Hut 42 Camp Yaya, Siberia. Short Story

WW2 Gulag, Siberia. Yaya – 442 miles south of The Arctic Circle. The needle on the Richter scale of misery is about to set new records.

True story condensed from Where the Devil says Goodnight. Nominated in the United States for a Cultural and Heritage Award

WWII spun into top gear for this European aristocrat after she is accused of spying and sentenced to 10-years. Days before the 23rd birthday she falls from an ice-covered slatted cattle wagon into the crisp freezing Siberian snow. The buzz-word in the Gulag is surviving.  5,500 mostly innocent ladies subsist in the brutal, cold conditions. Some have been here since the 1911 Revolution. The needle on the Richter scale of misery has set new records.

Hut 42 resembled hundreds of others. All are ice-encrusted and leaned heavily. No blankets, pillows, just long two-tier bare wood slats. The wind chill factor sends temperatures plummeting. Incredible bitting Blizzards conceived in the Arctic Circle raged unchecked; swept beyond the tree lines to roam across the frigid tundra at will. Where they sucked up ice shards that cut and stung any exposed skin of those inexperienced and foolish enough to venture outside. Hungry Wolves were drawn to the perimeter fence.

But hut 42 differed. It had curtains, three roaring wood-burning stoves. The big difference was; bed mattresses, blankets, and stained pillows. Plus, a larder packed with tins of Russian food. So what made 42 the best place to rest, sleep and eat? Its Russian prisoners.

An innocent lady I knew was imprisoned in Siberia’s Camp Yaya and described these to me for my story ‘Where the Devil says Goodnight.’ Hut 42 ladies were the biggest, strongest 100 ladies she had ever seen, each with perfect complexions. Lead by the hut’s self-appointed leader Viktorya and feared not only by the Russian gulag guards. But the booted-down Colonel camp commandant. They were also completely ignorant of life outside Russia and sat enthralled to Beata’s descriptions about the world they never knew. Fortunately, Beata – Polish by marriage and a Lithuanian aristocrat by birth, was fluent in several languages including Russian. It was her Russian fluency that landed her in the gulag as a spy. Only spies need 4 languages. The date she walked through; ‘The gates of hell,’ November 27, 1940.

No-one volunteered to be in hut 42. Anyone was sent there as a punishment for something. The sentence usually for two weeks. Beata was skinny and picked upon by some Russian women, her friend Yaga came to her aid, the fight was stopped, and the other Russians in their hut accused them both of starting a fight.

Even at night, the hut’s interior was far below freezing when it was time to rise for another struggle with cold and aching stomachs. The inmates of the curtained billet could be heard singing their dirty Russian songs as they trudged out of the gates across the snow. Only when a blizzard blasted its way south were they given other heavy camp work. They were harnessed to empty sleds without stops until they reached their work area a three-mile trudge away. Soldiers whose greatcoats were good examples of what the Singer girls could do for favors for those who guarded them tucked themselves behind trees for shelter.

Hardened Russian women selected trees, spat on their gloved hands, picked a spot on the bark and swung the sharp axes several times, dodging tumbling snow and fresh icicles. Beata was fascinated by them; so violent, according to camp rumors. Some were badly treated, others never emerged alive. No one argued with them – these women got their own way.

Oblivious to their hostile surroundings, these giants were over six feet tall and twelve stone plus without an ounce of fat. They had straight backs, broad shoulders, and big breasts. Beata had never seen women with such beautiful, unblemished skin. Every night of the week soldiers slunk through hut 42’s back door.

The pine forest stretched as far as anyone could see. The tall, straight trees were thinly branched and the smell of bleeding pine resin inspired the strong cutters. Wood chips striking their faces were shrugged off like cotton wool. Soon, their rhythm echoed in the vicinity.

These were weather-hardened women who, when they quickly built up a sweat in the forest, flicked off their fur-trimmed hoods as they became encrusted with frozen ice formed by their own breaths. They endured their twelve-hour shifts in the forest with the ten-minute break in defiant spirits.

As the trees began to topple, the Russians would move to the next and start again. When six were down, they hacked off the branches and began sawing each into six-foot lengths with long two-handed toothed saws. This done, they stacked their work neatly on the empty sleds, buckled themselves into worn leather harnesses and leaned forward, taking up the slack. Before they had gone a few yards they were again into their rhythm and singing.

