History

Stalin Sucker Punches Its Spanish Allies

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In March 1939, Spanish Republican soldiers who had been training as aviation pilots by the Red Army were stranded in the USSR along with the sailors of several vessels from the Spanish merchant navy.

They were prevented from leaving and in 1941 were arrested and sent to Novosibirsk Transit Prison. Also detained were several civilians who had been working with children evacuated from the Civil War. In 1942 the three groups were brought together in an agricultural labour camp in Kazakhstan, where eight Spaniards fathered children with Austrian prisoners.

Members of the Blue Division read an issue of ‘Marca’ sports newspaper. The image is taken from the 2000 documentary ‘Extranjeros de sí mismos.’

They remained there until 1948 when, partly due to a vigorous solidarity campaign fought by exiled Spanish anarchists on their behalf, they were transferred to a camp near Odessa. 18 prisoners signed documents accepting Soviet citizenship and were released to work in the region around the Black Sea. The rest remained in the Gulag system until 1954 or 1956.

Towards the end of their imprisonment, they were held with Spanish fascists who had been captured during WWII while fighting in the Blue Division. In addition to those Spanish anti-fascists who went missing or died in the first years of detention, out of 66 anti-fascists known to have been in Kazakhstan on the 1st January 1943, 11 died in Soviet camps.

That the majority survived can be attributed in part to the togetherness and solidarity they maintained in captivity, evident in their work stoppages and hunger strikes.

Few historical episodes have been as extensively discussed as the Spanish Civil War, but there has been a conspicuous silence regarding the fate of those militants who survived Franco’s victory.

While tens of thousands faced justice in the repression that immediately followed the war, and many more were forced into labour battalions, others evaded capture, continuing guerrilla resistance in Spain, escaping to South America, or, in the case of around 2,000 Communists, emigrating to the Soviet Union, where ironically many would subsequently suffer the Stalinist justice they had supported in Spain. Many will have envied their former comrades now in Spanish labour camps.

Most Republicans, however, ended up in France, either crossing the Catalan border or arriving via North African ports. As is well known, the French ‘rewarded’ some 350,000 Spanish anti-fascists with internment in concentration camps, where sanitation was non-existent.

Many Spaniards also fought in the wartime French Resistance with 6,000 participating in the occupation of Toulouse and 4,000 taking part in the Maquis uprising in Paris. Others were captured by the Gestapo, handed over to Franco, or interned in concentration camps.

Despite British Westminster’s ‘non-intervention pact’, Hugh Thomas estimates the value of British foreign military aid during the Spanish Civil War to the Republican side to have been between $1,425,000,000 and $1,900,000,000.

While the anti-Communist Nationalists could rely on assistance from Italy and Germany and, to a much lesser extent, Portugal and Ireland, Republican forces were largely reliant on British aid, second-rate arms from Mexico and over-priced shipments from the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s support for the Republicans came at a heavy price, both in terms of Bolshevik power and Spanish gold. At the start of the war, the Spanish gold reserve was the fourth largest in the world, worth an estimated $788,000,000.

In total $500,000,000 worth of gold was shipped to the Soviet Union, most of it carried to the Ukrainian port of Odessa by the Spanish Merchant Navy. What did the Spanish Republic receive for the vast sums of gold it exported? Very little: The Soviet Union provided T-26 tanks, anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, ammunition, trucks and oil.

The Soviets also sold the Republic around aircraft including I-15 and I-16 fighter planes, and SB-2, Natasha and Rasante bombers. They provided some pilots to fly these crafts, while also offering to train Spaniards at the Kirovabad aviation school in the vicinity of Bakú. 

The Spaniards who arrived at the camp between January 1937 and March 1939 included members of the PCE, but also members of other groups including the UGT, PSUC and the CNT3. Of course, most of the cadets were Russian and it is worth noting that the school admitted many more students than there were planes for them to practice with. For this reason, many of the trainees never flew. The real value of the camp was in providing a steady stream of young recruits to the Communist Party – ‘The main objective was not to produce pilots, but Communists, or both at the same time’ (MLE-CNT, p-95).

