|Casualties and losses|
|40 wounded1||500–700 killed/wounded2
|1 Official Soviet figure
2 Prisoner-provided figure
The Kengir uprising was a prisoner uprising that took place in the Soviet prison labor camp Kengir in May and June 1954. Its duration and intensity distinguished it from other Gulag uprisings in the same period (see Vorkuta uprising).
After the murder of some of their fellow prisoners by guards, Kengir inmates launched a rebellion and proceeded to seize the entire camp compound, holding it for weeks and creating a period of freedom for themselves unique in the history of the Gulag. Following a rare alliance between the criminals and political prisoners, the prisoners succeeded in forcing the guards and camp administration to flee the camp and effectively quarantine it from the outside. The prisoners thereafter set up intricate defenses to prevent the incursion of the authorities into their newly won territory. This situation lasted for an unprecedented length of time and gave rise to a panoply of colorful and novel activity, including the democratic formation of a provisional government by the prisoners, prisoner marriages, the creation of indigenous religious ceremonies, a brief flowering of art and culture, and the waging of a large, relatively complex propaganda campaign against the erstwhile authorities.
After 40 days of freedom within the camp walls, intermittent negotiation, and mutual preparation for violent conflict, the uprising was suppressed by Soviet armed forces with tanks and guns on the morning of 25 June. According to former prisoners, five to seven hundred people were killed or wounded in the suppression, although official figures claim only a few dozen had been killed. The story of the uprising was first committed to history in The Gulag Archipelago, a nonfiction work by former-prisoner and Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
A year before the uprising, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died. His death raised great hopes among the prisoners of amnesty or, failing that, prison reform, and this hope was further emboldened by the subsequent downfall of Stalin's right hand man and state security chief, Lavrenty Beria. Beria, who was the chief of the entire Soviet security and police apparatus and architect of some of the most hated policies relating to the camps, was declared an "enemy of the people" and executed by those who succeeded Stalin. Beria's newly besmirched name became a liability to others in both the upper and lower echelons of the Soviet hierarchy, and anybody who was associated with or spoke too much in favour of Beria was similarly at risk of being denounced as a traitor and persecuted. The camp administration were not excluded from this risk, and this fact in turn significantly weakened their position vis vis the prisoners. Writing about the strikes which were taking place at the time, Solzhenitsyn described this issue:
|–||They had no idea what was required of them and mistakes could be dangerous! If they showed excessive zeal and shot down a crowd they might end up as henchmen of Beria. But if they weren't zealous enough, and didn't energetically push the strikers out to work – exactly the same thing could happen.||–|
Prisoners all over gulag, for this reason and others, were becoming increasingly bold and impudent in the months preceding the uprising, with hunger strikes, work stoppages, large-scale insubordination, and punitive violence becoming more and more common. In Kengir in particular, camp authorities were rapidly losing all control over their charges, and the communiques periodically sent by commanders up the camp hierarchy, in which they expressed their horror at the frequent incidents of unrest, powerful underground organizations, the growing "crisis" afflicting their network of informants, and their desperate attempts to reassert control, attest to this.
The uprising's roots can be traced back to a large in-shipment of "thieves" – the accepted slang term for the habitual criminals who were also imprisoned in Gulag along with the political prisoners. Traditionally thieves and politicals had been antagonists, with the thieves exercising virtually unchecked dominance over the politicals, robbing and abusing them at will, and with the politicals remaining too disunited to muster a credible defense. This situation was facilitated by a variably complacent and actively encouraging camp administration, which recognized the potential of thieves as an effective means of suppressing the politicals and preventing them from uniting in a common cause. Indeed, the infusion of roughly 650 thieves into the roughly 8,000-strong body of political prisoners at Kengir at the beginning of May was specifically for this purpose, as the Kengir prisoners had organized strikes before on a smaller scale and were becoming increasingly restless. The camp authorities hoped that these thieves would, as they had in the past, help reverse this trend.
