Modern history

Chapter 14


Man is a creature that can get used to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.

— Fyodor Dostoevsky The House of the Dead1


To the inexperienced political prisoner, to the young peasant girl arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, to the unprepared Polish deportee, a first encounter with the urki, the Soviet Union’s professional criminal caste, would have been bewildering, shocking, and unfathomable. Evgeniya Ginzburg met her first female criminals as she was boarding the boat to Kolyma:

They were the cream of the criminal world: murderers, sadists, adept at every kind of sexual perversion . . . without wasting any time they set about terrorizing and bullying the “ladies,” delighted to find that “enemies of the people” were creatures even more despised and outcast than themselves . . . They seized our bits of bread, snatched the last of our rags with our bundles, pushed us out of the places we had managed to find . . .2

Traveling the same route, Alexander Gorbatov—General Gorbatov, a Soviet war hero, hardly a cowardly man—was robbed of his boots while in the hold of the SS Dzhurma, crossing the Sea of Okhotsk:

One of them hit me hard on the chest and then on the head and said with a leer: “Look at him—sells me his boots days ago, pockets the cash, and then refused to hand them over!” Off they went with their loot, laughing for all they were worth and only stopping to beat me up again when, out of sheer despair, I followed them and asked for the boots back. 3

Dozens of other memoirists describe similar scenes. The professional criminals would descend upon the other prisoners in what appeared to be a mad fury, throwing them off bunks in barracks or trains; stealing what remained of their clothing; howling, cursing, and swearing. To ordinary people, their appearance and behavior seemed bizarre in the extreme. Antoni Ekart, a Polish prisoner, was horrified by the “complete lack of inhibition on the part of the urki, who would openly carry out all natural functions, including onanism. This gave them a striking resemblance to monkeys, with whom they seemed to have much more in common than with men.”4 Mariya Ioffe, the wife of a famous Bolshevik, also wrote that the thieves had sex openly, walked naked around the barracks, and had no feelings for one another: “Only their bodies were alive.”5

Only after weeks or months in the camps did the uninitiated outsiders begin to understand that the criminal world was not uniform, that it had its own hierarchy, its own system of ranks; that, in fact, there were many different kinds of thieves. Lev Razgon explained: “They were split up into castes and communities, each with its own iron discipline, with many rules and customs, and if these were infringed the punishment was harsh: at best the individual was expelled from that group, and, at worst, he was killed.”6

Karol Colonna-Czosnowski, a Polish prisoner who found himself the only political in an otherwise exclusively criminal northern logging camp, also observed these differences:

The Russian criminal was extremely class-conscious in those days. In fact, class to them was everything. In their hierarchy, big-time criminals, such as bank or train robbers, were members of the upper class. Grisha Tchorny, the head of the camp Mafia, was one of them. At the opposite end of the social scale were the petty crooks, like pickpockets. The big boys would use them as their valets and messengers and they received very little consideration. All other crimes formed the bulk of the middle class, but even there, there were distinctions.

In many ways this strange society was, in caricature, a replica of the “normal” world. In it one could find the equivalent of every shade of human virtue or failing. For example, you could readily recognize the ambitious man on his way up, the snob, the social climber, the cheat as well as the honest and generous man . . .7

At the very top of this hierarchy, setting the rules for all the others, were the professional criminals. Known as urki, blatnoi , or, if they were among the criminal world’s most exclusive elite, vory v zakone—the expression translates as “thieves-in-law”—Russian professional criminals lived by a whole set of rules and customs which preceded the Gulag, and which outlasted it. They had nothing whatsoever to do with the vast majority of Gulag inmates who had “criminal” sentences. The so-called “ordinary” criminals—people convicted of petty theft, infringements of workplace regulations, or other nonpolitical crimes—hated the thieves-in-law with the same passion as they hated political prisoners.