There was a further Spanish presence in Russia in 1939: a group of children who had been evacuated from Spain by their Communist parents, in a misplaced humanitarian attempt to save them from the effects of war. In March 1939 the Civil War ended and the children, like the adults who had accompanied them, the trainee pilots and some unfortunate sailors, were stranded in the Soviet Union, unable to return to Spain.

1.2 1939-1941: Detention and Imprisonment

With Franco’s victory imminent, the Spanish pilots were banned from flying in order to prevent escapes. However, following the end of the Civil War, they were transferred to Moscow and accommodated in a rest home, where they received the same good treatment they had experienced at the aviation school (MLE-CNT, p-100). At the end of the Spanish Civil War, there were also around 300 hundred Spanish mariners stranded in the Soviet Union.

Approximately 30% of these sailors were repatriated between August 1939 and June 1941, while others joined the Spanish community in exile (LIC). However, a number of unfortunates were placed under arrest either in April 1940, June 27th 1941, or at later dates (LIC). A high percentage of the detainees belonged to the crew of the Cabo San Agustín (henceforth CSA). The sailors had decided to leave for Mexico but while their ships remained impounded, they waited in Odessa under close surveillance.

In 1941 the USSR entered the Second World War and simultaneously their attitude towards the Spanish anti-fascists became more sinister. The pilots and mariners were interrogated by the GPU and asked if they wanted to stay in the Soviet Union. Most (if not all) of those who agreed to adopt Soviet citizenship were released to work freely and some fought in the Soviet Army.

At least one of this group, Eugenio Porras Caballero, was allowed to leave for France in 1947, after the intervention of his father (FEDIP 102). The other group (which included the CNT members) were promised safe passage to Mexico; they waited, assured their journey was being arranged, but instead were arrested during 1940 and 1941. Also detained at this time were some civilians who had been working with the evacuated Spanish children.

This group included the doctor Juan Bote García, who had been the director of the Santa Isabele Laboratory and the San Carlos Hospital in Spanish Guinea (note dated 9th April 1948, FEDIP 103). He sailed to the USSR from Barcelona, in November 1939 (LIC), accompanying a group of Spanish evacuees, for whom he acted as a teacher until he was imprisoned for refusing to educate the children in a sectarian way. His wish was for ‘less Marxism and more maths’ (MLE-CNT, p-103).

Also imprisoned was the family of Luis Serrano Organero (a crew member of the Innocent Figaredo [LIC]): his wife (who died in November 1942), and their four-year-old daughter. Many of the children, sons and daughters of Spanish Communists who had been evacuated for humanitarian reasons, would also subsequently find their way into the Gulag system, sentenced as ‘Socially Dangerous Elements,’ or for ‘espionage on behalf of America’ (Solzhenitsyn, 1974, p-86).

1.3 1941-1942: Transit Prison and Labour Camps

These three groups were brought together in Karaganda at the end of 1942, but by this time they had already suffered extensively. The pilots were arrested on the 22nd of July, 1941, and taken to the Transit Prison at Novosibirsk. Their experiences there are consistent with other accounts of the regime’s depravity.

They were held in temperatures that reached fifty degrees below zero; they were without winter clothing as all their personal effects had been confiscated, and they were regularly forced to strip for the amusement of the jailers (MLE-CNT, p-101). They recorded their experiences on the prison walls and it was through these markings that the sailors first learned there were other Spanish detainees. After five months the pilots were sent to work at a sawmill in the region of Klasndiark, where they endured perilous working conditions. Many of them suffered serious injuries including Vicente Montejano Moreno, a CNT member then aged 22, who lost several fingers from his right hand.

Soviet soldiers with prisoners that were reportedly members of the Spanish Blue Legion (Legión Azul). This photo was taken in the Leningrad region in early 1944.