It is important to note that, while the Gulag labour camps were founded in the early 1920s, only in the early 1950s were the politicals and 'thieves' finally separated into different camp systems. With the thieves out of the way, the politicals began to unite in ways unprecedented in Gulag. The building blocks of this process were national, religious, and ethnic groups (Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Chechens, Armenians, Estonians, Muslims, etc.) who quickly consolidated into strong groups and led the way towards the building of a camp-wide coalition, primarily by launching huge campaigns of murder against camp informers or prisoners who otherwise colluded in any way with the camp administration. Along with the thieves, the informers were the primary impediment to the politicals uniting together in the past. The informers kept their identities secret, denounced fellow prisoners often, and worked assiduously to root out and finger potentially troublesome prisoners. Because of this, a massive chilling effect was created among prisoners, who feared opening up to or trusting each other. These national and ethnic blocks, though, began the fight against the informers, systematically fishing out and killing them with a vigour and efficiency so great that the remaining, unidentified informers fled to the camp administration for protection.
Of these above mentioned ethnic blocks, the Ukrainians, many of whom were exiled members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (by some estimates making up over a half of the camps' population) were undoubtedly the most important, and they quickly asserted a leadership role amongst the prisoners. Members of this "Ukrainian Centre", as it was often called, were the primary proponents killing informers and later would prove essential to dealing with the newly-arrived thieves.
Along with this effective elimination of informers, the prisoners began fashioning relatively high quality shivs, which were previously the exclusive territory of thieves. In addition, many incidents took place (usually including the wanton murder of some well-liked prisoners by guards) during the previous months that came to fuel resentment and justify extreme action on behalf of the prisoners. Protests and collective refusals to work were increasing in frequency and the prisoners were learning the ropes of how to plan and maintain large-scale disturbances, mainly by creating systems of communication between camp divisions and, more importantly, by establishing command hierarchies.
Into this changed climate the thieves were injected and, to the surprise of the camp authorities, they instantly joined forces with the politicals, meeting secretly on the first night with the Ukrainian Centre and establishing a pact. This was due both to the fact that they recognized their odds against the almost 8,000 strong body of well-armed and united political prisoners, and because thieves across the whole Gulag caught wind of the politicals' campaign against the informers and began to admire and respect them.
The entire Kengir camp complex formed a large rectangle, divided up width-wise into four distinct areas: the women's camp, the "service yard", where all the workshops and storerooms were located, and two camps for men, each with its own jailhouse for punishing prisoners or hiding stoolies. The women's camp was blocked off both from access and sight to the mens' camp.
The formative stage of the uprising began on the evening of 16 May, a Sunday and thus a day off for all the prisoners. The thieves contrived to break into the service yard, where all the food was stored, and from there break into the women's camp, which was easier to do from that location. This they initially did, but they were shortly chased off by guards. At nightfall, though, the thieves regrouped, shot out all of the lights in range with their slingshots, and broke through the barrier between the men's camp and service yard with an improvised battering ram. It was at this point the Kengir uprising proper started when the guards opened fire on the thieves, killing 13 and wounding 43.
The remaining thieves retreated and an uneasy peace followed. During the night, though, thieves, now joined by the politicals, started breaking up their bunks and cells, trying to add to their cache of shivs and arm those without weapons, while the camp authorities posted machine gunners at the hole in the wall. After a tense standoff, the camp authorities, in a surprise gesture, ordered the withdrawal of all guards from the compound.
Despite appearances, this was a strictly tactical move on the part of the authorities. The following day they feigned acquiescence to the prisoners demands and, while the prisoners then agreeably went off to work outside the camp, the guards busied themselves patching up the broken-down wall. Nevertheless this was a strategic error on their part because it exposed the bad faith of the guards and eliminated all remaining trust the prisoners had in their word. More importantly, though, the prisoners had, for one whole day, tasted total freedom (within the confines of the camp compound), mingling freely with the female prisoners, eating their fill, and fraternizing as they pleased, and this put in them a desire for freedom that would not be so easily quenched.
This time also saw the first propaganda offensive by the camp authorities (they re-enacted, in full prisoner costume, the alleged rape of the women prisoners and photographed themselves, releasing the photographs and declaring that the revolt was in fact a cover for debauchery and hedonism), setting the tone for the many that would follow.
