Recently, a conversation led me to read this book Stalin’s Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet, and the Role of the West which was an interesting and quick read. This led me to a question … before which I pose, I will offer some background.

The Kolyma basis is a river valley system in the arctic and sub-arctic regions of western Siberia. This region is rich in mineral resources, and in 1932 Stalin decided that retrieving the gold from the river valley was important, and that free-market was not the solution. Instead, perhaps typically, he decided to use slave labor. For the first few years, Kolyma was one of the “better” prison/slave camps in the gulag system, but that changed in the later 30s to being the very worst. About a million persons were shipped to Kolyma between 1932 and 1953. The first parts of the journey by rail and part by sea and it is on the sea portion of this voyage the book noted above concentrates. The vessels used in this part of the passage were mostly obtained from the US. Mr Bollinger points out that he can find no evidence that anyone in th West was aware of the purpose of those ships when they were sold to the Soviets. During the war, the management of the Kolyma fleet, as did virtually everything in the Soviet world, moved to the military. The Kolyma fleet split time during this period between transporting slaves and stuffs to the Kolyma camps and transporting war material as part of the US/Soviet Lend-Lease program. 

Military books that I have read on WWII point out that the victory over the Axis powers was a near thing. Many authors point to a small number of crucial decisions and events which if had been made or fallen out differently would have likely meant that Hitler may have won. The US Lend-Lease program has been pointed as a one of the important factors in giving the Soviets the breathing room to stave of defeat. The point to take away from this is Lend-Lease was critical to the Allied war effort. There were two routes for ships supplying the Soviets, an Atlantic route up past Norway to Murmansk and a Western/Pacific route. The Kolyma fleet was part of this latter group. Prior to the US directly entering the war and Japan/US hostilities being in the open, Soviet (non-US) ships were preferred for transport of material via the Pacific route.

The Kolyma vessels were in a rough trade. They were older steam powered ships that plied ice choked Arctic seas and were badly in need of repairs. Many times these ships put in they were repaired by US shipyards. 

Which leads us to the question at hand. 

Consider yourself in the role of the American President. Kolyma vessels have docked in your ports for Lend Lease operations. By 1944 to 1945 two things have become clear:

  1. Germany’s fate is sealed and the Allied victory is assured.
  2. Kolyma is a part of the gulag/slave camp system and these ships needing repair are part of that system.

Recall also, Stalin and the Soviets at this point are allies and Lend-Lease has been a vital part of the war effort. 

So. Do you authorize repair of the vessels? These vessels split time between slave transport and carrying Lend-Lease material. What do you do? What records might you leave regarding your decision?

Historically, the repairs were made. Was that the right decision?


Filed under: Mark O.Offbeat Questions

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