Days and Lives :: Suffering

Prisoner: Lev Kopelev

“It was unbearably hot and stuffy. We sat on the floor in our underpants. We were all thirsty. The [toilet] bucket could be carried out only when it was full to the brim. There was no shortage of volunteers for the malodorous task: they could stop by a water faucet outside. On the third day there was still no bread. The shouts and wails were louder than ever and the reports of automatic rifle fire more frequent. ‘Shot three of them today,’ said one of the guards who brought us the midday meal. He explained that there was no bread because the bakery had burned down, and they were waiting for bread from another bakery.”


Gulag prisoners suffered from terrible living and working conditions in the Gulag. They froze in poorly heated barracks after working in sub-freezing temperatures; battled against hunger; and suffered from treatment that stole their dignity.

Listen to the sound or read the transcript below.

Movie Transcription

Deep, pounding hunger pangs tormented the Gulag prisoner’s every moment. Shoving their way to the cafeteria window, prisoners craved…cried out for food, always knowing but wanting to forget that the thin, watery gruel…that the small hunk of bread (sometimes made of little more than sawdust)…that these pathetic “meals” would never prepare them for the climatic assault of the day.

The pathetic rags, not even worthy of being called “clothes,” no more protected prisoners from the constant cold than the pitiful “food” satisfied their constant hunger. The Gulag, after all, inhabited some of the planet’s coldest places deep in frozen Siberia.

Even the end of the work day brought no respite in this hell. Barely heated, crowded barracks stank of the ill and the dying, though even this was better than the “punished” prisoners who could spend months in a totally unheated, dank punishment cell with no blankets and a sub-starvation penalty food ration.

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