Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Alexander Dolgun

“The cell that I and about fifteen others were taken to opened directly on the yard. My first impression was of bedlam. The cell reverberated with chatter. Later I counted and found that we were 129 people in a cell sixteen feet wide and about forty feet long. Two layers of bunks, which were nothing more than hard plank platforms, ran down each of the long sides and across the end. At the far end was a large window, open in the warm air, with bars on the outside. In the glare from the window it was hard to see the far end of the cell clearly, but I know that it was already packed with people standing on the floor and sitting or lying on or under the sleeping platforms.”

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.”