Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Aleksandr Borin

“Bread began to disappear in our cell, most often Tolik’s bread… The only one who raised suspicion was Musatov, Tolik’s neighbor, a lousy gnome with a long face of a jackal—with anxiety and jealousy he questioned everybody who by chance procured an extra piece. Iagello set a trap for him. The next day Musatov as usual was the first to enter our cell after work. Iagello waited five minutes and entered with the others. He went directly to the bedside table… and opened it. “Where is the bread ration?” he asked. “I don’t know about any ration,”- Musatov shrieked. He tried to rise on his elbows, but a strong blow to his face threw him back on the pillow. Musatov reeled and tried to get up but with each next blow threw him back down… Musatov pulled the unfortunate bread ration from under the pillow… The same day Musatov moved to another cell with plank beds. He was never again known for theft.”

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.