Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Vladimir Tchernavin

“Although the cell was supposedly settled for the night, no one was sleeping. The foreman was standing by his cot in heated argument with two prisoners at the opposite end of the cell near the window. By the door stood a man in a fur coat holding his things – evidently a newcomer. He seemed completely bewildered; here he was in prison and there was no room for him. He was the 110th occupant of a cell meant for twenty-two prisoners. I stood and waited, listening to a fellow-prisoner who explained what was going on. ‘Those two are criminals – bandits. Their places on the floor next to the window and lavatory are a little wider than those under the boarding, but cold because the window is open all night long. The foreman told them to take in this newcomer, but they refused, claiming that he has no right to put anyone in a place already occupied.”

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.