Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Joseph Scholmer

“We said very little to each other on this first day. We loaded up our sledges and pulled them over to the building site. I saw to it that the old man didn’t do too much. When we said good-bye to each other he made a little bow and said: ‘Thank you very much.’ The next day I put him wise to the basic rules of camp life: (1) Do as little work as possible. (2) Eat as much as possible. (3) Get as much rest as possible. (4) Take every opportunity you can to get warm. (5) Don’t stand any nonsense from anybody. (6) If anyone hits you, hit back immediately without a moment’s hesitation. ‘But I’ve never hit a human being in my life,’ answered Moireddin. ‘If you hit anyone here you’re not hitting a human being but a bit of human scum. If you once allow anyone to hit you without sticking up for yourself they’ll never stop. A week later he was transferred to a brigade loading up slag. It was a filthy job for him. I saw Moireddin every day when the shifts changed. One day he wasn’t there. I asked the people in his brigade what had become of him and they said: ‘Moireddin’s got five days in the bur [punishment barracks]!’ ‘What for?’ ‘For hitting the brigade leader!’

Criminal Gangs

The tattooed members of the Gulag’s criminal gangs posed the most serious threat to those who did not belong. These criminal gangs maintained their own vicious subculture in the Gulag, one notable for its vulgar language, pornographic tattoos, gambling (often with the life and limbs of other prisoners as the stakes), and violence against all inmates not in the gang. Criminal gangsters robbed, beat, raped, and murdered their fellow prisoners, often with the toleration or outright encouragement of the Gulag authorities.

"The professional criminals are beyond the bounds of humanity," observed Eugenia Ginzburg in the typically stark terms used by political prisoners to describe the criminal gangs. "I have no desire to describe their orgies, although I had much to put up with as an involuntary witness."

In this excerpt from Stolen Years, several political prisoners recall their experience with the criminal gangs.

Movie Transcription

The camp criminals lived at the expense of the political prisoners. In other words, the political prisoners did the actual labor, while the criminals, who often didn’t do any work divided up the work quota points among themselves. Nadezhda Joffe – The criminals didn’t work at all. The men had to cart wheelbarrows with ore around the side and the criminals used to sing a little ditty. “Wheelbarrow, wheelbarrow, don’t you fear, I won’t touch you, or come near.” Nikolai Getman – The criminals were obviously a lowly bunch of people. They despised those of us convicted of political crimes. They called us, enemies of the people. If they like a jacket or pants that we were wearing, they would make us give it up.