A city near the railroad

Text and photos: Ilya Pilipenko Translation: Datura Metel

It’s early morning. Near the bus station building a few people are smoking sulkily, inspecting at the newcomers. A couple minutes back the bus turned aside from the road endlessly stretched along the railroad. The whole town appears to be built by the roadside.

Yu. A. ShapelShapel Yusef Antonovich (1903 — ?) Railway engineer. He was arrested in 1938 and was sentenced to 10 years in labor camps. He was serving a prison sentence in Sevzherdorlage, where he worked as an engineer in the design department. In 1942 he was again sentenced to 8 years to be served in the same camp. Left on freedom in 1950. Fully rehabilitated in 1956. He lived in Leningrad.

A well planned town of typical one-storey planked cottages with no water or drain pipes could house up to fifty hundred people.

All the main showplaces are on the Dzerzhinskiy street: a mandatory little Lenin on a big pedestal, a square with a troop carrier monument, a restaurant with a gaudy name. A regular town, quiet and somewhat empty. Like in many other towns with a lot of old wooden houses intact, there’s an ambiguous feeling of a place that has changed a lot and on the other hand, sort of frozen in time.

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Knyazhpogost settlement was renamed to Zheleznodorozhny in 1941; and by 1985, when it was re-renamed to Yemva, had already become a town. A plywood plant opened, shut down and apparently opened again. Near the old sports school building an inflatable tennis court has appeared. But then there are old wooden barracks with columns, and the old camps’ names are now city district names, reminding of what this place had been in the past: 20th, 21st, Severnyi (Northern).

Yu. A. ShapelShapel Yusef Antonovich (1903 — ?) Railway engineer. He was arrested in 1938 and was sentenced to 10 years in labor camps. He was serving a prison sentence in Sevzherdorlage, where he worked as an engineer in the design department. In 1942 he was again sentenced to 8 years to be served in the same camp. Left on freedom in 1950. Fully rehabilitated in 1956. He lived in Leningrad.

Since autumn of 1941 SevZhelDorLag (Northern Railroad Camps, NRC further on) started receiving political and regular inmates that had been condemned during the war. They strongly differed from those condemned in 1937-1938 by their bravery and edgy views. NRC took convicts with short terms, while those with serious crimes and long terms were sent to Vorkuta, beyond the Polar Circle.

“Yemva City” says a bright red sign at the empty bus stop. “City!” states another one below. And a bunch of paper adverts nearby are selling firewood, chickens, or plots of land- items quite untypical for a city.

H. G. FischerFischer Hella Gustavovna (1906 — 1984) was born in Czechoslovakia. In 1935, she came to the Soviet Union with her husband. Hella’s husband participated in the development of technical equipment of the first stage of the Moscow Metro. They were arrested in 1937. Hella"s husband was shot, she was in the camps 10 years, and since 1947 was exiled. In 1956 she returned to Moscow, in 1957 she was rehabilitated. Hella never returned to her homeland of Czechoslovakia.

A general commission last year revealed a great illiteracy. Especially among women, even young ones. Immediately someone of the 58th (article 58 of the Criminal Code, political felony) organized an elementary education group. With the authorities’ permission they gathered some books for the first grade. But learning to read is much harder for the grown ups than for the kids. Especially considering our lifestyle… Still, the good initiative had been fruitful, though sometimes in unexpected ways. A young girl from a remote northern village at the end of her 3 year term for committing petty fraud was finally to be released. It had been a year and a half since she started with the A letter and here is her petition in big and clumsy letters: “Sir warden. They taught me go to banya here and also read and write. So I writing to you. I won’t leave nowhere. I worked faithfully as milkmaid; you know that and have no right to expel me”. The warden was quite puzzled but whatever rough measures had he taken, he couldn’t get rid of her. So she stayed as a civilian worker at the farm.

