.2 (Summer 1999). Search at]. His speech was clear to everyone - regardless of whether they were uneducated peasants, members of the intelligentsia or religious fanatics.

I never forgot Uncle Vanya's parting words to us during those horrible days at Vladivostok. Such wise words coming from such a great, knowledgeable person instilled us with optimism for the difficult years ahead that we would face in Kolyma.

Value of Labor
Let me add that along with hope, the main thing that helped us to survive the Far North was labor. Being actively involved with work was a necessity of life in the severe climate of the North. Work became a life-saving stimulus for us. Those who understood this truth from the beginning were the ones who survived in their struggle against the unforgiving landscape of the Far North.

"Stories of Life", by Fazil Najafov. Bronze. Happiness and unity are exposed to the public; misery and discord are hidden. 1987.
Left: "Stories of Life", by Fazil Najafov. Bronze. Happiness and unity are exposed to the public; misery and discord are hidden. 1987.

During the long journey to the camps, some of the prisoners fell ill. The camp administrators realized that some of the elderly would not be productive laborers, so they were sent back to the Mainland [Mainland here generally refers to parts of the USSR other than Siberia and the Russian Far East where the GULAG camps were located. In the case of the author Eyyub Baghirov, it often implies Azerbaijan or Nakhchivan].

Some of them were left in the transit camps in Irkutsk [Irkutsk is the administrative center of Irkutsk Oblast, which is located in southeastern Siberia] and Vladivostok. Many of them were not able even to finish their sentences and met their deaths in the taiga forests of Siberia and the Far East. The well-known Azerbaijani writer and dramatist - the unforgettable Husein Javid - was one of them. By that time, he was aged and broken from prison. And he couldn't see well. He was separated from our journey in Magadan because of illness and then sent on to the transit camp in Irkutsk.

Our ship launched at night from Vladivostok and started heading towards Magadan. We left Uncle Ivan, Shirali Akhundov, Khalil Aghamirov and other comrades in Vladivostok. On the way we faced a ferocious storm in the Okhotsk Sea [Okhotsk Sea borders the Russian Far East along the Siberian coastline.

Ships carrying thousands of prisoners to work in the GULAG of the Kolyma region often would dock at the port in the city of Magadan. Okhotsk Sea is icebound from November to June, and is often shrouded in heavy fogs]. The unbearable crowded conditions, the clamor and banging of the ship's engines, tossing from the rough waves on the sea frightened us to death.

Eight days later, the ship with its thousands of prisoners arrived at Nagaev Pier, which was still in a very primitive condition. They delayed unloading the ship.

Finally, the steel doors of the prisons were opened and the guards escorted us out. Our chests felt very tight with apprehension. We assumed that we had been brought there to die.

We continued our journey on foot, carrying handmade sacks on our shoulders that were filled with our basic necessities. Eventually, we arrived at Morchekan [Morchekan: a prison base in Siberia used for quarantine of newly arrived prisoners and for delousing]. After we were processed through a treatment of showers to get rid of lice, we entered the transit camp of Magadan. This camp was located not far from the entrance to Kolyma, which was under heavy guard.

Since there were already thousands of prisoners there, no shelters or even tents were available for us and so we had to sleep under the open sky. As usual in this kind of situation, we huddled as close to one another as possible, just to keep warm. Such a great number of people from so many different backgrounds created so many difficult situations and, in turn, provided great opportunities for criminals.

We Southerners were very uneasy and frightened about the prospect of spending the night outdoors, exposed to the northern climate of Kolyma. That night was so cold; and in the morning, it snowed.

Actually, it was here in this camp that I first began to realize that when it snows, the weather is warmer than when the sky is clear. In the morning some of us, including me, were ill with fever. Some of the prisoners themselves were doctors who administered first aid from their Red Cross bags.

Kolyma Doctors
Let me comment about the Kolyma doctors. Most of them upheld the highest moral standards. The prisoners referred to them as "the Red Cross". These doctors considered it their primary goal to offer medical assistance to prisoners - often under unbearable conditions. And their help extended beyond medical treatment. For example, they often arranged for people to be assigned to less strenuous work; in other words, to free them up from hard physical labor. Doctors often recommended more reasonable work after a hospital treatment. They did many other things as well, always demonstrating their commitment to the Hippocratic oath.

