Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Eugenia Ginzburg

“I was handling a scythe for the first time in my life. Mowing across hummocks is a difficult job even for an expert male reaper. We went about it barefoot. We moved in a line abreast, swinging our scythes side to side, puffing and panting. We shuffled through the marshy bits and stumbled over the hummocks as best we could. At night we returned to our improvised shacks. We were soaked to the skin and plastered with mud up to our waists. Our sodden skirts clung to our legs. Those with ‘serviceable’ boots tried at first to protect their legs from the icy water. But shod feet sank still deeper into the glacial quagmire. We no longer had the strength to fulfill our output norms. Our rations were steadily reduced.”


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.