The 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade

(1 Samodzielna Brygada Spadochronowa)

Hard Labour
In An Archangel Gulag

Wladyslaw At SevDvinLag

Arrival At SevDvinLag - North Dvina Corrective Labour Camp

Suddenly the train stopped. We quickly scrambled to peer out whatever openings we could find in the carriage. All we could see was snow, and huts.

At the time we did not know its name but we had just arrived at SevDvinLag - North Dvina Corrective Labour Camp[1] which is also known as Siewdwinlagu, Wielsk and Siewierodwiński Poprawy of the Camp, Velsk, Arkhangelsk as well as "Camp 283".

The guards came to the carriages with dogs, the locks unlocked and the doors rolled open. Commands were yelled at us in Russian, they wanted us all out.

Well, having been in that stinking, filthy carriage not even fit for a farm animal, we could not get out quick enough. We did not so much as climb down the steps of the carriage as fall into the snow. It was freedom, maybe not real freedom, but it was fresh air and freedom to move without touching another human nearby.

We were blinded by the whiteness, the sun reflecting off the snow, I struggled to see, we all did, but then slowly our eyes adjusted.

The guards from the train yelled at us to form a line, our papers were checked and then we were ticked off on a list.

Like one of my fellow poles (Account is here in The Chronicles Of Terror) we marched for 3 days to reach North Dvina Corrective Labour Camp which was on the Northern Dvina River, which was administered by the NKVD.

We were held for a few days at the Kotlas deportation facility2 (Read Memoirs Of The Kotlas Transit Camp here: where many poles (and Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians etc) were held prior to being transferred to their ultimate camp. Eventually we went to the SevDvinLag camp.

On arrival at the camp the guards pointed us to huts, some men this hut, other men that hut. We were marched to our huts, all the time "Quick, Quick" being yelled at us.

The camp itself had no real buildings, only tents and very basic huts.

The camp was very new, we arrived at it months before its official opening date of 25 September 1940 . It's purpose was for the inmates to build the Konosha-Kotlas railway line2 and the Konosha-Kozhva3 railways although many were also involved in building apartments, railway buildings, forestry, agriculture etc.

We entered the hut, it was basic to to say the least. On one side were wooden slats, each of us being assigned a space that was to be our bed. Wow, if the railway carriage was crowded, the beds here were equally so, there would be no privacy for anyone.

The Russian officer barked order at us, we would work 6am until 10pm. If we did not work then neither would we eat he told us. We were told to be up at 5:30am and ready for work, before which we would be given a shot of Vodka. The officer laughed, he told us it would help us survive, if we survived. The bastard! I was going to kill someone, I just could not work out who.

And so my time in Archangel started, we were in deep shock, all of us, there was no way to express it, the frustration, the anger, the confusion!

Composition of The Camp

This camp at SevDvinLag was in Archangel ITL. Soviet concentration camps are of two main types3: the ITL (Ispravitel 'no-Trudovoy Lager') or "Corrective Labour Camp". These were usually in remote locations, my camp at SevDvinLag was one of these. Generally speaking, prisoners with a term of more than 2 years ended up in an ITL.

3The Northern Dvina ITL (Kotlas, Archangelsk) and the Administration of The Northern Railroad ITL (Archangel)  consist of an immense taiga (forest). At Limenda prisoners work at loading and unloading cargo. Most of the prisoners though work in the forest cutting down trees and floating them to lumber mills at Archangel.

Some of the prisoners also undertook agricultural operations beside the railways so that they could stave off hunger.

Everyday, thousands of prisoners load on trains the timber that has been cut by fellow prisoners. This then leaves Kotlas for faraway places in the USSR. Many of the prisoners also work on the Kotlas Pechora railroad and also build settlements and dirt roads.

For the record, the other type of camp is an ITK (Ispravitel 'no Trudovaya Koloniya) which is a local corrective labor colony. These tended to be for prisoners with sentences of under 2 years.

In the camp were Poles, many Byelorussians as well as Jews – detained as criminals: “politicals”, civil servants and government functionaries, farmers, and some who had crossed (of their own freewill) the Polish-Soviet border into the USSR and ended up being arrested anyway.

We Poles stood out from the non-polish inmates both intellectually and morally. The non Poles were not educated and lacked basic morals. It was quite a culture shock for me as well as my fellow Poles.

As each month passed, the population of the camp steadily grew, in early 1941 the official records showed 15,365 inmates2 and this grew to 34,425 by January 19422. It was certainly a very big camp! The Chief of the camp was Major GB Makarov from February 19422.

