Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Danylo Shumuk

“The investigation into our case dragged on. We demanded that it be brought to an end, but to no avail. Thus we decided to start a hunger strike. Fourteen of the seventeen prisoners who began the strike refused to eat for a full six days, and the prosecutor eventually promised that our case would be brought to trial in April. We decided to boycott the three political prisoners who had broken their fast on the third day of the hunger strike, and for an entire month no one spoke to them. This is a drastic punishment and not always appropriate, for it leads to a great deal of resentment among the prisoners which is difficult to overcome once the boycott has been called off.”

Among the Criminals

Membership in a criminal gang did not guarantee safety. Gangs operated with their own internal code of conduct, their “thieves’ law,” and punishment for its violation was quick and lethal. Michael Solomon recalled one incident: “Sashka got up from his bunk. He was a young lad, bony, with hollow cheeks and watery blue eyes. Like all of us, his head was shaven. At 23 he had been jailed several times, and now, as a habitual criminal he had been sent to work in the mines of Kolyma. In the Arctic camps, Sashka, like all of those of his kind, refused to work and managed to live from what he stole from the kitchen or from the poor meals of his fellow inmates. He didn’t earn much as he had to share the ’fats‘ and the sugar with the senior thieves. Now he faced judgment for the worst offense in the criminal world: ‘selling’ his brother thieves to the camp administration. For such a crime of betrayal there was only one punishment—death.”

After the Second World War, a pitched battle broke out between criminal gangs—the so-called “bitches’ war.” Members of criminal gangs who had supported the Soviet war effort were accused of breaking the thieves’ law, of becoming “bitches.” The resultant conflict between the “bitches” and the “thieves” was protracted and violent through the late 1940s and early 1950s.