Days and Lives :: Suffering

Prisoner: Thomas Sgovio

“I had just dozed off when several officials and guards entered. We had to rise and listen to a lecture. Camp Commandant Sergeyev pointed out that the gold-washing period was about half over. If we wished to return to the great family of Soviet toilers we had to expiate our crimes by fulfilling our work quotas. We were to be fed according to our output. There were six categories of food cards, ranging from Number One, for those having 150% or more overfulfillment – to Number Six, the penal category. The latter was given to those who had under 50% – a bowl of soup and four hundred grams of bread daily – no breakfast, no supper. The Commandant read out the names and work percentages of the newcomers. None of us had over 30%. He assured us however, that we should not lose heart. Realizing we were greenhorns, from the intelligentsia, that none of us had ever worked physically, the Camp Administration would give us time to learn and adjust. For ten days we would be given the 4th food-card category, regardless of our output."

Introduction

Gulag prisoners suffered from terrible living and working conditions in the Gulag. They froze in poorly heated barracks after working in sub-freezing temperatures; battled against hunger; and suffered from treatment that stole their dignity.

Listen to the sound or read the transcript below.

Movie Transcription

Deep, pounding hunger pangs tormented the Gulag prisoner’s every moment. Shoving their way to the cafeteria window, prisoners craved…cried out for food, always knowing but wanting to forget that the thin, watery gruel…that the small hunk of bread (sometimes made of little more than sawdust)…that these pathetic “meals” would never prepare them for the climatic assault of the day.

The pathetic rags, not even worthy of being called “clothes,” no more protected prisoners from the constant cold than the pitiful “food” satisfied their constant hunger. The Gulag, after all, inhabited some of the planet’s coldest places deep in frozen Siberia.

Even the end of the work day brought no respite in this hell. Barely heated, crowded barracks stank of the ill and the dying, though even this was better than the “punished” prisoners who could spend months in a totally unheated, dank punishment cell with no blankets and a sub-starvation penalty food ration.