Norilsk settlement, the end of 1949. 300 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, permafrost. Two labour camps: Norilsk camp (Norillag) and Special Gorny Camp (Gorlag). Norillag included dozens of camp sections and camp sites located in Norilsk, Dudinka, and in sparsely populated areas of Krasnoyarsk region. All Gorlag camp sections were based in Norilsk.
The number of inmates reached 92 thousand: 73 thousand prisoners in Norillag and 19 thousand in Gorlag. There were more than 20 thousand civilian labourers living in Norilsk at that time. The total number of inhabitants of Norlisk (civilian labourers and their families) remains unknown.
1953 would see Norilsk become a city.
The climate was harsh in Norilsk, with polar nights in winter when the sun wouldn’t come out for as long as 3,5 months. The only source of light was electric outdoor lighting in the areas that were equipped with it. Occasionally there were the Northern Lights but they didn’t illuminate anything. In summer we had polar days when the sun didn’t set below the horizon for 3,5 months. One had to get used to sleeping at night at that time.
The frost would reach as low as 50 degrees. Minus 35-degrees could also bring wind and snowstorms. On such days the schools would be closed and people in the streets would be holding on to a rope while walking as it was impossible to see in the blizzard. I wore a sheepskin overcoat and a bashlyk (a wide scarf with a hood) in winter. My face was almost completely covered with only a tiny opening for eyes. Whenever I came inside, I would see that the part of my face that had been exposed to frost (the bridge of the nose and the area between the eyes and ears) was frostbitten. It was important to rub them immediately. One of my classmates’ hands got frostbitten, turned red (the colour of meat) and remained this colour for a long time, possibly, forever.
Norilsk was a place where people were gradually dying out because of the poisonous agents that the plants were releasing into the air. The strongest immediate reaction was caused by sulphurous anhydride (sulphur dioxide) and was manifested in chest pains and the feeling of suffocation. It happened almost every day.
Norilsk consisted of two parts at that time, Social City and Gorstroy. Social City was located next to the so-called industrial area which was made up of factories, plants and the open-cut ore mine. There were two rivers: the Bear Brook and the Coal Brook. Social City consisted of one- and two-storey buildings as well as plenty of ‘baloks’. A balok was a small frame hut built of whatever was available, for example of plywood or roofing tar paper. People would somehow get water and electricity off-the books. Those were horrifying dwellings. People were released from prisons but they were not allowed to leave. As no-one provided them with the accommodation, they had to build a ‘balok’.
Gorstroy was a place a few kilometres away from Social City, where the new town started. There were low-rise houses there. Norilsk ground thaws only for as little as half a metre in the summer as there are ice lenses below it. One couldn’t just build a house in the ordinary way: the ice lens would melt in summer and the building would collapse. The engineers (ex-prisoners) invented the new system of the ‘windswept underfloor space’. They drove steel stilts rather deeply into the ice and put a house upon them. There was free space left below the house - ‘windswept underfloor space’. One could walk there sometimes without stooping down. Even at that time, they were able to build houses as tall as seven floors up, and later on much taller.
We lived in a dormitory for the engineers, all the five of us in a two-room flat. My grandfather, my mother and I occupied the walk-through room and my uncle and his wife lived in the slightly smaller second room. There was also a tiny section with a sink, a small table and the shelves for the dishes. That’s where we kept the two electric hot plates. The showers and the toilet were at the end of the hall on our floor. All the furniture and the dishes belonged to the state. The cups and plates were made of plastic.
My mother and my uncle’s wife never hit it off. Uncle’s wife lived in a distant section of Karlag after being released. Mother found her and arranged for her to be transferred to Dolinka, where the conditions were much better. Apparently, the kindness wasn’t always meant to be repaid. Later on, my uncle’s wife moved in with him in Norilsk.
Mother used to say that his wife was jealous of her. Indeed, my uncle treated his sister very warmly. Mother worked for the Power Plant, which wasn’t something she had been qualified to do but she had no choice. Her earnings were small whereas uncle had a big salary. They always kept a bowl of apples on the table, something my mother couldn’t afford. I would occasionally steal the apples, I just couldn’t resist it. My uncle’s wife would reprimand him for this. It used to make my mother cry.
