1953: Uprising at the Norilisk Labour Camp

Monument to victims of Gulag in Norilsk
Monument to victims of Gulag in Norilsk

Account of a mass strike by inmates at the Norilag Gulag against executions and enforced labour.

Submitted by Reddebrek on June 28, 2019

Norillag prisoners strike for better conditions (Norilsk uprising), 1953

The prisoners' demands included a review of all prison sentences; an end to summary executions; the shortening of the working day from twelve to eight hours; the right to correspond with their families; the transfer of disabled prisoners; and the removal of the locks on the barracks, the bars on the windows, and the identification numbers on prison uniforms.

The Norillag was a gulag labor camp, located in Norilsk, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia, a town in the Taimyr Peninsula on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, close to the mouth of the Enisei River. Inmates of the Norillag worked 12-hour days, in temperatures as low as negative 50 degrees Celsius during the winter. They worked in mines, brickyards, cement plants, and in the base camps, as well as on road and railroad construction. Sources estimate that the Norilsk camps held between 25,000 and 35,000 inmates at the time of the Norilsk uprising in 1953, the majority of whom were political prisoners.

The death of Joseph Stalin on 5 March 1953 raised hopes of amnesty among the prisoners, but their hopes were soon dashed when authorities announced that the amnesty would only apply to criminal prisoners, and not to political prisoners.

Amidst an atmosphere of frustrated expectations, the Norilsk uprising began in Camp No. 5 on 26 May 1953, one day after a perimeter guard shot at five political prisoners and killed two. The prisoners in Camp No. 5 spread news of the violence to other compounds via a pre-established semaphore communications system using flags.

When the news reached Camp No. 4, a prisoner named Yevgeny Griciak responded by beginning a strike in his camp. When he failed to convince the inmates to put down their tools with his words, Griciak “noticed then that the rhythm of the work was set by the sound of the air hammers. As long as the hammers kept going, the inmates would work, so I shut the compressors off. The hammers stopped and everyone quit working.”
When one of the authorities ordered the 5,000 prisoners to return to their work, the inmates refused. The result was a three-day siege at the construction site. On the inmates’ third day without food or water, they painted a large sign with the words, “We Are Being Killed and Starved,” and hung the sign on a building to make it visible to the townspeople of Norilsk. Shortly afterward, the authorities brought in food and water, and the inmates voted to go back to the barracks. Nevertheless, despite their return to the barracks, the inmates continued with their strike the next day.

By 5 June 1953, the Norillag prisoners had initiated strikes in six of the camps, with a total of 16,379 prisoners on strike. One source reports that inmates joined together as a human wall to block camp administrators from the prisoners’ quarters. Another source reports that inmates raised black flags over their barracks as a symbol of their revolt, while local trains carried strike slogans.

As the camp authorities deliberated, the prisoners organized themselves. They set up committees to regulate the duties of strikers and elected leaders: one leader for each barrack. Representatives on the committees included Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, although Ukrainians were the most well-represented. Among the leaders of the uprising were Yevhen Hyrtsyak, Danylo Shumuk, Alida Dauge, and Asti Tofri. Dauge and Tofri were two of the eight women leaders in the revolt.

The first major demand of the prisoners was to have the opportunity to negotiate with representatives from Moscow instead of with local authorities. The scholar William D. Pederson writes that “[t]his demand, which was repeated during the Vorkuta and Kingir uprisings, seems to have grown out of the display of power that Communist prisoners of war exerted on the truce negotiations in the Korean War” (see “Vorkuta prisoners strike for improved conditions, Russia, 1953”).

In Camp No. 3, prisoners led by a man named Nikolaitchuk distributed hundreds of leaflets to the townspeople of Norilsk, located a mile and a half away, to publicize the situation in the camp. The inmates printed the leaflets with ink from the administrative office and letter blocks that they cut out of rocks and pieces of cement using their work tools. The inmates then delivered the leaflets to city dwellers by crafting kites from paper lying around, tying the leaflets to the kites with a cord, and setting the cords on fire as they released the kites into the air. As the kites flew over Norilsk, the cords burnt to an end, causing the leaflets to fall from the sky into the city. Griciak said that that word of the revolt finally reached the authorities in Moscow partly because of this action.

On 6 June 1953, a special commission arrived from Moscow to meet with the prisoners and discuss their demands. Colonel Mikhail Kuznyetsov (also spelled Kuznetsov, Kusnetov), the chief of the prison administration of the Soviet Union’s interior ministry (MVD) led the commission, whose task was to end the prisoners’ strike at any cost. Other members of the commission included Lieutenant-General Seryodkin, the commander of prison convoy guard forces of the MVD, and Comrade Kiselyov, a representative of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR.

