Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Olga Adamova-Sliozberg

“Work was the only human experience we had left. We did not have family or books, we lived in filth, stench, and darkness; awful profanities constantly filled the women’s barrack… But work saved us. Some among the “politicals” refused to work. Many women feared hard labor. They discovered hundreds of illnesses and preferred to get a lower ration rather than work hard. Others (much more rarely) had liaisons with camp officials, who then assigned them other, privileged and easier duties. Almost everyone who tried to avoid work had perished. Those who chose prostitution lost an inner compass, determination, resilience and pride. After the first setback, when they had to go back to work with the rest, they perished under the weight of hard labor.”


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.

Movie Transcription

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.