Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Anna Larina

In her memoir, Larina mainly writes of her first years in the Gulag, though she was there for twenty. For much of this time, because of her status as the wife of Bukharin, she was kept under close surveillance and was not allowed out to perform labor. Instead, much of her time was spent dealing with the grinding boredom of doing nothing. “By this time, I was an experienced zek [prisoner], having already been detained in many prisons: Astrakhan, Saratov, Sverdlovsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk. I had become accustomed to an isolated existence without books, paper, or pencil, unable to do anything but string together rhymes and memorize them by endless repetition, read from memory the verses of my favorite poets.”

Introduction

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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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.