Days and Lives :: Suffering

Prisoner: Nina Gagen-Torn

“The prison cell was overcrowded… Into a cell intended for 16 they put 40 people. They lowered the bed frames and put boards on them, making plank-beds out of the entire space. They also put in iron beds, each meant for two. The table was made into a bed at night as well…In 1936 in Kolyma old ideas still echoed in legends about Eduard Berzin… During Berzin’s tenure, a camp inmate who worked hard was allowed to marry and to have his own room. Schools and libraries for prisoners still existed. Communist educational and cultural workers were ready to give their life to reform a prisoner… But Eduard Berzin was invited to Moscow in 1936 and shot.”


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.”