A leisurely conversation with an aged stoker near the town bathhouse of stone. His gold crowned teeth are biting on a cigarette that just refuses to light up. He keeps flicking his lighter and a blurry tattoo shows up on his coal dusted fingers. “It’s okay, here’s the banya we got. We work. I myself am a military pensioner. Been a guard my whole life. Settled here after the army and stayed. No, I’m not local, from Ukraine. There’s next to no locals here. My grandfather lived here, too. Doing his term. A lot of folks have been here”.

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In another part of the city, Achim, loud music is heard. The sounds from the inside are almost too much for this big wooden House of Culture which looks like it’s about to collapse. The doors are shut, and there’s an announcement of a rehearsal. As the guitar solos and thundering drums fall silent, in the resulting silence dogs are barking and tires hissing on the road.

S. V. YerukhimovichYerukhimovich Solomon Vulfovich (b.1916) He was arrested in 1937. In 1945 released. He was working in the north of voluntary recruitment. Former director and artistic director of the Theatre and Variety staff Sevzherdorlag (1940-1948). Director of the House of Culture in Knyazhpogost. In 1950, re-arrested "in the first case." Sentenced to a settlement in the Novosibirsk region. Was released in 1954. Fully rehabilitated in 1956. He lived in Leningrad. In 1990th he emigrated to Israel.

I was in my barrack when a warden on duty came running and said I was urgently wanted in the Political Department. At the doorstep I encountered Nikolai Vasilievich, very excited, who told me he’d been reported of beautiful singing in one of the railway carriages moving north. I was commanded to run to the station to check it out, find out the singers’ names and report back. I found the brigade (guards have been notified beforehand), entered the car, found the singers, asked to perform something and said: “Do you want to stay here and be in our collective? They agreed, of course, so Makariy and Seryozha were taken off the train as “very, very sick”! The brass’ patience was gone by evening and after a hasty rehearsal with our orchestra the duo of new singers performed for the civilians of Knyazh-Pogost; they sang “A night on the raid” by V.I.Solovioff-Sedoi. They did great! There was great applause to the new born stars, the audience called for encore three times! And in the first row the camp chief and the head of Political Department sat with shining faces! The order for the singers suddenly “fallen sick” was afterwards reassigned: SevZhelDorLag instead of Vorkutalag.

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An elderly couple is plodding along the same railroad. She’s habitually talking; he’s habitually not paying attention. As they come closer, the old man asks me sharply: “Where from?” He says nothing more and without stopping they keep walking, holding onto each other.

H. G. FischerFischer Hella Gustavovna (1906 — 1984) was born in Czechoslovakia. In 1935, she came to the Soviet Union with her husband. Hella’s husband participated in the development of technical equipment of the first stage of the Moscow Metro. They were arrested in 1937. Hella"s husband was shot, she was in the camps 10 years, and since 1947 was exiled. In 1956 she returned to Moscow, in 1957 she was rehabilitated. Hella never returned to her homeland of Czechoslovakia.

New acquaintances started forming at the steel grid. Once a man in a torn up pea coat kissed Erica’s fingers she squeezed through the mesh. It turned out they’d been teaching together for a few years. “But how on earth did he recognize me?”- Erica said, in perplexity, inspecting her camp uniform.

As the road turns, a wooden pagoda-looking house jumps into view. It stands at the edge of a ravine with a small river separating two city districts. The local museum employees uncertainly inform us that it was either built or repaired by Chinese inmates, hence the similarity. Despite the age, the building still looks solid and capital.

Yu. A. ShapelShapel Yusef Antonovich (1903 — ?) Railway engineer. He was arrested in 1938 and was sentenced to 10 years in labor camps. He was serving a prison sentence in Sevzherdorlage, where he worked as an engineer in the design department. In 1942 he was again sentenced to 8 years to be served in the same camp. Left on freedom in 1950. Fully rehabilitated in 1956. He lived in Leningrad.