Life In SevDvinLag - Worked To Within An Inch Of My Life

Working 16 hours a day was taking its toll on all of us, we barely recognized each other, every week that went by we looked thinner, gaunter, more and more lifeless.

Camp life was hard, we were woken at 4am and would quickly get breakfast, meagre as it is was, with no fat or protein2. Roll call would follow and then we would be split up into work groups and given our tasks for the day. Mostly it was excavation, digging hard frosty ground for the Konosha-Kotlas railway that was planned.

Everyday we would wait for food rations anxiously, Some would be called for sentencing or to be moved on to another camp.

The guards would escort us to our work site, taking any possible excuse along the way to beat us. The sadistic side of them was always ready to be awakened and we tried our hardest to not do this because the beatings were harsh.

Although we were inmates, as good as in a jail, the Russians paid us, although the pay was poor, typically 29 roubles and 90 kopecks a year. If we worked hard and good we received 900 grams of bread and were allowed to buy 100 grams of sweets (The irony! Sweets whilst an inmate of a Russian gulag!).

Occasionally, if we had the money and if it was available, we could buy Halwa and cigarettes in the camp shop.

The ones that did not work hard did not fair well. They got between 300 and 500 grams of bread a day. it was not enough to live on and yet not enough to allow a release in death either. The Soviets had become masters of misery to us inmates of the "Soviet paradise".

The Russians had a name they called us, it likened us to the wick of a candle, slowly burning away. We were past caring about anything more than surviving, getting food, any food at all and, God willing, some peaceful sleep.

Sometimes, after returning from work at 9am, we would sing a little. It was a way of remembering our heritage, keeping our sanity and boosting our spirits to survive another day.

There was a terrible plague of lice that were like the devils own workers. Where they came from nobody knew, they infested all of our clothes, our hair and they bit us at night. Another man, also called Wladyslaw, showed me a trick.

If we took a piece of infested clothing and buried it in the snow at night (carefully so that no-one knew it was there or it would be stolen), in the morning the lice would have all crawled out of it and were sitting in a clump nearby. The clothing could then be put back on and we would be free of itching and bites for a while.

All prisoners were denied fresh vegetables thus we lacked vitamin C which under sub-polar conditions can cause scurvy. We tried everything to keep the scurvy at bay, with little success.

Early symptoms of deficiency include weakness, feeling tired and sore arms and legs. Without treatment, decreased red blood cells, gum disease, changes to hair, and bleeding from the skin occurs. You know, the stupid Russians, they wanted us to work hard but denying us vegetables made us weaker!

Something else that began to happen was mens teeth falling out. To see men sick, ill and literally dying each day was terrible, I began to get used to that too, even some of my own teeth began to fall out.

There was terrible dysentery, tuberculosis, pneumonia and many other illnesses in the camp2. People died daily, many of them, the bodies were collected in large boxes that were then drawn by tractors with sled. The boxes were then taken off the sled and thrown in ditches2.

In summertime it was worse, because there were so many deaths they collected the bodies up and used a large barge to transport them down the river to one large common grave2.

Some prisoners were so desperate to avoid hard labour that they would deliberately hurt themselves either by self mutilation or by allowing a log to  fall on their fingers and crush them. Some even went as far as swinging axes at their fingers or legs in an effort to become unfit for work, it was ghastly and yet quickly becoming a normal day to see this.

Many fought over food, clothing, places to sleep and quickly many reduced themselves to performing homosexual acts, even sodomy. You want to to see what evil people will do when deprived of "normal" life? It was all happening here.

Others would be interrogated at night after a long day of hard work outside, often in temperatures below -52 degrees. Of course, the Soviets used the tiredness and weakness at the end of the day to their advantage by then performing these interrogations.

Snippets of information would occasionally get through to us about the war, about life back home, but for the most part we were isolated from the outside world with no contact of any sort with our families.

At night when lying in our bunks men could be heard counting out how much of their sentence was left. But they would do this very carefully because if the guards caught you doing this it could be reported resulting in your sentence being extended.

The secret of survival in the Russian Gulag was to be utterly convinced that you would be released. To give up on this concept was to give up on life, death itself would quickly be upon you if your hope gave out.

Hope contained a danger and that danger was disappointment. Hope was a cruel mistress that we could not live with but could not live without.

