Daily Archives: 8 November 2020

Ethnic POW Gulags in Russia, 1915

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 250-251:

The prisoners were driven by knout-wielding Cossacks “like cattle” on long marches to rail stations. Most entrained at Lwów or, another 90 kilometers (around 56 miles) to the northeast, at the Galician frontier town of Brody. Nearly all passed through the Tsarist army’s large transit camp at Kiev, 600 kilometers (370 miles) from Przemyśl. Here, prisoners’ names, ranks, and regiments were recorded. Above all, the Russian army was avidly interested in prisoners’ ethnicity. Its officers’ racialized thinking had already been evident in Przemyśl. There, first the Hungarian regiments were sent away—for the Russians regarded them as the most dangerous—then the Austrian Germans. Slavic units, whom the conqueror hoped were less hostile, were dispatched last. In Kiev, a more thorough sorting took place. Magyars, Germans, and Jews were separated to be cast into the harshest camps. Serbs and Romanians in Honvéd uniforms were sought out and earmarked for privileged treatment as “friendly” peoples. Hundreds of Przemyśl prisoners were transported to Russia’s capital, St. Petersburg, where they were paraded humiliatingly before the public along the main thoroughfare, the Nevsky Prospekt. Then they, too, were made invisible.

Most of the Przemyśl prisoners were incarcerated deep in Asian Russia, in the region of Turkestan (in today’s Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). The rail journey lasted two to four weeks. Cattle wagons, those functional items of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution that, in the dehumanizing twentieth, became icons of ethnic cleansing and genocide, were provided for transport. Cold, dark, overcrowded, and stinking, they were breeding grounds for disease-carrying parasites. The wagons rolled slowly. Food was distributed only irregularly and could be barely edible. When the weak men eventually disembarked, they found themselves in a strange climate. Turkestan was a place of extremes. In the winter, it could feel like the arctic. In summer, temperatures soared up to 45°C (113°F). Its unsanitary camps were overseen by brutal guards, and epidemics raged through them in 1915. Everybody contracted malaria. Dysentery, cholera, and typhus killed thousands.

The Russian hell had many circles. There were prisoners who spent years in Turkestan. Others were moved around the Tsar’s empire. Sometimes Slavic prisoners—although not Poles, who were distrusted by the Russians—were set above their fellows and given privileged conditions; they themselves then became instruments of suffering. Many prisoners volunteered to work as a means of escaping the camps and earning money so they could supplement their meager rations. They might end up felling trees or plowing the fields on big landed estates. Those most fortunate were handed over to small peasant farmers who would treat them as one of the family. In contrast, labor in the mines of southern Russia could be lethal. Whether benevolent or brutal, however, employers had total power over their prisoners. For sure, they had duties of care, but often there were no checks to ensure these were observed. Instead, official regulations emphasized that “it is the duty of all prisoners to carry out all work to which they are commanded, no matter how heavy. If one refuses, he is to be… treated as a convict, and this punishment shall… last the entire period of his captivity.”

The deepest circle was the Tsar’s own Death Railway to Murmansk. This place of suffering was reserved largely for Hungarians and Germans. The line was urgently needed to transport war materials left by British ships at the northern port to the Russian armies at the front. Over 50,000 prisoners worked here until 1917 in conditions that in their hardship equaled, and even exceeded, those of the later Soviet Gulags.

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