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Bokii Brothers: Creator of Gulag and Founder of Mining Science

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Boris Bokii is rightly considered one of the founders of mining science: he introduced analytical methods of mine design and propelled early-20th-century coal mining to a new level. His brother was by no means a less prominent figure. Up to date, he is often called 'the most unusual person in the history of Soviet intelligence services.'

The brothers were born into an old noble family in Tiflis: Boris in 1873 and Gleb six years later. Their ancestor Fyodor Bokii was mentioned in Ivan the Terrible's correspondence with Andrei Kurbsky when he was appointed the Chamberlain of Vladimir in Lithuania in the second half of the 16th century. His great-grandfather was a renowned mathematician, and his father was the author of the textbook Fundamentals of Chemistry and tutor to the sons of Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich.

The young men followed in their forefathers' footsteps. In 1890, Boris passed the competition for admission to Russia's most significant technical Institute, the Mining Institute, and his brother followed suit six years later. In St. Petersburg, the idea of fighting for the rights of the proletariat took hold of them. But while it was more of a hobby for his elder brother, which did not prevent him from graduating with a first-class degree, Gleb was taken seriously by his democratic ideas.

The turning point for both came in 1898. One day, Boris, already working in the Donbas, arrived in the capital for a holiday and invited his younger brother to participate in a student demonstration, which turned into a clash with the police. Both were arrested. They were quickly released at their father's request, but their father's ailing heart could not bear the shame, and Ivan Dmitrievich died a few days later. Appalled by their grief, the brothers made opposed decisions: Boris withdrew from politics altogether. At the same time, Gleb embarked resolutely on the path of a professional revolutionary and joined the struggle for the liberation of the working class.

Илья Репин
© Илья Репин. «17 Октября 1905»

Boris Bokii

After graduating from the institute in 1895, the young man was sent off to the Donbas—the region was undergoing the industry boom then. Rail construction was intensified throughout the country, and the development of metallurgy was accompanied by increasing demand for hard coal. In just ten years (1890-1900), over 21,000 versts of new railroads were built, and coal production in the Donbas region quadrupled.

Until the 1870s, almost no coal mining in Russia. It was imported from England and Belgium. The sea route to St Petersburg was much more profitable than the cart to Little Russia, and it was only with the development of the railway network that large-scale coal mining began.

At the request of the Union of Mining Industrialists of the South of Russia, the young engineer was sent to the Donetsk region to raise the coal industry. In 1898 24 years old Bokii was appointed to head Ivan coal mine. However, a few days later, it was hit by a massive gas explosion, killing 78 people.

© Agrillo Mario Me contacter/ Закрытая шахта в Бельгии

It was a time of frequent catastrophes in the mining industry. In 1889 in the mines near Liège in Belgium, 1642 people died; in 1902, near Washington, 788 miners died. And those were only the most significant tragedies; the number of smaller ones amounted to tens, if not hundreds. There were many reasons for it, but the main reason was that professionals did not dig mines. Consequently, holes collapses, floods, and, of course, the significant risk factor - gas! Going down to the depths with paraffin lamps, the workers had no idea that a mixture of methane and coal dust could explode if exposed to an open flame.

Boris Ivanovich was obsessed with the idea of multiplying coal production while significantly reducing the risk of worker deaths. The first thing that drew his attention was the poor ventilation of the mines, and Bokii designed a fundamentally new ventilation system, operating with several fans running simultaneously. He applied this solution in particular to the Kadiev mine of the Dnieper Society. The large but neglected mine seemed to be waiting for the arrival of a talented specialist capable of unlocking its full potential. For example, when Bokii arrived, the capital mine number 1 / 2 only operated in two seams due to poor ventilation, and a year later, it performed in all six.

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However, the real revolution in coal mining was Bokii's next invention. The production process that required rethinking was the mining of seams. The traditional system was the chamber-and-pillar system, in which the coal inside the chamber was mined. The guarding pillars take up to 20 per cent of the volume, and the coal they contained was left overboard, which meant a significant loss in performance.

столбовая система
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Boris Ivanovich suggested a continuous mining system when the miners lifted the coal to the surface without any residue. It was possible thanks to mechanical supports - the wooden poles that pick up the mine roof. In its improved form, the same principle is still in use worldwide.

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In 10 years, more than 40 inventions of the Petersburg engineer were tested in the Donbas. Bokii's activities were so successful that in 1906 he was invited back to St Petersburg to chair the mining department at his alma mater. He was first an associate professor; from 1908, he was made an extraordinaire professor and, from 1914, an ordained professor.