These comrades would bring bread, sugar and other necessities in an effort to keep prisoners alive who were weak with exhaustion or were already known as "goners"["Goner" a term used in the prison camps to refer to someone who was beyond hope of recovery and nearly dead]. To a great extent, the survival of these prisoners depended upon these medical personnel. They determined the level of work that a prisoner would be assigned. They could increase the caloric level of a prisoner's meal. They could admit a person into the hospital or arrange for someone who had become disabled to return and visit the Mainland.

Though years have passed, I still remain enormously thankful for these medical comrades, who through their own bitter fate, were forced to bear that difficult life with us in Kolyma. Among them were also some of my fellow countrymen: Professor A. Atayev, M. Shahsuvarli, M. Mahmudov and others.

In the transit camp in Vladivostok, one of our fellow countrymen from Baku became ill. It was Gazanfar Garyaghdi who had entertained us with his robust songs along our journey. He was shaking from cold and had already started to turn blue.

Our military friends got worried. Despite how freezing the weather was, they took off their overcoats, put them under sick Gazanfar and covered him. We took care of him, and little by little, he began to recover. So often during those critical times, it was only those deep brotherly ties that saved our lives.

Among the prisoners, there were also those who knew the Far East very well. One of them - I forgot his last name - was a brilliant storyteller. He also had a wide range of interests. In our spare time, which was more than enough those days, he would tell us stories about the Far North. These fascinating stories saved our minds. He was a true scientist who knew history and geography as well as the environmental conditions of Kolyma. He could even name the first discoverers of the region. His stories, continued for days when we were stuck in that transit camp, and they became essential for life in the Far North. Unfortunately, after we were separated in Kolyma, I never met up with him again.

Propaganda poster encouraging prisoners to reach their daily quota of work, in this case, cutting timber in Siberia. Those who did were rewarded with a daily ration of 700-800 grams of bread, instead of 300 grams
Left: Propaganda poster encouraging prisoners to reach their daily quota of work, in this case, cutting timber in Siberia. Those who did were rewarded with a daily ration of 700-800 grams of bread, instead of 300 grams

When we got to know the situation, we discovered that this wide expanse of territory, which included Kolyma, Chukotka [Chukotka is the farthest northeast region in Russia on the shores of the Bering Sea. It was formerly an autonomous district subsumed with Magadan Oblast. It is known for its large reserves of oil, natural gas, coal, gold and tungsten [Wikipedia], Indigirka [A region near the East Siberian Sea.

The river by the same name freezes up in October and stays under the ice until May or June. The region is known for its gold prospecting industry [Wikipedia], and even part of Yakutia [The Sakha (Yakutia) Republic is a federal subject of Russia (a republic) in northeastern Siberian Russia. Its main economic resources are diamonds, gold and tin ore mining [Wikipedia], had vast natural resources and was governed by Dalstroi MVD USSR [Dalstroi refers to the GULAG administration in the Russian Far East; that is, the extreme eastern parts of Russia, between Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. The Russian Far East should not be confused with Siberia. It does not stretch all the way to the Pacific [Wikipedia]-the head administration of Far North. This administration itself was a "government with the government".

Since its establishment in 1931, Dalstroi had widely utilized the labor of prisoners. The real owners of Kolyma-the prisoners - had been brought to this land by the shipload. In addition to the prisoners, many contractors flocked to this place drawn by the high salaries.

Dalstroi with its vast resources in mining, fishing, and forestry, was developed by the enormous force of cheap labor and made a tremendous contribution to Stalin's industrialization of the country. The entire administration of the Dalstroi - economic, administrative, physical and political - was in the hands of one person who was invested with many rights and privileges. The first head of Dalstroi was Eduard Berzin, a Chekist [The Cheka was the first of many Soviet secret police organizations, created by decree on December 20, 1917, by Vladimir Lenin and led by Felix Dzerzhinsky After early attempts by Western powers (Britain and France) to intervene against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War (1917), and after the assassination of Petrograd Cheka leader Moisei Uritsky followed by Fanya Kaplan's attempt to assassinate Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet leadership and the Cheka became convinced that there was a wide ranging conspiracy of foreign enemies and internal counter-revolutionaries. Therefore, they poured resources into the intelligence service to combat this conspiracy. The Cheka quickly succeeded in destroying any remaining counter revolutionary groups [Wikipedia].

