Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Anna Larina

“After about two weeks, my cellmate, Lebedeva, was called out for an interrogation. When she returned to the cell, she looked at me in a new way, coldly and disdainfully, and suddenly hissed, ‘At least I know why I’m in jail. My father was a big merchant, he was a counterrevolutionary, no revolutionary, and I hate your revolution as much as he did. What Stalin is, that’s what Bukharin was. I hate you all alike!’ She lifted her hand to strike me, but changed her mind. Immediately, she was removed from the cell. Shaken by this encounter, I broke down and cried. This business with Lebedeva was hard to bear not only because I finally realized that she had informed on me but also because I had opened up to a person who did not share my pain, who, on the contrary, hated everything I held dear.”

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.