My uncle was a construction engineer and he worked as a foreman in a project department of Norilsk plant. As part of the managing team he was assigned to Food Shop #10. It was a shop which distributed the food that had been previously ordered. It sold apples all the year round. They always had meat. Your order would be delivered to your house. It was highly important because not much was on sale in regular shops. Whatever was delivered to Norilsk was done so either by boat during the ice-free season or by plane.
Uncle didn’t spend a lot of time with me. Only many years later did I realize what it had meant to have been deprived of a father in the childhood.
The school was in Gorstroy and I took a bus to get there. The buses were made of the American 10-ton trucks. They put a ‘cabin’ at the back of a truck and fitted it with a roof, doors and windows. Dim plexiglas windows were reinforced with wire to protect them from cracking during the winter frosts. The buses were overcrowded in the morning and I would often travel hanging off footboards. I wasn’t afraid.
The school was in a four-floor building. There was a winter garden at the top and it was beautiful up there. There was a kind of a park next to the school which was made up of plots of land sown with oats, paths and bare ground between them with benches. That’s where the students (including me) used to run away to play football before the last two lessons during the summer. We would climb down the fire escape and get back in the same way for the last lesson. Nobody caught sight of us.
School was mostly boring. The teachers were really inefficient. Only one of them stood out – the Chemistry teacher. I can’t say that I liked Chemistry but I really enjoyed her lessons. Literature, History and Geography were all unbearable. There was very little to learn, mostly Soviet frenzy. I never did homework to revise for these subjects. I just kept an open textbook on the desk in front of me and whenever I was called to the blackboard, I would stand up slowly, scan the text and give an answer (or went to the board to give it in from of the class). It was enough to get an excellent mark.
There were two mutually hostile camps at school: ex-prisoners’ children and those of the correctional officers’ (VOKhR). (The labour camps staff consisted of the administration, NKVD officers and the guards. Militarized guard units (VOKhR) stood apart. They supervised both small and large labour camps and prisons, oversaw facilities where inmates worked and escorted the prisoners to their work. They were all collectively called ‘VOKhRa’ by ex-convicts.) A few children of those employed by NKVD for unforced labour were also considered VOKhR.
Surprisingly, some ex-prisoners’ children were able to tolerate VOKhR children fairly well. Apparently, it was due to their parents’ choice not to share their own life experiences with the kids. Parents thought it would make their children’s lives easier. I didn’t approve of that. In any case, those children would go through life ‘branded’ as children of the enemy of the state. I believed the time would come for them to face the true meaning behind that stigma as well as everything else.
For my mother, that division went without saying and it was true for teacher-parent meetings too. No wonder, people like mother hated the Soviet regime. Years later, in the 60-s and 70-s, when we were already living in Moscow, my mother would immediately get up and leave the dinner table whenever she heard anyone talk about the great Stalin and his achievements. I witnessed it once, when we both left. I couldn’t believe the fact that people, whose life was wrecked and maimed by the Soviet regime, would accept and approve of it afterwards. My uncle was one of those people.
I didn’t have any close friends at school. There were three classmates who I used to hang out with outside school. There were two Jewish boys in my year whom I wanted to befriend but it never happened. They were clever boys who understood a lot of what was going on. I have to admit, there were very few of them among my peers.
Lake Dolgoe lay between Social City and Gorstroy. A part of the lake never got frozen because the local Thermal Power Plant dumped hot water in it. A surface dam was constructed on it for the transportation and pedestrians. There were short spells of very hot weather in summer when the water reached 30 degrees and that was when we swam in it. There were also small lakes in the tundra not far from Norilsk. They would partially thaw in the summer but it was impossible to swim in them because the water was ice-cold.
Norilsk tundra was hilly and plant-free. One could come across spots of ten-centimeter long berries. Scarce bush trees were bending down. Marshy land. Willow grouses and nests in the ground. In winter one could only ski around tundra. I was in tundra in winter time a few times accompanied by adults. It was not safe as blizzard could start at any point. It was impossible to see or hear anything during the blizzard. Moreover, the soldiers in the guard towers surrounding the settlement could shoot a skier. I heard of cases like that. But personally, I was never caught in a blizzard.
