Modern history

Chapter 10


The sound of a distant bell Enters the cell with the dawn I hear the bell calling out to me: “Where are you? Where are you?” “Here I am!” . . . Then tears of greeting, Mean tears of captivity . . . Not for God, But for you, Russia.”

—Simeon Vilensky, 19481

ACCORDING TO THE most accurate count to date, there were, between 1929 and 1953, 476 camp complexes in the realm of the Gulag.2 But this number is misleading. In practice, each one of these camp complexes contained dozens, or even hundreds, of smaller camp units. These smaller units—lagpunkts—have not yet been counted, and probably cannot be, since some were temporary, some were permanent, and some were technically parts of different camps at different times. Nor can very much be said about the customs and practices of the lagpunkts that is guaranteed to apply to every single one. Even during Beria’s reign over the system—which lasted, in effect, from 1939 until Stalin’s death in 1953—living and working conditions in the Gulag would continue to vary enormously, both from year to year and from place to place, even within the same camp complex.

“Every camp is its own world, a separate city, a separate country,” wrote the Soviet actress Tatyana Okunevskaya—and every camp had its own character.3 Life in one of the mass industrial camps of the far north was very different from life on an agricultural farm camp in southern Russia. Life in any camp during the most intensive period of the Second World War, when one in four zeks died every year, was quite different from life in the early 1950s, when death rates were nearly the same as in the rest of the country. Life in a camp headed by a relatively liberal boss was not the same as life in a camp led by a sadist. Lagpunkts also ranged widely in size, from several thousand to several dozen prisoners, as well as in longevity. Some lasted from the 1920s to the 1980s, when they still functioned as criminal prisons. Others, such as those set up to build the roads and railways across Siberia, lasted only as long as a single summer.

Nevertheless, on the eve of the war, certain elements of life and of work were common to the vast majority of camps. The climate still varied from lagpunkt to lagpunkt, but the huge fluctuations in national policy that had characterized the 1930s had come to a halt. Instead, the same inert bureaucracy that would eventually lay its dead hand on virtually every aspect of life in the Soviet Union slowly took over the Gulag as well.

Striking, in this regard, are the differences between the sketchy and somewhat vague rules and regulations for the camps issued in 1930, and the more detailed rules issued in 1939, after Beria had taken control. This difference seems to reflect a changing relationship between the organs of central control—the Moscow Gulag administration itself—and the commanders of camps in the regions. During the Gulag’s first, experimental decade, the order papers did not attempt to dictate what camps should look like, and barely touched on the behavior of prisoners. They sketched out a general scheme, and left local commanders to fill in the blanks.

By contrast, the later orders were very specific and very detailed indeed, dictating virtually every aspect of camp life, from the method of construction of barracks to the prisoners’ daily regime, in line with the Gulag’s new sense of purpose.4 From 1939, it seems that Beria—with, presumably, Stalin behind him—no longer explicitly intended the Gulag camps to be death camps, as some of them had been, in effect, in 1937 and 1938. Which is not to say, however, that their administrators were any more concerned with preserving human life, let alone respecting human dignity. From 1939 on, Moscow’s central concerns were economic: prisoners were to be slotted into the camp’s production plan like cogs in a machine.

Toward this end, the rules emanating from Moscow dictated strict control over the prisoners, to be obtained through the manipulation of their living conditions. In principle—as noted—the camp classified every zek according to his sentence, his profession, and his trudosposobnost , or “work capacity.” In principle, the camp assigned every zek a job, and a set of norms to fulfill. In principle, the camp allotted every zek the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter, living space—according to how well, or how badly, he fulfilled these norms. In principle, every aspect of camp life was designed to improve production figures: even the camp “cultural-educational” departments existed largely because the Gulag bosses believed they might convince prisoners to work harder. In principle, inspection teams existed in order to make sure that all of these aspects of camp life worked harmoniously. In principle, every zek, even, had the right to complain—to the camp boss, to Moscow, to Stalin—if the camps were not operating according to the rules.

And yet—in practice, things were very different. People are not machines, the camps were not clean, well-functioning factories, and the system never worked the way it was supposed to. Guards were corrupt, administrators stole, and the prisoners developed ways of fighting or subverting the camps’ rules. Within the camps, prisoners were also able to form their own informal hierarchies which sometimes harmonized with, and sometimes conflicted with, the official hierarchy created by the camp administration. Despite regular visits from Moscow inspectors, often followed up by reprimands and angry letters from the center, few camps lived up to the theoretical model. Despite the apparent seriousness with which prisoners’ complaints were treated—whole commissions existed to examine them— they rarely resulted in actual change.5

This clash between what the Gulag administration in Moscow thought the camps were supposed to be, and what they actually were on the ground— the clash between the rules written on paper, and the procedures carried out in practice—was what gave life in the Gulag its peculiar, surreal flavor. In theory, the Gulag administration in Moscow dictated the smallest aspects of prisoners’ lives. In practice, every aspect of life was also affected by the prisoners’ relationships with those who controlled them, and with one another.


By definition, the most fundamental tool at the disposal of the camp administrators was control over the space in which prisoners lived: this was the zona , or “prison zone.” By law, a zona was laid out in either a square or a rectangle. “In order to insure better surveillance,” no organic or irregular shapes were permitted.6 Within this square or rectangle, there was not much to interest the eye. Most of the buildings in a typical lagpunkt looked remarkably alike. Photographs of camp buildings once taken by Vorkuta administrators, and preserved in Moscow archives, show an array of primitive wooden buildings, otherwise indistinguishable except for the captions describing one as a “punishment cell,” another as a “dining hall.”7 There was usually a large open space in the center of the camp, near the gate, where the prisoners stood at attention twice a day to be counted. There were usually some guards’ barracks and administrators’ houses, also made of wood, just outside the main gate.

What distinguished the zona from any other workplace was, of course, the fence that surrounded it. Jacques Rossi, in The Gulag Handbook , wrote that the fence is usually built of wooden posts with one-third of their length in the ground. They range from 2.5 to 6 meters (7.5 to 18 feet) high, depending on local conditions. Seven to fifteen rows of barbed wire are stretched horizontally between the posts, which are about 6 meters (18 feet) apart. Two strands of wire are stretched diagonally between each pair of posts.8

If the camp or colony was located near or within a city, the barbed-wire fence was usually replaced by a wall or fence made of bricks or wood, so that no one approaching the site would be able to see in from the outside. These barriers were well-built: in Medvezhegorsk, for example, the headquarters of the White Sea Canal, a high wooden fence, built in the early 1930s to contain prisoners, was still standing when I visited the town in 1998.

To get through the fence, prisoners and guards alike had to travel through the vakhta, or “guardhouse.” During the day, the guards of the vakhta monitored all of those who entered and left the camp, checking the passes of free workers coming into the camps, and of the convoy guards escorting prisoners on their way out. In the camp at Perm-36, which has been restored to its original state, the vakhta contains a passage blocked by two gates. A prisoner would walk through the first gate, then stop in the small space in between to be searched or checked. Only then would he be allowed to walk through the second gate. It was much the same system as one finds at the entrance to a Sicilian bank.

But barbed wire and walls alone did not define the zona’s boundaries. In most camps, armed guards observed the prisoners from high wooden watchtowers. Sometimes dogs also circled the camp, attached by chains to a metal wire which had been stretched all the way around the zona. The dogs, managed by special dog-handlers among the guards, were trained to bark at approaching prisoners and to follow the scent and chase anyone attempting escape. Prisoners were thus held in by barriers of sight, smell, and sound, as well as by barbed wire and brick.

