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!”

White Sea Canal Hospital Patients

Gulag Medicine

Malnutrition, extreme environmental conditions, dangerous work, and prevalent violence made interaction with the Gulag’s medical services both likely and critical to the chances for survival. Gulag authorities put minimal resources into camp infirmaries and hospitals, staffing them with prisoners and strictly limiting the number of prisoners who could be excused from work on a daily basis for health reasons. The ill were all viewed skeptically as potential malingerers avoiding productive labor—a charge that was often true as we know from the frequent reports of prisoners intentionally injuring themselves to avoid being sent out to heavy labor.

For a prisoner who was truly ill, getting timely and caring medical treatment really was a key to survival. Many memoirists recall an act of mercy from someone in the medical service who kept them out of work at a vulnerable moment allowing them to regain their health and survive. Eugenia Ginzburg’s story is exemplary: “What induced Dr. Klimenko not only to keep me in the infirmary more than a month, so that I could recover fully from the journey, but also to bring me high-calorie food almost every day from her own home?”

Prisoners in Cots at Vorkuta

The medical service also offered one of the plum jobs in the camp system, and prisoners competed to become orderlies, medical assistant and even doctors in order to avoid the draining and dangerous heavy labor of the Gulag. Often, the prisoners who secured these jobs had no medical training. Janusz Bardach, for example, managed to survive the harsh conditions at Kolyma in part by passing himself off as a third-year medical student and earning a job as a medical assistant in the camp.