I also went to the skating rink in winter. You could skate only in relatively warm weather. Otherwise you could get pneumonia.
There was a theatre in Norilsk. I was there once with my mother to see ‘Voice of America’ by Lavryonov. I didn’t know much about America at that time and it all seemed a complete and utter lie.
I used to read quite a lot. When I was in the 9th Grade I read most of Kuprin and Balzac.
Someone stumbled upon a collection of confiscated books kept near the school. I can’t remember how I found out about it. The books were scattered all over the place: standing and lying on the shelves and on the floor. There were a few chairs left there too. Although it wasn’t allowed to enter the ‘library’, the old woman who kept guard at the door used to let me and two of my friends in. I often went there after school and that was where I read a lot of interesting books. For example, ‘Moscow, 1937’ by Lion Feuchtwanger. There were also minutes of Communist Party Congresses as well as minutes of various famous trials. It was not particularly fascinating as I had to go through a large number of volumes to find a specific case I was interested in.
There was a gym opposite our house where I went in the evenings to play chess. That’s how I got to become a class B chess-player. Once our school team even won the city tournament. When I got to the 9th Grade, my mother ordered me to give up both chess and ‘library’ and focus on exam preparation, so that I could pass the school exam and get the certificate. I don’t think it was worth it.
Uncle’s friends used to come over, they had struck up a friendship in the labour camp. I really liked them all but there was one who stood out. The most extraordinary person was Edgar Danilovych Khan-Khut. A German Jew who had been sent to Moscow to do contract work for a German company. One day he had felt someone put a hand on his shoulder in the underground and he had vanished into GULAG.
He was an extremely well educated person who could speak several languages. Moreover, he had been sent to England when he was young to lose the German accent in his English. He specialized in steelwork and was in the same project department in Norilsk as my uncle.
When the time had come for him to flee Germany, he and his wife hadn’t reached an agreement: she thought they had to go to America whereas he believed in the USSR. That’s how they had ended up going off in different directions. Those two Europeans couldn’t imagine that they were separating for the biggest part of their lives. It turned out years later that his wife had been pregnant. Their daughter was born in America.
After his release, Khan-Khut met Lyubov Gertsevna Pitkovskaya in the settlement and they got married. She was from Poland and she had studied at Sorbonne. I have no idea what had brought her to the USSR. But she and Khan-Khut both ended up in Norilsk. She was a sweet lady and a good friend to my mother. The settled in Moscow after rehabilitation and my mother and I used to visit them there. It was then when Khan-Khut found out that he had a daughter in America. His immediate family had all died in Germany and he received $130 000 compensation from the Germans for being Jewish. It was an astounding amount of money, especially for the USSR. He sent $100 000 to his daughter and put aside the rest, occasionally dipping into his savings. He spent $2000 on a two-room flat.
Khan-Khut made his living in Moscow by doing translations from Russian into foreign languages. He was extremely well-organized: he got up at 5 a.m. and sat down to work at the typewriter. He went to the swimming pool twice a week. Jammed radio broadcasts didn’t bother him as he could understand English. Every summer he travelled on his own, without his wife. That’s how he died on a trip to Uzbekistan: he went hiking in the 30-degree heat and had a heart attack. He was in his early 60-s. My mother kept in touch with Lyubov Gertsevna for many years after his death.
Another friend of my uncle, Borya Genin, had saved uncle while they were at camp work. When uncle collapsed from exhaustion, Borya dragged him away and hid for some time. If the guard had seen a convict who had fallen down, he would have killed him. Borya’s own death was an absurd one: he had been hit by a reckless driver while walking along the street in Suhimi.
Norilsk Industrial Plant had a state owned farm called Tayozhniy which was located about 80 km away from Krasnoyarsk. That was where the children were sent for two months in the summer. I went to the pioneer camp there after the 7th Grade and to the Komsomol camp after the 8th and the 9th.
