Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Gustav Herling

“To stake the possessions of other prisoners in their games of cards is one of the urkas’ [thieves] most popular distractions, and its chief attraction lies in the fact that the loser is obliged to force from the victim the object previously agreed upon. In 1937, during the pioneer period of labour camps, they played for human lives, for there was then no more precious possession; a political prisoner sitting at one end of a barrack, did not guess that the greasy cards, falling with a smack on the small plank spread across the knees of the players, were deciding his fate.”

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.