Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Evgeniia Michailovna Peunkova

“At first, Latvian women treated us with blunt, incomprehensible hatred. Later, during winter, two elderly women, Aunt Ania Struve and Marta Ianovna Ozolinysh, worked as orderlies in our barrack… In winter they cleaned barracks and fired a furnace, but as always heat was in short supply. They warmed up bricks in the stove and put them in on bed boards in their Latvian girls’ beds. After a tough 12-hour shift I would return to the cold barrack and would not be able to sleep for a long time: I was always very tired; my arms and back ached; my feet kept freezing; and it was difficult to get warm. One day when I returned from work I found a hot brick under my blanket. It happened in the subsequent days as well. I was happy and deeply grateful to these women, who showed me such motherly compassion…”

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.

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.”