Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: George Bien

Bien along with many other prisoners was transported to camp in cattle cars. “Criminals from the Soviet underworld (blatnoy, in Russian slang) occupied the bunks and upper spaces, they would kick them down. These criminals, like the guards, seemed used to the whole routine. Probably they had been born in prison and raised there by the state. They couldn’t talk without cursing; they fought constantly among themselves, and screamed with hatred at us, the political prisoners. The guards put the criminals in charge of other prisoners and gave them responsibility for food distribution. After taking food for themselves, the criminals threw the leftover scraps to us: black bread, salted fish, and a piece of sugar. We had no cups, so we drank from a bucket like horses. After a few swallows, someone else would already be yanking at the pail, and a lot of water ended up on the floor.”

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.”