Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Lev Razgon

Introduction

Lev Razgon moved to Moscow in the early 1920s where he worked as a writer. Sympathetic to those being arrested, Razgon himself was soon arrested for allegedly “spreading slanderous rumors.” In the Gulag, he worked as a norm-setter, deciding how much work prisoners had to do to receive full ration. This “trusty” position put him in a complicated, and controversial, middle ground between camp officials and the other prisoners who did not have such privileged work. Razgon believed that having a trusty job was necessary, as he would not have been able to survive the hard labor of felling timber. After his release from the Gulag in 1956, he returned to Moscow and authored children’s literature.

Arrest

“In Moscow, you could see many symptoms. Beginning with the fact that you could walk into an apartment building, go up the stairs and notice the sealed doorways. And you knew that the black plague had passed by there. That someone had been arrested there. In Moscow there were a number of large buildings where the government elite lived. Take, for example, the famous house on the embankment. Walking by at night, I could see how there were fewer and fewer lights on at night and watch how the lights would go out, sometimes entire floors at a time.”

Labor

“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.”

Suffering

Razgon was placed in a punishment cell for neglecting to return a scrap of unused toilet paper to the guard. “I ended up in a “bright” cell. A small cupboard of a room, two paces long and one and a half in width, and no windows. An iron frame with several cross-bars was fixed to the wall; this was the bed. It remained up all day and then, by some mechanism outside the cell, was let down for four hours during the night. The tiny room, the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the so-called bed, and the enormous metal-lidded slop bucket were all covered in a dazzling white glossy paint. A 500-watt bulb shone from the ceiling, day and night. After an hour of this, you began to go crazy. Most of the time I stood in the corner with my eyes firmly closed.”

Propaganda

Razgon was placed in a punishment cell for neglecting to return a scrap of unused toilet paper to the guard. “I ended up in a “bright” cell. A small cupboard of a room, two paces long and one and a half in width, and no windows. An iron frame with several cross-bars was fixed to the wall; this was the bed. It remained up all day and then, by some mechanism outside the cell, was let down for four hours during the night. The tiny room, the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the so-called bed, and the enormous metal-lidded slop bucket were all covered in a dazzling white glossy paint. A 500-watt bulb shone from the ceiling, day and night. After an hour of this, you began to go crazy. Most of the time I stood in the corner with my eyes firmly closed.”

Solidarity

“The early roll call and march to work in winter were quite senseless. We reached the clearing in total darkness when it was impossible to begin felling trees. We had to wait until it grew light. Without any order from the team leader several of us would cut down a dead pine, saw it up into logs, split them and light two bonfires, a small one for the guards, and a larger one for the team. We sat down on the felled trunks. Now we were free to think our own thoughts, and even do what we wanted. The warmth from the fire was so reminiscent of home, so invigorating; the flames recalled the things that we had left behind….Most sat in silence. Some dozed, others stared fixedly into the flames. Yet others practically set about making rope shoes or even sewing on a button. A few talked quietly.”

Conflict

“The life of the ‘honorable thieves’ in the camp were surrounded by rules of behavior that were observed with an almost religious fervor. If a criminal was ‘honorable’ and then broke the rules he had no alternative but to ‘run for the dead zone.’ This was a ploughed and raked strip of land between the high fence and a low barrier of barbed wire. Each prisoner who found himself in the ‘dead zone’ had to lie face down on the ground immediately. Otherwise he would be shot dead, without any warning, by the armed guards on the watchtowers. The ‘ratters’ would run for the ‘dead zone’ when they were being persecuted by their former comrades. The guards then led them from the safety of this stretch of earth and locked them up in the punishment block. From there, after some time, they would be put in a transport to another camp in the same system.”

Guards

“At last the door swung open, confidently and wide, and in strode a young NKVD lieutenant. Two warders stood by the door. The lieutenant was neatly dressed and close-shaven, the buckles of his belt and shoulder straps shone, and folds of his field shirt were creased perfectly, and he gave off an aroma of eau de cologne, good tobacco, health, youth, home and good fortune – all the things that I had once considered quite natural…Only for the first few weeks had I continued to look on the jailers and interrogators as people just like me: they might be mistaken or worthless scoundrels, I had thought, but they were human beings, nevertheless. Then, in an instant, I changed my mind. It was impossible to establish any human contact with such people, or regard them as human beings; they were only pretending and we, for our part, also had to make believe that they were just like us.”

Survival

“In fact it was impossible to survive if you were felling timber. The healthiest forest worker was doomed to death by starvation within several months. Quite literally he would starve to death while eating one and a half kilos of bread a day. The only peasants to survive were those who…could make up their diet with a filched potato, radish or any other kind of vegetable. It hardly needs adding that the theft of any piece of camp property, be it a bread ration or a vehicle spare part, was not considered shameful – it was regarded as quite natural, and aroused only admiration and envy. A master like the Gulag has no right to demand that its slaves respect its interests at the expense of their own.”

Fates

“So I finally made it to that day in March when all the sudden we heard this heavenly music on the loudspeakers. Bach, Handel, Beethoven, and then we heard the health announcement. I remember how we all ran to the camp infirmary and the doctors discuss this among themselves and tell us what we could hope for. So the chief doctor, his assistant and the male nurse all of whom were convicts of course, went into the bania to hold their meeting. Meanwhile we’re all huddled in the changing room, our teeth chattering with anticipation. They met for about 20 min, then the chief doctor walked out. He was a professor, a very well educated man. He was beaming, and he said, you guys, the bastard [Stalin] is finished. No hope for him. And we began kissing one another.”

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