And no wonder: the thieves-in-law had a culture very different from that of the average Soviet citizen. Its origins lay deep in the criminal underground of Czarist Russia, in the thieves and beggars guilds which controlled petty crime in that era.8 But it had grown far more widespread during the first decades of the Soviet regime, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of orphans—direct victims of revolution, civil war, and collectivization—who had managed to survive, first as street children, then as thieves. By the late 1920s, when the camps began to expand on a mass scale, the professional criminals had become a totally separate community, complete with a strict code of behavior which forbade them to have anything to do with the Soviet state. A true thief-in-law refused to work, refused to own a passport, and refused to cooperate in any way with the authorities unless it was in order to exploit them: the “aristocrats” of Nikolai Pogodin’s 1934 play, Aristokraty, are already identifiable as thieves-in-law who refuse, on principle, to do any work.9

For the most part, the indoctrination and re-education programs of the early 1930s were in fact directed at thieves-in-law rather than political prisoners. Thieves, being “socially close” (sotsialno-blizkii)—as opposed to politicals, who were “socially dangerous” (sotsialno-opasnyi)—were assumed to be reformable. But by the late 1930s, the authorities appear to have given up on the idea of reforming the professional criminals. Instead, they resolved to use the thieves-in-law to control and intimidate other prisoners, “counter-revolutionaries” in particular, whom the thieves naturally loathed.10

This was not a wholly new development. A century earlier, criminal convicts in Siberia already hated political prisoners. In The House of the Dead, his lightly fictionalized memoir of his five years in prison, Dostoevsky recounts the remarks of a fellow prisoner: “No, they don’t like gentlemen convicts, especially political ones; they wouldn’t mind murdering them, and no wonder. To begin with, you’re a different sort of people, not like them .. .”11

In the Soviet Union, the camp administration openly deployed small groups of professional criminals to control other prisoners from about 1937 until the end of the war. During that period the highest-ranking thieves-in-law did not work, but instead ensured that others did.12 As Lev Razgon described it:

They did not work but they were allocated a full ration; they levied a money tribute from all the “peasants,” those who did work; they took half of the food parcels and purchases from the camp commissary; and they brazenly cleaned out the new transports, taking all the best clothes from the newcomers. They were, in a word, racketeers, gangsters, and members of a small mafia. All the ordinary criminal inmates of the camp—and they made up the majority—hated them intensely.13

Some political prisoners found ways to get along with the thieves-in-law, particularly after the war. Some top criminal bosses liked to have politicals as mascots or sidekicks. Alexander Dolgun won the respect of the criminal boss in a transit camp by beating up a lower-ranking criminal.14Partly because he too had defeated a criminal in a fistfight, Marlen Korallov—a young political prisoner, later a founding member of the Memorial Society—was noticed by Nikola, his camp’s criminal boss, who allowed Korallov to sit near him in the barracks. The decision changed Korallov’s status in the camp, where he was immediately regarded as “protected” by Nikola, and given a much better sleeping arrangement: “The camp understood: if I become part of the troika around Nikola, then I become part of the camp elite . . . all attitudes to me changed instantly.”15

For the most part, however, the thieves’ rule over the politicals was absolute. Their superior status helped to explain why they felt, in the words of one criminologist, “at home” in the camps: they lived better there than other prisoners, and had a degree of real power in camps that they did not enjoy on the outside.16 Korallov explains, for example, that Nikola inhabited the “only iron bed” in the barrack, which had been pushed into a corner. No one else slept on the bed, and a group of Nikola’s sidekicks lurked around it to make sure this remained so. They also hung blankets on the sides of the beds around their leader, to prevent anyone from looking in. Access to the space around the leader was carefully controlled. Such prisoners even looked upon their long sentences with a form of macho pride. Korallov observed that

There were some young guys, who in order to heighten their authority would make an attempt to escape, a hopeless attempt, and then they received an additional twenty-five years, maybe another twenty-five for sabotage. Then when they pitched up at a new camp, and told people they had 100-year sentences, that made them great figures according to camp morality.17

