A Ship Debased: The Gleb Boky

The Gulag transport "Gleb Bokii"

The Gulag transport “Gleb Boky”

The Solovetsky Islands lie in Russia’s extreme north, less than 100 miles from the arctic circle. It is an archipelago consisting of six islands, the largest of which, Bolshoi (Great) Solovetsky, is home to the Solovetsky Monastery, one of the holy places of the Orthodox church. Later, with an opposite purpose,  it became associated with a different archipelago. The monastery became the Solovki Special Purpose Camp, the “mother of the Gulag”, according to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In 1923, when the camp was established the entire monastic complex was turned into a prison. The churches as well as other buildings were converted to barracks for the prisoners soon to follow. The monastic library was destroyed, the church’s valuables were looted and the bells were removed. A red star replaced the cross atop the onion dome. The monks were driven out or arrested.

When the complex was still a monastery there was a small fleet of steamships used to ferry pilgrims from the mainland; some owned by the monastery and others by private business. They were crowded with pilgrims, the poorest of whom were given free passage. Among these was a small wooden steamer, the Saint Savvaty (Savvaty was one of the founders of the monastery, so it was only natural that one of the pilgrim ships was named for him). When the Bolsheviks took over the monastery complex they also took over the monastery fleet, and the Savvaty (or possibly the Solovki, the Archangel Michael, or the Zhizhgin. No one has a definitive answer. Due to size and age, the Savvaty seems most likely.) was renamed for a Bolshevik “saint”- Gleb Boky, a member of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. He was also the man in charge of the Soviet Union’s labor camp system. As such he was responsible for much of the refined cruelty in the Solovki camp, which later became standard practice throughout the Gulag.

It was on Solovki that food first became dependent on fulfillment of the “norm”. If a prisoner did not meet his production quotas he either did not eat or was fed a starvation ration. Punishments were also standardized here, such as forcing prisoners to stand naked in sub-zero temperatures in winter, or among hordes of mosquitos in the summer. These new concepts and refinements extended also to the transportation system. Solovki was ideally located for the earliest labor camp. Surrounded by freezing cold seas, escape was impossible. And the monastery steamers made a tightly controllable way to ship the prisoners there. The Gleb Boky was conveniently to hand and so was made to carry a different kind of “pilgrim”, eventually to deliver over 300,000 unfortunates (best estimate I could find) during the Boky’s career.

The navigation season at Solovki extended only from June through September, but the needs of the labor camp often saw the ship making trips under conditions considered unsafe when it was a pilgrim ship. There is an account that one trip she became trapped in the ice for the long winter and the prisoners were left in the holds to starve or freeze to death, while the ship’s limited resources were used for the guards and crew. I have seen similar accounts for other ships of the Gulag fleet, but I cannot tell if it was one incident ascribed to different ships, or several similar incidents. From my reading of Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and others it would not surprise me if it happened more than once. Every time you think you’ve heard the worst about the Gulag some new barbarity crops up.

Another view of "Gleb Bokii"

Another view of “Gleb Boky”

The trip from the mainland to the camp could extend to over five hours even on a good day because of the age of the steamer and depending on conditions. Frequently the holds became so overcrowded with the zeks (gulag prisoners- zakliuchyonnyi) that some were left on deck, exposed to the elements, in the often light weight clothing they were arrested in. These were actually the lucky ones, since prisoners unlucky enough to be crammed into the bottom of the holds could be crushed or suffocated. The first work assignment on Solovki that many had was to bring up the bodies of those who didn’t survive the trip.

If you can locate a copy, Gulag by Tomasz Kizny has several excellent photos of the Gleb Boky, different from those posted, which are beyond my meager blogging talents to reproduce here. Among these photos are scenes of women prisoners being loaded aboard, their faces showing their terror- one raising her hands to protect her head from a threatened or impending blow.

The trip on the Boky was hardest on the women. The guards would separate the women they fancied and take them to the bow for an orgy of vodka and rape that some would not survive. The guards, of course, went unpunished. Those women who made it to the hold were looted of their meager belongings, not excluding shoes or clothing, by the women criminals they were locked up with. There is one account of the men criminals having stolen and ax and chopping their way through the wooden partition into the women’s hold, raping most of them and killing several. Like many of these accounts it is attributed to the Gleb Boky, but could have occurred on another ship.

The last account I’ve been able to find of the Gleb Boky mentions the ship in 1929. A group of zeks, led by former officers, planned a rebellion to take over the ship and sail it to Finland. The rebellion was quashed very quickly, in only a few hours. This was primarily because there was no rebellion. Two stoolies tried to recruit everyone they could who was interested in escaping (as who wouldn’t be?), then betrayed them to the authorities to gain benefit from exposing the “plot”. 51 zeks were executed.

The camp was finally closed down in 1939 and a naval unit stationed there. I have been unable to determine the evcntual fate of the Gleb Boky.

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One thought on “A Ship Debased: The Gleb Boky

  1. Pingback: New Post Up At Facets Of History | Mac1949's Blog

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