Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Thomas Sgovio

“General work was pretty much the same as in Razvedchik. I was on the day shift – twelve hours, plus another two deepening drainage ditches. After work we were put to work in and around the camp carrying timber. There were about a hundred men in the carpenter brigade; most of them were simple, hard working peasants. They worked in groups here, there, and everywhere – in the gold fields building stockades and sluice troughs – in the convict camp site – in the free-citizens’ settlement. There was a shortage of everything except timber. The bulk of the carpenters worked in the gold-fields – that came first. Then the free-citizens’ settlement, and last came the prisoners barracks. As a result, winter came and we slept in tent covered structures.”

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?’”