Days and Lives :: Survival

Prisoner: Thomas Sgovio

“Again on the verge of becoming a dokhodyaga [goner], I was ordered to report to the Medical Section. I undressed and stood in line. It was scary to look at the walking skeletons. I glanced at my own bones and compared them with those of the others. It seemed mine were covered with a little more flesh than those of my fellows. The male nurse put a stethoscope to my chest and listened to my heart. After whispering a few words to a white-aproned man observing the procedure, he wrote something down and told me to go into an adjoining room. This was the recovery barrack! I was handed a shirt and drawers and assigned a cot. I was to rest for ten days! We received a special diet – a fresh, sweet roll in the morning, yellowish noodle soup with bits of meat at noon, buckwheat gruel with butter in the evening…we felt like kings! How good it felt to just lie there, eat, and rest!”

Introduction

Surviving the Gulag required prisoners to compete daily with fellow inmates for food, living space, and medical care. Some prisoners retreated into religious or intellectual contemplation to maintain some semblance of sanity.

Listen to the sound or read transcript of the movie below.

Movie Transcription

Surviving the Gulag required at various points willpower, mental toughness, skill, ruthlessness and no small amount of luck. Every Gulag survivor attributed survival to a series of small strategies, always knowing that fate and the kindnesses of others also played significant roles. A great many Gulag memoirists attribute their survival to their retreat into the life of the mind. Prisoners wrote and recited poetry in the camps, told stories, discussed philosophy and history—anything to keep their minds active. Other prisoners created chess sets, took up embroidery, art or music using whatever was available—tree bark for canvas, pig blood for paint.

As the memoirists themselves recognized, though, survival was not always so clearly noble. Many Gulag memoirists openly struggled in their writings with the ethical quandaries of survival. Soviet authorities had created a system that forced prisoners to compete constantly for access to limited means of survival. Where did one draw the ethical line in the struggle to survive? Was it morally acceptable to work as a brigade leader, a medical assistant with no medical training, an informant? Did the prisoner who managed to steal a moment of rest during the work day harm his fellow brigade members’ attempt to fulfill their labor quota?

The Gulag drove its inmates to desperation. A great many were forced to do things they would never have contemplated in regular surroundings. Some would literally blow a hand off hoping to become injured and thereby avoid hard labor. Others gave up and tried to take their own lives. Many only mentally survived by a retreat into religious or intellectual contemplation, but nothing ultimately could save those the prisoners called “goners” reduced to digging through trash heaps or eating the rations of a dying friend in their desperation to survive.