Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Danylo Shumuk

“Upon my release from the isolator, I was again assigned to the quarry, but I went immediately to see the production chief. ‘Either assign me to the construction work in Melnyk’s night brigade,’ I told him, ‘or send me back to the isolator for another two months, before I transfer my belongings to the barracks.’ At this categorical statement, the production chief quickly raised his eyes and stared at me. ‘What the hell,’ he exclaimed finally, ‘I’ll put you wherever you want, as long as we have some peace and quiet.’ I didn’t really work in Melnyk’s brigade either, for after getting the approval of the brigades’ craftsman I worked at night as a watchman in recently completed buildings and spent my time reading books and newspapers.”


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.