1942-1944: GULAG / by Tori Boggs

The idyllic farm that Boris remembered so fondly was no more. He lived in the school’s halls of residence, learning various crafts: “I studied laying bricks and such. Also we learned about woodwork and metalwork, everything needed”. He would often visit his grandmother, who was now living in a flat with her daughter, Boris’s aunt Tonya. Tonya was a staunch communist, worked for the police and in Boris’s words, “gave her favors very freely.” She hated having him around, and when the alienated Boris got into trouble, she saw her chance. At the industrial school the ‘local’ boys like Boris would fight with the ‘Orel’ boys. Two of Boris’s friends stabbed an Orel boy in a scuffle. They were arrested, and although Boris had not been involved he was also arrested, as an accomplice. Tonya, despite her contacts with the police, did not lift a finger to help and Boris – willful and troublesome for sure, but still only 16 – was sentenced to a year in the Gulag. It was another horrible life lesson.

His descriptions of arriving at the Gulag are vivid: “We were pushed out of the wagons one by one. It was snowing and very cold. We were surrounded by guards with their police dogs, straining at the leads and baring their teeth. Guards would scream ‘to your knees!’ from time to time; those who remained standing were hit by a rifle. Then we were counted and started walking through the forest. We later found out it was a lumber factory in Nizhniy Tagil Gulag. We constantly heard axes ringing and saws squealing. It was 1943, I was 16 years old, very skinny and pessimistic. I was responsible for [wood for] the fire and had to carry things from place to place. All in freezing weather, -25-30 degrees. I felt that other prisoners treated me with some leniency; they didn’t swear at me, never took away my food and kept saying, ‘Don’t work too hard, boy’. Yet I couldn’t relax: the guards were constantly on the look-out, and in any case sitting down could lead to frost-bitten hands and feet.” Boris Chetkov

Fortunately Boris was sent on to a prison factory – which at least was warm –manufacturing mine parts 14 hours a day. With the Chetkovian skill of making the most of the hand you are dealt, not only did he make friends, he thrived. He was even made a shift foreman, though he didn’t relish the job, jumping out of the factory’s broken windows at any sign of trouble. And, in an extraordinary turn of events, his father ended up at the same Gulag. The two bunked together, keeping out of the way of the hardened criminals, until Aleksander was forced into a penal battalion and sent into the teeth of the Second World War. His son was soon to follow.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford