Kolyma - The Berzin period
Kolyma: The white crematorium
The Berzin period
Eduard Petrovich Berzin supervising the harbour construction, 1932
Eduard Petrovich Berzin was Dalstroi’s first head. He was a confirmed Bolshevik and must once have believed in the accepted dogma that by working for the community, i.e. the Soviet Union, the prisoners could be turned into good Soviet citizens. But Russia soon became a victim of duplicity. While, on the one hand, Berzin thought the camps could produce better people, he also believed that the prisoners were counter-revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the Soviet Union.

How much does a prisoner cost?

The Berzin years are remembered as Kolyma’s golden period. In one of Varlam Shalamov’s tales, a new group of prisoners are brought in and told what rations they will receive and what wages they will be paid. The speaker adds: “You will go back home in top hats.” Top hats were the symbol of capitalism in Soviet propaganda. It was difficult to find anything more extravagant in the Soviet idiom of the 1930s. It is true that Kolyma - except for the first year - was considered to be one of the better places in the Gulag, as long as Berzin was there. The rations were better, the wages higher and if you found a particularly big clump of gold, you could be freed before time. But Berzin could also be tough.

They tell me, though I have no evidence from the Americans, that Dalstroi traded directly with the United States, exchanging gold for modern mining equipment. On one occasion, when some of the equipment was being unloaded, a skip fell into the waters of Navaego Bay and the prisoners tried to fish it out of the icy depths. One of the officials went over to Berzin and said: “The men are dying, trying to save the skip. What should we do?” Berzin asked a question: “What does a skip cost in gold rubles?” The man replied. Berzin asked another question: “What does it cost in gold rubles to get a prisoner out here?” The man answered. Berzin asked conclusively: “Then why do you ask?”

Berzin, Dalstroi’s first head, inspects habour construction work in Nagaevo Bay. Photo kindly made available by Magadan’s regional museum.
Early picture of Eduard Petrovich Berzin, 1920'ies
Eduard Petrovich Berzin looked kind and inviting, though those who failed to follow his plans would not agree. But Berzin was a pragmatist and stemmed from the old guard of party intellectuals. Photo kindly made available by Magadan’s regional museum.
The good life

Berzin had a Rolls Royce. It was his only real privilege. It was probably originally Felix Dzerzhinsky’s car. He had got it from Nadyezda Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow. The documentation is fading into the mists but a Rolls was not a common sight in the Soviet Union. Apart from that, Berzin had a wooden house, just next to the site of today’s theatre. Nothing to write home about today but it was luxury in Kolyma.

Berzin appreciated the fine arts. From a trip to the United States, he had brought back a gramophone and on a later journey to Italy he brought records with Italian operas home to Kolyma. He had also traveled a few times to Europe, to England, to Holland and at least once to Italy.

In other words, Berzin’s life was hardly extravagant but it was not modest either. In comparison with living standards in the Soviet Union, he was certainly among the elite.

The downfall

In 1937, the ”Great Purge” started in Moscow. Stalin purged everything and everyone he remotely suspected of opposition. The party, the army, educational institutions, technicians, specialists and diplomats, they were all purged, even while the “kulaks” were hunted down in the Ukraine and elsewhere. The whole system was falling apart.

Berzin’s people were purged too and new officials were sent out to replace them. Berzin himself lost practically all his responsibilities. Rumour has it that he was called to Moscow to receive the Order of Lenin from Stalin himself. Berzin had completed the road to Seimcham and from 1932 to 1937, he had aimed at doubling gold production each and every year. Those were the grounds for his award but the truth is that it was now his turn to be purged and was therefore wanted in Moscow.

That’s the rumour. And even if the truth is not quite like that, it is no less spectacular. The real story is that Berzin was given a holiday to Italy together with his family. He cleared his desk and sailed on the “Felix Dzerzhinsky” to Vladivostok from where he took the train to Moscow. Just outside Moscow he was arrested and half a year later, on 1 August 1938, he was executed in Lubianka, the NKVD headquarters. His family survived and his daughter died only recently. His son became a soldier and, in 1943, was reported missing on the front at Stalingrad.

Next: Regime of Terror

Map of GULAG camps in Central Kolyma
Map showing the main camps in Kolyma, north of Magadan. It does not include all the camps in what is now Yahutsk, Chukotka and parts of Kamchatka, then all part of Kolyma. Graphic: Ivan Alexandrovich Panikarov.
Lyubianka, the NKVD/KGB headquarter in Moscow, 2006
Lubianka, headquarters of the NKVD, later to become the KGB. Today it is used by the FSB, Russia’s secret police. It was here that Berzin was executed on 1 August 1938. Photo: Jens Alstrup 2006.