Days and Lives :: Solidarity

Prisoner: Eugenia Ginzburg

At the transit camp, men and women were separated by a barbed wire fence. ”Unhindered by the guards, we stood by the barbed-wire fence which separated our compound from the men’s, and gazed spellbound at the long line of men who passed before us-silent, with bowed heads, plodding wearily in prison boots similar to ours. Their uniforms were also similar, but their trousers with the brown stripe were even more like convicts’ garbs than our skirts. Although one might have thought the men were stronger than we were, they seemed somehow more defenseless and we all felt a maternal pity for them. They stood up to pain so badly-this was every woman’s opinion-and they would not be able to wash their clothes on the sly as we could with our light things…Above all, they were our husbands and brothers, deprived of our care in this terrible place.”

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.

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.