Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Eugenia Ginzburg

Upon her arrival at a transit camp, Ginzburg began to understand the camp hierarchy of prisoners. The group she belonged to had come from prisons before being sent to camps. “’People from prisons’ – for the next ten years or so this grim definition stuck to us like a label. We were the worst criminals, the worst off, the worst everything….The aristocracy consisted of people who had got into trouble for such respectable crimes as embezzlement, bribe taking, and so forth. Then came the political hierarchy, the ‘politicals.’ The most innocuous group of these [were] the anti-Soviet agitators. Next came those convicted of ‘counter-revolutionary activity.’ These were mostly not party members and got off with lighter work or even administrative duties. Next came the CRTAs (‘counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activity’) who until our arrival were the lowest category of all, the camp pariahs.”

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.”