Prisoner: Alfred Martinovich Mirek
“Although I remember, during the summer in one barrack three newly arrived criminal prisoners refused to fell trees, demanding easy work at the camp. The next day they didn’t get any bread, but they didn’t stay hungry. The next day they refused to go again. Maybe in the end they would have been accommodated but five other seasoned, tough criminals, long-time camp residents, joined them in the barrack. It became clear, that tomorrow the entire barrack might refuse to go to work… In the morning before “razvodka”—the roll call near the watch-room—the head of the camp, the foreman, and six guards. The head of the camp warned and threatened, the foreman, himself one of the criminal prisoners, cajoled and calmed them down, but they didn’t budge. Then they took them out of the barrack and moved through the watch-room to the zone. The were sure that they were to be taken to “BUR” (high security barrack, something like an isolation cell for several people). But the group turned the opposite way, to the left, when they left the gate. They were taken along the wire fence to the stables, seen very well from the watch-room where we congregated. At the wall, the eight saboteurs were shot… After that, nobody ever considered refusing to do anything, nor breaking any rules.”
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.
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.