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.”

Avoiding General Labor

Even if prisoners managed to meet their outrageous production quotas, food provisions often failed to replenish the calories expended. Prisoners all knew that those most likely to survive were those most successful at avoiding hard labor.

If prisoners could not avoid work entirely, they sought light work in camp kitchens, offices, hospitals, or barracks.

“We all agreed on the following maxims,” recalled former prisoner Dmitri Panin, “a day of shirking guarantees a longer life; don’t put in a single day’s hard labor if you can help it; work is not a bear—it won’t run off to the forest and disappear; even horses will die if they’re overworked…We agreed that we would serve out our sentences, but not to end them prematurely along with our lives.”

Many prisoners intentionally injured themselves to avoid work—an act that could be prosecuted as sabotage. Joseph Scholmer remembered his desperation, “One evening I went to my friend Richard, the Estonian, and explained my predicament. ‘You must smash my wrist for me with a piece of wood.’ I had everything prepared. I had hidden a stout piece of wood in the snow. Richard asked, ‘How hard shall I hit?’”