Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Edward Buca

“One result of our desperate condition was increased hatred and strife between the different nationalities, with each group trying to blame another for our plight. The basic conflict was between Russians and Ukrainians. The Russians regarded the Ukrainian nationalists and separatists as the real guilty men, and it was a kind of consolation to them to say that the Ukrainians were the real criminals who should be made to suffer for their sins. These Ukrainians, the Russians said, were enemies of the Soviet fatherland, aliens who didn’t deserve to be fed; they should be worked until they dropped dead, and left to rot in the tundra. The Russian prisoners had picked up these ideas from the NKVD officers and guards. When the NKVD noticed this, they gladly encouraged it in order to keep the prisoners divided among themselves. As the only Pole, I was lucky. I wasn’t important enough to hate and both groups looked on me as a kind of neutral.”

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.”