Days and Lives :: Survival

Prisoner: Vladimir Tchernavin

“The second of November I returned to Kem. There I found a letter from my wife – she had decided to come north and attempt to see me. I knew this would be difficult, but my trip had made a good impression, not so much on account of my official observations as because of the five hundred kilometers in a row-boat. He [chief of Ribprom] was impressed also by my notebook with its daily entries of our activities, plans showing the location of all fishing grounds and Ribprom points with sketches of buildings and structures. It was a real guidebook to the region. He could not hide his pleasure and I decided to take advantage of it by presenting to him a previously written request for a ‘personal visit’ from my wife and son. I was not mistaken, my chiefs were pleased and they granted my request for a visit of five days.”

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.