Days and Lives :: Survival

Prisoner: Jacques Rossi

“In the Butyrka prison, at a certain point, I succeeded in placing a match in the wall. On this match I was able to hang my shirt, because, when we slept one stuck to the other, we would sweat and it was disgusting to always wear this same wet shirt. It was an extraordinary comfort to be able to hang my shirt above my head on the wall thanks to this match being help by bread, because wet bread can hold as strong cement. This match remained there for a while. Luckily the guards didn’t get mad… This comfort, you see, I searched for it in all possible conditions.”

Portrait of Anna Skitmazur

Mental Diversions

Their bodily senses constantly assaulted, many prisoners turned to mental diversion to survive. Religious ritual, music, art, checkers, cards, chess and literature allowed prisoners to displace the hunger, cold and torment for a few moments at a time. Each of these activities required remarkable ingenuity in the conditions of the labor camp, where playing cards or art materials had to be fashioned from whatever could be found and hidden during the frequent searches of barracks and worksites.

The prisoner intelligentsia—the small portion of the Gulag population that left most of the Gulag memoirs—write frequently of the importance of literature and especially poetry for their mental survival. Nina Gagen-Torn recounted how she recited poetry for her cellmates, and they absorbed it "like dry ground taking in water. Even those who never thought about poetry or rhythm when free began to absorb and recite poems….Blok and Pushkin, Nekrasov, Mandelshtam…Their faces brightened."

For Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, writing in captivity was key. "This was very rewarding, in that it helped me not to notice what was being done with my body. Sometimes in a sullen work party with Tommy-gunners barking about me, lines and images crowded in so urgently that I felt myself borne through the air, overleaping the column in my hurry to reach the work site and find a corner to write. At such moments I was both free and happy." Of course, in camp conditions, Solzhenitsyn taught himself to "write" by committing his work to memory, so Gulag authorities would be unable to seize it from him.