Soviet secret policemen were referred to as Chekists throughout the Soviet period and the term is still found in use in Russia today. On February 6, 1922, the Cheka was reincorporated into Ob'edinennoe Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie (OGPU), State Political Administration, or a section of the NKVD of the Russian SFSR [Wikipedia]. This was the forerunner of NKVD and KGB] who was shot later in 1938.

At that time, Magadan was a city known for its cold, dry climate and strong winds. The buildings were one - and two - stories. In the late 1930s the virgin taiga started abruptly at the edge of the city. Today a piece of the taiga remains within the city as a park.

Three days after our arrival in Magadan, Valentin Aleksandrovich Tsaregradskiy, who was the head of Main Geological Administration and Deputy Head of Dalstroi, visited the transit camp to talk to us. He chose specialists and professionals - first of all, geologists - to work for the development of the economy of Dalstroi. We had heard that he was one of the first discoverers of Kolyma.

Somehow Tsaregradskiy was able to gain our trust. He spoke directly and honestly to us, trying to allay our fears. Although we had tried our best to anticipate what to expect in the years that stretched before us; still, there was such a stark contrast between Baku and the wild taiga of Kolyma, that it put me under tremendous psychological stress. This feeling never left me.

We were living among people who were physically and mentally exhausted. They would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified by nightmares. In those difficult days, the only thing any of us wanted was a kind word and some humane treatment.

Later on, after being under Tsaregradsky's supervision for a while, I was convinced that he was a decent human being. He himself was interested in painting and I heard that in his home, there were landscape paintings of the Far North that he had painted himself. He would often walk silently in the taiga, alone, without any guards. There were times during the geological explorations that he would sleep in the same tent and eat from the same bowl as the other workers did. Many Dalstroi workers held him in high esteem.

Convoy to Butigichag
One gloomy morning at dawn, we were transported in open trucks from Magadan. Our route took us through some of Kolyma's uninhabited virgin territory. We drove for a while, leaving behind the fog - enshrouded Nagaev pier. The weather became colder; though it was dry. When the convoy stopped, the guards would get out and take a rest, and we would go in search of some "gift of nature", such as cedar nuts. It kept us from becoming weak from hunger.

We were surprised when the guards didn't pay much attention to us prisoners when we jumped out of the trucks. Obviously, they already knew that it was impossible for us to escape anywhere.

They had the right to shoot us any time "for attempting to escape". Where could one escape in the wild wilderness of the taiga? If you died, the wild animals would devour you. If you succeeded in managing to reach civilization, you would be reported and receive an extended sentence that was even harsher. In reality, it was practically impossible to escape from the camps of Kolyma, although such attempts were made, especially in the spring and summer.

The sites for these camps, which were located out in the middle of uninhabited taiga forests, had been very carefully selected. They were situated in sheltered areas between boulders and hills. With the help of a large staff of armed camp security, thousands of sheepdogs, Chekists, and army frontier guards, it was so easy to catch anyone trying to escape.

Besides, there was an enormous network of informers among the prisoners - secret agents appointed by camp administration who also helped to prevent the prisoners from escaping. En route, we saw that on the edge of the road near the ditch, some places already were covered with gravel.

Later on, roads were constructed with prison laborers, who worked with practically no equipment - only axes, shovels, trucks and wheelbarrows.

The Kolyma road construction workers had the most difficult job. The authorities had in mind for Dalstroi to become the first government trust for the development and road construction in the North. For this reason, masses of prisoners were brought to Kolyma to construct roads through the dense taiga forests, the boulders and swamps, rivers and canyons.

Among the prisoners in Kolyma there were many road workers. At any time of the year - day or night - one could see thousands of laborers working along the roads. In winter, they would clear the roads of snow to make way for the vehicles. It was very difficult to look at the prisoners, with their numbed faces covered with frost and snow, clothed only in torn padded cotton jackets. Sometimes they would use their shovels pound down the snow or just wave their shovels back and forth to keep moving so they wouldn't freeze.

The guards would often chase the prisoners with their dogs. They would make them work for many days continuously - not allowing them to return to warmth to regain their strength. They often were given a frozen piece of bread and a jug of tinned food, which had to be shared between two people.

We headed up into the Kolyma Mountains, traveling such a long way, passing through forests. There were no inhabitants. We bumped and swayed from side to side in the truck.

