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.”

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.”