Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Aleksandr Borin

Introduction

Aleksandr Borin was born in a Jewish family in 1913. Before his arrest he worked as an airplane constructor and engineer. Borin was accused of participation in a counterrevolutionary terrorist organization. He was sent to a camp in Samara and then to a “sharaga” (the type of special scientific Gulag camp chronicled in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle) in Taganrog.

Arrest

“It happened in prison. After I was arrested I was brought to a building that felt like a stone bag—a concrete dungeon with iron gates. The gates clanged dully behind me, shutting me out of the living world. Everything that followed I understood as if in a dream, without any clear memories: a man in a uniform who recorded my personal data; another, who escorted me along the corridor and passed me to the third one; the third buzzed my hair off, then handed me a piece of gray soap the size of a quarter of a matchbox, and took me to a tiny bath which would fit no more than four people.”

Labor

“Tolkachev was the head of our shop. He was a laborer, with no education and talked of education with distrust and even with some irony. But he was not mean and didn’t put pressure on prisoners. He worried about perpetual technical breakdowns not only because they threatened the completion of the plan, but also because they could influence his employees’ fate. “People must be fed,” – he responded to the complaints made by Solodnikov, a senior accountant of our plant… Everyone knew about terrible temporary construction sites and northern camps, and everyone held fast to this colony, where our job was in a relatively warm and, in general, habitable place.”

Suffering

“There was nothing worse than lice. Every crease of our clothes was infested with them. They consumed us during the day, but especially at night, depriving us of the only thing that could give us some strength—undisturbed sleep. ... Bread was brought to the camp irregularly, and usually distributed on the road in the cold. Prisoners took bread crusts frozen into stones—after all, in three days their share grew to half a loaf per prisoner—and immediately gnawed into the frozen pieces, crushing not only bread but also their teeth.”

Propaganda

“There was nothing worse than lice. Every crease of our clothes was infested with them. They consumed us during the day, but especially at night, depriving us of the only thing that could give us some strength—undisturbed sleep. ... Bread was brought to the camp irregularly, and usually distributed on the road in the cold. Prisoners took bread crusts frozen into stones—after all, in three days their share grew to half a loaf per prisoner—and immediately gnawed into the frozen pieces, crushing not only bread but also their teeth.”

Solidarity

“The other was boring, foul-mouthed Syroedov. On the eve of his death he had an excruciating cough and gasped for air. When, at his request, I gave him a glass of boiling water, he caught my hand and exhaled with difficulty: “When I die, take my coat… Cover me with a pea-jacket right now…” I understood everything and didn’t waste words on denials and reassurance. I took his coat, still in good condition, though permeated with camp dirt… I remember that I unwittingly thought: who else among the sick inmates, including my friend Sanin, in his last moments would help out a fellow prisoner?”

Conflict

“Bread began to disappear in our cell, most often Tolik’s bread… The only one who raised suspicion was Musatov, Tolik’s neighbor, a lousy gnome with a long face of a jackal—with anxiety and jealousy he questioned everybody who by chance procured an extra piece. Iagello set a trap for him. The next day Musatov as usual was the first to enter our cell after work. Iagello waited five minutes and entered with the others. He went directly to the bedside table… and opened it. “Where is the bread ration?” he asked. “I don’t know about any ration,”- Musatov shrieked. He tried to rise on his elbows, but a strong blow to his face threw him back on the pillow. Musatov reeled and tried to get up but with each next blow threw him back down… Musatov pulled the unfortunate bread ration from under the pillow… The same day Musatov moved to another cell with plank beds. He was never again known for theft.”

Guards

Korzhev was the new head of the colony. “The only amazing thing about him was the complete lack of any human traits. He came to us in winter and began to instill discipline. Before him our assembly and dispatch took place of its own accord—workers, alone or in groups, walked from the living zone to the production area, took their places, and the work began. Korzhev introduced assembly and dispatch in formation… And the first result of this grand endeavor, especially on the first day, when nobody expected or prepared for it, was a great number of frostbitten inmates… I believe I was not the only one who listened with acute hatred to the wooden, monotone voice of this lame, empty-eyed little man… His vocabulary for us had no such words as “drink” or “eat.” “To take food.” “To take boiling water.” Korzhev’s iron resolve about assembly and dispatch lasted only a week. In that time, productivity plunged and diseases increased twofold. Erstwhile beneficial disorder came back of its own accord.”

Survival

“Irina found me in the colony and began to bring parcels, as much as she could, meaning not often and not with bulky ones. It was not only pleasure for the soul, but also a big help for me and Timka… My first attempts were painful … I spent several days only to learn how to hold a scribing tool. Every time after a brief session my right hand became tired to the point of being numb. By the time I decided to use engraving as my craft, to procure a piece of bread, I became confident in my ability to complete an uncomplicated drawing, and then I began to learn to make inscriptions.”

Fates

Borin was released in 1951 and fully rehabilitated in 1956. In total, he spent 10 years of prison and exile. He encountered many hardships. One of them was that his wife left him while he was in prison. She married another man. “Prison divided us… What separated us?... My term of imprisonment had only just begun—two years out of ten—and who could tell what would happen next? No, one couldn’t blame her. I didn’t blame her. It was simply hard and sad.” (p. 169) Borin wrote memoirs and a series of essays about the Gulag, and created a gallery of wooden portraits of his fellow inmates. He died in 1987.

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