Two large motor ships called ‘Joseph Stalin’ and ‘Sergo Ordzonikidze’ were navigating the Yenisey at that time. Both were ‘trophy’ (captured) German ships. We took the first ship during the navigation season leaving Dudinka at the very end of June. The ice drift in the Yenisey had only started then. Masses of ice were piling by the banks to be cut into to form a passage. The ice ‘walls’ were one and a half or twice the human scale. We were walking along these corridors to board the ship. We occupied the ship’s cargo hold and slept in three-tier bunk beds.
The pioneer camp was completely dull whereas the Komsomol one was a little better. Once I initiated an escape to go camping. We were missing for two days but nobody managed to find us, we got back on our own.
Everyone was suffering from the light form of scurvy in Norilsk. During the winter afternoons we were all dying to get some sleep and the schools had a 30-minute nap break. We were all deficient in vitamins. That’s why it was important to bring back 150-200 eggs from the camp. We bought them in the neighbouring villages. We used to wrap every egg in a piece of newspaper. Then we put the wrapped eggs into a basket which was also sold in the village. That way the eggs got to Norilsk and didn’t go off during all winter.
Tayozhniy was where I learned to swim. All by myself. The current on our parts of the Yenisey was very fast, with whirlpools. We knew what to do if we were sucked by a whirlpool. We knew not to approach a running motor ship, a tug-boat, a barge or a towline between them. There was an island in the middle of the river, about 700 metres from the bank. A few of us used to walk about one and a half kilometres upstream and start swimming from there. The current would then carry us directly to the island about two kilometres away. We took inflated football bladders with us just to be on the safe side. We spent our time on the island relaxing and sunbathing and then swam back. Naturally, we reached the bank one and a half kilometres downstream, which meant that we had to walk all the way back to get our clothes. One summer, after I finished the 8th Grade, my mother stopped in Tayozhniy on the way from a health centre. She went to the bank of the Yenisey and asked after me. The boys said: ‘He is all the way over there.’ I was on the island at that time. Mother was shocked. She had no idea I could swim.
American planes occasionally flew along the Northern Sea Route and dropped down the parcels. I can’t remember the how they got picked up or distributed but that’s how I got a hand-me-down faux fur jacket that was still fit to wear. However, mostly they brought food products. For example, there were round metal jars of chocolate that was hard but still very tasty, or powdered eggs that also came in metal jars.
Milk was rationed in Norilsk, it was available only to small children. The poor mothers in need used to sell their milk coupons. We bought these cards in the market for 200 rub per each.
Condensed milk was the main dairy product. I had had so much of it in Norilsk that I didn’t touch it for years afterwards. Pickled cucumbers remained the biggest treat for me and I bought one of those with the seven rubles which mother allocated for my trip to the market.
The day Stalin died there was a school assembly in the school gymnasium. I was in the 10th Grade at that time. The high school students were lined up in two rows. The headmaster was crying when he was reading out the official statement. There was only one other person who was crying besides the headmaster. It was a warden’s son whose arm was being twisted by an ex-inmate’s son standing right behind him.
Everybody looked glum. I can’t remember anyone talking after the assembly. One of my classmates, whose father had been shot and whose mother had been given a long sentence, said with sorrow that he didn’t know what would come next.
However, I was hurrying to get home as I knew we would be celebrating. Mother said ‘The mustached had croaked’.
My parents were rehabilitated in 1956: first my father, Solomon Abramovich Lisagor, posthumously, and then my mother, Nina Lvovna Sher.
When I was 65, I traveled to Boston for a medical check-up. One of the expatriates from Moscow, who was five years older than me, said: ‘We had been robbed of our entire life’. I remembered his words because they were true for me too.
Nothing about my childhood had been normal. I never knew my father, I met my mother when I was seven. I lived in a camp settlement in Dolinka from the age of seven until I was seventeen, and afterwards, in a restricted access town of Norilsk. Not later than when I was thirteen, I started feeling the need to protect myself from the outside world. I formed a ‘crust’ which would often make me rude but kept me sane. This is the feeling I’ve been living with all my life.