They were also held in by fear, which was sometimes enough to keep prisoners within a camp that had no fence at all. Margarete Buber-Neumann was kept in a low-security camp which allowed prisoners to “move freely up to within half a mile of the camp perimeter; after that the guards shot without ceremony.”9 This was unusual: in most camps, the guards would shoot “without ceremony” much sooner than that. In his 1939 regulations, Beria ordered all camp commanders to line their fences with a no-man’s-land, a strip of earth no less than 5 meters (15 feet) wide.10 Guards regularly raked the no-man’s-land in summer and deliberately left it covered with snow in winter, in order that the footprints of escaping prisoners might always be visible. The beginning of the no-man’s-land was also marked, sometimes by barbed wire, sometimes by signs reading “zapretnaya zona,” “forbidden zone.” The no-man’s-land was sometimes called the “death zone,” since guards were permitted to shoot anyone who entered it.11

And yet—the fences and walls and dogs and barricades that surrounded lagpunkts were not totally impenetrable. Whereas German concentration camps were completely self-contained—“sealed off totally, hermetically,” is how one expert puts it12—the Soviet system was in this sense different.

To begin with, the Soviet system classified prisoners as konvoinyi or beskonvoinyi—“guarded” or “unguarded”—and the small minority of unguarded prisoners were allowed to cross over the boundary without being watched, to run errands for the guards, to work during the day on an unguarded bit of railway, even to live in private apartments outside the zona. This latter privilege had been established early in the history of the camps, in the more chaotic years of the early 1930s. 13 Although it was explicitly forbidden several times after that, it persisted. One set of rules written in 1939 reminded camp commanders that “all prisoners, without exception, are forbidden to live outside the zone in villages, private apartments, or houses belonging to the camp.” Theoretically, camps needed to get special permission even to let inmates live in a guarded accommodation, if it was outside the zona.14 In practice, these rules were frequently disregarded. Despite the edict of 1939, inspectors’ reports written long after that date list a wide variety of violations. In the city of Ordzhonikidze, one inspector complained, prisoners walked around the streets, went to bazaars, entered private apartments, drank, and stole. In one Leningrad prison colony, a prisoner had been given use of a horse, on which he escaped. In work colony No. 14 in Voronezh, an armed guard left thirty-eight prisoners standing on the street while he went into a shop.15

The Moscow prosecutors’ office wrote a letter to another camp, near the Siberian city of Komsomolsk, accusing commanders of allowing no less than 1,763 prisoners to attain the status of “unguarded.” As a result, the prosecutors wrote angrily, “it is always possible to meet prisoners in any part of the town, in any institution, and in private apartments.”16 They also accused another camp of letting 150 prisoners live in private apartments, a violation of the regime, which had led to “incidents of drunkenness, hooliganism, and even robbery of the local population.”17

But within camps, prisoners were not deprived of all freedom of movement either. On the contrary, this is one of the quirks of the concentration camp, one of the ways in which it differs from a prison: when not working, and when not sleeping, most prisoners could walk in and out of the barracks at will. When not working, prisoners could also decide, within limits, how to spend their time. Only those prisoners subjected to the katorga regime, set up in 1943, or later those put in the “special regime camps,” created in 1948, were locked into their barracks at night, a circumstance they bitterly resented and later rebelled against.18

Arriving in the camps from claustrophobic Soviet prisons, inmates were often surprised and relieved by this change. One zek said of his arrival in Ukhtpechlag: “Our mood was wonderful, once we got into the open air.”19 Olga Adamova-Sliozberg remembered talking “from dawn to dusk about the advantages of camp over prison life” upon her arrival in Magadan:

The camp population (around a thousand women) seemed to us enormous: so many people, so many conversations to have, so many potential friends! Then there was nature. Within the compound, which was fenced with barbed wire, we could walk around freely, gaze at the sky and the faraway hills, go up to the stunted trees and stroke them with our hands. We breathed the moist sea air, felt the August drizzle on our faces, sat on the damp grass and let the earth run through our fingers. For four years we had lived without doing all this and discovered in doing so that it was essential to our being: without it you ceased to feel like a normal person.20

Leonid Finkelstein concurs:

You were brought in, you got out of the prison van, and you are surprised by several things. First, that the prisoners are walking around, without guards—they were going somewhere on their duties, whatever. Second, they look completely different from you. The contrast was even greater felt when I was in the camp and they would deliver new prisoners. The new prisoners all have green faces—green faces because of the lack of fresh air, miserable food, and all that. The prisoners in the camps have more or less normal complexions. You find yourself among relatively free, relatively good-looking people.21

Over time, the apparent “freedom” of this camp life usually palled. While in prison, wrote a Polish prisoner, Kazimierz Zarod, it was still possible to believe that a mistake had been made, that release would come soon. After all, “we were still surrounded by the trappings of civilization—outside the walls of the prison there was a large town.” In the camp, however, he found himself milling freely about among a “strange assortment of men . . . all feelings of normality were suspended. As the days went by I was filled by a sort of panic which slowly turned into desperation. I tried to push the feeling down, back into the depths of consciousness, but slowly it began to dawn on me that I was caught up in a cynical act of injustice from which there appeared to be no escape . . .”22

Worse, this freedom of movement could easily and quickly turn to anarchy. Guards and camp authorities were plentiful enough inside the lagpunktduring the day, but they often disappeared completely at night. One or two would remain within the vakhta, but the rest withdrew to the other side of the fence. Only when prisoners believed their lives were in danger, did they sometimes turn to the guards in the vakhta. One memoirist recalls that in the aftermath of a brawl between political and criminal prisoners— a common phenomenon of the postwar period, as we shall see—the criminal losers “ran to the vakhta ,” begging for help. They were sent away on a transport to another lagpunkt the following day, as the camp administration preferred to avoid mass murder.23 Another woman, feeling herself in danger of rape and possibly murder at the hands of a criminal prisoner, “turned herself in” to the vakhta, and asked to be placed in the camp punishment cell for the night for protection.24

The vakhta was not a reliable zone of safety, however. The guards residing within the guardhouse did not necessarily react to prisoners’ requests. Informed of some outrage committed by one group of prisoners against the other, they were just as likely to laugh. There are records, in both official documents and memoirs, of armed guards ignoring or laughing off cases of murder, torture, and rape among prisoners. Describing a gang rape that took place at one of the Kargopollag lagpunkts at night, Gustav Herling writes that the victim “let out a short, throaty cry, full of tears and muffled by her skirt. A sleepy voice called from the watch-tower: ‘Come, come boys, what are you doing? Have you no shame?’ The eight men pulled the girl behind the latrines, and continued . . .”25

In theory, the rules were strict: the prisoners were to stay inside the zona. In practice, the rules were broken. And behavior that did not technically violate the rules, no matter how violent or harmful, was not necessarily punished.


The zona controlled the prisoners’ movement in space.26 But it was the rezhim—or “regime,” as it is usually translated into English—that controlled their time. Put simply, the regime was the set of rules and procedures according to which the camp operated. If barbed wire limited a zek’s freedom of movement to the zona, a series of orders and sirens regulated the hours he spent there.

The regime differed in its severity from lagpunkt to lagpunkt, both according to shifting priorities and according to the type of prisoner being held in a particular camp. There were, at various times, light-regime camps for invalids, ordinary-regime camps, special-regime camps, and punishment-regime camps. But the basic system remained the same. The regime determined when and how the prisoner should wake; how he should be marched to work; when and how he should receive food; when and for how long he should sleep.

