Days and Lives :: Suffering

Prisoner: Eugenia Ginzburg

Ginzburg was sent to Yaroslavl where she spent two years initially in solitary confinement. “To this day, if I shut my eyes, I can see every bump and scratch on those walls, painted halfway up in the favorite prison colors, brownish-red and a dirty white above. Sometimes in the soles of my feet I still feel this or that crack in the stone floor of my cell: Number 3 on the second floor, north side. And I still remember the physical anguish, the despair of my muscles, as I paced the area in which I was henceforth to live. It was five paces long and three across. I was taken out of my cell three times every twenty-four hours: morning and evening to the washroom, and before or after dinner for exercise.”


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.”