Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Galina Ivanovna Levinson

"I don’t remember when, probably in 1944, the barracks freed after the Polish women had left were filled with criminal prisoners. Usually these criminals did not give us any trouble. There were more of us. But when prisoners were allowed to set up small gardens inside the zone, as I have described, a night thief started to visit the garden of my friend Mainfeld and another older woman and and pluck their carrots. ... I decided to patrol their garden. I got a good wooden club and waited. At night a huge woman named “Chuma” came to their garden…. But I beat her with the club, until she fell into a ditch and crawled away on all fours. I, of course, was extremely afraid… But the criminals evidently had their own ethics: because we didn’t complain to the administration, but took care of it ourselves, they also didn’t complain. And left our gardens alone."

Introduction

In the Gulag camps, prisoner life was dangerous. Fear of gang violence and rape was very real, and conflicts ensued between criminal and political prisoners and among inmates from different ethno-national groups.

Listen to the sound or read the transcript below.

Movie Transcription

To survive the Gulag, prisoners had to compete not only with the elements, the authorities, the work, and the starvation, but also with other prisoners. Suspicion, jealousy, and violence pervaded a world where prisoners fought for access to limited necessities of life. Prisoners stole food and clothes from each other; they grabbed credit for the labor output of others; they informed to curry favor with authorities. They even raped and beat to satisfy desires for sex, power and violence.

Prisoners had to make quick judgments about other inmates—knowing whom to trust was key for survival. Was the prisoner sitting next to you an informer, a member of a violent criminal gang, part of a rival nationalist group, or even a potential rapist?

Wartime Gulag prisoner Janusz Bardach captured the uncertainties: “Chelovek cheloveku volk—‘man is wolf to man.’ My mother had taught me this phrase when I was a child. Now it bore into my heart every day, every hour, as I saw prisoners fight each other savagely for paika or a puff of a cigarette; heard them curse, cry, and moan; smelled their decaying, rotting bodies; saw them die. I could be forced to lie on a bench in this or in another bathhouse and be repeatedly raped not by my oppressors—whom I considered to be the NKVD guards—but by my fellow prisoners. For the first time I realized how vulnerable I was—only twenty-two, alone, and still too weak to resist an assault.”