Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Michael Solomon

While Solomon was being transported to Magadan, he met a friend of his brothers who was able to get him a job as a doctor even though he had no medical training or experience. “I don’t quite know how it happened, but the next morning I was masquerading as a doctor with a Red Cross armband on my left sleeve, a first-aid box, and two nurses as assistants. As we marched out of the camp I found that I was in charge of fifty sick men and women. In charge of all of us was a free woman just out of junior medical school who had been sent to Kolyma as a nurse.”


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.