Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Margarete Buber Neumann

“In the Siberian camps criminals are a favoured category. They occupy all the minor posts in the camps and they lead what might even be called a social life. Unlike the political prisoners, their life in the camp did not represent any very great break with their normal lives. One might almost say they were strictly organized. They had their leaders whose word was law and if one of them decided for some reason or the other that there was to be no work the next day not a single criminal would dare to disobey, although after refusal to work on twenty-five occasions the penalty in Karaganda was death. These criminal elements regarded the political prisoners with the greatest contempt. We were enemies of the people, whilst they, although they might be criminals, were loyal Soviet citizens.

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.”