After realizing these sleights of hand on the part of the camp authorities, the prisoners quickly and forcefully reasserted themselves, running amok and sending the guards fleeing from the camp again. They then proceeded to re-destroy the wall that had just been repaired and release the prisoners from the camp's solitary confinement cells. The camp had been seized and would remain in the control of the prisoners for the next 40 days.
With the entire camp at their disposal, and with feelings of fellowship and good-will in abundance, prisoners took part in a hurried romp through the joys of normal, human, everyday life that had been denied to them for so long. As Solzhenitsyn and others retold, men and women from different camp divisions who had romantically conversed in secret for years, but had never seen each other, finally met. Imprisoned priests presided over a number of improvised weddings. Prisoners retrieved what remained of their civilian clothing from the storeroom (the guards regularly stole and sold prisoners' items), and soon prisoners were seen adorned with fur coats and assorted colourful clothing, in addition to the religious wear that had been banned. Business, as well, resumed as best it could, with one Polish aristocrat opening up a "caf" serving ersatz "coffee", which proved to be quite popular with the prisoners.
In short order, a number of organized recreational activities also sprung up. Because of the large number of political prisoners in Gulag, almost every camp boasted an enviable selection of highly-skilled and trained engineers, scientists, intellectuals, and artists, and advanced lectures were delivered for the enjoyment of the educated classes and philistines alike. Art flourished as well, with poetry recitals and even hastily-prepared plays being performed. Hymns, penned by the Ukrainians, were performed en masse. One hymn in particular, with its simultaneously mournful and celebratory tone and its stirring demand for freedom, stands as representative of the prevailing themes in the works produced during the uprising:
|–||We will not, we will not be slaves
We will not, we will not carry the yoke any longer.
In addition to the renewed presence of religious regalia, religious practices were also given new life. Notably, one of the religious sects massed at the original hole broken into the dividing wall on the first night of the uprising, claiming that their prophet had predicted its destruction and the freedom that followed. They, according to former prisoners, then sat on mattresses for several days by the hole, praying and waiting to be taken to heaven.
Soon after the camp was taken over, the prisoners congregated into the mess hall and decided to elect a new leader, and a former Red Army Colonel, Kapiton Kuznetsov, was chosen. A major reason for this choice was that the Ukrainian Center insisted on having Russian leadership of the rebellion and, indeed, on having the entire government be as multiethnic and multinational as possible. This was done mainly to avoid the appearance of the rebellion being anti-Russian in character, but also as an enlightened attempt to create a harmonious camp society and government.
Kuznetsov and his administration were originally delegated to conduct negotiations with the camp authorities on behalf of the prisoners, but as the prisoners' control of the camp lasted beyond expectation and as demand for law, order, and efficiency increased, the jurisdiction of this government increased in turn. Therefore, various government departments were quickly created:
The first expansion of the government's authority came as a natural extension of its role as mouthpiece of the prisoners: propaganda. A theme was carefully set by Kuznetsov and taken over by his Lithuanian deputy, Knopkus. The theme crucially undercut the main argument that would have been used by the camp authorities to crush the rebellion, which was that the rebellion was anti-Soviet in nature. Even with Stalin dead, this represented a red-line that was not to be crossed. Instead, Knopkus schemed to portray the guards as "Beria-ites" (a deadly charge at the time) and the rebellion as a patriotic, vanguard movement against them. Soon placards were raised declaring such sentiments as "Long live the Soviet constitution!" and "Down with murdering Beria-ites!"
