Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Margarete Buber Neumann

“I began hacking up the weeds. The sunflower plants had been sown by machinery and they were not more than an inch or so high. The sun began to get hot and burn my arms. More and more often I had to straighten my back and wipe the sweat from my forehead. The rest were far ahead of me. They were more experienced in the work, particularly one young woman, who had been a peasant. I heard afterwards that sometimes when she felt like it she would do a double quota in order to get a double ration of bread. She was a danger to the rest of us; because she could do the quota so easily the inspector used her example to raise the quote for the rest. The women talked from furrow to furrow in shrieks. They all seemed to know each other. I was the only stranger.”


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.