Days and Lives :: Suffering

Prisoner: Alexander Dolgun

“If you made your norm you were given basic ration, known as 100 per cent, and this was sufficient to keep you going. If you dropped below your norm, you got a lower ration. With lower rations you would be too weak to maintain whatever percentage of the norm you had been achieving, and so your ration would be lowered again. Finally it would be reduced to the starvation ration. At that point, without some supplementary food, a prisoner would simply starve to death. The food was scarce unless you were ingenious, and even then it lacked vitamins. Vitamin-deficiency diseases like scurvy and pellagra were common and sometimes fatal.”

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."