Heartrending Letters From Soviet-Era Siberian GULAGs

By Anna Liesowska
Anna Liesowska
Anna Liesowska
December 14, 2014 Updated: December 16, 2014

From The Siberian Times: Banned from writing to loved ones, and only allowed letters from family members twice a year, prisoners in Soviet labor camps came up with many ways to squirrel out messages. With no pencils, papers, or envelopes, they were forced to write on cigarette boxes, scratch out words on tree bark, or embroider messages with fish bone on pieces of fabric.

Others also hid tiny notes in the folds of clothes or put messages inside children’s toys, with some even disguising them in pills for prisoners being released to swallow, retrieve later, and pass on to their relatives. The “Right of Correspondence” exhibition, opened in Moscow this month by the Memorial Society, features hundreds of such items dating between 1919 and the 1980s.

“We have letters from different GULAG camps located in Siberia, including from Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Norilsk, and Kolyma,” said Alyona Kozlova, director of archives at Memorial. GULAG is an acronym for Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps in Russian. “Among them are the beautiful letters of Vladimir Levitsky to his son, with ethnographic essays and hand-drawn postage stamps.”


Born in the Ukrainian village of Russkaya in 1873, Levitsky fought for the Red Army in the civil war and served as an education officer teaching calligraphy and gymnastics. But he was imprisoned in 1932 for the supposed crime of collecting stamps at a time when stamp collectors were suspected of passing on secret signs and codes. He collected many items, including postcards, coins, and matchbox labels, but his greatest passion was postal stamps.

After his imprisonment in a GULAG called Olhovka, in what is now the Novosibirsk region, he carried on his hobby by drawing his own stamps on letters he sent to his son, Oleg. 

A "stamp" drawn by Vladimir Levitsky. (Memorial Society)
A “stamp” drawn by Vladimir Levitsky. (Memorial Society)

Among the other correspondence on display is a letter by a detainee from Minsk, named Kozlov, who used an ingenious method to contact his family.

“He pulled out the thread of his socks and embroidered the letter with a fish bone on a piece of cloth. Then, his cellmate was released and managed to hide the letter in the collar of his shirt,” said Irina Ostrovskaya, the curator of the exhibition. To his wife, Beti, he wrote: “You are the only one in my dreams and thoughts. How much I love you and how hard it is to lose you. Don’t cry. I am forever with you. Remember me with a kind word.”


Then, to his children, he added another message: “Nina, Enya! I am not your enemy. I was in 29 battles, I was in a Warsaw fight—for our motherland and your happiness. Never doubt my honesty before the Party, the Motherland, and you.”

“I was wounded twice. I am with you in eternity. Keep the memory of me, take care of Mama. Love you more than I love life. Papa.”

GULAGs were infamous during the Soviet era, with millions of political prisoners and enemies of the state toiling and dying there, particularly under Stalin.

GULAG prisoners were forced to write on cigarette boxes, scratch out words on tree bark, or embroider messages. (Memorial Society)
GULAG prisoners were forced to write on cigarette boxes, scratch out words on tree bark as was done for this message, or embroider messages. (Memorial Society)


An embroidered letter from a Soviet GULAG. (Memorial Society)
An embroidered letter from a Soviet GULAG. (Memorial Society)

The Memorial exhibition gives an insight into life within the repressive and inhumane compounds through the secretive correspondence. For the prisoners, sending letters or drawings to the outside world helped them keep some semblance of normal life at a time when they were being manipulated by the regime.

Communication with family was prohibited although some prisoners could receive a letter once every six months—and even then it was usually heavily edited by officials. The oldest letters from the archives of Memorial—an international historical, educational, human rights and charitable society—date to 1919.


As time went on, those incarcerated in the GULAGs across Siberia became more inventive in their attempts to elude the snooping eyes of the authorities.

Examples from the 1970s were made on water-resistant paper and hidden in a type of pill swallowed by prisoners due for release.

The wives of alleged enemies of the state passed letters in self-made toys from behind bars to their children.

Others scrawled notes and threw them from train carriages on their way to the exile of the camps, hoping they would be picked up and passed on to their families.

(Memorial Society)
(Memorial Society)

“They managed to throw tiny letters through small holes,” explains Ostrovskaya. “And, just imagine, these letters reached their destination! Just imagine, given the distances, to throw the letter on the railway and hope that some kind man will pick it. And people did pick these letters and sent them. We need to understand that when a person picked such a letter, he understood very well what kind of letter it was, as well as he knew what he was doing by getting this letter to the mailbox.”

A number of sketches were also featured in the exhibition, which is surprising, since the tools for drawing and the ability to do so under the strict rules would both be scarce. Among those who drew was professional artist Mikhail Sokolov, a prolific painter and head of the Proletkult art studio in Moscow who was arrested in 1938.

A drawing made in a GULAG. (Memorial Society)
A drawing made in a GULAG. (Memorial Society)

While imprisoned in the Taiga GULAG in Siberian Kemerovo, he produced miniature landscapes in secret in the privacy of his bunk, using toothpaste, bricks, soot, and burnt matches. Another drawing on show, by Irina Borkhman, was painted with pig blood.

The exhibition features a number of documents highlighting the scale of the censorship imposed by the strict camp regime, with letters almost entirely obliterated with black ink. In any official communication allowed by the authorities, inmates were banned from mentioning the location of the camp, the number of prisoners, the conditions they faced, any deaths or any complaints, or anti-Soviet statements. 

Republished with permission from The Siberian Times. Read the original