I found this gruesome story in a letter to Editor in today’s Telegraph:
Sir – Julius Strauss’s report on the lost prisoners of the Soviet gulag (News, Jan 3) reminded me of a wartime experience.
As an 18-year-old seaman aboard an escort destroyer out of Scapa Flow in 1943-44, I recall that, after shepherding the convoy in the Kola inlet north of Murmansk, we moved to the small dockside at Polyarni.
During one of our arrivals, when some of us were stretching our legs ashore, a well thrown snowball caused me to stagger against a snow-covered stack of logs. I recovered my balance to find that I was hanging on to a human foot, naked and frozen.
We found that the stack was not of timber, but of human bodies, laid five upon five, approximately 30 to a stack, piled along the jetty. We surmised that they were casualties of the war to the south, could not be buried in the frozen ground and had been moved by rail to an ice-free port for disposal at sea.
Having read your report, I am inclined to suggest that they had perished in the gulag Vorkuta, not far to the east.
Leslie James Cousins, Petersfield, Hants
Even in the context of the times, the suffering at the Vorkuta camps was extreme. In the winter, temperatures on the tundra can drop to minus 50C.
Inmates were provided with ill-fitting, poor quality clothes and forced to work 12 or 14 hours a day on a starvation ration. During the 1940s and 1950s a million prisoners passed through the Vorkuta gulags, according to Memorial.
At least 100,000, perhaps many more, died. They were buried in the rock-hard permafrost or simply left by the roadside to be covered by snow.
Many of the survivors are now trapped by poverty as the hyperinflation following the end of communism wiped out their meagre savings. For years Vorkuta was a political gulag. Today it has become an economic gulag.