Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Alexander Dolgun

“The cell that I and about fifteen others were taken to opened directly on the yard. My first impression was of bedlam. The cell reverberated with chatter. Later I counted and found that we were 129 people in a cell sixteen feet wide and about forty feet long. Two layers of bunks, which were nothing more than hard plank platforms, ran down each of the long sides and across the end. At the far end was a large window, open in the warm air, with bars on the outside. In the glare from the window it was hard to see the far end of the cell clearly, but I know that it was already packed with people standing on the floor and sitting or lying on or under the sleeping platforms.”

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.