Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia

“The entire pack of bandits found amusement. Its object was an older intellectual-looking man with a beard, Profesor Fedorovskii. Bandits on the top banks held his legs and swung in the passage between the train cars. He flew in the air as a volleyball, and the pack around him, men and women, laughing with delight, and from time to time pushed him even higher. The old man didn’t scream. He may have been out of breath from hanging upside down, or maybe, he understood that it would be useless. ... Only a miracle (and partly my intervention) helped him to reach Dudinka, instead of continuing his journey along another river, the Styx. ... I was badly beaten. I don’t remember the particulars, I only remember somehow that they beat me with a bucket and the bucket became bent out of shape. ... When I came to, I was already in my corner.”

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.