Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Lev Kopelev

“The thieves in our camp held a secret conclave and, departing from custom, decided to form their own work team. Except for the obstinate Lenya the General and one or two who were really sick, they marched off every morning to the gravel pit. They balked at working in the afternoons (although on sunny days they’d stay on at the pit to sunbathe), yet they fulfilled or overfulfilled their daily quota. This was because of the prodigious work of one of their number, Karapet the Bomber, a short, broad-shouldered Armenian. Good-natured, helpful and always smiling, Karapet actually enjoyed working. With sweat streaming from his bare, muscular, copper-red torso, he would push his heavy-laden wheelbarrow on the run, calling out happily, ‘Make way for the Bomber!’ The other thieves took perverse pride in his records.”

Prisoner Labor Gang


Prisoners who could not avoid general labor needed to learn how to cheat while in the forest or the mines. Officials required prisoners to fulfill a certain labor quota everyday—to mine a certain number of tons of coal, or cut a certain number of cubic feet of timber. They set quotas at levels impossible to fulfill given the climate and the poor food provisions, but survival often depended upon receiving that full ration of food. So, the prisoners invented numerous ingenious ways to cheat on their quotas, a practice referred to as tufta or tukhta.

Eugenia Ginzburg recalled tufta in the forests. “This forest is full of piles of timber cut by previous work gangs. No one ever counted how many there are…If you saw a small section at each end, it looks as if it had just been cut. Then you stack them up in another place, and there’s your norm…This trick, which we christened ‘freshening up the sandwiches,’ saved our lives for the time being…[W]e laid the foundation of our pile with trees we had really cut down ourselves, leaving a couple or so we had felled but not yet sawn up to create the impression that we were hard at it. Then we went to fetch some of the old logs, ‘freshening up’ their ends and stacking them up on our pile.”