The historical backdrop

I’ve written a bit about the historical backdrop of the occurences that our games are based on; two one being the systemic, arbitrary, political persecutions and use of forced labour in soviet Russia, the other is a singular mysterious, some would say creepy, occurrence, which has spawned many conspiracy theories along the way. 

So if you’re in any way curious about the historical backdrop of our Escape Games, this is the place to read on. 

 In the final years of his life Stalin was seeing conspiracies everywhere around him, and starting random persecutions on a wimp. He had the head of the counter intelligence service Abakumov suddenly arrested, as well as starting persecutions against random minority groups. A purge was started amongst the Czech communist party – many of the purged were jewish. Stalin started talking openly of Zionist Conspiracies against him.
 On January 13th 1953 the state newspaper Pravda ran a frontpage article about 9 “saboteur doctors” who had attempted, through medical treatment to kill high ranking officials at Kremlin. 6 of the 9 accused doctors were Jewish. The article called the accused “saboteur doctors”, who were part of an “international Jewish Zionist terrorist organization”, directed by a group of American “corrupt Jewish bourgeois nationalists”. The article thereby equated “jewish” with “capitalist, corrupt and nationalist” – everything that the USSR was supposedly not. The article warned the soviet people of being complacent of such outside sabotage.
 Jews across the Soviet Union started fearing pogroms, and many Jewish intellectuals signed petitions condemning the “saboteur doctors”, attempting to avoid persecution of jews.
  Then a few months after the publication of the article, Stalin died.  Beria who in the aftermath of Stalin’s death took power and did a lot of reorganizing of the dragging GULAG camp system, called off the investigation into the Doctors’ plot in the beginning of April 1953.

So it is a creative liberty when in the introduction of the room, we say that these doctors were accused of the murder of Stalin himself, but the true story is not far from this, and far darker, with its very real consequences for Jewish people across the Soviet Union.

Though studying history in general, I focused on Soviet Russian history, with a final thesis on the GULAG camps.
  Forced labour and deportations to Siberia were already in use during the reign of the Tsars  – A system which the Bolsheviks happily carried over into their regime. In December of 1917 the Cheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage) was founded under the leadership of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who himself had spent 11 years of his life in Tsarist prisons and as forced labour. 

The Cheka and its later incarnations GPU, OGPU, NKVD and MGB/MVD were above the law and therefor had a lot of freedom in the “fight” against counter-revolutionary activity. One of this intelligence services responsibilities, was the running of the concentration camps, later referred to as labour camps.  

The term concentration camp was already in use at the end of the 19th century, but these were military institutions and very different from the Bolshevik version, which had three unique features, as characterized by Harvard professor Richard Pipes. Firstly, they were permanent and were not removed after the conclusion of the civil war (1918-1921). Secondly, they were meant for use against the population itself, to crush resistance, rather than enemies of war. Lastly, they had an economic function, they were not just meant to isolate prisoners from the world at large, they were also meant to exploit them as a force of labour. 

 These camps were not only meant to incarcerate individuals but also groups, simply for being part of said group, such as the bourgeoisie, kulaks (peasants who owned a bit of land) or dissidents – real or imagined. 

 In 1928 Stalin presented the first Five Year Plan, which included forced collectivisation and industrialization on an unprecedented scale. Mass arrest, executions and deportations follow in its wake.  The same year, a commission was established with the purpose of creating a more extensive camp network. It was this commission which came up with the, by now infamous, administration name GUL’ag: Galvnoe Upravlenue lagerei = Main camp administration. 

 The years 1937-1938 are remembered as The Great Terror, as this maschinery of mass arrest  escalated even further and turned on itself,  after a speech by Stalin in March 1937 to the Central Committee where he announced that there were spies and enemies of the people hiding everywhere in Soviet society.  

This led to arrests, of especially party members, who were arrested and persecuted on the ground of article 58: Counter-revolutionary Crimes, which was defined as any action meant to undermine or weaken the Soviet Union.  Many sections under this article were worded extremely vaguely, and left room for interpretation, thereby giving the intelligence service relative freedom in the choice of who to arrest and why – Especially so, when in 1937, Stalin started giving arrest quotas to fulfil. 

