Days and Lives :: Solidarity

Prisoner: Dimitri Panin

“I encountered a prisoner called Zaitsev. Before my arrest we had lived in the same engineers’ barracks, although I do not recall that we had ever engaged in conversation. But now he joined me as I was walking about the camp one day. No doubt I presented such a pitiful sight that he was quite overcome. He asked me to come inside. I replied that the five steps up were too much for me and suggested that if he had something to show me, I would be better off waiting for him on the bench outside. A minute later he came back out, holding a small package that turned out to contain bread. The compassion of this virtual stranger so impressed me that, in my weakened condition, my eyes filled with tears. I whispered, “What marvelous people there are in this world.” With perfect clarity I saw how the power of goodness was uniting the two of us in that single moment of time, how it ignited the spark of love. This is what holds the world together.”

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.

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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.