Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Lev Razgon

“My tree-feller this time was a young and experienced prison lad, sentenced for a criminal offense. It seemed to me that he was deliberately working fast in order to wear out his assistant. Probably that was not the case. I had gained the reputation of a decent person who never left a worker without his full ration. But I did not want to give in and be a burden to my partner. I tried for all I was worth. I did not ease up, so as to avoid those unpleasant minutes when the feller stopped work and began to help me cut up the trunks. He made no comment and did not give me reproachful looks. Nevertheless, if you are working as a pair then either both ‘take it easy’ or both work hard so as not to let the other down.”

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.”