Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Evgeniia Michailovna Peunkova

“At first, Latvian women treated us with blunt, incomprehensible hatred. Later, during winter, two elderly women, Aunt Ania Struve and Marta Ianovna Ozolinysh, worked as orderlies in our barrack… In winter they cleaned barracks and fired a furnace, but as always heat was in short supply. They warmed up bricks in the stove and put them in on bed boards in their Latvian girls’ beds. After a tough 12-hour shift I would return to the cold barrack and would not be able to sleep for a long time: I was always very tired; my arms and back ached; my feet kept freezing; and it was difficult to get warm. One day when I returned from work I found a hot brick under my blanket. It happened in the subsequent days as well. I was happy and deeply grateful to these women, who showed me such motherly compassion…”

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.