Days and Lives :: Solidarity

Prisoner: Jacques Rossi

After having arrived in his jail cell from a night-long torturing session: “At around five in the morning they were bringing me back to my jail cell where I could theoretically eat a cloud soup from the previous evening. I would not eat because I was too anxious, too upset. I would lie on the planks. My jail mates would crowd around me; they’d take my shoes off and massage my legs. There was always one jail mate with a little bit of money who would buy a sweet at the cafeteria and would give me a piece to make me feel better. This was done out of solidarity.”

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.