Days and Lives :: Suffering

Prisoner: Boris Chetverikov

“We were corralled [at the Izvestkovaia-Urgal camp], counted, and put up in cold barracks with bed boards made out of wood strips instead of boards. No beds, of course. The kitchen was not yet set up. Most importantly, no water. Curiously, the camp was located at a steep bank of a clean and clear river, but still there was no water: they didn’t take us there fearing we might escape… In the barrack where I settled my traveling companions, including Aleksandrov, disappeared somewhere. Within a few hours, as soon as I stepped out for a second, thieves searched my suitcase and took a few things. My tattered blanket disappeared …” (p. 102) “We were fed with horse feed, or kaoliang… This grass was similar to buckwheat, but it was so tasteless, disgusting, and nauseating that at first I couldn’t eat it. “Eat, or you’ll die,” my comrades advised me. “Keep telling yourself: this is buckwheat, this is buckwheat, and eat…”

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.