Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia

“From now on I was part of the “BUR.” That is the Maximum Security Barrack for inveterate criminals, who are considered worse than scrap… We worked in a laundry, where we washed bloody linen, brought from the front: camouflage coats and forage caps. I’m sure that all these things would wash much better if rinsed in a river somewhere near the enemy lines. Why transport them for six months and four thousand kilometers, so we could wash them in cold water, and without soap? The only goal was probably mockery. To get 400 grams of bread we had to wash 300 pieces of bloody, linen dried into solid lumps or two thousand—yes, two thousand!—forage caps, or one hundred camouflage coats. For all of that we got one cap of liquid soap. The coats were particularly nightmarish. When wet, they became solid like iron plates, and one couldn’t get the dried blood out with an ax.”


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.