Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Joseph Scholmer

“We said very little to each other on this first day. We loaded up our sledges and pulled them over to the building site. I saw to it that the old man didn’t do too much. When we said good-bye to each other he made a little bow and said: ‘Thank you very much.’ The next day I put him wise to the basic rules of camp life: (1) Do as little work as possible. (2) Eat as much as possible. (3) Get as much rest as possible. (4) Take every opportunity you can to get warm. (5) Don’t stand any nonsense from anybody. (6) If anyone hits you, hit back immediately without a moment’s hesitation. ‘But I’ve never hit a human being in my life,’ answered Moireddin. ‘If you hit anyone here you’re not hitting a human being but a bit of human scum. If you once allow anyone to hit you without sticking up for yourself they’ll never stop. A week later he was transferred to a brigade loading up slag. It was a filthy job for him. I saw Moireddin every day when the shifts changed. One day he wasn’t there. I asked the people in his brigade what had become of him and they said: ‘Moireddin’s got five days in the bur [punishment barracks]!’ ‘What for?’ ‘For hitting the brigade leader!’

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.’”