Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Margarete Buber Neumann

“In the Siberian camps criminals are a favoured category. They occupy all the minor posts in the camps and they lead what might even be called a social life. Unlike the political prisoners, their life in the camp did not represent any very great break with their normal lives. One might almost say they were strictly organized. They had their leaders whose word was law and if one of them decided for some reason or the other that there was to be no work the next day not a single criminal would dare to disobey, although after refusal to work on twenty-five occasions the penalty in Karaganda was death. These criminal elements regarded the political prisoners with the greatest contempt. We were enemies of the people, whilst they, although they might be criminals, were loyal Soviet citizens.

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.