Days and Lives :: Solidarity

Prisoner: Thomas Sgovio

“In the evenings when the train was in motion we sang old, Russian folk songs and ballads handed down from previous generations of Russian prisoners, exiled to Siberia by the Czar. They had so much feeling, I got to love them. The song I remember most was Dubinishka. The singing always affected me greatly although I hardly knew any of the songs and never heard them on the Soviet radio because they were prohibited by the regime. My fellow-prisoners explained the meaning history of the songs, originated by prisoners in Czarist times, chained, on their way to Siberia. Here I was following in their footsteps. Was this really the twentieth century? The ballads’ sadness cut into my soul and ground it all to pieces.”

Introduction

Conflict divided prisoners, yet solidarity and compassion grew among inmates who shared similar backgrounds, especially ethno-national or religious. These strong bonds protected and supported prisoners during their daily lives in the Gulag.

Listen to the sound or read the transcript below.

Movie Transcription

Conflict and violence pervaded the Gulag, but so too did solidarity, compassion, and the close bonds forged in hardship. Finding allies was critical to survival. Often, alliances followed the same lines as conflict. Prisoners within the same ethnic group often looked out for one another. Criminal gangs provided protection for their own members and their favored friends. People from the same political party, religion or region, speakers of the same language, people with similar interests, mothers—there were many ways for prisoners to find common cause with one another.

Prisoners who survived their first months in camps were more likely to survive their full sentences, precisely because they had developed support networks.

Prisoners formed particularly intense relationships, whether in love or in hatred. Simple human compassion was not uncommon, even when it meant sacrificing your own chance for survival. At times, even the free Soviet population or Gulag guards themselves would find the courage to help a struggling prisoner. Such acts posed grave danger for those who helped because the Soviet authorities understood any sign of solidarity with prisoners as evidence of an anti-Soviet viewpoint.