Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Lev Razgon

“My tree-feller this time was a young and experienced prison lad, sentenced for a criminal offense. It seemed to me that he was deliberately working fast in order to wear out his assistant. Probably that was not the case. I had gained the reputation of a decent person who never left a worker without his full ration. But I did not want to give in and be a burden to my partner. I tried for all I was worth. I did not ease up, so as to avoid those unpleasant minutes when the feller stopped work and began to help me cut up the trunks. He made no comment and did not give me reproachful looks. Nevertheless, if you are working as a pair then either both ‘take it easy’ or both work hard so as not to let the other down.”


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.