Days and Lives :: Suffering

Prisoner: Alfred Martinovich Mirek

“A mechanical engineer from some airplane plant washed a big cell only to get an empty bucket that used to contain oatmeal. It had not a single seed—it was scrubbed clean with a wooden spoon when the oatmeal was given out to prisoners. But when he rinsed the walls of the bucket with boiling water from the tea kettle, and then carefully washed them with his hands, the water at the bottom of the kettle became murky and smelled of oatmeal. He drank it blissfully and greedily, savoring every mouthful. ... [When we were transported to the camp,] in the train car each of us got a 300-gram piece of bread and two small herrings for the entire trip. This ration was well thought through: the herring quenched our appetite, and it didn’t matter that we got extremely thirsty. Each of us could use the restroom only once a day, alone. I remember well how two of us peed into their boots, and when we arrived and exited at Sukhobezvodnaia station, each of them got out half barefoot, poured out the contents of the boot and put it on right after.”

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.