Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Alexander Dolgun

“The work was much too hard for the amount of food and rest we got. People died every day, especially the older men. As the weather got colder the rate of deaths increased. We were issued gloves and padded jackets and trousers, but they were badly worn and not much protection as the temperature began to drop. My hands were always cold. At those altitudes, with no bodies of water and no vegetation to moderate the temperature, September slips into winter very quickly. Cold numbed fingers could not hold onto handles and levers and timbers and crates, and there were many accidents, often fatal. One man was crushed when we were rolling logs off of a flat car, using two logs as a ramp. He was buried when twenty or more logs let loose at once and he was not fast enough.”


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.