The sailors were also put to work, constructing a railroad in the inhospitable and remote region of Yakutia, in the North East of Siberia. According to the MLE-CNT, as a consequence of the climate and the work, many prisoners met their deaths there (p-103)8. It was not unusual for prisoners to be transferred, often over vast distances, and in extreme conditions, according to no obvious logic, and so it was with the Spanish sailors who were sent back via Novosibirsk to Karaganda, where they met the pilots and the group of civilians that included the doctor and the Serrano family. At the end of 1942, there were 66 proven Spanish anti-fascists in Karaganda and those who survived would remain there until the summer of 1948. It is therefore worth making a few notes about the Karaganda complex.

1.4 1942-1948: Karaganda

The town of Karaganda is the industrial centre of Kazhakstan and in 1939 its population was 156,000 (Shapovalov, p-164 n.4). From 1931 a large network of labour camps (often referred to as ‘Karlag’) developed in the arid region around the town, and by the first of January 1941, there were 33,747 prisoners in the complex (Khlevniuk, p-359). This group of camps remained operational until 1959, deploying prisoners in mines, factory work and timber logging, but primarily in agricultural labour. Karaganda and the surrounding area was also a common site of exile, where large numbers of Volga Germans and former Gulag inmates (including, briefly, Alexander Solzhenitsyn) were re-settled. Both prisoners and exiles usually lived in huts made of earth.

The Spanish anti-fascists were held in a camp situated between the towns of Karaganda and Spassk, known to the Soviet authorities by its number and postcode area – ‘99/22 Spassk’. They were held with about 900 other detainees in an area 300 metres long by 200 metres wide, surrounded by three lines of barbed wire, armed guards and ferocious dogs (MLE-CNT, p-105). There was no heating or electricity (ibid) and during the war daily rations could be as little as 100 grams of bread and one bowl of ‘soup’. After the war, this increased to 600g of bread, 10g of margarine, 17g of sugar, and two bowls of rancid vegetable soup (usually a watery gruel made from rotten cabbage and carrot) (ibid, p-104).

The prisoners were deployed as agricultural labourers; the work day was long and relentless, there were no concessions made on grounds of health, and any rebellion was punished with solitary confinement and denial of food for two days out of every three (ibid). Given these conditions it is not surprising that the prisoners’ health suffered severely, with many afflicted by tuberculosis – for example, Jurado Manuel Vasquez was described as totally debilitated by this illness. Between 1942 and 1948 eight of the group died, including at least one member of the CNT.

At the time of the Spaniards’ arrival, Karaganda was a mixed camp, holding men, women and juveniles. The juveniles included children of adult prisoners, some of whom, as we shall see, were born in the camp. There may also have been children sentenced independently. Between 1946 and 1948, men and women were separated throughout the Gulag system, but before 1946 it was not unusual for them to be held together. While some accounts of mixed camps describe endemic rape, others emphasise romances, enduring relationships and marriages. Indeed, one account describes how women in the Spaniards’ camp declared a hunger strike after they were separated from their husbands. Several days later they were reunited (BEIPI, p-7).

Interned with the Spanish anti-fascists were detainees of many nationalities but the majority were Austrian Jews (MLE-CNT, p-105). These were presumably refugees who had left Austria as anti-Semitism escalated before and after the 1938 Anschluss. There may also have been Austrian Social Democrats – ‘Schutzbündlers’– who had fled to the Soviet Union in 1934 after defeat in the February Uprising. A number of Spanish anti-fascists had serious relationships with Austrian women in Karaganda and eight children were born within the camp. To my knowledge, all eight mothers were able to leave the camp with their children in good health (at least five settled in Vienna). It is to be hoped that today these children are still alive and thriving.

1.5 The Solidarity Campaign

Throughout these long years, the Spaniards were isolated, their fates unknown beyond the camps. Many of their political comrades were either fighting fascism or themselves interned – in Spain, North Africa, France or Germany. Although the prisoners were officially allowed to write letters, it appears these were rarely delivered (whether because of Soviet censorship or the effects of war). Certainly, they never received any replies and so very few wrote letters home, convinced it was a waste of time (MLE-CNT, p-105). Their plight only became known in 1947 after other detainees were released. Source, Spanish Source El Pais.

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