Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Thomas Sgovio

“General work was pretty much the same as in Razvedchik. I was on the day shift – twelve hours, plus another two deepening drainage ditches. After work we were put to work in and around the camp carrying timber. There were about a hundred men in the carpenter brigade; most of them were simple, hard working peasants. They worked in groups here, there, and everywhere – in the gold fields building stockades and sluice troughs – in the convict camp site – in the free-citizens’ settlement. There was a shortage of everything except timber. The bulk of the carpenters worked in the gold-fields – that came first. Then the free-citizens’ settlement, and last came the prisoners barracks. As a result, winter came and we slept in tent covered structures.”


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.

Listen to the sound or read transcript below

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.