Days and Lives :: Suffering

Prisoner: Joseph Scholmer

“In the three months between my arrival at Vorkuta and the beginning of November I lost more than two stone in weight. Each time we went for a bath, which was every ten days, I could see the signs of malnutrition developing rapidly. My ribs began to stick out, my legs grew thin, my arm and shoulder muscles disappeared. Severe malnutrition was staring me in the face. As a result of continually lifting heavy weights I had developed a double rupture. This seemed to offer a possible respite. I went to the surgeon during his consultation hour and asked him to operate. ‘I can’t,’ he answered. ‘Ruptures can’t be operated on during the winter. One prisoner in every three or four has a rupture. They’re very common in the camp due to the combination of hard work and undernourishment. But everyone waits till the winter for the operation. An operation means four weeks’ rest in hospital. Now do you understand?’”

By a Stove


Gulag prisoners worked in some of the harshest inhabited climatic environments on the planet, whether north of the Arctic Circle or deep in the taiga and steppe of Siberia and Central Asia. Prisoners were frequently forced to work outside in temperatures of -30 to -40 degrees Celsius (-22 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit) with extreme winds.

In this excerpt from the documentary film Red Flag, former Gulag inmate Mikhail Mindlin recalls the cold and hunger of his imprisonment.

Movie Transcription

Mikhail Mindlin "First I worked on the BAM railway, then in Kolyma. The important thing was not to die of hunger. They gave you balanda, a soup with just a few fishbones and some oats floating around. We drank from metal bowls. They gave us a ladle of balanda and a lump of bread. We could hardly work for the cold. If we didn’t move or work, we would have frozen. When someone wanted to relieve themselves, they had to take their mittens off. By the time they undid their trousers, their hands were frozen. As soon as they pulled it out, it froze. Many people had their parts amputated." "There were no injections or anything to reduce pain. They didn’t even have proper scalpels. When I was in the camp, they asked me to hold out my frostbitten foot. And with pliers, they just took chunks out. That was the treatment—the operation. It was considered that if you survived the first winter, you’d get through your sentence. Most people didn’t survive."