Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Alla Tumanova

“For some time our brigade worked at a coal mine face. We had to lug waste heaps from place to place, shifting the smoking rock with shovels. The work was unbearable, and not only because we were suffocating and made ill by the clouds of reddish smoke, but because no one had bothered to explain why we should move it from one place to another. It was like a kind of torture, another punishment. But later, under different circumstances, when we loaded the smoking rock onto trucks that were laying a local road, it was much easier to accept. Still, it is difficult to imagine now how we managed to survive. For five minutes, or faces covered over up to the eyes, we would toss shovelful after shovelful, almost without breathing. Then we would race several metres away, tear rags off our faces, convulsively swallow air, and then return to the scorching heat.”


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.