Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Alla Tumanova

“For some time our brigade worked at a coal mine face. We had to lug waste heaps from place to place, shifting the smoking rock with shovels. The work was unbearable, and not only because we were suffocating and made ill by the clouds of reddish smoke, but because no one had bothered to explain why we should move it from one place to another. It was like a kind of torture, another punishment. But later, under different circumstances, when we loaded the smoking rock onto trucks that were laying a local road, it was much easier to accept. Still, it is difficult to imagine now how we managed to survive. For five minutes, or faces covered over up to the eyes, we would toss shovelful after shovelful, almost without breathing. Then we would race several metres away, tear rags off our faces, convulsively swallow air, and then return to the scorching heat.”

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?’”