In most camps, the prisoner’s day officially began with the razvod: the procedure of organizing the prisoners into brigades and then marching them to work. A siren or other signal would awake them. A second siren warned them that breakfast was finished, and work was to begin. Prisoners then lined up in front of the camp gates for the morning count. Valery Frid, a scriptwriter for Soviet films and the author of an unusually lively memoir, has described the scene:

The brigades would organize themselves in front of the gate. The work-assigner would hold a narrow, smoothly planed signboard: on it would be written the number of the brigades, the number of workers (there were paper shortages, and the numbers could be scraped off the signboard with glass and rewritten the following day). The convoy guard and the work-assigner would check whether everyone was in place, and if they were— they would be taken off to work. If someone were missing, everyone would have to wait, while they searched for the shirker.27

According to instructions from Moscow, this wait was not meant to last more than fifteen minutes.28 Of course, as Kazimierz Zarod writes, it often lasted much longer, bad weather notwithstanding:

By 3:30 a.m. we were supposed to be in the middle of the square, standing in ranks of five, waiting to be counted. The guards often made mistakes, and then there had to be a second count. On a morning when it was snowing this was a long, cold agonizing process. If the guards were wide awake and concentrating, the count usually took about thirty minutes, but if they miscounted, we could stand for anything up to an hour.29

While this was happening, some camps took countermeasures to “raise the prisoners’ spirits.” Here is Frid again: “Our razvod took place to the accompaniment of an accordion player. A prisoner, freed from all other work obligations, played cheerful melodies ...”30 Zarod also records the bizarre phenomenon of the morning band, composed of prisoner musicians, both professional and amateur:

Each morning, the “band” stood near the gate playing military-style music and we were exhorted to march out “strongly and happily” to our day’s work. Having played until the end of the column had passed through the gate, the musicians abandoned their instruments and, tacking themselves on to the end of the column, joined the workers walking into the forest.31

From there, prisoners were marched to work. The guards shouted out the daily command—“A step to the right, or a step to the left, will be considered an attempt to escape—The convoy will fire without warning— March!”—and the prisoners marched, still five abreast, to the workplace. If it was a great distance, they would be accompanied by guards and dogs. The procedure for the evening’s return to camp was much the same. After an hour for supper, again prisoners were lined up in rows. And again, the guards counted (if the prisoners were lucky) and re-counted (if they were not). Moscow’s instructions allotted more time for the evening count— thirty to forty minutes—presumably on the grounds that an escape from camp was more likely to have taken place from the work site.32 Then another siren sounded, and it was time to sleep.

These rules and timetables were not written in stone. On the contrary, the regime changed over time, generally growing harsher. Jacques Rossi has written that “the main trait of the Soviet penitentiary regime is its systematic intensification, gradual introduction of unadulterated, arbitrary sadism into the status of the law,” and there is something to this. 33 Throughout the 1940s, the regime grew tighter, workdays grew longer, rest days became less frequent. In 1931, the prisoners of the Vaigach Expedition, a part of the Ukhtinskaya Expedition, worked six-hour days, in three shifts. Workers in the Kolyma region in the early 1930s also worked normal hours, fewer in winter and more in summer.34 Within the decade, however, the working day had doubled in length. By the late 1930s, women at Elinor Olitskaya’s sewing factory worked “twelve hours in an unventilated hall,” and the Kolyma workday had also been lengthened to twelve hours. 35 Later still, Olitskaya worked on a construction brigade: fourteen- to sixteen-hour days, with fiveminute breaks at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and a one-hour lunch break at noon.36

Nor was she alone. In 1940, the Gulag’s working day was officially extended to eleven hours, although even this was often violated.37 In March 1942, the Moscow Gulag administration mailed a furious letter to all camp commanders, reminding them of the rule that “prisoners must be allowed to sleep no less than eight hours.” Many camp commanders had ignored this rule, the letter explained, and had allowed their prisoners as little as four or five hours of sleep every night. As a result, the Gulag complained, “prisoners are losing their ability to work, they are becoming ‘weak workers’ and invalids.”38

Violations continued, particularly as production demands accelerated during the war years. In September 1942, after the German invasion, the Gulag’s administration officially extended the working day for prisoners building airport facilities to twelve hours, with a one-hour break for lunch. The pattern was the same all over the USSR. Working days of sixteen hours were recorded in Vyatlag during the war.39 Working days of twelve hours were recorded in Vorkuta in the summer of 1943, although these were reduced—probably because of the high rates of death and illness—to ten hours again in March 1944.40 Sergei Bondarevsky, a prisoner in a wartime sharashka, one of the special laboratories for inmate scientists, also remembered working eleven-hour days, with breaks. On a typical day, he worked from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m., and then again from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m.41

In any case, the rules were often broken. One zek, assigned to a brigade, panning gold in Kolyma, had to sift through 150 wheelbarrows a day. Those who had not finished that amount by the end of the workday simply remained until they had—sometimes as late as midnight. Afterward they would go home, eat their soup, and be up at 5 a.m. to start work again. 42 The Norilsk camp administration applied a similar principle in the late 1940s, where another prisoner worked digging foundations for new buildings in the permafrost: “At the end of twelve hours they would winch you out of the hole, but only if you had completed your work. If you hadn’t, you were just left there.”43

Nor were many breaks usually granted during the day, as one wartime prisoner, assigned to work in a textile factory, later explained:

At six we had to be in the factory. At ten we had a five-minute break to smoke a cigarette, for which purpose we had to run to a cellar about two hundred yards away, the only place on the factory premises where this was permitted. Infringement of this regulation was punishable with two extra years’ imprisonment. At one o’clock came a half-hour break for lunch. Small earthenware bowl in hand, one had to dash frantically to the canteen, stand in a long queue, receive some disgusting soya beans which disagreed with most people—and at all costs be back at the factory when the engines started working. After that, without leaving our places, we sat till seven in the evening.44

The number of days off work was also mandated by law. Ordinary prisoners were allowed to have one a week, and those assigned to stricter regimes two per month. But these rules also varied in practice. As early as 1933, the Gulag administration in Moscow sent out an order reminding camp commanders of the importance of prisoners’ rest days, many of which were being canceled in the mad rush to fulfill the plan.45 A decade later, hardly anything had changed. During the war, Kazimierz Zarod was given one day off out of ten.46 Another recalled having one a month.47 Gustav Herling remembered free days being even scarcer:

According to regulations, prisoners were entitled to one whole day’s rest every ten days’ work. But in practice, it transpired that even a monthly day off threatened to lower the camp’s production output, and it had therefore become customary to announce ceremoniously the reward of a rest day whenever the camp had surpassed its production plan for the one particular quarter . . . Naturally we had no opportunity to inspect the output figures or the production plan, so that this convention was a fiction which in fact put us entirely at the mercy of the camp authorities.48

Even on their rare days off, it sometimes happened that prisoners were forced to do maintenance work within the camp, cleaning barracks, cleaning toilets, clearing snow in the winter.49 All of which makes one order, issued by Lazar Kogan, the commander of Dmitlag, particularly poignant. Disturbed by the many reports of camp horses collapsing of exhaustion, Kogan began by noting that: “The growing number of cases of illness and collapse of horses has several causes, including the overloading of horses, the difficult conditions of the roads, and the absence of full and complete rest time for horses to recover their strength.”

He then continued, issuing new instructions:

The workday of camp horses must not exceed ten hours, not counting the obligatory two-hour break for rest and food.

On average, horses must not walk more than 32 kilometers per day.

Horses must be allowed a regular rest day, every eighth day, and the rest on that day must be complete.50

Of the prisoners’ need for a regular rest day every eighth day, there is, alas, no mention.