As the new state of affairs continued, the Propaganda department's activities grew. At first they were all largely defensive in intent – literally just responding to allegations hurled at them across the fence. The guards broadcast propaganda over loudspeakers into the camp, urging surrender and decrying the loss of days of valuable prison labor and the alleged detrimental effect it was having on the Soviet economy. In response, the prisoners, using a modified loudspeaker, broadcast back a whole set of mock radio programmes, complete with comedy programs and skits, written by the Agitation and Propaganda department and announced by a charismatic female prisoner. One of the guard's stenographers recorded some of the broadcasts, and these records made their way into the Soviet archives. An excerpt of one broadcast:
|–||Comrade Soldiers! We are not afraid of you, and we ask you not to come into our zone. Don't shoot at us, don't buckle under the will of the Beria-ites! We are not afraid of them just as we are not afraid of death. We would rather die of hunger in this camp than give up to the Beria-ite band! Don't soil your hands with the same dirty blood which your officers have on their hands!||–|
Later, with the help of the Technical Department, their schemes became increasingly ambitious. The prisoners, realizing the precariousness of their situation, endeavored to publicize their rebellion and demands to the village adjacent to the camp, hoping to incite its citizens to supportive action. To do this, they first employed specially rigged, hot air balloons with slogans written on them (these were shot down by the guards) and, later, kites manufactured by the Chechens, who turned out to be specialists in the field. The kites were successful for a time. In favorable winds, they dropped packets of leaflets to the settlements below, but the authorities soon sent up their own kites to tangle the prisoner's kite's lines. At last, seizing on a solid, successful strategy, the prisoners fixed leaflets to carrier pigeons, releasing dozens into the blue.
Along with propaganda, defense came to the fore of the new government's list of priorities. Before the exiled camp authorities cut off the camp's electricity, the smiths and lathe-operators in the camp fashioned all manner of weaponry in the service yard's workshops – long pikes from prison bars, sabers, staves, and clubs amongst them. In addition to this, the prisoners ground glass into dust and placed buckets of this dust throughout the camp, hoping to blind oncoming troops with it. Barricades were established at key points, and responsibility for manning them was divided up amongst the camp barracks (renamed "detachments" by the Defense department), with set shifts and procedures.
The Technical Department contributed to this effort as well, namely by creating improvised explosive devices and incendiary bombs, both of which, according to Solzhenitsyn, saw use during the actual invasion in June, the latter bringing down a guard tower.
In addition to the above mentioned innovations, the Technical Department dealt with any number of problems that arose. When the exiled camp authorities cut off the camp's electrical supply, the electricians among the prisoners siphoned electricity from the wires passing overhead just outside the perimeter fence. This too was terminated by the authorities after a few days, and thereafter the prisoners used a modified motor as a generator and even improvised a running tap "hydroelectric station" to supply power to the government headquarters and medical barracks.
Negotiations between the authorities and rebels began almost immediately, as was becoming the custom with prisoner disturbances, but were from the beginning wrought with difficulty. The camp authorities again immediately acquiesced to virtually all of the prisoners demands, but this time, with the past deceit still fresh in their minds, the prisoners did not accept this solution as sufficient and demanded a written agreement. A draft was written up by the authorities, passed around the camp and widely panned. From here negotiations cooled until higher ranking officers came in from other cities. Solzhenitsyn explained:
|–||Golden-epauleted personages, in various combinations, continued coming in the camp to argue and persuade. They were all allowed in, but they had to pick up white flags [–] and undergo a body search. They showed the generals around, [–] let them talk to prisoners, and called big meetings in the Camp Divisions for their benefit. Their epaulets flashing, the bosses took their seats in the presidium as of old, as though nothing were amiss.||–|
To these generals and others were presented the same set of demands: punishment of the soldiers responsible for the murder of various prisoners and beating of women prisoners; that prisoners who had been transferred to other camps as punishment for participating in a strike be brought back; that prisoners no longer had to wear degrading number patches or be locked into their dormitories at night; that the walls separating camp divisions (namely between the men's and women's camps) not be rebuilt; that an eight-hour work day be instituted; that limits be taken off the number of letters they could send and receive; that certain hated camp guards and officials be removed from Kengir; and that, most importantly, their cases be reviewed.
None of these demands were unconstitutional. The original regulation specifically provided for all that the prisoners were asking, and that a simple reinstatement of those rights was all that was being requested.
