Days and Lives :: Solidarity

Prisoner: Evgeniia Michailovna Peunkova

“Here at the new labor camp we had balanda [a watery soup] every day… We wanted to eat very much. Unfortunately, they took our spoons away from us in Leningrad. We tried to use a matchbox to eat, but it didn’t work well. On our second day an old lady came to us and said: “Dear child, here is my spoon.” This was grandmother Gavriliuchka. She was the kindest person. We were grateful to her. Because I had understood Ukrainian since childhood, I could soon understand Hutsul women as well. After a little while we became friends with them and other women who arrived from Lvov’s transit prison before we got to the camp…” Evgeniia Peunkova recalls another episode: “I remember another surprise. Mechanics were supposed to wear overalls at the factory. Once Aunt Anna asked me to bring her white thread from the factory. I brought them. One day I woke up and saw washed overalls with a white lace collar hanging on bed boards. How could one ever forget that?”

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.