Most prisoners in most camps lived in barracks. Rare was the camp, however, whose barracks were constructed before the prisoners arrived. Those prisoners who had the bad luck to be sent to build a new camp lived in tents, or in nothing at all. As one prisoners’ song put it;

We drove quickly and fast across tundra When suddenly, the train came to a halt. Around us, only forest and mud— And here we will build the canal.51

Ivan Sulimov, a prisoner in Vorkuta in the 1930s, was dumped, along with a party of inmates, on “a flat square of land in the polar tundra,” and told to set up tents, build a bonfire, and begin construction of a “fence of stone slabs, surrounded by barbed wire” as well as barracks. 52 Janusz Sieminski, a Polish prisoner in Kolyma after the war, was also once part of a team that constructed a new lagpunkt “from zero,” in the depths of winter. At night, prisoners slept on the ground. Many died, particularly those who lost the battle to sleep near the fire. 53 Prisoners arriving in the Prikaspysky camp in Azerbaijan in December 1940 also slept, in the words of an annoyed NKVD inspector, “beneath the open sky on damp ground.”54 Nor were such situations necessarily temporary. As late as 1955, prisoners in some camps were still living in tents.55

If and when the prisoners did build barracks, they were invariably extremely simple buildings, made of wood. Moscow dictated their design and, as a result, descriptions of them are rather repetitive: prisoner after prisoner describes long, rectangular, wooden buildings, the walls unplastered, the cracks stopped up with mud, the inside space filled with rows and rows of equally poorly made bunk beds. Sometimes there was a crude table, sometimes not. Sometimes there were benches to sit on, sometimes not.56 In Kolyma, and in other regions where wood was scarce, the prisoners built barracks, equally cheaply and hastily, of stone. Where insulation was not available, older methods were used. Photographs of the barracks in Vorkuta, taken in the winter of 1945, make them look almost invisible: their roofs had been built at sharp angles, but very low to the ground, so the snow accumulating around them would help insulate them from cold.57


In the Barracks: inmates listening to a prisoner musician—a drawing by Benjamin Mkrtchyan, Ivdel, 1953

Often, barracks were not proper buildings at all, but rather zemlyanki, or “earth dugouts.” A. P. Evstonichev lived in one in Karelia, in the early 1940s:

A zemlyanka—it was a space cleaned of snow, with the upper layer of earth removed. The walls and roof were made of round, rough logs. The whole structure was covered with another layer of earth and snow. The entrance to the dugout was decked out with a canvas door . . . in one corner stood a barrel of water. In the middle stood a metal stove, complete with a metal pipe leading out through the roof, and a barrel of kerosene.58

In the temporary lagpunkts constructed alongside the building sites of roads and railways, zemlyanki were ubiquitous. As discussed in Chapter 4, their traces still line the prisoner-built roads of the far north today, as well as the riverbanks near the older sections of the city of Vorkuta. Sometimes prisoners lived in tents as well. One memoir of the early days of Vorkutlag describes the construction, in the course of three days, of “fifteen tents with three-level bunk-beds” for 100 prisoners apiece, as well as a zona with four watchtowers and a barbed-wire fence.59

But the real barracks rarely lived up to the low standards that Moscow had set for them either. They were almost always terribly overcrowded, even after the chaos of the late 1930s had subsided. An inspection report of twenty-three camps, written in 1948, noted angrily that in most of them “prisoners have no more than one to one and a half meters of living space per person,” and even that was in an unsanitary condition: “prisoners do not have their own places to sleep, or their own sheets and blankets.” 60 Sometimes there was even less space than that. Margarete Buber-Neumann records that on her arrival in camp, there was actually no sleeping space at all within the barracks, and she was forced to spend the first few nights on the floor of the washroom.61

Ordinary prisoners were meant to be given beds known as vagonki , a name taken from the beds found on the wagons of passenger trains. These were double-decker bunks, with room for two inmates at each level, four inmates in all. In many camps, prisoners slept on the even less sophisticatedsploshnye nary. These were long wooden sleeping shelves, not even partitioned into separate bunks. Prisoners assigned to them simply lay down beside one another, in a long row. Because these communal beds were considered unhygienic, camp inspectors constantly inveighed against them too. In 1948, the central Gulag administration issued a directive demanding that they all be replaced by vagonki.62 Nevertheless, Anna Andreeva, a prisoner in Mordovia in the late 1940s and early 1950s, slept on sploshnye nary, and remembers that many prisoners still slept on the floor beneath them too.63

Bedding was also arbitrary, and varied greatly from camp to camp, despite further strict (and rather modest) rules issued in Moscow. Regulations stated that all prisoners should have a new towel every year, a pillowcase every four years, sheets every two years, and a blanket every five years.64In practice, “a so-called straw mattress went with each prisoner’s bed,” wrote Elinor Lipper:

There was no straw in it and rarely hay, because there was not enough hay for the cattle; instead it contained wood shavings or extra clothes, if a prisoner still owned any extra clothes. In addition, there was a woolen blanket and pillowcase which you could stuff with whatever you had, for there were no pillows.65

Others had nothing at all. As late as 1950, Isaak Filshtinsky, an Arabic specialist arrested in 1948, was still sleeping beneath his coat in Kargopollag, with spare rags for pillows.66

The 1948 directive also called for all earthen floors in barracks to be replaced by wooden floors. But as late as the 1950s, Irena Arginskaya lived in a barrack whose floor could not be cleaned properly as it was made of clay.67 Even if floors were wooden, they could often not be cleaned properly for lack of brushes. Describing her experiences to a postwar commission, one Polish woman explained that in her camp, a group of prisoners were always put “on duty” at night, cleaning up the barracks and lavatories while others slept: “The mud on the barrack floor had to be scraped off with knives. The Russian women were frantic at our being unable to do it, and asked us how we had lived at home. It did not even occur to them that the dirtiest floor can be scrubbed with a brush.” 68

Heating and light were often equally primitive, but again this varied greatly from camp to camp. One prisoner remembered the barracks being virtually dark: “the electric lamps shone yellow-white, barely noticeable, and the kerosene lamps smoked and smelled rancid.”69 Others complained of the opposite problem, that the lights were usually on all night. 70 Some prisoners in the camps of the Vorkuta region had no problem with heat, since they could bring lumps of coal home from the mines, but Susanna Pechora, in alagpunkt near the coal mines of Inta, remembered that inside the barracks it was “so cold in the winter that your hair freezes to the bed, the drinking water freezes in the cup.”71 There was no running water in her barracks either, just water brought into the barracks in buckets by the dezhurnaya—an older woman, no longer capable of heavier work—who cleaned and looked after the barracks during the day.72

Worse, a “terrible heavy smell” pervaded the barracks, thanks to the huge quantities of dirty and mildewed clothes drying along the edge of the bunks, the tables, anywhere it was possible to hang something. In those barracks in the special camps where the doors were closed at night and the windows barred, the stench made it “almost impossible to breathe.” 73

The air quality was not improved by the absence of toilets. In camps where prisoners were locked into their barracks at night, zeks had to make use of a parasha, or “bucket,” just as in prison. One prisoner wrote that in the morning the parasha was “impossible to carry, so it was dragged along across the slippery floor. The contents invariably spilled out.”74 Another, Galina Smirnova, arrested in the early 1950s, remembered that “if it was something serious, you waited until morning, otherwise there was a terrible stench.”75

Otherwise, toilets were outhouses, and outhouses were outside the barracks, often some distance away, which was a serious hardship in the winter cold. “There were wooden outdoor toilets,” said Smirnova of another camp, “even when it was 30 or 40 degrees below zero.”76 Thomas Sgovio wrote of the consequences:

Outside, in front of each barrack, they stuck a wooden pole and froze it to the ground. Another decree! We were forbidden to urinate anywhere on camp grounds other than the outhouses or on the pole with a white rag tied to the top. Anyone caught violating the decree would be sentenced to ten nights in the penal cell . . . The decree was issued because at night there were prisoners who, unwilling to walk the long distance to the outhouses, urinated instead all over the well-beaten snow paths. The grounds were littered with yellow spots. When the snow melted in late spring, there would be a terrible stench . . . twice a month we chopped the frozen pyramids and carted the frozen pieces out of the zone ...77

But filth and overcrowding were not merely aesthetic problems, or matters of relatively minor discomfort. The crowded bunks and the lack of space could also be lethal, particularly in camps that worked on a twenty-four-hour schedule. In one such camp, where the prisoners worked three separate shifts, day and night, one memoirist wrote that “people were asleep in the barracks at any time of the day. Fighting to be able to sleep was a fight for life. Arguing over sleep, people swore at one another, fought one another, even killed one another. The radio in the barracks was on at full strength at all times, and was much hated.”78

