Eduard Petrovich Berzin (Latvian: Eduards Bērziņš; 1894–1938), born in Latvia, was a soldier and Chekist, but is remembered primarily for setting up Dalstroy, which instituted a system of forced-labour camps in Kolyma, North-Eastern Siberia, where hundreds of thousands of prisoners died. It was considered to be the most brutal of all the Gulag regions.
Before World War I Berzin studied painting at Berlin's Academy of Fine Arts where he met his wife, Elza Mittenberg, also an artist, from Riga. In 1915 he joined the Russian army and fought in the First World War, where he was awarded the Cross of St. George and became an officer. After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917 he joined the communists. In 1918 Berzin became a commander of the First Artillery Division of the Red Latvian Riflemen with special responsibilities for Vladimir Lenin's protection. Gaining the trust of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, he soon became a member of the Cheka or secret police.
In 1926, Joseph Stalin gave Berzin the task of setting up the Vishera complex of labour camps in the Urals known as Vishlag where cellulose and paper were to be produced. This he did with great enthusiasm and success. The 70,000 prisoners there were in most cases treated surprisingly well, even receiving wages and benefitting from cinemas, libraries, discussion clubs and dining halls.
The Kolyma period
It was apparently on the basis of this success that in 1931 Stalin appointed him head of Dalstroy, the authority which was to develop Kolyma making use essentially of forced labour consisting of some convicted criminals but mainly political prisoners. He arrived in Nagaevo Bay by steamship on 2 February 1932 together with a small number of prisoners (mainly mining engineers) and some security guards.
It is reported that Berzin's primary aim was to exploit the region to the full, in line with the objectives of Stalin's First Five Year Plan. The prisoners were simply his workforce. The focus of his attention was gold mining as gold was needed to pay for industrial development across Russia. This required construction of the harbour town of Magadan, substantial road building, some lumbering and building a large number of labour camps.
From the very start, however, lack of proper preparations combined with an exceptionally hard winter in 1932/33 led to tremendous hardship, particularly for the prisoners sent up into the River Kolyma valley to build roads and mine gold, very many of whom perished in the cold.
It is said that Berzin tried to treat his prisoners comparatively well in order to enable them to carry out their work as efficiently as possible. In reality, this is only a half-truth: while Berzin allowed hard working prisoners shortened sentences—and even paid them salaries—he also sent less valuable prisoners to smaller camps, known as lagpunkts, where many were tortured and killed. After the hard winter of 1932 and difficult conditions the following summer, the situation started to evolve more positively . Although hardships continued, the overall efficiency of the operations and the conditions for the prisoners improved under Berzin's leadership. The same can be said for overall gold production, as "Kolyma’s gold output increased eight times in the first two years of Dalstroi’s operation."
The years 1934 to 1937 were remembered as a comparatively good period, particularly in the light of what was to follow under later leaders. The Soviet Union purchased the ships in the Netherlands for the sea fleet of "Dalstroy" in April and May 1935 and Eduard Berzin arrived to Amsterdam to see and check two purchased steamers Brielle and Almelo, which were renamed «Джурма» и «Яго́да» (later was renamed «Дальстрой»), and to hasten the purchase the third ship «Кулу».
On returning to Kolyma, no doubt as a result of instructions he had received, he issued even harsher orders. Prisoners were required to work in the opencast mines at temperatures as low as -55 C. As a result, annual gold output rose to 33 tons.
Despite the dreadful conditions and the high death toll, over the years Berzin succeeded in having a road built to Seimchan high up in the Kolyma valley which was to lead to even higher gold outputs in subsequent years.
Family life in Kolyma
In her memoires, his wife Elza describes their family life in Magadan in some detail. Berzin, clad in a bearskin coat, would spend the days travelling around the camps in the Rolls Royce that used to be Lenin's car to personally oversee the work in progress. He only saw his children - Petia aged 12 and Mirza aged 15 - at breakfast and dinner. He enjoyed music, listened to gramophone records of Tchaikovsky, Schubert and Edvard Grieg (which he had bought on an official visit to Philadelphia in 1930), and encouraged the children to perform in the school theatre under the guidance of artistic prisoners.
Shortly after a holiday with his family in Italy with visits to Rome, Venice and Sorrento, Berzin left Magadan on December 4, 1937 and was arrested upon his arrival in Moscow on December 19, accused of spying for Britain and Germany and planning to put Magadan under the control of the Japanese. On 1 August 1938, at the end of the Great Purge, Berzin was tried and immediately shot at Lubyanka prison.
While Berzin used increasingly brutal methods in the Kolyma camps, his tactics were not as dreadful as those used by his successors. Nevertheless, under pressure from Stalin, he drove his workforce to impossible levels of hardship which inevitably resulted in illness, starvation and death in even higher proportions.
- Applebaum, Anne, Gulag: A History, Broadway Books, 2003, hardcover, 720 pp., ISBN 0-7679-0056-1
- Bollinger, Martin J., Stalin’s slave ships : Kolyma, the Gulag fleet, and the role of the West, Praeger, 2003, 217 p., ISBN 0-275-98100-2
- Conquest, Robert: Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, Viking Press, 1978, 254 p. ISBN 0-670-41499-9
- Kizny, Tomasz, Gulag, Firefly Books, 2004, 495 p. ISBN 1-55297-964-4
- Shalamov, Varlam, Kolyma Tales, Penguin Books, 1995, 528 pp., ISBN 0-14-018695-6
- Toker, Leona, "Return from the Archipelago: narratives of Gulag survivors", Indiana University Press, c2000, 333 p., ISBN 0-253-33787-9
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- Applebaum, Ann (2003). Gulag: A History p. 85. Anchor Books, New York ISBN 1-4000-3409-4
- Robert Conquest's account of Berzin's directorship from Kowalski's Alaska notes. Retrieved 2 February 2007
- Applebaum, Ann (2003). Gulag: A History p. 88. Anchor Books, New York ISBN 1-4000-3409-4
- David Nordlander: Magadan and the Economic History of Dalstroi in the 1930s. Hoover Press: Gregory/Gulag DP0 HGRESG0600 rev1 p. 105.. Retrieved 3 October 2007
- Глущенко Александр Григорьевич: "Колымский хронограф. Часть 1. 1648–1941 гг." >> 1935 год.
- Бессмертный Е.Д.: "Повесть о людях." – М., 1970. – pages: 215–216.
- ГАМО, ф. р-23сч, оп. 1, д. 14, л. 47; Волков Г. Магадан: самое трудное десятилетие, 1929–1939 : очерк / Г. Волков, Т. Смолина // На Севере Дальнем. – 1989. – № 1. – С. 222; Козлов А. В душных трюмах пароходов // Колыма. – 1991. – № 11. – С. 31