The generals, now with Sergei Yegorov, deputy chief of the MVD, and Ivan Dolgikh, division commander of Gulag, among them, once again agreed to the prisoners demands as whole, but, still failing to match a written contract to their words, they were once again rejected by the prisoners.
The discussions then further broke down into threats and counter-threats. The prisoners, out of a lack of trust in their current negotiating partners, demanded that a member of the Central Committee be sent and this was flatly refused.
Prior to the raid, attempts were made by the camp authorities to sow civil violence within the camp, both so that the prisoners would slaughter each other and make the job easier for the invading troops, and to provide an ostensible justification for the massive armed intervention to begin with. Direct requests were made to high ranking prisoners that they "provoke racial bloodbath" and, in exchange, get to keep their lives (any prisoner that publicly occupied a high post in the camp's provisional government was sure to be tried and executed when captured, as the prisoners themselves knew). Banking on the still-running current of paranoia and distrust of Jews in Russia, the authorities even attempted to spread rumours in the camp that a pogrom was imminent as a way of dividing prisoners against each other.
While these efforts largely failed, another objective of the authorities – to draw out orthodox Communists and Soviet loyalists – was successful and a number of them fled the camp in the days before the raid, including a high ranking member of the prisoner's government who would later reappear as a voice urging surrender on the guards' propaganda loudspeakers. Nevertheless, this outflow was shortly halted by Internal Security, which captured those speaking favorably of the authorities or of surrender and locked them in the camp's jail.
In the days prior to the raid, small, token incursions were made. First, this was done to test the preparedness and defensive capabilities of the prisoners – alarms were sounded and prisoners quickly assumed battle positions – but later it was done for the sake of running film cameras. This footage later became important to the authorities in their effort to identify and punish all those who participated directly in the uprising, as well as secure their justification for the raid.
At this time, the morale of the prisoners was also dropping. Many came to have a dawning sense of the futility of their own struggle, and this attitude proved infectious. The leader of the prisoners, Kuznetsov, even betrayed his wariness in a speech, retold by Solzhenitsyn:
|–||"Comrades", the majestic Kuznetsov said confidently, as though he knew many secrets, and all to the advantage of the prisoners, "we have defensive firepower, and the enemy will suffer fifty percent of our own losses!" [–] "Even our destruction will not be in vain."||–|
Making matters worse for the prisoners, the day before the raid it was announced on the guards' loudspeakers that their demand to meet with a member of the Central Committee was to be granted. This had the effect of lowering the prisoners guard and creating a less hostile and more favourable disposition towards the camp authorities, who were planning to violently crush the prisoners all the while. In addition, Solzhenitsyn recalls that the prisoners heard for days before the raid what they thought were the sounds of tractors running on the distance, out of sight. These turned out to be tanks, a weapon the prisoners did not anticipate being used against them.
In the dawn of 25 June, flares were shot up into the sky and the raid began. Snipers quickly picked off the sentries on the rooftops before they could sound the alarm, and the tanks rolled through the perimeter fence. Five tanks, 90 dogs, and 1,700 troops in full battle-gear stormed the camp complex.
What followed was panic and chaos. While some 'detachments' vigorously fought back, launching numerous counter-attacks despite heavy losses and throwing improvised sulfur bombs at the tanks, other prisoners hid or committed suicide. The tanks, T-34s, alternately ran over prisoners or brought down barrack walls where prisoners were hiding, and used blank rounds of ammunition to strike terror and confusion into the prisoners. The hundreds of helmeted Red Army soldiers that flooded the camp were using live ammunition, though, and with these many prisoners were killed. Some tanks carried in barbed wire-laden trestles, and these were immediately set down as a means of quickly dividing up the camp and hindering the prisoners' freedom of movement. The leaders of the uprising were specifically targeted by designated squads of soldiers and they were taken into custody alive, many of whom were later tried and executed. After ninety minutes of violence, the remaining live prisoners, most of whom were in hiding, were ordered to come out on the promise that they would not be shot, which was, to everyone's surprise, a promise kept.