Precisely because the question of where one slept was so crucial, sleeping conditions were always an extremely important tool of prisoner control, and the camp administration consciously used them as such. In their central archives in Moscow, the Gulag’s archivists carefully preserved photographs of different types of barracks, intended for different types of prisoners. The barracks of the otlichniki—the “excellent ones” or “shock-workers”—have single beds with mattresses and blankets, wooden floors, and pictures on the walls. The prisoners are, if not exactly smiling for the photographers, then at least reading newspapers and looking well-fed. The rezhim barracks, on the other hand—the punishment barracks for poor or unruly workers— have wooden planks on crude wooden pegs instead of beds. Even in these photographs, taken for propaganda purposes, therezhim prisoners have no mattresses, and are shown sharing blankets.79

In some camps, the etiquette surrounding sleeping arrangements became quite elaborate. Space was at such a premium that the possession of space, and of privacy, were considered great privileges, accorded only to those who ranked among the camp’s aristocracy. Higher-ranking prisoners—brigade leaders, norm-setters, and others—were often permitted to sleep in smaller barracks, with fewer people. Solzhenitsyn, initially assigned the job of “works manager” upon his arrival at a camp in Moscow, was given a place in a barracks where instead of multiple bunks there were ordinary cots and one bed table for every two persons, not for a whole brigade. During the day the door was locked and you could leave your things there. Last, there was a half-legal electric hot plate, and it was not necessary to go and crowd around the big common stove in the yard.80

This was all considered high luxury. Certain, more desirable jobs—that of a carpenter, or a tool repairman—also came with the much sought-after right to sleep in the workshop. Anna Rozina slept in the cobbler’s workshop when she worked as a cobbler in the Temnikovsky camp, and had the “right” to go to the baths more often as well, all of which counted as great privileges. 81

In almost every camp, doctors, even prisoner doctors, were also allowed to sleep separately, a privilege which reflected their special status. Isaac Vogelfanger, a surgeon, felt himself privileged because he was allowed to sleep in a bunk bed in a “small room adjacent to the reception area” of his camp’s infirmary: “the moon seemed to be smiling upon me as I went to sleep.” Along with him slept the camp’s feldsher, or “medical assistant,” who had the same privilege. 82

Sometimes, special living conditions were arranged for invalids. The actress Tatyana Okunevsksaya managed to get sent to an invalid’s camp in Lithuania, where “the barracks were long, with many windows, light, clean, and no upper bunks above your head.”83The prisoners sent to work on Beria’s sharashki—the “special bureaus” for talented engineers and technicians—received the best sleeping quarters of all. In Bolshevo, a sharashka just outside of Moscow, barracks were “large, light, clean and heated by dutch ovens” rather than metal stoves. The beds had linen and pillows, the light was turned off at night, and there was a private shower.84 Prisoners who lived in these special quarters knew, of course, that they could easily be taken away, which enhanced their interest in working hard.

Informally, there was often another hierarchy at work within barracks as well. In most barracks, the critical decisions about who slept where were taken by those groups in the camps that were the strongest and most united. Until the late 1940s, when the big national groups—the Ukrainians, Balts, Chechens, Poles—grew stronger, the best-organized prisoners were usually the convicted criminals, as we shall see. As a rule, they therefore slept in the top bunks, where there was better air and more space, clubbing and kicking those who objected. Those who slept on the lower bunks had less clout. Those who slept on the floor—the lowest-ranking prisoners in the camp— suffered most, remembered one prisoner:

This level was called the “kolkhoz sector,” and it was to this level that the thieves forced the kolkhozniki— various aged intellectuals and priests, that is, and even some of their own, who had broken the theives’ moral code. On to them fell not only things from the upper and lower bunks: the thieves also poured slops, water, yesterday’s soup. And the kolkhoz sector had to tolerate all of this, for if they complained they would receive even more filth . . . people became sick, suffocated, lost consciousness, went crazy, died of typhus, dysentery, killed themselves. 85

Prisoners, even political prisoners, could nevertheless better their circumstances. While working as a feldsher, Karol Colonna-Czosnowski, a Polish political prisoner, was picked out of an extremely crowded barrack by Grisha, the criminal “boss” of the camp: “He gave a majestic kick to one of his courtiers who took it for an order to make room for me and promptly abandoned his seat. I was embarrassed and protested that I would rather not sit so near the fire, but this was not in conformity with my host’s wishes, as I discovered when one of Grisha’s followers gave me a mighty push.” When he had regained his balance, he found himself sitting on the couch at Grisha’s feet: “This was, apparently, where he wanted me to remain . . .”86 Colonna-Czosnowski did not argue. Even for a few hours, where one sat, or laid one’s head, mattered intensely.


Dirt, crowding, and poor hygiene led to a plague of bedbugs and lice. In the 1930s, a “humorous” cartoon in Perekovka, the newspaper of the Moscow–Volga Canal, featured a zek being handed new clothes. Beneath was the caption, “They give you ‘clean’ clothes, but they are full of lice.” Another was captioned “And while you sleep in the barracks, the bedbugs bite like black crabs.”87 Nor did the problem lessen over the years. One Polish prisoner records that, during the war, his camp acquaintance became obsessed with them: “As a biologist, he was interested in how many lice could subsist on a certain space. Counting them on his shirt he found sixty, and an hour later another sixty.”88

By the 1940s, the Gulag’s masters had long recognized the lethal danger of louse-borne typhus and, officially, conducted a constant battle against parasites. Baths were supposedly mandatory every ten days. All clothing was supposed to be boiled in disinfection units, both on entering the camp and then at regular intervals, to destroy all vermin.89 As we have seen, camp barbers shaved the entire bodies of both men and women on entry into the camps, and their heads regularly thereafter. Soap, albeit tiny amounts of it, was regularly included in lists of products to be distributed to prisoners: in 1944, for example, this amounted to 200 grams per month, per prisoner. Women, prisoners’ children, and prisoners in hospitals were allotted an extra 50 grams, juveniles received an extra 100 grams, and prisoners working at “especially dirty jobs” received an extra 200 grams. These tiny slivers were meant both for personal hygiene and for the washing of linen and clothes.90 (Soap did not become any less scarce, inside or outside the camps. As late as 1991, Soviet coal miners went on strike because, among other things, they had no soap.)

Nevertheless, not everyone was convinced of the efficacy of the camp’s delousing procedures. In practice, wrote one prisoner, “the baths seemed to increase the lice’s sexual vigor.”91 Varlam Shalamov went further: “Not only was the delousing absolutely useless, no lice are killed by this disinfection chamber. It’s only a formality and the apparatus has been created for the purpose of tormenting the convict still more.”92

Technically, Shalamov was wrong. The apparatus was not created for the purpose of tormenting convicts—as I say, the Gulag’s central administration in Moscow really did write very strict directives, instructing camp commanders to do battle against parasites, and countless inspection reports inveigh against their failure to do so. A 1933 account of the conditions in Dmitlag angrily complains about the women’s barracks, which were “dirty, lacking sheets and blankets; the women complain of a massive quantity of bedbugs, which the Sanitation Division is not fighting against.”93 A 1940 investigation into the conditions at one group of northern camps furiously described “lice in the barracks, and bedbugs, which have a negative impact on the prisoners’ ability to rest” at onelagpunkt, while the Novosibirsk corrective labor camp had “100 percent lice infection among prisoners . . . as a result of poor sanitary conditions, there is a high level of skin diseases and stomach ailments . . . from this it is clear that the unsanitary conditions of the camp are very, very costly.”

