Days and Lives :: Suffering

Prisoner: Galina Ivanovna Levinson

"The barracks, of course, had two-level plank beds. Each was for eight people: four at the bottom, for at the top. At night, the barracks were locked and we used buckets… When we arrived, they gave us mattress covers and straw to fill them, pillow covers and straw for the pillows, half-wool blankets, and, I think, even rough sheets. [...] For the first year and a half, we didn’t have the right to correspondence… Then, they let women who gave birth in the camp to write. When their children grew to one year old, women got permission to inquire about kids who were sent to orphanages. Only after we were all allowed to write one letter a month."

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."