Days and Lives :: Solidarity

Prisoner: Aleksandr Borin

“The other was boring, foul-mouthed Syroedov. On the eve of his death he had an excruciating cough and gasped for air. When, at his request, I gave him a glass of boiling water, he caught my hand and exhaled with difficulty: “When I die, take my coat… Cover me with a pea-jacket right now…” I understood everything and didn’t waste words on denials and reassurance. I took his coat, still in good condition, though permeated with camp dirt… I remember that I unwittingly thought: who else among the sick inmates, including my friend Sanin, in his last moments would help out a fellow prisoner?”

Religion in the Gulag

Religious believers went to great lengths to maintain their rituals inside the camps. Joseph Scholmer recalled Lithuanian Catholics holding mass 600 feet below the surface in an unused portion of a mine. "About twenty men had collected there…. All were standing there in silence: they were sunk in prayer. They felt quite safe here. No soldier who values his life would ever venture down into the pit…. [After the Mass] we departed as silently as we had come."

Even gender segregation—a significant hindrance to a Catholic woman who could only receive the sacraments from a male priest—could be creatively overcome. As the historian Reverend Christopher Lawrence Zugger has written, "In many camps, Catholic women would write down their sins on a piece of paper or tree bark with a number, which would be smuggled to the priests on the men’s side [of a Gulag labor camp]. The priests would go along the fence and silently dispense absolution to the women, who held up their fingers to identify themselves, and smuggle penances back to them."

Orthodox Priest at Solovki