Meanwhile, typhus had broken out twice at another lagpunkt, while in others, prisoners were “black with dirt,” the report continued with great agitation.94 Complaints about lice, and angry orders to eliminate them, figure year in and year out in the inspection reports submitted by Gulag prosectors.95 After one typhus epidemic at Temlag in 1937, both the head of the lagpunkt and the deputy of the camp medical department were fired, accused of “criminal negligence and inactivity,” and put on trial.96 Reward was used as well as punishment: in 1933, the inhabitants of one prisoners’ barrack in Dmitlag received holidays from work as a prize for having cleared all of their beds of bedbugs. 97

Prisoners’ refusal to bathe was also taken very seriously. Irena Arginskaya, who was in a special camp for politicals at Kengir in the early 1950s, recalled a particular women’s religious sect in the camp which refused, for reasons known only to itself, to bathe:

One day I had remained in the barracks because I was ill, and had been let off work. A guard came in, however, and told us that all of the sick prisoners would have to help wash the “nuns.” The scene was as follows: a wagon pulled up to their section of the barracks, and we had to carry them out and put them on the wagon. They protested, kicked us and hit us, and so on. But when we finally got them on the wagon they lay quietly, and didn’t try to escape. Then we pulled the wagon to the baths, where we took them off and carried them inside, undressed them—and then understood why the camp administration couldn’t allow them not to bathe. As you took their clothes off, lice fell off them in handfuls. Then we put them under water, and washed them. Meanwhile, their clothes were boiled to kill the lice ...98

Arginskaya also remembers that “in principle it was possible to go to the baths as much as you wanted” in Kengir, where there were no restrictions on water. Similarly, Leonid Sitko, a former prisoner of war in Germany, reckoned that Soviet camps had fewer lice than German camps. He spent time in both Steplag and Minlag, where “you could bathe as much as you wanted . . . you could even wash your clothes.”99 Certain factories and work sites had their own showers, as Isaak Filshtinsky found in Kargopollag, where prisoners could use them during the day, even though other prisoners suffered from lack of water.100

Yet Shalamov was not entirely wrong either in his cynical description of the hygiene system. For even if they were instructed to take bathing seriously, it often happened that local camp administrators merely observed the rituals of delousing and bathing, without appearing to care much about the result. Either there was not enough coal to keep the disinfection apparatus hot enough; or those in charge could not be bothered to do it properly; or there were no soap rations issued for months on end; or the rations were stolen. At the Dizelny lagpunkt in Kolyma, on bath days they “gave every prisoner a small sliver of soap and a large mug of warm water. They poured five or six of these mugs into a tub, and that sufficed for everyone, for the washing and rinsing of five or six people.” At the Sopka lagpunkt , “water was brought there, like other freight, along the narrow railway and narrow road. In the winter they got it from snow, although there wasn’t much snow there, the wind blew it away . . . Workers came back from the mine covered in dust, and there were no sinks to wash in.” 101

Frequently, guards were bored by the process of bathing the prisoners, and allowed them only a few minutes in the baths, for formality’s sake. 102 At a Siblag lagpunkt in 1941, an outraged inspector found that “prisoners have not bathed for two months,” thanks to the sheer disinterest of the guards.103 And in the worst camps, open neglect of the prisoners’ humanity did indeed make bathing a torture. Many describe the awfulness of bathing, but none quite so well as, again, Shalamov, who devotes an entire short story to the horrors of the baths of Kolyma. Despite their exhaustion, prisoners would have to wait for hours to take their turn: “Bathhouse sessions are arranged either before or after work. After many hours of work in the cold (and it’s no easier in the summer) when all thoughts and hopes are concentrated on the desire to reach one’s bunk and food so as to fall asleep as soon as possible, the bath-house delay is almost unendurable.”

First, the zeks would stand in lines, outside in the cold; then they would be herded into crowded dressing rooms, built for fifteen people and containing up to a hundred. All the while they knew that their barracks were being cleaned and searched. Their meager possessions, including crockery and footrags, were being tossed into the snow:

It is characteristic of man, be he beggar or Nobel laureate, that he quickly acquires petty things. The same is true of the convict. He is, after all, a working man and needs a needle and material for patches, and an extra bowl perhaps. All this is cast out and then re-accumulated after each bathhouse day, unless it is buried somewhere deep in the snow.

Once inside the baths themselves, there was often so little water that it was impossible to get clean. Prisoners were given “a wooden basin with not very hot water . . . there is no extra water and no one can buy any.” Nor were the bathhouses heated: “The feeling of cold is increased by a thousand drafts from under the doors, from the cracks. The baths were not fully heated; they had cracks in the walls.” Inside, there is also “constant uproar accompanied by smoke, crowding, and shouting; there’s even a common turn of speech: ‘to shout as in the bathhouse.’” 104

Thomas Sgovio also describes this hellish scene, writing that prisoners in Kolyma sometimes had to be beaten in order to make them go to the baths:

The waiting outside in the frost for those inside to come out—then came the changing room where it was cold—the compulsory disinfections and fumigating process where we tossed our rags in a heap—you never got your own back—the fighting and swearing, “you son-of-a-bitch that’s my jacket”—selecting the damp, collective underwear filled with lice eggs in the seams—the shaving of hairs on the body by the Camp Barber . . . then, when it was finally our turn to enter the washing room, we picked up a wooden tub, received a cup of hot water, a cup of cold water, and a small piece of black, evil-smelling soap ... 105

Then, after it was all over, the same humiliating process of handing out clothes began all over again, wrote Shalamov, ever-obsessive on the issue of underwear: “Having washed themselves, the men gather at the window far in advance of the actual distribution of underwear. Over and over again they discuss in detail the underwear they received last time, the underwear received five years ago in Bamlag . . .”106

Inevitably, the right to bathe in relative comfort also became intimately intertwined with the system of privilege. In Temlag, for example, those employed in particular jobs had the right to bathe more often.107 The very job of bathhouse worker, which implied both proximity to clean water and the right to allow or deny others such proximity, was usually one of the most sought-after jobs in the camp. In the end, despite the strictest, severest, and most drastic orders from Moscow, prisoners’ comfort, hygiene, and health were completely dependent on local whims and circumstances.

Thus was another aspect of ordinary life turned inside out, turned from a simple pleasure into what Shalamov calls “a negative event, a burden in the convict’s life . . . a testimony of that shift of values which is the main quality that the camp instills in its inmates ...” 108


The vast Gulag literature contains many varied descriptions of camps, and reflects the experiences of a wide range of personalities. But one aspect of camp life remains consistent from camp to camp, from year to year, from memoir to memoir: the descriptions of the balanda, the soup that prisoners were served once or sometimes twice a day.

Universally, former prisoners agree that the taste of the daily or twice-daily half-liter of prison soup was revolting; its consistency was watery, and its contents were suspect. Galina Levinson wrote that it was made “from spoiled cabbage and potatoes, sometimes with a piece of pig fat, sometimes with herring heads.”109 Barbara Armonas remembered soup made from “fish or animal lungs and a few potatoes.”110 Leonid Sitko described the soup as “never having any meat in it at all.”111

Another prisoner remembered soup made from dog meat, which one of his co-workers, a Frenchman, could not eat: “a man from Western countries is not always able to cross a psychological barrier, even when he is starving,” he concluded.112 Even Lazar Kogan, the boss of Dmitlag, once complained that “Some cooks act as if they were not preparing Soviet meals, but rather pig slops. Thanks to this attitude, the food they prepare is unsuitable, and often tasteless and bland.”113

Hunger was a powerful motivator nevertheless: the soup might have been inedible under normal circumstances, but in the camps, where most people were always hungry, prisoners ate it with relish. Nor was their hunger accidental: prisoners were kept hungry, because regulation of prisoners’ food was, after regulation of prisoners’ time and living space, the camp administration’s most important tool of control.

For that reason, the distribution of food to prisoners in camps grew into quite an elaborate science. The exact norms for particular categories of prisoners and camp workers were set in Moscow, and frequently changed. The Gulag administration constantly fine-tuned its figures, calculating and recalculating the minimum quantity of food necessary for prisoners to continue working. New orders listing ration levels were issued to camp commanders with great frequency. These ultimately became long, complex documents, written in heavy, bureaucratic language.

