- Stalin’s Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet, and the Role of the West
Martin Bollinger has written an excellent book. He addresses a little known subject that is significant for students of the Stalinist gulag and Soviet maritime operations; his research efforts are impressive; and the book is highly readable.
Bollinger, a management consultant "by day," researches and writes maritime history. He got the idea for Stalin's Slave Ships after watching a television show about the Soviet merchant ship Cheyulkin, which was frozen in Arctic ice in 1933. Soviet aviators who were dispatched to help the Cheyulkin's crew traveled westward from Moscow even though the ship was east of their starting point. The reason, according to the show, was that a slave labor ship was also frozen in the ice, west of the Cheyulkin.
Intrigued, Bollinger began tracking the histories of the six principal ships operated by the Soviet state security apparatus that carried at least three million prisoners [End Page 180] to the infamous "camps" of the Kolyma region of eastern Siberia (between the Arctic Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk) from 1932 to 1953. Some estimates of prisoners transported by sea are much higher, and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reported (in 1985) that more than three million people died in the Kolyma camps (p. 82). Even if we use the estimate of just under one million "slaves"—130,000 deaths—based on data gathered by a noted Soviet historian, this figure, as Bollinger writes, is "not only a statistic but a tragedy" (p. 86).
Significantly, according to Bollinger's research, the privations and death toll in the Kolyma area during its initial years as a prison were not extraordinary. By 1937, however, it became an "industrial enterprise" of mass brutality, as hundreds of men (and women) died every day from "exposure, overwork, or diets that were kept below sustenance levels for all but the most productive workers" (p. 15). By some estimates, up to one-third of the prison population died every year (p. 16). Prisoners also died aboard the slave ships themselves. Reportedly, the transport ship Khabarovsk was carrying some 12,000 prisoners when it got trapped in Arctic ice in the winter of 1933–1934. Reports differ as to whether the entire "cargo" froze or starved or was taken off the ship when it docked at the Arctic port of Ambarchik in 1933. By all indications, thousands of other prisoners died aboard the slave ships even before they reached the "camps." The Gulag story is still replete with many unknowns.
Kolyma contains rich deposits of gold, tin, and uranium. By 1937 it was transformed from a prison to an invaluable source of minerals. The lack of roads and rails in the region meant that ships were needed to bring in the prisoners and provisions and carry out the few released prisoners and the products of their labors.
Bollinger has identified the six slave ships that were the core of the Soviet Gulag fleet. His detailed history of these ships, with photos and drawings, is fascinating and a tribute to his research. Significantly, all six vessels were built in the West—three in the Netherlands, and one each in Sweden, Scotland, and England. Several other ships, including ones transferred from the United States to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program during World War II, apparently carried prisoners to the area and are identified in the book. With meticulous detail—and almost delight—Bollinger describes how the slave ships called at U.S. and Canadian West coast ports for overhauls and modifications as well as to load Lend-Lease war supplies for the Red Army. Each of the slave ships made port calls on the U.S. West coast an average of a dozen times from 1942 to 1945.
The penultimate chapter ("What Did the West Know and When Did It Know It?") follows an undertone present throughout the book. But as Bollinger writes: "At best, there is indirect evidence to...