Letter from Kolmya Gulag, 1937


Dearest Sventla,

The snows have come at last. We have a few weeks’ respite from digging the canal, turning instead to indoor labors. Currently I am employed sewing emblems onto the thick woolen jackets worn by our military comrades in Moscow.

It is not like when we were children. Here, the snows will so alter the landscape in a single night to make even a Siberian woodsman become lost in the forest, never to be seen again. The snows too have a long memory, and are endlessly vengeful. Last year–or perhaps the year before, since I lose count–one of my fellow exiles made so bold as to curse the snows. It was not a month later when he went with a work party to chop firewood and did not come back. When the thaws came in late May, one of the guards found his fully clothed bones tangled in a tree, thirty feet off the ground. You see, the snow had been piled that high.

It is my hope the censors might actually allow this letter to be mailed, since as you see there is no reference to the modern world or political opinion. It is simply a story about the snows.

I continue to enjoy the best of health and wish the same for you all, always.

With love and affection,



Sunday Photo Fiction


Concentration camps were created in the Soviet Union shortly after the 1917 revolution, but the system grew to tremendous proportions during the course of Stalin’s campaign to turn the Soviet Union into a modern industrial power and to collectivize agriculture in the early 1930s.

GULAG was the acronym for the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps. Gulag prisoners could work up to 14 hours per day. Typical Gulag labor was exhausting physical work. Toiling sometimes in the most extreme climates, prisoners might spend their days felling trees with handsaws and axes or digging at frozen ground with primitive pickaxes. Others mined coal or copper by hand, often suffering painful and fatal lung diseases from inhalation of ore dust. Prisoners were barely fed enough to sustain such difficult labor.

In the eyes of the authorities, the prisoners had almost no value. Those who died of hunger, cold, and hard labor were replaced by new prisoners because the system could always find more people to replenish the labor camps.


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  1. Lynn Love

    Very good story. His voice is very strong, the stories realistically harsh. You’re right, most people sent ot the gulags never returned. How tough must a person be to survive that life? A great deal of story spun from a frozen twig

  2. Joy Pixley

    Ah yes, it’s just a letter about snow. Do not interpret snow to mean something else, because of course I am only talking about the weather, and would never be stupid as to curse it.

    Very clever on the letter-writer’s part, and on your part for painting such a story through the letter. Nicely done.

  3. Sunday Fiction

    A very grim life he has. I like the codes he used, knowing full well that it was the guards that killed him. Plus calling themselves exiles instead of prisoners. It’s quite a harrowing story. I like it.

  4. Jesse Raven

    I love the voice in this – letters and journal entries can be great vehicles. You used the format nicely!

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