Typical, for example, was the Gulag administration’s order on rations, issued on October 30, 1944. The orders stipulated one “guaranteed” or basic norm for most prisoners: 550 grams of bread per day, 8 grams of sugar, and a collection of other products theoretically intended for use in thebalanda, the midday soup, and in the kasha, or “porridge,” served for breakfast; and supper: 75 grams of buckwheat or noodles, 15 grams of meat or meat products, 55 grams of fish or fish products, 10 grams of fat, 500 grams of potato or vegetable, 15 grams of salt, and 2 grams of “surrogate tea.”

To this list of products, some notes were appended. Camp commanders were instructed to lower the bread ration of those prisoners meeting only 75 percent of the norm by 50 grams, and for those meeting only 50 percent of the norm by 100 grams. Those overfulfilling the plan, on the other hand, received an extra 50 grams of buckwheat, 25 grams of meat, and 25 grams of fish, among other things.114

By comparison, camp guards in 1942—a much hungrier year throughout the USSR—were meant to receive 700 grams of bread, nearly a kilo of fresh vegetables, and 75 grams of meat, with special supplements for those living high above sea level.115 Prisoners working in the sharashki during the war were even better fed, receiving, in theory, 800 grams of bread and 50 grams of meat as opposed to the 15 granted to normal prisoners. In addition, they received fifteen cigarettes per day, and matches. 116 Pregnant women, juvenile prisoners, prisoners of war, free workers, and children resident in camp nurseries received slightly better rations. 117

Some camps experimented with even finer tuning. In July 1933, Dmitlag issued an order listing different rations for prisoners who fulfilled up to 79 percent of the norm; 80 to 89 percent of the norm; 90 to 99 percent of the norm; 100 to 109 percent of the norm; 110 to 124 percent of the norm; and 125 percent and higher.118

As one might imagine, the need to distribute these precise amounts of food to the right people in the right quantities—quantities which sometimes varied daily—required a vast bureaucracy, and many camps found it difficult to cope. They had to keep whole files full of instructions on hand, enumerating which prisoners in which situations were to receive what. Even the smallest lagpunkts kept copious records, listing the daily normfulfillments of each prisoner, and the amount of food due as a result. In the small lagpunkt of Kedrovyi Shor, for example—a collective farm division of Intlag—there were, in 1943, at least thirteen different food norms. The camp accountant—probably a prisoner—had to determine which norm each of the camp’s 1,000 inmates should receive. On long sheets of paper, he first drew out lines by hand, in pencil, and then added the names and numbers, in pen, covering page after page after page with his calculations. 119

In larger camps, the bureaucracy was even worse. The Gulag’s former chief accountant, A. S. Narinsky, has described how the administrators of one camp, engaged in building one of the far northern railway lines, hit on the idea of distributing food tickets to prisoners, in order to ensure that they received the correct rations every day. But even getting hold of tickets was difficult in a system plagued by chronic paper shortages. Unable to find a better solution, they decided to use bus tickets, which took three days to arrive. This problem “constantly threatened to disorganize the entire feeding system.”120

Transporting food in winter to distant lagpunkts was also a problem, particularly for those camps without their own bakeries. “Even bread which was still warm,” writes Narinsky, “when transported in a goods car for 400 kilometers in 50 degrees of frost became so frozen that it was unusable not only for human consumption, but even for fuel.”121 Despite the distribution of complex instructions for storing the scant vegetables and potatoes in the north during the winter, large quantities froze and became inedible. In the summer, by contrast, meat and fish went bad, and other foods spoiled. Badly managed warehouses burned to the ground, or filled with rats.122

Many camps founded their own kolkhoz, or collective farm, or dairy lagpunkts, but these too often worked badly. One report on a camp kolkhoz listed, among its other problems, the lack of technically trained personnel, the lack of spare parts for the tractor, the lack of a barn for the dairy cattle, and the lack of preparation for the harvest season. 123

As a result, prisoners were almost always vitamin deficient, even when they were not actually starving, a problem the camp officials took more or less seriously. In the absence of actual vitamin tablets, many forced prisoners to drink khvoya, a foul-tasting brew made out of pine needles and of dubious efficacy.124 By way of comparison, the norms for “officers of the armed forces” expressly stipulated vitamin C and dried fruit to compensate for the lack of vitamins in the regular rations. Generals and admirals were, in addition, officially able to receive cheese, caviar, canned fish, and eggs.125

Even the very process of handing out soup, with or without vitamins, could be difficult in the cold of a far northern winter, particularly if it was being served at noon, at the work site. In 1939, a Kolyma doctor actually filed a formal complaint to the camp boss, pointing out that prisoners were being made to eat their food outdoors, and that it froze while it was being eaten.126 Overcrowding was a problem for food distribution too: one prisoner remembered that in the lagpunkt adjacent to the Maldyak mine in Magadan, there was one serving window for more than 700 people. 127

Food distribution could also be disrupted by events outside the camps: during the Second World War, for example, it often ceased altogether. The worst years were 1942 and 1943, when much of the western USSR was occupied by German troops, and much of the rest of the country was preoccupied fighting them. Hunger was rife across the country—and the Gulag was not a high priority. Vladimir Petrov, a prisoner in Kolyma, recalls a period of five days without any food deliveries in his camp: “real famine set in at the mine. Five thousand men did not have a piece of bread.”

Cutlery and crockery were constantly lacking too. Petrov, again, writes that “soup still warm when received would become covered with ice during the period of time one man would wait for a spoon from another who had finished with one. This probably explained why the majority of the men preferred to eat without spoons.”128 Another prisoner believed that she had remained alive because she “traded bread for a half-liter enamel bowl . . . If you have your own bowl, you get the first portions—and the fat is all on the top. The others have to wait until your bowl is free. You eat, then give it to another, who gives it to another . . .”129


In the Camp Kitchen: prisoners lining up for soup—a drawing by Ivan Sykahnov, Temirtau, 1935–1937

Other prisoners made their own bowls and cutlery out of wood. The small museum housed in the headquarters of the Memorial Society in Moscow displays a number of these strangely moving items.130 As ever, the central Gulag administration was fully aware of these shortages, and occasionally tried to do something about them: the authorities at one point complimented one camp for making clever use of its leftover tin cans for precisely this purpose.131 But even when crockery and cutlery existed, there was often no way to clean it: one Dmitlag order “categorically” forbade camp cooks from distributing food in dirty dishes.132

For all of these reasons, the food ration regulations issued in Moscow— already calculated to the minimum level required for survival—are not a reliable guide to what prisoners actually ate. Nor do we need to rely solely on prisoners’ memoirs to know that Soviet camp inmates were very hungry. The Gulag itself conducted periodic inspections of its camps, and kept records of what prisoners were actually eating, as opposed to what they were supposed to be eating. Again, the surreal gap between the neat lists of food rations drawn up in Moscow and the inspectors’ reports is startling.

