Days and Lives :: Suffering

Prisoner: Boris Chetverikov

“We were corralled [at the Izvestkovaia-Urgal camp], counted, and put up in cold barracks with bed boards made out of wood strips instead of boards. No beds, of course. The kitchen was not yet set up. Most importantly, no water. Curiously, the camp was located at a steep bank of a clean and clear river, but still there was no water: they didn’t take us there fearing we might escape… In the barrack where I settled my traveling companions, including Aleksandrov, disappeared somewhere. Within a few hours, as soon as I stepped out for a second, thieves searched my suitcase and took a few things. My tattered blanket disappeared …” (p. 102) “We were fed with horse feed, or kaoliang… This grass was similar to buckwheat, but it was so tasteless, disgusting, and nauseating that at first I couldn’t eat it. “Eat, or you’ll die,” my comrades advised me. “Keep telling yourself: this is buckwheat, this is buckwheat, and eat…”

By a Stove

Cold

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."