Despite how exhausted we were, the trucks continued moving forward, day and night. The drivers constantly had to use their brakes. Actually, despite our own pathetic situation, we felt sorry for the drivers who had to navigate such dangerous passes through the mountains and taiga.

During the short breaks, the drivers wouldn't even get out of the trucks to stretch their legs. They would just fall asleep right there on the seat.

They were so tired that we would have to wake them up to start moving again. Especially when we passed close to the rivers where the road was so icy and slippery, the drivers had to be so alert and cautious. They would get out of their trucks, search for the right place to drive in order to avoid any surprises or accidents. Sometimes the snow would drift across the road, and the trucks would get stuck. We would get out and push the trucks out of the snow with our bare hands. But all in all, the drivers in Kolyma were very courageous and skillful.

There were still deer darting along the roads of Kolyma as no truck had ever passed through there before. We would see the local indigenous people using herds of deer to transport the equipment of the geologists and construction workers.

At dusk our convoy arrived at the main base, which was located in the foothills of the Podumay. On the way, we discovered that we were on the way to Butigichag [Butigichag: the name of the Tenki Administration of Dalstroi where an ore factory was constructed], the Tenki Administration of Dalstroi. There were constructing an ore-concentration factory there. The head of construction was our fellow countryman Museyib Jafar oghlu Akhundov from Baku. To arrive in Butigichag, one has to navigate the dangerous mountain Podumay Pass [Podumay Pass: One of the most treacherous passes in the Kolyma Mountains. Most of the year, it was closed to vehicular traffic because of the severe climactic conditions] which is about 15 km long.

Our long truck convoy continued along the taiga road. It was already dark when we arrived at the main base, in the foothills of Podumay, but the pass was already closed due to blizzards and snowdrifts. It was impossible to drive through it. We had arrived too late. We would continue the rest of the trip on foot across the treacherous ice and snow.

 "We were living among people who were physically and mentally exhausted. They would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified by nightmares. In those difficult days, the only thing any of us wanted was a kind word and some humane treatment."

-Ayyub Baghirov in "Bitter Days of Kolyma"

That night we stayed at the camp and, more importantly, we got some sleep. We were lucky that the storm had quieted down. The next day, we started our climb up the Podumay Pass with sunny weather. We were literally crawling up the mountain, exhausted and eager to get rid of our heavy clothes. Climbing was so difficult. To make it easier, we started to rid ourselves of any unnecessary personal items. On the cliffs of the tortuous winding mountain road, not only was there fresh snow, but also hardened ice that still had not melted from previous years.

For the first time here, I gazed out at the amazing panoramic views of these mountains. It brought back memories of my dear Caucasus. On these snow-covered peaks, the air is fresher, and it made us want to become lighter and soar over the mountains, higher and higher, like a lone eagle.

Finally we reached the final peak of the mountain and before us lay the taiga valley with its golden hues of autumn. The view was breathtaking. Rivers snaked through the land, and the sound of distant rushing waters awakened us from boredom into joy.

It's difficult to describe our feelings at that time. There we were in such a beautiful corner of the world under escort of guards and sheepdogs, having been accused of being "Enemies of the People". It was impossible to bear the irony of such injustice. Soon we understood that we were "politicals"-a name given to us by the government. We were treated like actual enemies of the government-executed, starved, assigned to carry out their exhausting slave labor. After resting a short while at the top of the mountain, the guards announced that we would begin our descent. We started down slowly.

Fortunately, going down was easier than coming up had been. We were soon at the bottom and felt close to life, warmth and work.

Surviving the Cold
Work? Why do I speak so fondly about labor? It's because, as I later discovered, without labor in these dense forests, a person falls apart and starts to go crazy. I recognized that this was happening especially among those prisoners who were there as criminals. They didn't want to work. They only wanted "to get to heaven on the sweat of some one else's brow."

But they soon relented. In such places, a person cannot live without labor. Work helps you to survive. Obviously, this is the reason why the organizers of GULAG had wisely located the camps in the midst of the wildest terrains of the taiga, where practically no human being had ever set foot before. This is where they took us as their free slave laborers. Simply, if you didn't work, you wouldn't survive in the taiga. First of all, you would die from hunger.