The only time one of them stopped was when a soldier approached and gave her cigarettes. They left the group without a second glance from the others. These soldiers’ greatcoats fitted better than Yaya’s commandants and better than any soldier on duty in Siberia.

The feared curtained billet’s occupants at the far end of the compound, where only experienced soldiers ventured, were also feared by all the other Russian women. Everyone took the abuse they dished out. Even the handsome commandant knew better than to complain when they woke him each morning as they passed his quarters, singing their dirty songs.

In spite of his good looks, the commandant was a cold, callous bastard, and he needed fuel. Sighting camps near a sustained supply of timber was vital for the Russian war effort. The commandant would continue to curse in his warm bed at 5:30 a.m. every morning. When fresh snow covered their morning tracks, hauling back full sleds, three miles took much longer. The commandant looked the other way, knowing they had left the forest early to compensate, as they passed his hut in full song hours later. He appreciated that there was no one else in Yaya strong enough or tough enough to cope with the temperatures and wind from which even Eskimos would take cover. They got their way, or the camp froze to death.


“Which bastards started it?” The soldiers shouted, hauling them apart. They didn’t listen to the Poles and sided with their countrywomen. Beata and Yaga were dragged outside into the freezing air as the Russians slunk away, as were frogmarched towards the curtained billet, from where the occupants began emerging.

As they neared the hut, rumors of other prisoners being badly treated by these convicted killers filled their minds. These Russian women had a fearful reputation, so much so that even the soldiers and the camp commandant kept their distance. They were doomed to be used as servants; dogsbodies, before being thrown out for the wolves.

Pushed inside by the guards, Beata and Yaga came face to face with a brawny Russian, who stood with her large hands on her hips as she eyed the two skinny women. Her soldiers’ leather boots shook the floorboards as she strode towards them.

Yaga stood her ground and supported the weak and ill Beata. Yaga was a tall woman, but this Russian towered above her in height and width.

“Why are you here?” she asked, standing with feet apart and hands on her hips. Yaga explained as the Russian touched Beata’s tiny, bloated face.

Without warning, she stooped forward and gently gathered Beata up in one muscled arm in a single, effortless movement. She then lifted Yaga and easily carried them to the far end of the billet, placing each of them on a mattress near one of the three roaring stoves. Then she yelled out, and two other ladies brought bowls containing potatoes, bread, sugar cubes, salted fish and fresh milk.

With a smile, Beata thanked them in impeccable Russian, which surprised the leader. Both women couldn’t believe what was happening to them, or why. The three Russians turned without further words, closed the door and dropped a packet on the floor. Before the uncustomary bright light bulbs went out, the fires were dampened for the night. Thick, large, grey blankets kept them warm as the two of them said their prayers.

And so they spent the first of ten days in the curtained billet with three belching chimneys. This was their punishment? Or was that to follow? They looked around the warm hut. So this is how the nicknamed ‘killers’ lived? They were better organized than anyone in camp Yaya, that’s for sure. Even a larder brimmed with fresh food and tinned goods.

It was the sound of singing that eventually woke Yaga before Beata stirred. As they stood nervously in front of one of several larders, they mused how they honestly wouldn’t know where to start if anything was offered. That twelve hours had been the most peaceful sleep either had had in eight months. It had ended the longest, wettest period in their lives.

The Russians kicked off packed snow from their high leather boots, then took them off inside. One walked towards them and gave them each a rolled Russian cigarette, lighting the match from a box.

“Have you been comfortable?” Viktorya asked.

“It was the best sleep, the best food, the best bed, and the warmest I have been for so long,” laughed Beata. She had forgotten what it was like. “It must be a dream”. Why they were treating them so kindly, she had no idea. She would henceforth hold these so-called killers in high esteem.

The meal they ate that night with their hosts, amid jokes and laughter, was one of several they would never forget. The Russians listened, with humored suspicion, to Beata’s story of where she came from and what she had been snatched from. They had never heard of anyone possessing such vast estates, and living like the Tsars of old; of which they had limited knowledge. They were never tired of what Beata told them – such talks lasted for hours.

30 months later all poles were released under a treaty. The day Beata walked out of ‘The Gates of Hell.’ She turned amazed. Not only were her friends from hut 42 standing against the wire fence and watching, but countless others stood on the ice-covered parade ground.100 special Russian ladies watched. Beata waved. Viktorya stared at Beata with eyes that looked into the past. “Is what you’ve told us true?”  She called out passionately. Beata turned, waved and smiled. ‘ Да, Yes.’

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