Prison money called “elephants”

Prison money called “elephants”

July 03, 2020

Currency in Solovki forced-labor camp was twice as expensive as Soviet money.

The GULAG currency in the Museum of Norilsk appeared almost at the same time as the first domestic publications on the forced-labor camp money – in the early 1990s. Until that time, the receipts of special purpose camps of the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate) were mentioned only in Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago. In the Soviet Union, it was forbidden to write or speak on this topic. For collectors and museums, the camp money became available during the Perestroika period, when declassification of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) archives took place, and immediately fell into the category of artefacts.

The Norilsk Museum owns the bonds of the very first issue for the Solovetsky Camp in 1929 with a denomination of 2 and 5 kopecks. The SLON (sounds like “elephant” in Russian) – the Solovetsky special purpose camp – was organized in 1924 for the participants or supporters of the white movement, previously held in Kholmogory and Pertominsk settlements of Arkhangelsk region.

The first issue also included the receipts of 20, 50 kopecks, 1, 3 and 5 rubles. The bonds were printed on watermarked paper, had large six-pointed shadow stars, and varied in color. On the flip side it was indicated that the receipts are accepted “for payments from prisoners exclusively at the institutions and enterprises of the special purpose camps of the OGPU”.

The main purpose and reason for the issuance of special banknotes for the camps was the inability to use them in case of the prisoners’ escape.

The receipts were issued either in return for the money taken at the time of arrest, or instead of the money received from home. It was possible to make purchases in the prisoner’s commissary with them: “No money was paid for the work. But they made lists for the “prize” monthly – at the bosses’ discretion – and from those lists gave two, three, rarely five rubles a month. Those two rubles were given out by camp bonds with the signature of the camp leader of that time Gleb Bokiya. For those who had money from home, the boss allowed changing it by either a receipt or bonds. Bonds went into using from the end of 1929, during reforging”, writer Varlam Shalamov describes the camp policy.

In 1932, camp bonds were replaced with state banknotes. There were no more centralized issues of money for Soviet forced-labor camps. But such money could be issued (and they were) locally by the decision of the camp administration.

The collection of the Norilsk Museum has a receipt of the Karelian-Murmansk camps – a small piece of cardboard on which just the value and the name of the NKVD Northern Camps’ Main Directorate are printed.

The Norilsk FLC did not use receipts, although some prisoners from Solovky sent to Norilsk in 1939 got them for their work in the SLON.

Ironically, a member of the collegium of the OGPU of the USSR, Gleb Bokiya, whose facsimile signature was printed on the first “elephants” (SLONs), was shot in 1937. Subsequently, the participant of the two revolutions, the deputy chairman of the Petrograd Cheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission, abbreviated VChK, and commonly known as Cheka), was rehabilitated.

Rare receipts at the Museum of Norilsk appeared thanks to the famous Norilsk collector Leonid Freiman. The owner of a unique collection of paper banknotes and other rarities has been helping the museum for many years to complete and organize the collections of numismatics and bonistics. Read in the Artefacts: about the exposition dedicated to the Dikson’s defense during the Great Patriotic War, the Dolgan reindeer riding details, the story of the Wings of Love mammoth tusk composition and other interesting facts from the local museums.

Text: Valentina Vachaeva, Photo: Norilsk Museum

July 03, 2020

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