Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Susanna Pechuro

“It was very interesting for us. Where else would a Moscow girl, a young student, where would she have met such a big number of interesting people and heard such fantastic life stories? Where else could I have tried difficult kinds of work, been in difficult situations which required willpower? Everything was new. There was no time to be afraid; you had to live. And also we didn’t hope to ever leave the camp; we were prepared to stay there forever, and we had to work out our human position. But sometimes I felt childish emotions. Once, in the camp, I was working in the dressmaker’s shop – they used me to try on dresses for teenagers – and I tried on a dress, and then took it off and changed back into the prison uniform – and that made me cry.”


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.