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…”


No Gulag indignity consumed prisoners like hunger. Prisoners could think of nothing but the search for food. To scrounge an extra bowl of soup made for a great day in the camps. Bread was treated as gold. Eating was ritualized—a holy moment when every prisoner sought to convince himself that he was eating enough. Based on his own Gulag experience, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich reflects on the ritual of eating. “You had to eat with all your thoughts on the food, like he was nibbling off these little bits now, and turn them over on your tongue, and roll them over in your mouth—and then it tasted so good, this soggy black bread.”

Hunger could so destroy human dignity that scenes of prisoners digging through trash heaps in desperate hope of finding something edible became commonplace. Dmitri Panin recalled, “Death from a bullet would have been bliss compared with what many millions had to endure while dying of hunger. The kind of death to which they were condemned has nothing to equal it in treachery and sadism.”