Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Alla Tumanova

“For some time our brigade worked at a coal mine face. We had to lug waste heaps from place to place, shifting the smoking rock with shovels. The work was unbearable, and not only because we were suffocating and made ill by the clouds of reddish smoke, but because no one had bothered to explain why we should move it from one place to another. It was like a kind of torture, another punishment. But later, under different circumstances, when we loaded the smoking rock onto trucks that were laying a local road, it was much easier to accept. Still, it is difficult to imagine now how we managed to survive. For five minutes, or faces covered over up to the eyes, we would toss shovelful after shovelful, almost without breathing. Then we would race several metres away, tear rags off our faces, convulsively swallow air, and then return to the scorching heat.”

Prisoner Labor Gang


Prisoners who could not avoid general labor needed to learn how to cheat while in the forest or the mines. Officials required prisoners to fulfill a certain labor quota everyday—to mine a certain number of tons of coal, or cut a certain number of cubic feet of timber. They set quotas at levels impossible to fulfill given the climate and the poor food provisions, but survival often depended upon receiving that full ration of food. So, the prisoners invented numerous ingenious ways to cheat on their quotas, a practice referred to as tufta or tukhta.

Eugenia Ginzburg recalled tufta in the forests. “This forest is full of piles of timber cut by previous work gangs. No one ever counted how many there are…If you saw a small section at each end, it looks as if it had just been cut. Then you stack them up in another place, and there’s your norm…This trick, which we christened ‘freshening up the sandwiches,’ saved our lives for the time being…[W]e laid the foundation of our pile with trees we had really cut down ourselves, leaving a couple or so we had felled but not yet sawn up to create the impression that we were hard at it. Then we went to fetch some of the old logs, ‘freshening up’ their ends and stacking them up on our pile.”