Trotskyists in Stalin’s concentration camps

March 7, 2011

Sandy Boyer, co-host of Radio Free Eireann on WBAI in New York City and a veteran organizer for Irish political prisoners, tells one story of the resistance to Stalinism.

JOSEPH STALIN was the virtual dictator of Russia by the mid-1930s. All his opponents, except Leon Trotsky, who was in exile by then, were either dead or in prison.

But Stalin was still obsessed with Trotsky and his adherents. He knew that they stood for all the principles he had betrayed, but was still claiming to uphold. Stalin understood that the Trotskyists were his implacable opponents who would never compromise their principles.

By then, all the Trotskyists in Russia were in concentration camps. Even their spouses and children were sent to the camps. Trotsky's son, Serge Sedov, who had been completely nonpolitical, was imprisoned and killed just for being his father's son.

The Trotskyists had their own organization and discipline in the concentration camps. They refused to recognize the authority of their jailers and answered only to their own leaders. Many were held at the Vorkuta mine 100 miles above the Arctic Circle. Unlike the other prisoners, the Trotskyists refused to work down in the mine pits. They would work only eight hours a day, not the 10 or 12, as the camp administration required.

Prisoners of a Soviet labor camp build a road in Kolyma
Prisoners of a Soviet labor camp build a road in Kolyma (Tomasz Kizny)

One of the Trotskyist leaders, Vladimir Ivanov, was tried by a secret court on a trumped-up sabotage charge. When he was asked to reply to the indictment, Ivanov told his accusers:

You have your orders. You are assigned to carry out all the necessary formalities and to cowardly enforce them with the death penalty. You are forced to do this. You know as well as I that these accusations are manufactured from whole cloth, and have been prepared by compliant Stalinist police functionaries. So don't complicate your job; do your business. As for me, I refuse to participate in your juridical comedy.

After a long delay interspersed with phone calls to Moscow, the sentence was handed down for Ivanov: 10 years at hard labor. Ivanov roared, "Get out of my way, you dirty swine!" as he returned to the barracks.

CONDITIONS IN the concentration camps continued to deteriorate. The Trotskyists at the Vorkuta mine met to plan their response in the autumn of 1936, after the Moscow show trials condemned most of the remaining leaders of the Russian revolution to death.

The meeting began with a moment of silence in honor of the all the Bolsheviks who had been killed by Stalin. Then one of the Trotskyist leaders, Socrate Guevorkian, presented a proposal for a hunger strike:

It is now evident that the group of Stalinist adventurers have completed their counter-revolutionary coup d'état in our country. All the progressive conquests of our revolution are in mortal danger.

Not twilight shadows, but those of deep black night envelop our country. No Cavaignac [the butcher of the 1848 French revolution] spilled as much working class blood as has Stalin. Physically annihilating all the opposition groups within the party, he aims at total personal dictatorship. The party and the whole people are subjected to surveillance and to summary justice by the police apparatus.

The predictions and the direst fears of our opposition are fully confirmed. The nation slides irresistibly into the Thermidorian swamp. This is the triumph of the centrist petty-bourgeois forces, of which Stalin is the interpreter, the spokesman and the apostle.

No compromise is possible with the Stalinist traitors and hangmen of the revolution. Remaining proletarian revolutionaries to the very end, we should not entertain any illusion about the fate awaiting us. But before destroying us, Stalin will try to humiliate us as much as he can. By throwing political prisoners in with common criminals, he strives to scatter us among the criminals and to incite them against us.

We are left with only one means of struggle in this unequal battle: the hunger strike. With a group of comrades, we have already drawn up a list of our demands of which many of you are already informed. Therefore, I now propose to you that we discuss them together and make a decision.

The prisoners agreed on demands, including:

Political prisoners and ordinary criminals should be completely separated.

All political trials should be held in public courts, not the regime's secret political tribunals.

The prisoners should have a guaranteed food ration which wouldn't depend on their production.

The old, the ill and women political prisoners should be moved from the polar camps to warmer locations.

The hunger strike began on October 27. Almost 1,000 political prisoners participated. It lasted for more than four months. Brutal force-feeding kept most of the prisoners alive, although four died before it ended.

Finally, in March, the hunger strikers won. The secret police sent a message to the camp administration, stating: "Inform the hunger strikers held in the Vorkuta mines that all their demands will be satisfied." At first, conditions improved dramatically. The prisoners only worked eight hours a day and only above ground. Their food ration wasn't linked to productivity.

But there was a vicious crackdown the next year. The political prisoners were herded into new barracks. They were only given a gram of bread a day to eat. Some days, they got no food at all.

The guards were encouraged to beat the prisoners with clubs. Prisoners were shot at when they went to the bathroom. They were forced to stretch out naked in the snow for hours on end.

Executions started at the end of March. A list of 25 names was announced. They were told they were going on a convoy and each was given a gram of bread. A short time after they left the barracks, the remaining prisoners heard shots. Only the guards returned to the camp. Every few days more names were called. The spouses of the executed prisoners were also shot. The children of prominent Trotskyists were murdered as well.

One day, when nearly a hundred prisoners were being lead away to die, they left the camp singing "The Internationale." Hundreds of the remaining prisoners joined them in singing the socialist anthem.

The executions continued until virtually all the Trotskyists in Russia were dead. A. Voitolosia wrote in Tracing the Fate of My Generation: "We know little about the last minutes of individual comrades, but as a whole, they died just as they lived--without fear, steadfastly, heroically, preferring death to the betrayal of their youth and themselves."

The bravery of the Trotskyists in Stalin's concentration camp should inspire today's revolutionary socialists. We need to remember that they were not born heroic men and women. Their extraordinary courage in the face of torture and death came from their political commitment and determination.

More information on the Trotskyists in Stalin's concentration camp can be found in "Trotskyists at Vorkuta: An Eyewitness Report," in the Summer 1963 issue of International Socialist Review.

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