   The Great Terror was far from the first or the last arrest ”wave”; in the 1920’s oppositional politicians were arrested in large numbers. Then in the 1930’s kulaks, party members and a range of different nationalities were arrested.  In the 1940’s, wives of previously arrested, were arrested themselves, for not having initially turned in their spouses. After the Second World War, soldiers who had allowed themselves to be taken captives were also arrested at their return to the Motherland. Finally in the late 1940’s a series of previous prisoners, were rearrested without new charges.

 In the camps the prisoners labour was exploited, and they were fed on rations based on how much they worked, meaning that not reaching your work quota led to less food, less energy and a vicious cycle where it became harder and harder to fulfil quotas. This vicious cycle often ended in death.
There was also a serious divide between political prisoner – contriki – and criminal prisoners urki – where the latter was given easier work and treated marginally better by the guards and the system at large, as they were seen as more redeemable than their political counterparts.

 Forced prison labour was used in many parts of the industrialisation of the country, for instance in the building of the White Sea Canal. Equipped only with primitive tools, an estimated 25.000 prisoners perished during this project alone. However hard the GULAG attempted to profit of the exploitation of prison labour, it was never profitable, but rather, a huge drain on the soviet economy.
   GULAG historian Anne Appelbaum estimates that around 28.7 million people made their way through the GULAG system between 1930 and 1953.

Sources and further reading

Appelbaum, Anne. Gulag A History. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print

Article 58 of the Penal code of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Web.

Barnes, Steven. Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print.

Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1990. Print

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago. Abridged. Translation by Thomas
Whitney and Harry Willets. London: The Harvill press, 2003. Print

I also had an article published in 2019 in the Entremons – Journal of World History about female prisoners in the Soviet labour camps, which you can read here

My interest in the Dyatlov mystery is far less scholarly, and appeals more to the geek in me that appreciates a good conspiracy theory. 

   In late January 1959 a group of grade-II hikers, mostly students, set off on an expedition across the northern Urals in the then Soviet Union, to reach the mountain Otorton from Vizhai and thereby receive their grade-III hiking status (the highest at the time).  

The group consisted of;  Yuri Nikolayevich Doroshenko, Yuri Alexeyevich Krivonischenko ,  Yuri Yefimovich Yudin, Lyudmila Alexandrovna Dubinina,  Alexander Sergeyevich Kolevatov,  Zinaida Alekseevna Kolmogorova, Rustem Vladimirovich Slobodin, Nikolai Vladimirovich Thibeaux-Brignolle, Semyon Alekseevich Zolotaryov  and was led by Igor Alekseyevich Dyatlov, after whom, the eventual site of his death – The Dyatlov Pass – was named. 

Yuri Yudin left the expedition shortly after setting out because he was feeling ill. During the trek the rest deviated from their path, due to worsening weather conditions and started toward the Kholat Syakhl mountain. They decided to set up camp on the mountainside rather than move downhill to a protective tree line. 

 The 20th of February came around and the group had not returned nor been heard from. A civilian rescue group was sent out, quickly followed by a military one. The camp was found on February 26, the tents still containing the groups shoes and equipment but the group themselves nowhere in sight. The tents had been cut open from the inside.
 At the tree line down the mountainside the remains of a campfire were found, along with the bodies of Krivonischenko and Doroshenko, in their underwear. 

 The bodies of Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin were found between the tree line and the camp, in their underwear, seemingly having tried to return to the camp. All five had died from hypothermia. 

 In May, once the snow started to melt, the last four bodies were found in a ravine, wrapped in the clothes of the others. Thibeaux-Brignolle had severe injuries to his skull and both Dubinina and Zolotaryov had major chest fractures. There were however no external wounds to correlate, as if the injuries had been caused by high pressure. Dubinina was also missing her tongue, eyes and part of her lips – possibly from having decayed in a stream running under the snow. Some accounts also add that the clothes of the last couple of victims were radioactive, though their bodies were not. 

  We still have no real answers as to what happened to them, though naturally there is a sea of wild theories; avalanche, yeti, aliens, military experiment, the wind howling at such a frequency as to make them go mad, etc. All of which I encourage you to read about on your own.

Sources and further reading/listening

I hope these historical backdrops have either convinced you to try one of the escape games or given you more insight into what you have already experienced and how interactive storytelling can be used to tell very different kinds of stories.

                                                                        – By N.P.Vej (Owner, M.A. history, giant nerd)