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.”

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.