Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Lev Razgon

“The life of the ‘honorable thieves’ in the camp were surrounded by rules of behavior that were observed with an almost religious fervor. If a criminal was ‘honorable’ and then broke the rules he had no alternative but to ‘run for the dead zone.’ This was a ploughed and raked strip of land between the high fence and a low barrier of barbed wire. Each prisoner who found himself in the ‘dead zone’ had to lie face down on the ground immediately. Otherwise he would be shot dead, without any warning, by the armed guards on the watchtowers. The ‘ratters’ would run for the ‘dead zone’ when they were being persecuted by their former comrades. The guards then led them from the safety of this stretch of earth and locked them up in the punishment block. From there, after some time, they would be put in a transport to another camp in the same system.”

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.