Their higher status made the thieves’ world attractive to younger prisoners, who were sometimes inducted into the fraternity at elaborate initiation rituals. According to accounts put together by secret police officers and prison administrators in the 1950s, new members of the clan had to swear an oath promising to be a “worthy thief” and to accept the strict rules of the thieves’ life. Other thieves recommended the novice, perhaps praising him for “defying camp discipline” and bestowing upon him a nickname. News of the “coronation” would be passed throughout the camp system via the thieves’ network of contacts, so that even if the new thief was transferred to another lagpunkt, his status would be maintained. 18

That was the system that Nikolai Medvedev (no relation to the Moscow intellectuals) found in 1946. Arrested as a teenager for stealing grain from a collective farm, Medvedev was taken under the wing of one of the leading thieves-in-law while still on the transports, and gradually inducted into the thieves’ world. Upon arrival in Magadan, Medvedev was put to work like other prisoners—he was assigned to clean the dining hall, hardly an onerous task, but his mentor shouted at him to stop: “and so I didn’t work, just like all the other thieves didn’t work.” Instead, other prisoners did his work for him.19

As Medvedev explains it, the camp administration were not concerned about whether particular prisoners worked or not. “For them only one thing mattered: that the mine produced gold, as much gold as possible, and that the camp stayed in order.” And, as he writes rather approvingly, the thieves did ensure that order prevailed. What the camps lost in prisoner work hours, they gained in discipline. He explained that “if someone offended someone else, they would go to the criminal ‘authorities’ with their complaints,” not to the camp authorities. This system, he claimed, kept down the level of violence and brawling, which would otherwise have been distractingly high.20

Nikolai Medvedev’s positive account of the thieves’ reign in the camps is unusual, partly because it describes the thieves’ world from the inside— many of the urki were illiterate, and hardly any wrote memoirs—but mainly because it is sympathetic. Most of the Gulag’s “classic” chroniclers— witnesses to the terror, the robbery, and the rape that the thieves inflicted on the other inhabitants of the camps—hated them with a passion. “The criminals are not human,” wrote Varlam Shalamov, point-blank. “The evil acts committed by criminals in camps are innumerable.” 21 Solzhenitsyn wrote that “It was precisely this universally human world, our world, with its morals, customs, and mutual relationships, which was most hateful to the thieves, most subject to their ridicule, counterposed most sharply to their anti-social, anti-public kubla or clan.” 22 Anatoly Zhigulin described, graphically, how the thieves’ imposition of “order” actually worked. One day, while sitting in a virtually empty dining hall, he heard two prisoners fighting over a spoon. Suddenly Dezemiya, the senior “deputy” of the camp’s senior thief-in-law, burst through the door:

“What’s this noise, what’s this quarrel? You’re not allowed to disturb the peace in the dining hall!”

“Look, he took my spoon and changed it. I had a whole one, he gave me back a broken one . . .”

“I will punish you both, and reconcile you,” chortled Dezemiya. And he made two rapid movements toward the quarrelers with his pick; as quick as lightning he had knocked out one eye apiece. 23

Certainly the thieves’ influence over camp life was profound. Their slang, so distinct from ordinary Russian that it almost qualifies as a separate language, became the most important means of communication in the camps. Although famed for its huge vocabulary of elaborate curses, a list of criminal slang words collected in the 1980s (many still the same as those used in the 1940s) also includes hundreds of words for ordinary objects, including clothes, body parts, and utensils, which are quite different from the usual Russian words. For objects of particular interest—money, prostitutes, theft, and thieves—there were literally dozens of synonyms. As well as general terms for crime (among them po muzike khodit, literally “move to the music”) there were also many specific terms for stealing: stealing in a train station (derzhat sadku), stealing on a bus (marku derzhat), an unplanned theft (idti na shalynuyu), a daytime theft ( dennik), a thief who stole from a church (klyusvennik), among others. 24

Learning to speak blatnoe slovo, “thieves’ talk”—sometimes called blatnayamuzyka, literally “thieves’ music”—was an induction ritual that most prisoners endured, though not necessarily willingly. Some never got used to it. One female political later wrote that

