Days and Lives :: Survival

Prisoner: Boris Chetverikov

“When I noticed that prisoners pine away during the day, I decided to organize some activities. I always received black bread and some kind of white loaf in my packages. These lasted for a week, until the next package came, so I gave my prison bread ration to someone else. But I kept two or three rations for myself—I gave away only crusts and used the crumbs to make chess. I worked the entire day. A knight was the most difficult piece to make because I needed to make it durable. I painted chess the way criminals painted everything: used tooth powder for white pieces, and colored black ones by burning some soot at the bottom of a bowl. There was a box with cookies in one of my packages—its bottom served as a chess board. When the figures dried, we had a chess club in our cell.”


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.