Days and Lives takes you inside the brutal system of forced labor concentration camps and the internal exile institution called the Gulag. Soviet authorities found the Gulag to be a useful tool in neutralizing, and often physically destroying, all real or imagined opposition to the Communist Party's dictatorship beginning in 1917. Since it also served as the main Soviet penal system, political prisoners were imprisoned with violent criminals. In the Stalin era, some 18 million people passed through the prisons and camps of the Gulag, and perhaps another 6 or 7 million were sent into exile. More than one and a half million prisoners died in the Gulag at the hands of their government. Even those who survived struggled to rebuild their lives when they were finally released.
In this exhibit, one former Gulag prisoner will accompany you through themed sections. Each section explores one piece of this brutal institution by presenting individual experiences, photographs, documentary films, and historical context to describe life in the Gulag.
Prisoner: Susanna Pechuro
Susanna Pechuro was a seventeen-year old school girl living with her parents and brother when she was arrested in 1951. Pechuro had been a member of a group of students who met secretly to read and discuss banned works. The group formed as the result of a conflict with a teacher who insisted on censoring their work before they shared it with the class. Of the original six members of the group, three were shot. When she was finally released, Pechuro did not enjoy her freedom as her family and friends thought she should. She found that they could not understand what she had experienced in the Gulag. Even ordinary events like going out with her friends proved to be difficult, “they would take me to an ice cream café and I would run away, because I felt I didn’t know how to eat ice cream.”