Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: John Noble

“Unofficially, however, Vorkuta had a different master. Our camp was ruled with a steel fist by about 250 blatnois, the Russian criminals. They kept the political prisoners in abject fear. There were about eight of them in my barracks, living on a shelf at the far end that would normally hold more than twenty prisoners. They spent their time sleeping, stealing whatever they admired, sharpening the knives they made, playing homemade balalaikas, dancing the plashka, a fast dance something like the Spanish flamenco. The blatnois were unemotional professional criminals, mostly in their twenties, serving comparatively short sentences for theft and murder. They had begun life as besprisorni, the vagrant children that travel in small bands throughout the Soviet Union, robbing as they go. They had been raised under communism, but they knew nothing about politics and cared less.”

Criminal Tattoo

Ethno-National Conflict

The multi-national and multi-ethnic composition of the Gulag fostered further conflict. Prisoners often clung together in ethno-nationally homogenous groups—Russian, Ukrainian, Estonian, Chechen—and conflicts often emerged among these groups. Some prisoners, especially from western Ukraine and the Baltics, had been part of fiercely nationalist partisan armies that fought against the Soviets during and after World War II. Upon arrival in the Gulag, many took out their frustrations especially on Russian and Jewish prisoners, whom they blamed for their subjugation. Anti-Semitism was common among nearly all national groups, who wrongly deemed all Jews communists. As Joseph Scholmer recalled, “Whenever conversation in the camps turns to the subject of what will happen when the Soviet Union collapses, the enemies of the Jews, whether Lithuanians, Ukrainians, or Poles, always say the same thing: ‘You can be sure of one thing, there won’t be a single Jew left alive by the time we’ve finished.’”