The sun had already set behind the mountains when we arrived in a virgin forest of tall larch trees. There were three heated tents that belonged to a group of field geologists. A little further on in the forest, there were two more official cabins built of stone. These cabins were probably intended for prisoners in transit. We were surprised to return to civilization with cabins, for we had lived in prison cells, prisons on ships, cattle cars, and tents in transit camps. Now we were accommodated in cabins where we were able to light a fire and heat some water. It was the first time we had ever been able to wash with warm water.

We gathered around to eat something and lie down to sleep. Suddenly two men entered our cabin, wearing warm clothes that were appropriate for the North. They greeted us and asked whether any of us were from the Caucasus.

I admitted that I was, and they came over and greeted me. One of them - Mammadagha - was from Baku. The second one was from Tbilisi. His name was Valiko. These young men had arrived in Kolyma the year before and had overcome the difficulties and managed to settle down and survive the first winter. They were friends and were working with the geological exploration team. Now that the summer exploration work had finished, they continued their work near the geologists and lived in cabins that were geared up for winter.

Later I discovered that they always went in search for newcomers from the Caucasus to learn the latest news about their Homeland and to reach out to their fellow countrymen and help them in any way possible.

It was a tradition among the prisoners in Kolyma - especially those who came from the South - to try to identify other fellow countrymen among the prisoners. They always did this despite the rules against it.

With the guard's permission, these two Azerbaijanis took my friend and me to their heated cabin. The first thing we did was to shave. Then they brought us food and freshly boiled tea. We started talking about life on this "magic planet", especially the rules needed for survival in the Butigichag Valley. We carried on, talking late into the night. Then they realized that we were exhausted and tired and soon took us back to our cabin.

Early the next morning when the guards awakened us to continue the journey, our fellow - countrymen were again near us. They had brought us food for the journey. We were so touched by their kindness.

Under the stars
During the second half of the day, we finally arrived at Butigichag, which is surrounded by gigantic boulders. Here was our camp: wooden gates, small cabins, tarpaulin tents, double rows of barbed wires along the camp boundary and guardhouses. On the left of the camp was the Vakkhanka River, which was narrow and deep in the canyon and then stretched out to the taiga towards the mine where the iron ore factory was being constructed.

It turned out that there wasn't a place for us in the camp cabins, and nor had they been able to construct new cabins prior to our arrival.

A strong, young Chechen from Grozny by the name of Mahammad Mammadaghayev was responsible for issues related to prisoners. But after the conversation we had had with our fellow countrymen, the night before, we weren't worried about spending the night in the taiga.

In such places there was no term for a house with four walls and a ceiling. Because of that, we had to forget about such structure, once and for all. We chose a place to sleep for the night on the hillside and made a fire.

Night fell. The light of the fire and the darkness formed something like a bronze area. We huddled close to the fire to absorb the heat. Then we started to make some dinner over the fire. We had half of a herring and some stale bread. We boiled water for tea in three-liter tins. Our "tea" was boiled water, darkened a little with a scorched crust of bread.

We tried to forget our anxieties, worries and boredom, and brace ourselves for the uncertainty of the coming days. We let our thoughts dwell on the past, for no one could take our past away from us.

There were some old Party people among us who personally had known F.E. Dzerjinsky [Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (1877­1926) was a Communist revolutionary, who founded Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police] Y.E. Rudzutak [Yan Ernestovich Rudzutak (1887-1938) was a Bolshevik revolutionary. In 1937, Rudzutak was arrested and accused of being a follower of Trotsky and for spying for Nazi Germany.

He was sentenced to death penalty and executed], P.P. Postyshev, [Pavel Postyshev (1888-1938) was a Party member from 1904 and appointed as the Central Committee Secretary (1930-34), and in served as the Second Secretary of the Communist Party (Ukraine) 1933-37], S.M. Kirov, and S. Ordzhonikidze [Grigoriy Konstantinovich Ordzhonikidze generally referred to as Sergo Ordzhonikidze (1886-1937) was a member of the Politburo and close friend to Stalin. He was appointed to the Politburo in 1926, but by 1936 Stalin began to question his loyalty; specifically when he discovered that Ordzhonikidze was using his influence to protect certain figures that were under investigation by the NKVD.

Meanwhile, rumors suggested that Ordzhonikidze was planning to denounce Stalin in his speech at the April 1937 Plenum. However, he was found dead before he could make that speech; his death was ruled as suicide [Wikipedia]. Some of them told us about other staff of the Caucasus that we didn't know, who also had become victims of Stalin's "cult personality".