The investigation of the camp at Volgostroi in 1942, for example, noted that at one lagpunkt, there were eighty cases of pellagra, a disease of malnutrition: “people are dying of starvation,” the report noted bluntly. At Siblag, a large camp in western Siberia, a Soviet deputy prosecutor found that in the first quarter of 1941, food norms had been “systematically violated: meat, fish, and fats are distributed extremely rarely . . . sugar is not distributed at all.” In the Sverdlovsk region in 1942, the food in camps contained “no fats, no fish or meat, and often no vegetables.” In Vyatlag in 1942, “the food in July was poor, nearly inedible, and lacking in vitamins. This is because of the lack of fats, meat, fish, potatoes . . . all of the food is based on flour and grain products.”133

Some prisoners, it seems, were deprived of food because the camp had not received the right deliveries. This was a permanent problem: in Kedrovyi Shor, the lagpunkt accountants kept a list of all food products which could be substituted for those that prisoners should have received but did not. These included not only cheese for milk, but also dried crackers for bread, wild mushrooms for meat, and wild berries for sugar.134 It was hardly surprising that, as a result, the prisoners’ diet looked quite different from how it did on paper in Moscow. An inspection of Birlag in 1940 determined that “the entire lunch for working zeks consists of water, plus 130 grams of grain, and that the second course is black bread, about 100 grams. For breakfast and supper they reheat the same sort of soup.” In conversation with the camp cook, the inspector was also told that the “theoretical norms are never fulfilled,” that there were no deliveries of fish, meat, vegetables, or fats. The camp, concluded the report, “doesn’t have money to buy food products or clothing . . . and without money not one supply organization wants to cooperate.” More than 500 cases of scurvy were reported as a result.135

Just as frequently, however, food arrived in a camp only to be stolen immediately. Thieving took place at just about every level. Usually, food was stolen while it was being prepared, by those working in the kitchen or food storage facilities. For that reason, prisoners sought out jobs which gave them access to food—cooking, dishwashing, work in storage warehouses— in order to be able to steal. Evgeniya Ginzburg was once “saved” by a job washing dishes in the men’s dining hall. Not only was she able to eat “real meat broth and excellent dumplings fried in sunflower-seed oil,” but she also found that other prisoners stood in awe of her. Speaking to her, one man’s voice trembled, “from a mixture of acute envy and humble adoration of anyone who occupied such an exalted position in life—‘where the food is!’”136

Even jobs harvesting crops on camp farms or peeling potatoes were very desirable, and prisoners paid bribes to obtain them, simply to be in a position to steal food. Later in her camp career, Ginzburg also worked tending the chickens that would be eaten by the camp bosses. She and her co-worker took full advantage of the situation: “we smothered the camp semolina with cod-liver oil that we ‘borrowed’ from the chickens. We boiled up oatmeal jelly. We also had three eggs daily between us—one in the soup, and one each to be eaten raw as a special gastronomic treat. (We took no more because we dared not lower the egg productivity index, by which our work was judged.)”137

Theft also took place on a much grander scale, particularly in the camp towns of the far north, where food shortages among free workers and camp guards as well as prisoners made it worth everybody’s while to steal. Every camp filed reports every year of lost property. Those of the Kedrovyi Shor lagpunkt show losses of goods and money of more than 20,000 rubles for the fourth quarter of 1944 alone.138

On a national scale, the numbers went much higher. A prosecutors’ office report for 1947, for example, lists many cases of theft, among them one in Vyatlag, where twelve people, including the head of the camp warehouse, helped themselves to 170,000 rubles worth of food products and vegetables. Another report of that year calculated that in thirty-four camps investigated in the second quarter of 1946 alone, a total of 70,000 kilograms of bread had been stolen, along with 132,000 kilograms of potatoes and 17,000 kilograms of meat. The inspector writing the report concluded that “The complicated system of feeding prisoners creates the conditions for the easy theft of bread and other products.” He also blamed the “system of feeding free workers with ration cards,” as well as the internal camp inspection teams, whose members were thoroughly corrupt too. 139

In some cases the inspection system did make an impact: some camps, fearing trouble, made an effort to fulfill the letter if not the spirit of the law. One camp inmate, for example, received a half-glass of sugar at the end of each month, which he ate raw. This was how his camp’s boss ensured he received the amount stipulated by the Moscow bureaucracy. He and his fellow prisoners celebrated the occasion as “sugar day.”140

In the end, not everybody starved. For even if most food products disappeared before they made it into the soup, one staple food was usually available: bread. Like soup, the bread of the Gulag has been described many times. Sometimes it is remembered as badly baked: one prisoner remembered it being so hard it “resembled a brick,” and so small it could be eaten “in two bites.”141 Another wrote that it was “literally ‘black’ bread because the bran left in it colored the bread black and made the texture coarse.” He also noted that it was baked with a great deal of water, so that it was “wet and weighed heavy, so that in actual fact we received less than our allotted 700 grams.” 142

Others recalled that prisoners fought over the drier, less watery ends of the loaves.143 In Varlam Shalamov’s short story “Cherry Brandy,” a fictive description of the death of Osip Mandelstam, the poet’s approaching death is signaled by his loss of interest in such matters: “He no longer watched for the heel of the loaf or cried when he didn’t get it. He didn’t stuff the bread into his mouth with trembling fingers.” 144

In the hungrier camps, in the hungrier years, bread took on an almost sacred status, and a special etiquette grew up around its consumption. While camp thieves stole almost everything else with impunity, for example, the theft of bread was considered particularly heinous and unforgivable. Vladimir Petrov found on his long train journey to Kolyma that “thieving was permitted and could be applied to anything within the thief’s capacity and luck, but there was one exception—bread. Bread was sacred and inviolable, regardless of any distinctions in the population of the car.” Petrov had in fact been chosen as the starosta of the car, and in that capacity was charged with beating up a petty thief who had stolen bread. He duly did so.145 Thomas Sgovio also wrote that the unwritten law of the camp criminals in Kolyma was: “Steal anything—excepting the holy bread portion.” He too had “seen more than one prisoner beaten to death for violating the sacred tradition.”146 Similarly, Kazimierz Zarod remembered that

If a prisoner stole clothes, tobacco, or almost anything else and was discovered, he could expect a beating from his fellow prisoners, but the unwritten law of the camp—and I have heard from men from other camps that it was the same everywhere—was that a prisoner caught stealing another’s bread earned a death sentence.147

In his memoirs, Dmitri Panin, a close friend of Solzhenitsyn’s, described exactly how such a death sentence might be carried out: “An offender caught in the act of stealing bread would be tossed in the air by other prisoners and allowed to crash to the ground; this was repeated several times, damaging his kidneys. Then they would heave him out of the barracks like so much carrion.”

Panin, like many other camp survivors who lived through the hungry war years, also wrote eloquently about the individual rituals with which some prisoners ate their bread. If prisoners received bread only once a day, in the morning, they faced an agonizing decision: eat it all at once, or save some until the afternoon. To save the bread risked loss or theft of the precious quarter-loaf. On the other hand, a piece of bread was something to look forward to during the day. Panin’s caution against the latter approach must stand as a unique testimony to the science of avoiding hunger:

When you get your ration you have an overwhelming desire to stretch out the pleasure of eating it, cutting your bread up evenly into tiny pieces, rolling the crumbs into little balls. From sticks and strings you improvise a pair of scales and weigh every piece. In such ways you try to prolong the business of eating by three hours or more. But this is tantamount to suicide!

Never on any account take more than a half-hour to consume your ration. Every bite of bread should be chewed thoroughly, to enable the stomach to digest it as easily as possible so that it give up to one’s organism a maximum amount of energy . . . if you always split your ration and put aside a part of it for the evening, you are finished. Eat it all at one sitting; if, on the other hand, you gobble it down too quickly, as famished people often do in normal circumstances, you will also shorten your days . . . 148

Zeks were not the only inhabitants of the Soviet Union who became obsessed with bread and the many ways to eat it, however. To this day, a Russian acquaintance of mine will not eat brown bread of any kind, because, as a child during the war in Kazakhstan, he ate nothing else. And Susanna Pechora, a prisoner in Minlag in the 1950s, once overheard a conversation about camp bread between two Russian peasant women, also prisoners—women who had known what life was like without camp bread:

One of them was holding a piece of bread and stroking it. “Oh my khlebushka” [a nickname, “little bread,” such as one might give to a child], she said, gratefully, “they give you to us every day.” The other said, “We could dry it, and send it to the children, they are hungry after all. But I don’t think they’d allow us to send it . . .”149

After that, Pechora told me, she thought twice before complaining about the lack of food in the camps.

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