Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Galina Ivanovna Levinson

"... Then we began to get the equipment for the sowing factory. They called on Bronislava Borisovna Mainfeld—one of the first women in the Soviet Union who graduated from the Baumansky Institute—and made her the senior mechanic at the factory. So Mainfeld chose people who had some relationship to technology, and we started, on our own, with the help of a carpenter, Stanislav Ivanovich, we put together the assembly line. Then we were promoted to assistant mechanics. After a month or two the factory went into operation. We made camp uniforms. We worked in two shifts. At first, before the war, in eight hour shifts. ... [When the war began in 1941,] we switched to eleven-hour day ten-hour night shifts. We began to make army uniforms. Our food got worse. Our factory supplies, especially the needles for the sowing machines, got scarce, or completely dried out. But we found a solution. With our carpenters we organized the production of needles from steel wire."


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.