Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Boris Chetverikov

“In those days I directly observed the efficacy of unwritten law, “The daily bread ration is sacred, it is forbidden to take it.” In our barrack someone ate another’s bread at night. The senior criminal had a place right in front of me, and I saw how he was informed about the incident. I was surprised that he paid no heed to the news, acting like he didn’t hear it. It turned out that he did listen and he took action immediately. One might get so envious!...The next morning one young fellow turned out to be painted. The bread ration was covered with chemical pencil shavings. With no mirrors in TsRM, except in the female units, when the thief ate bread at night in the dark he dirtied his hands, cheeks and even nose. No investigation or interrogation was necessary—his appearance spoke for itself. He was beaten. He was beaten not in anger, but in accordance with civic duty. I believe he was beaten to death.”

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.