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.

Gateway to Mines at Vorkuta

Sexual Violence

Prisoners faced the constant threat of rape, both homosexual and heterosexual.

“[A]n excited group of prisoners gathered around a bench next to the wall,” recalled Janusz Bardach. “Those in the back row were jumping up, trying to see over the heads and shoulders of those in front, who were shouting obscenities and holding their penises….A young man lay on his stomach [in the baths], and another man lay on top of him, embracing him around the chest and moving his hips back and forth. His back was tattooed with shackles, chains, and the popular Soviet slogan ‘Work is an act of honor, courage, and heroism.’ On both sides were trumpeting angels. He breathed heavily, while the young man underneath moaned and cried out. The spectators shouted. I caught sight of the young man’s grimacing face.”

In this excerpt from Stolen Years , Yelena Glinka describes gang rape on a ship transporting prisoners to the Gulag.

We were taken to this ship. We were marching, five abreast, as always, in columns. Five abreast, surrounded on all sides by guards, guards dogs, German shepherds. All around, guards with machine guns.

They loaded us aboard, and the first thing that happened was that female criminals—the people from the criminal underworld—began to rob us of our own clothes. They made the women strip. The women resisted, they yelled, they batted. It got so bad, that if the criminals liked your underwear, they made you sleep naked—naked—and tossed you some flea infested rags, in return.

The prisoners in one of the men’s holds found a pickaxe. They pierced a whole through the wall—into the women’s hold with a pickaxe. And the men—the criminals began filling the women’s hold, and then they gang raped the women.

Movie Transcription

We were taken to this ship. We were marching, 5 abreast, as always, in columns. 5 abreast, surrounded on all sides by guards, guards dogs, German shepherds. All around, guards with machine guns. They loaded us aboard, and the first thing that happened was that female criminals—the people from the criminal underworld—began to rob us of our own clothes. They made the women strip. The women resisted, they yelled, they batted. It got so bad, that if the criminals liked your underwear, they made you sleep naked—naked—and tossed you some flea infested rags, in return. The prisoners in one of the men’s holds found a pick axe. They pierced a whole through the wall—into the women’s hold with a pick axe. And the men—the criminals began filling the women’s hold, and then they gang raped the women.