A secret prisoners’ committee submitted a list of demands to the commission. The prisoners' demands included a review of all prison sentences; an end to summary executions; the shortening of workdays from twelve to eight hours; the right to correspond with their families; the transfer of disabled prisoners; the removal of locks on the barracks and bars on the windows; and the removal of identification numbers from prison uniforms. Hyrtsyak was among the inmates who presented the demands to the commission.
Kuznyetsov told the prisoners that a few of their demands would be met immediately, while the others would be reviewed in Moscow. In the meantime, the prisoners were to go back to work, which they did.

Ten days after the negotiations ended, the prisoners re-initiated their strike. Reports vary as to whether the strikes were triggered by the mass arrest of the first strike’s leaders under Kusnyetsov’s orders, or by the fact that camp authorities had begun to lock the doors of the prisoners’ barracks.

The inmates in Camp No. 6, the women’s compound, also participated in the strike. On 7 July 1953, when the women inmates had not worked for a month and been on hunger strike for a week, camp authorities installed machine guns on the watchtowers. 3,000 women prisoners, in turn, emerged from their barracks and started to dig graves for themselves to demonstrate their contempt for the authorities. At that point, the authorities began to attack them with jets of hot water, bricks, and truncheons. The women fled into the tundra, where they met more troops.

The Norilsk uprising ended on 4 August 1953. While one source reports that MVD troops encircled all six camps of Norillag at the beginning of August, opened fire, and thereby terminated the revolt through bloody suppression, other sources suggest that the strikes in most of the camps had already ended by the time that the troops arrived. One source, for example, writes that the strikes in Camps No. 4 and 5 ended on 4 July, when guards with machine guns and automatic rifles killed 27 prisoners. These sources say that the military repression on 4 August was directed toward Camp No. 3, where the strikers had held out the longest. While the official body count of the confrontation was four, unofficial body counts were as high as 150.

After the suppression of the uprising, authorities sent the most active leaders of the protests to prisons and punishment camps. Meanwhile, the administration put down additional attempts to strike through “combing,” a practice in which armed guards forced groups of 50 to 60 prisoners to the taiga, separated out the inmates whom they knew to be active strikers, and isolated them.

Few spoke of what had transpired for fear of punishment. “The men had been warned that any talk of the revolt, or any attempt to stir up any new trouble, meant immediate transfer to a penal camp and perhaps a stiffer sentence,” wrote Walter Ciszek, who served as a priest in Camp No. 5.

In spite of the uprising’s violent end, the authorities granted many of the prisoners’ demands, such as the shortening of their workday from twelve to eight hours; the right to correspond with their family and receive packages; the removal of bars from their windows; and the removal of numbers from their uniforms. Because of these gains, along with the fact that a government commission had arrived from Moscow as requested, the prisoners considered their protest to have ended in victory.

The Norilsk uprising was one of the first major revolts of the inmate movement that emerged within the Soviet labor camp system between 1952 and 1954. Together with the 1953 revolt in Vorkuta, it marked what L. Latkovskis describes as “the beginning of the end of the Gulag.”

Research Notes
The display of power that Communist prisoners of war exercised on the truce negotiations in the Korean War appear to have inspired the Norillag prisoners' demand to negotiate with representatives from Moscow instead of with local authorities.

Caputo, Philip. 1977. "Tempo: Courage haunts hero of a Soviet prison mutiny." Chicago Tribune (1963-Current File), March 16, (https://proxy.swarthmore.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/171494532?accountid=14194).
Coynash, Halya. 2017. “In Memoriam: Yevhen Hrytsyak, Leader of the Norilsk Uprising.” Human Rights in Ukraine. Website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. Retrieved February 18, 2019 (https://web.archive.org/web/20190218030553/http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1494809470).
Derevianyi, Ihor. 2013. “The Virus of Rebellion.” The Ukrainian Week. Retrieved February 18, 2019 (https://web.archive.org/web/20190218030426/https://ukrainianweek.com/History/82161).
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Latkovskis, L. 2005. “II. Baltic Prisoners of the Gulag Revolts of 1953.” Lithuanus: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences 51(4). Retrieved February 18, 2019 (https://web.archive.org/web/20190218031803/http://www.lituanus.org/2005/05_4_1Latkovskis.htm)
Meek, James. 1994. "Stalin's Legacy Lives on in City that Slaves Built." The Guardian (1959-2003), Dec 29, (https://proxy.swarthmore.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/187650276?accountid=14194).
Pederson, William D. 1981. “Norilsk Uprising of 1953” edited by J. L. Wieczynski. The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History 25:52–54.
Rotenberg, Olga. 2003. “Former Gulag Inmates in Russia Mark Norilsk Uprising.” Agence France Presse, September 23. (https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:49KX-GSD0-00GS-K499-00000-00&context=1516831).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:
Sacha Lin, 17/02/2019