Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Lev Kopelev

“The thieves in our camp held a secret conclave and, departing from custom, decided to form their own work team. Except for the obstinate Lenya the General and one or two who were really sick, they marched off every morning to the gravel pit. They balked at working in the afternoons (although on sunny days they’d stay on at the pit to sunbathe), yet they fulfilled or overfulfilled their daily quota. This was because of the prodigious work of one of their number, Karapet the Bomber, a short, broad-shouldered Armenian. Good-natured, helpful and always smiling, Karapet actually enjoyed working. With sweat streaming from his bare, muscular, copper-red torso, he would push his heavy-laden wheelbarrow on the run, calling out happily, ‘Make way for the Bomber!’ The other thieves took perverse pride in his records.”


Prisoners performed back-breaking physical labor in inhospitable climates and received food rations that barely sustained their nutritional needs. Work defined life in the Gulag, but some prisoners occasionally found ways to avoid the hardest labor which gave them some feeling of control over their difficult situation.

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Movie Transcription

Armed guards and attack dogs accompanied many prisoners’ daily march to their Gulag worksite. Icy winds battered their poorly clothed and barely fed bodies. Prisoners will die this day digging in the mines. Prisoners will die this day digging a 140-mile canal with the most primitive tools. Prisoners will die in the forest and in construction. Only the lucky will avoid hard labor in a workshop, a cafeteria or an office.

Gulag labor was inefficient and often lethal. Officials distributed food according to labor output, forcing prisoners to work long, hard hours trying to complete often impossible quotas, so that they might receive a full food ration. But even full rations often failed to provide enough calories to ensure health and survival. Exhaustion and starvation constantly accompanied prisoners. Many returned from work dead—carried on the backs of their fellow prisoners who then had to extend their workday to dig graves for the fallen.

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