Days and Lives :: Solidarity

Prisoner: Lev Kopelev

“The prisoners were served a watery gruel, made of millet and smelling of motor oil, in used tin cans. I couldn’t get it down at first, and ate only the daily portions of bread and sugar. April 9, 1945, was my thirty-third birthday, and that morning our cell boss, the former White Russian Colonel Pyotr Berulya, presented me with a pound of sugar, made up of ten or eleven individual portions. It was a birthday present from my cell mates, and it gave me my first moment of happiness in prison. They, too, were hungry and afraid, yet they did what little they could to provide a bit of human warmth to one of their fellow prisoners.”

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.