According to a number of survivors of the camp, five to seven hundred prisoners were either killed or wounded in the uprising, with an additional six of the highest ranking prisoners later being executed, Knopkus among them. Figures found in the Soviet archives, though, suggest that only 37 were killed, not including those who later died of their wounds or were executed, and with 106 prisoners and 40 soldiers wounded. Kuznetsov, however, had his death sentence commuted to 25 years and found himself released and fully rehabilitated after 5 years of imprisonment. Theories abound as to why, but most attribute this to the full, detailed 43-page confession he wrote in which he denounced scores of fellow prisoners. This confession also proved to be an invaluable source for many of the studies conducted on the Kengir uprising, although some question its veracity.
In keeping with the prevailing theme of their story, the camp administration is said to have planted weapons on the corpses of those who didn't already have them for the sake of the photographers, who were brought in expressly for this purpose. On the day following the raid, almost a thousand prisoners were shipped off to different camps and the remaining prisoners were occupied with the task of, once again, rebuilding the destroyed wall, sealing themselves back into a life of imprisonment.
Among the strikes and rebellions that were taking place in Gulags across the Soviet Union in this period, the uprising at Kengir was perhaps the most significant. While Stalin's death, Beria's fall, and Khrushchev's rise bore much promise for the prisoners, who had long expected general amnesties and rehabilitation to follow these events, the role of the Kengir uprising in hastening this process cannot be overlooked. The uprising further demonstrated to the authorities that Stalinism was not a sustainable policy option and that mass injustices such as those taking place in Gulag would not stand in perpetuity without significant cost. In a shift that foreboded poorly for the Soviet regime, many of the prisoners took part knowing full well that they were doing so at the cost of their lives, and prisoners in other camps, namely in the nearby Rudnik camp, had joined with the Kengir prisoners in solidarity, launching their own short-lived strikes.
The significance of the temporary freedom enjoyed by those prisoners was not lost on many. In a 1978 review of Solzhenitsyn's book, Hilton Kramer of The New York Times declared that the uprising "restored a measure of humane civilization to the prisoners before the state was able to assert its implacable power again." At a 2004 reunion of Kengir prisoners, a survivor of the camp mentioned that, despite the brutality and loss of life that came with the uprising's suppression, the 40 days engendered the prisoners with "a great feeling of freeing one's spirit", and another prisoner recalled that "I had not before then, and have not since, felt such a sense of freedom as I did then" – both sentiments echoed often by Solzhenitsyn. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn would later dedicate a screenplay he had written to the bravery of the Kengir rebels, entitled Tanks Know the Truth (ñŽñ ñññ ñ).
Most remarkably, as George Mason University historian Steven A. Barnes noted in a 2005 edition of Slavic Review, the prisoners' campaign was belied with a certain pragmatism, and their propaganda with a level of skill, that was all but unprecedented. As noted, instead of making explicit their hostility to the Soviet regime and handing an excuse to the authorities to invade, they ostensibly expressed approval of the state while, meekly, asking for the restoration of the rights and privileges afforded to them in the Soviet constitution. This message was itself spread not only to the camp authorities and any of the MVD-brass that would visit the camp for negotiations, but, crucially, to the civilian population surrounding the camp. Before the authorities came up with the idea of using their own rival kites to tangle and bring down the prisoner's kites with, they kept a large retinue of guards and warders, on horseback and motorcycle, waiting for the leaflets to be dropped from the kites so that they could, literally, chase down and retrieve them before they could be read by members of the public. The tact, cohesion, and ingenuity displayed in the uprising was a troubling sign to the authorities of what was perhaps to come.
Nevertheless, any potential effect the uprising could have had was strictly circumscribed by the nature of the Soviet regime, which was quick to use massive force to quell even the most humble of threats. In the same Times review, Kramer issued an important caveat to his previous claim:
|–||–Solzhenitsyn harbors no illusions about what was possible in the way of resistance– he knows very well how little they could achieve without the support of public opinion – something the Soviet state waged constant war on. "Without that behind us", he writes, "we can protest and fast as much as we like and they will laugh in our faces!" And yet the protests persisted – and still persist – because human dignity required them.||–|
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