On the 1st floor of the Department in its NW corner and near the technical library was a big room jokingly called “Curiosities of NRC”. They collected rare finds there, like mammoth tusks, deer horns and antlers, discovered in the process of building the 1000 km of railroads to the coal mines of Vorkuta beyond the Arctic Circle; and also samples of food products made of reindeer moss (beer, jam, paste) and bottles of gasoline made by distilling local fossil slates. Samples of skis were presented, made on the local woodworking facility for the army, a model of railroad bridge over the Vychegda river, a wide arrangement of colourful wooden toys and many other things. The head of Camp Administration, S.I.Shemena, considered it his duty to take every official passing by Knyazhpogost into this room of northern “wonders”, and the manager of the room, a financier from Moscow, a Jewish inmate Berson, would give explanations.

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It starts raining and feeling uncomfortable. Though the locals don’t seem to notice the sifting rain: elder brothers are walking their minors, someone’s coming from the grocery, two ladies stopped to chat.  A regular unhurried life of a little town.

Kh. V. VolovichVolovich Khava Vladimirovna (1916 — 2000) writer, author of the memoir. Arrested in 1937 and sentenced to 15 years in a forced labor camp and five years" disqualification. Time served in Sevzheldorlag, in Mariinsky camps, in Ozёrlage, in Dzhezkazgan. In 1942 she gave birth to a daughter, who died in the camp in 1944. For many years, participated in the camp amateur, was an actress in theater of camp Sevzheldorlag; organized a puppet theater. Released in 1953. She lived in exile in the Krasnoyarsk Territory until 1955. In 1957 she returned to her home in the city of Mena. Since 1958 she directed the local club puppet theater. Rehabilitated in 1963.

A quarry, wheelbarrows, shovels… emaciated people, covered in scurvy sores, unable to even half fulfill the daily norm. A scorching sun and pouring rains. Huge slogan streamers: “there’s no rain on the track!”

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In front of a burnt wooden carcass there’s a small eatery. Oriental-looking host at the doorsill, looking very bored. “Come in, my dear, we’ve just made some lagman (soup)”. “My dear” comes in. It’s a small and dark café. Shabby new year decorations on the walls, plastic flowers on the tables, news from Ukraine on the TV. There’s another customer beside me- a grizzled Armenian is having some tea, bandying short sentences with the host. A phone starts playing an ethnic tune and the old man listens to the sparkling sounds for a minute before picking it up.

H. G. FischerFischer Hella Gustavovna (1906 — 1984) was born in Czechoslovakia. In 1935, she came to the Soviet Union with her husband. Hella’s husband participated in the development of technical equipment of the first stage of the Moscow Metro. They were arrested in 1937. Hella"s husband was shot, she was in the camps 10 years, and since 1947 was exiled. In 1956 she returned to Moscow, in 1957 she was rehabilitated. Hella never returned to her homeland of Czechoslovakia.

Jeannette is singing. Singing as if she is inventing these wonderful songs right here before our eyes and just for us… Our memory will keep her like this forever, because memory has gratitude.

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By the evening I deviate from the main road and walk a couple blocks aside. The side street leads to a forsaken field.

T. V. PetkevichPetkevich Tamara Vladislavovna (b.1920) actress, theater critic, writer. In 1943, she and her husband were arrested by seven years

I went to the place where the Central Separate Camp was situated. No sentry towers. Fences are tumbled. Just an empty look-out house marking where the borders of the zone used to be. Near the blackened barracks, half collapsed, half swallowed by the earth, new cottages were built. Between the remains of the barracks and the new houses pigs were wandering and chickens clucking. A delirious, ugly nonsense of life.

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On the railroad bridge near the station building under construction a few teenagers are hanging out. A black eyed lad is playing with his phone and chatting with two girls in snazzy makeup. Two other girls are having a private chat further off. A traffic light lights up below and soon a train arrives and cuts the “Knyazhpogost” sign on the platform from view (railroad stations are seldom renamed). Railroad stations are rarely renamed. I look at the train’s lit up windows and think about how many people remembered this name, how many lives were tied to it against  their will. And that it’s better to never know this, and then the sign on the station is just a strange name; one of many names you forget by the next stop.

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