During his work at the Institute, Boris Ivanovich wrote fundamental works - Practical and Analytical Courses of Mining Art. They were radically different from those published abroad.

"Foreigners have no idea of the enormous concessions which enterprises in Russia sometimes hold. It goes without saying that in Belgium, for example, in which the concession of 300 dessiatinas is considered immense, it is challenging to develop the full advantage of the opportunities. There is no possibility even to discuss all these combinations that may take place in the concession of 20 thousand dessiatinas. They use methods developed by decades of practice, without criticising the modes of operation and without even having time, willingness or means for this", claimed the author.

In our country, according to Bokii, there is still so much new space that for the enterprising engineer, there is a wide field of activity and opportunities, incomparable in scale to Europe.

For more than 20 years, he has been developing analytical methods for designing mining enterprises. What kind of workings and how to open a deposit, prepare it for excavation, what forms of layer development, what sizes to give to minefields? The scientist was the first to develop these questions, finding solutions to the lowest capital costs and operational expenses.

He also kept in touch with production: he frequently travelled to enterprises for consultations, examinations and investigations, including those abroad. From 1921, he was responsible for advising the largest trusts in the Union - Donugol, Yugostal, and Kuzbassstrest. His main aim was to restore and reconstruct the country's mining industry after the revolution and the First World War. On his 20th anniversary of scientific activity, he was awarded the title of Distinguished Professor. A year later, in 1927, older brother Bokii died at 54.

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Gleb Bokii

The fate of his younger brother was no less newsworthy. While Boris was already working as a teacher, Gleb had not graduated yet due to his revolutionary activities. His apprenticeship stretched over more than two decades. Not surprisingly, before 1917, he was arrested 12 times, spent a year and a half in solitary confinement, 2.5 years in exile in Siberia, and from beatings in prison, got tuberculosis.

He took an active part in the events of the 1905-1907 revolution, and he organised militant workers' druzhina and was one of the leaders of the St Petersburg Bolshevik underground. He also has a talent for cryptography - under the guise of mathematical formulas, he creates a secret language.

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The truly star period in the life and career of Gleb Ivanovich begins in 1917. He became Secretary of the Petrograd Committee of the RSDLP(b), member of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee, Chairman of the Petrograd Cheka, and organiser of the Red Terror in Petrograd and the Northern region. It is by no means a complete list of Gleb's posts and occupations in the two post-revolutionary years.

Finally, in 1921, Bokii ended up at Lubyanka in Moscow, where he was assigned to head the Special Encryption Department of the OGPU. That's when his talent for cryptography came in handy. Bokii initiated the creation of the so-called "Radio direction-finding station No. 3" in the USSR, which marked the beginning of Soviet naval intelligence. So he is not unreasonably considered the founding father of the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information.

But there was another brainchild of Gleb Bokii, which today few remember without a shudder. He is one of the most active founders of the Gulag system, particularly the Solovetsky Special Camp. None of the thousands of death sentences handed down at the time was without his signature. "The former Solovetsky prisoner Academician Dmitry Likhachev wrote in this way about Gleb Ivanovich: "This living man, after whom the steamship was named, is an ogre - the chief of the OGPU Troika, which sentenced people to terms and executions. Indeed, even in his lifetime, the ship carrying political prisoners to Solovki was named after him.

© Визит Максима Горького в Соловецкий лагерь в 1929 году на борту корабля «Глеб Бокий» (Бокий справа)

On 7 June 1937, Gleb Bokii was arrested, accused of spying for Britain and shot. It is said that the real reason for his execution was the phrase, "What do I care about Stalin? Lenin put me in my place.

There is also a legend that the cypher department was a disguise for studying paranormal and exoteric phenomena, similar to Hitler's Ahnenerbe. Allegedly, all Bokii's posts were a cover for the leadership of the parapsychological department of the NKVD. The USSR's scientists, mediums, parapsychologists, and shamans forcibly collaborated in this department. Literary scholars claim that Bulkagov used the younger Bokii as a prototype of Woland. After Gleb Ivanovich was shot, the members of his department were also almost entirely wiped out. It is rumoured that several survivors were hunted down by the Germans during the war and paid them $0.5 million for information on their research findings.

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The fate of the Bokii brothers is an integral part of Russian history. They were destined for a brilliant scientific or industrial career; the name of Boris Ivanovich can still be seen on the memorial plaque of the Mining Institute. However, only one of them chose this path.