The Konosha-Kotlas Railway

The building of the railroad Konosha-Kotlas-Vorkuta, a distance of over 900 miles, began in 1939. Imprisoned designers, engineers and labourers built it. The rail line was completed in only three years, but at the cost of thousands of human lives.

The structure of the camp system was spread out along the railroad line. Camps, camp offices, camp stations were every 5 to 10 kilometers along the rails. There were also farm camps.

The largest camp and two camp infirmaries were in the area of the construction of the railroad bridge across the Northern Dvina. The bridge was opened to traffic in 1942.

The bridge itself was built by deported Volga Germans [ethnic Germans whose ancestors had settled along the Volga River in the 18thcentury, but whom Stalin expelled en masse in 1941], political prisoners, and other deportees.

Interrogations And Propaganda

We Poles were treated very harshly by the Soviets. They were suspicious, brutal and took delight in our misery. My interrogations, like most Poles, was performed at night when I was tired from hard work and unable to think clearly.

Beatings were common and on occasion they wold even face you against a wall and then shoot very close to you so that the bullet would ricochet off the wall beside you. It was hard to control your nerves and not to completely break down.

During the course of the interrogation, which was really just an excuse to beat you, they would talk in grand terms of their political, economic and military developments. Even I could tell the truth was being embellished with big lies. They really had fooled themselves into thinking how grand they were.

They would boast that their country was free of spies, lords, and the bourgeoisie unlike Poland. They seemed to believe that we in Poland were all evil people! This was followed up with statements that their citizens were workers, who due to their hard toil have everything and are well off.

I was told that if I worked hard and kept the Soviets happy I too would enjoy life in the Soviet Soyuz (“paradise”). Me? I just wan ted back to my beloved Poland, I wanted non of this Soviet paradise. It was hard to believe I would see Poland again because they told me it had been wiped off the map for good. How they smugly  laughed when they told me this!

The Soviets went on to tell us that the parts of Poland occupied by the Soviets had already been incorporated into the USSR and these in turn had been divided into oblasts, regions and kolkhozes.

The biggest and most horrible lie they would tell was that our wives and children had demanded this, and were now grateful to the Soviets for being freed from Polish rule.

Release From Captivity At SevDvinLag

On 18th September 1941 under the "amnesty", the majority of the camps inmates were freed. Many of them were directed to Kyzylorda. From they they would travel to Orenburg and then push on to Totskoye were Anders army was being formed.

Many managed to reach Totskeye within 2 weeks and enrolled at the end of September 1941 into Anders army, some others, due to the routes they took and travel problems, would take months to reach this enlisting station.

Research Notes

#1 - SevDvinLag (located in Velsk, Archangelsk, Siberia) had many other names, some of these are:

  • North Dvina Corrective Labour Camp
  • Siewdwinlagu, Wielsk
  • Siewierodwiński Poprawy of the Camp

#2 - The Russian website "MEMORIAL" details the camp at SevDvinLag (North Dvinsky ITL) Gulag: Link To Memorial Website Detail of SevDvinLag Camp

The camp records for SevDvinLag can be located here:

  • Per note 2 In the archive department of the OMZ Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Komi ASSR (Ukhta): l / d s / k - 56 191, office materials - 4660, l / d and service cards of workers lag. sector and civilian.
  • Per note 2 in the Road archive of the Pechora railway. (Kotlas): l / d and service cards of workers in the manufacturing sector;
    in the 1 st Special Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Arkhangelsk region.: materials operchekotdela {1}. Archived Ex. PECHORA ITL (Pechora) {2}.

#3 - Declassifed CIA report on Soviet Gulags: Read the declassified report here

#3 - The Conquest of the Russian Arctic - By Paul R. Josephson available on Google Books. See pages 137, 138.

Misc Notes


  • Archangelsk covers 587,000 square miles and in 1980 recorded a population of 400,000 (At least 100,000 of this was inmates!). It has significant deposits of metal ores, especially aluminium bauxite and large forests therefore as representing a significant resource for Russia.
  • Life is so hard in Archangel that very few want to work there out of choice (this despite a large population!), thus it has been seen by Russian authorities as the ideal place to send citizens for punishment. As recently as 1980 the camps were still in use with 100,000+ in the 3 major camps of "Oneglag" (57 camps with a gross of 60,000 inmates), "Karpapol'lag" (30 camps with a gross of 20,000 inmates) and "Sol'lag" (15 camps with a gross of 20,000 inmates). - Source: The First Guidebook To The USSR To Prisons And Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union By Avraham Shifrin.