Dawn was still hours away. The dry branches of a larch tree crackled in the fire. When we sat too close to the fire, it was too hot, and our backs suffered from the cold.

So we decided to engage in lively conversation so that we wouldn't fall asleep. And that's how we passed the night, nestled close to the fire - thinking, dreaming, and talking until dawn. Finally, the unfriendly, dull autumn morning came - so characteristic of the North. Rainy days in the North are very depressing and make your heart weigh heavily. Sometimes you become indifferent to others, especially when there's no work to do.

Work in the Camp
In the morning they started sending us out to work. That evening Pavel Ivanovich, the person responsible for the labor force, who was supervisor of the civilian guard of Kolyma, gathered the prisoners in his room in groups to talk to us.

He explained the routine and regime of production in this zone. Our situation turned out to be impossibly difficult. Our tent was not heated. There was only a steel barrel in the middle of the tent. The water in its cracks would freeze during the night. When we tried to sleep, we had to put up with prisoners snoring, moaning, coughing and swearing in their sleep. We would finish our work and come back to camp very tired. Rarely could we change our clothes. Then we would lie down on the cold boards of the bed. Theft was common in those hungry Kolyma camps - a piece of bread, a lump of sugar, cigarettes, slippers, cotton - padded jackets and other clothing items would disappear.

They were used immediately, exchanged or stolen by criminals, never to be returned. Even when the blankets were exchanged for clean ones, criminal prisoners usually would take the good ones and leave the rags for the political prisoners.

We started to work building the iron ore factory [Based upon information from press in recent years, the ore at Butigichag was radioactive and dangerous for life (note by Mirza Baghirov, the author's son)] where we were divided into productive brigades of 30 people each. Ours was made up of Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Armenians, Finns, Buryat-Mongols, Chechens, Ingush and Ossetians. There were even two Gypsies.

All of these prisoners had had the misfortune of being sent to the Far North and needed warmer accommodations, especially those who were from Central Asian Republics and who weren't used to cold climates. Keep in mind that we had to work outside all day long and somehow had to organize a way to deal with these natural elements.

Butigichag was located in a valley and totally cut off from the outer world. The only connection with Magadan was through that terrible mountain road via Podumay Pass, which I described earlier but it had already been closed to trucks since November. The road would not re-open until May the next spring.

Supplies, technical equipment and construction materials were loaded onto tractors. The bare necessities of life were "packed" on people and carried by foot. Literally hundreds of exhausted prisoners were made to march over Podumay Pass, walking 20 km in a 24-hour period just to deliver 10-20 kilos of flour, wheat, sugar, tinned food and other products that were necessary to support life.

This was done for more than six months of the year by prisoners bravely carrying heavy loads on their backs across these perilous mountains. It's difficult to describe how difficult their assignment was. There were many, many deaths during those frequent severe blizzards.

The Mongols, Buryats and Kazakhs, who were used to the colder weather, were put in charge of repairing the roads. Despite the difficult conditions, they made us laborers work with all our strength. That's how they managed the camp food. Prisoners worked 14-16 hours a day. If they didn't fulfill their norm, they would receive only 300 grams of bread [instead of 700-800 grams] as their daily ration, along with some prison gruel.

 "Let me add that along with hope, the main thing that helped us to survive the Far North was labor. Being actively involved with work was a necessity of life in the severe climate of the North. Work became a life-saving stimulus for us. Those who understood this truth from the beginning were the ones who survived in their struggle against the unforgiving landscape of the Far North."

-Ayyub Baghirov in "Bitter Days of Kolyma"

Many of the prisoners died merely from the severe cold and hunger. Soon there were many graves of our fellow prisoners clustered along the foothills of Kolyma. The only record of the deceased was a wooden tag, with the case number (no name) attached to the left foot, an annotation written in the NKVD files of Archive No. 3, and a note made on the prisoner's card.

Free Labor Force
It's no longer a secret that during those years that the nation lost hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of its sons and daughters because of the inhumane conditions of the labor camps. The tragedy was that these innocent, honest, respectable individuals were also devastated psychologically by being branded as "Enemies of the People". That's the way they were portrayed to their families, friends, and to the entire nation.

This was one of the most radical ways by which Stalin's propaganda sealed the eyes, ears and minds of the citizens of his country. And here, as unbelievable as it might seem, in this boundless terrain of Kolyma, the prisoners who were dying still believed in the Soviet authority. They still clung to the hope that sooner or later everything would be all right.

