Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Aleksandr Borin

“Tolkachev was the head of our shop. He was a laborer, with no education and talked of education with distrust and even with some irony. But he was not mean and didn’t put pressure on prisoners. He worried about perpetual technical breakdowns not only because they threatened the completion of the plan, but also because they could influence his employees’ fate. “People must be fed,” – he responded to the complaints made by Solodnikov, a senior accountant of our plant… Everyone knew about terrible temporary construction sites and northern camps, and everyone held fast to this colony, where our job was in a relatively warm and, in general, habitable place.”


Prisoners performed back-breaking physical labor in inhospitable climates and received food rations that barely sustained their nutritional needs. Work defined life in the Gulag, but some prisoners occasionally found ways to avoid the hardest labor which gave them some feeling of control over their difficult situation.

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Armed guards and attack dogs accompanied many prisoners’ daily march to their Gulag worksite. Icy winds battered their poorly clothed and barely fed bodies. Prisoners will die this day digging in the mines. Prisoners will die this day digging a 140-mile canal with the most primitive tools. Prisoners will die in the forest and in construction. Only the lucky will avoid hard labor in a workshop, a cafeteria or an office.

Gulag labor was inefficient and often lethal. Officials distributed food according to labor output, forcing prisoners to work long, hard hours trying to complete often impossible quotas, so that they might receive a full food ration. But even full rations often failed to provide enough calories to ensure health and survival. Exhaustion and starvation constantly accompanied prisoners. Many returned from work dead—carried on the backs of their fellow prisoners who then had to extend their workday to dig graves for the fallen.