Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Nina Gagen-Torn

“Anna Ivanovna didn’t work because she was a “nun”. This doesn’t mean that she was an actual nun; she had a husband and had left children behind at home. “Nuns” were not just those incarcerated in camp “for their religion” but those who refused to work because of their religious beliefs, considering labor camps a “creations of Antichrist”… Anna Ivanovna was placed in my barrack in order to isolate her from her fellows. She sat silently or laid on a top plank bed, when there were people in the barrack. When people left for work, she climbed down from the bed boards and began to pray, looking eastward. Most people disapproved of her: “We are working while she stays a freeloader… We earn the bread and she eats it. Why are we working like dogs when people like her are getting fat? They must also work. They are no better than us… A great sin they discovered—that they are not allowed to work!... “We won’t go to work on holidays either,” Baptists and Sabbatarians said, “but God loves labor on week days.”

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.