Stalin had called Dalstroi an industrial complex in a special setting. The residents of the Kolyma camps understood this setting very well and reached the same conclusion themselves. Regardless of the incredible difficulties related to the political situation of the country, the people who had been arrested arbitrarily and brought to these corrective labor camps worked honestly. They should be judged accordingly, based on their own clear consciences.

Sculpture by Fazil Najafov entitled "Violence Emerges from Stupidity", Bronze.
Left: Sculpture by Fazil Najafov entitled "Violence Emerges from Stupidity", Bronze.1939 the political prisoners started to hope for release. Lavrenty Beria was assigned as the People's New Commissar of Internal Affairs. He repealed some of Yezhov's decisions in order to raise his own political prestige. Some of the political prisoners from the Kolyma camps were called to Moscow to be examined.

But all this soon turned into bitter illusion. During the years between 1939-1940, I wrote many letters to the head of the nation and also to Beria requesting a re-examination of my case.

My elderly mother Sugra also wrote them from Baku. A few months later, I would receive a very brief reply to my requests: "Your status remains unchanged."

In 1941, I wrote five more letters and sent a telegram, complaining and begging them to send me to the war front so I could atone for any guilt with my blood. I received no reply.

Time passed. Winter came to Kolyma with its long, dark nights and short gray days. We suffered frostbite and temperatures, which dropped to below -50°C (-58°F). It was very difficult for the prisoners who were spending their first year in the North, even though they had already lived in these places for four months already.

Human Couriers
The year 1939 passed and the construction of the iron ore factory was coming to an end. More than half of all prisoners in the camp were assigned to haul products on a daily basis on their backs over the mountain road via Podumay Pass.

On one of those winter days in the beginning of 1940, those pedestrian couriers were caught in a terrible blizzard on the mountain road. It's difficult to describe this terrible tragedy.

Some of the prisoners survived, but at least 30 people were lost and no trace was left behind. They had lost their way, and then frozen to death, left to die under the snow. In spring, their bodies were found scattered along mountain slopes. Not all of them were found.

Later, on the same mountain road Museyib Akhundov as Head of Construction got caught in a blizzard along with a group of people on the way to Magadan. Somehow, they got separated from their tractor. Akhundov's arm and leg got frost bitten. Miraculously, he survived.

 "We tried to block out any anxieties and worries along with the boredom, and to brace ourselves for the uncertainty of the coming days. We let our thoughts dwell on the past for, at least, no one could take that away from us."

-Ayyub Baghirov in "Bitter Days of Kolyma"

It was our geological exploration team who rescued him. Through the howling blizzard winds, they barely were able to hear his shouts for help. With enormous effort, they climbed over the boulders, crawled to the injured people and literally rescued them from clutches of death.

The blizzards, driven by ferocious winds, were quite normal especially near the Okhotsk Sea. Winds could whip up to 30-35 meters per second. There were times when people had to hang on to ropes as they went from one house to another one nearby; otherwise, they would never have been able to find the entrance.

During the last half of March 1940, when the days in Kolyma were becoming relatively longer and skies brighter, all the laborers of the construction station were assigned to clear the roads for the entire length of the mountain pass.

About 1,500 prisoners worked at this task for several days. With an enormous effort, we were able to finish the construction of the road so vehicles could pass through the mountain pass.

First came the tractors, then trucks carrying food products, technical equipment, materials for the mine and the iron ore factory. Nedbaylov, the head engineer supervised this difficult work.

Many people worked so hard under these severe conditions in construction, conscientiously trying to provide life's basic necessities.

Sometimes people-especially those from the South - went to the edge of death, but then bravely survived these severe adversities in life.

If someone got ill or was too weak and unable to work, we would smother him with attention, helping him in whatever way we could. We would take on his workload along with our own for that day just so they would not reduce his daily ration of bread. Otherwise, the meager rations would have condemned that person to a slow, but certain death.

Dr. Mirza Baghirov (1927- ) published the memoirs of his father Ayyub Baghirov (1906-1973), "Bitter Days of Kolyma" (Gorkiye Dni Na Kolime, 1999). He holds a doctorate in technical sciences and is the former Rector of both the Polytechnic Institute and Lankaran State University.

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