Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Thomas Sgovio

“One of the men in our brigade consistently contrived to be under the lighter end of the log. When he found himself in the center, instead of lifting the burden with his hands while passing on uneven ground, he ducked under the log. The entire load was burdened on the man in front and the man in the rear. The old-timers decided to teach him and other would-be shirkers a lesson. They deliberately placed him in the middle. As soon as they arrived at the precipice, the man in front and the other behind him hurriedly shoved the log as hard as they could. The man in the middle was hurtled down, along with the log, and killed instantly. Those responsible were not blatniye [thieves]. They were ordinary peasants, imprisoned for some minor, non-political misdemeanor. The harsh Kolyma environment had turned them into animals. After all – what does one more human life amount to – when so many are dying around you?”

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.