The hardest thing to bear in such a camp is the constant vituperation and abuse . . . the bad language which the women criminals use is so obscene that it is quite unbearable and they seem to be able to speak to each other only in the lowest and coarsest terms. When they started with this cursing and swearing we hated it so much that we used to say to each other, “If she was dying beside me, I would not give her a drop of water.” 25

Others tried to analyze it. As early as 1925, one Solovetsky prisoner speculated upon the origins of this rich vocabulary in an article he wrote for Solovetskie Ostrova, one of the camp magazines. Some of the words, he noted, simply reflected thieves’ morality: language about women was half obscene, half sickly sentimental. Some of the words emerged from the context: thieves used the word for “knocking” (stukat) in place of the word for “speaking” (govorit), which made sense, since prisoners tapped on walls to communicate with one another.26 Another ex-prisoner remarked on the fact that a number of the words —shmon for “search,” musor for “cop,” fraier for “noncriminal” (also translatable as “sucker”)—seemed to come from Hebrew or Yiddish.27 Perhaps this is a testament to the role that the largely Jewish port city of Odessa, once the smugglers’ capital of Russia, played in the development of thieves’ culture.

From time to time, the camp administration even tried to eliminate the slang. In 1933, the commander of Dmitlag ordered his subordinates to “take appropriate measures” in order to get prisoners—as well as guards and camp administrators—to stop using the criminal language, which was now in “general use, even in official letters and speeches.” 28 There is no evidence whatsoever that he succeeded.

The highest-ranking thieves not only sounded different but also looked different from other prisoners. Perhaps even more than their slang, their clothing and bizarre fashion sense established them as a separate identifiable caste, which contributed further to the power of intimidation they exercised over other prisoners. In the 1940s, according to Shalamov, the Kolyma thieves-in-law all wore aluminum crosses around their necks, with no religious intent: “It was a kind of symbol.” But fashions changed:

In the twenties, the thieves wore trade-school caps; still earlier, the military officer’s cap was in fashion. In the forties, during the winter, they wore peakless leather caps, folded down the tops of their felt boots, and wore a cross around the neck. The cross was usually smooth but if an artist was around, he was forced to use a needle to paint it with the most diverse subjects: a heart, cards, a crucifixion, a naked woman . . . 29

Georgy Feldgun, also in the camps in the 1940s, remembered that the thieves had a distinctive walk, “with small steps, legs held slightly apart,” and wore gold or silver crowns on their teeth which they had affixed as a sort of fashion: “The vor of 1943 went around normally in a dark-blue three-piece outfit, with trousers tucked into boxcalf boots. Blouse under the waistcoat, tucked out. Also a cap, pulled over the eyes. Also tattoos, usually sentimental: ‘I’ll never forget my beloved mother.’ ‘There is no happiness in life . . .’”30

These tattoos, mentioned by many others, also helped to distinguish members of the thieves’ world from the criminal prisoners, and to identify each thief’s role within that world. According to one camp historian, there were different tattoos for homosexuals, for addicts, for those convicted of rape and those convicted of murder.31 Solzhenitsyn is more explicit:

They surrendered their bronze skin to tattooing and in this way gradually satisfied their artistic, their erotic, and even their moral needs: on one another’s chests, stomachs, and backs they could admire powerful eagles perched on cliffs or flying through the sky. Or the big hammer, the sun, with its rays shooting out in every direction; or women and men copulating; or the individual organs of their sexual enjoyment; and all of a sudden, next to their hearts were Lenin or Stalin or perhaps both . . . Sometimes they would laugh at a droll stoker hurling coal into their rear orifice, or a monkey engaged in masturbation. And they would read slogans on each other which, even if they were already familiar, they none the less dearly loved to repeat! “—all the girls in the mouth!” . . . . Or else on a girl thief’s stomach there might be “I will die for a hot—!”32

As a professional artist, Thomas Sgovio was quickly sucked into the tattooing trade. Once, he was asked to draw Lenin’s face on someone’s chest: it was a common belief among thieves that no firing squad would ever shoot at a portrait of Lenin or Stalin.33

The thieves also distinguished themselves from other prisoners in their manner of entertainment. Elaborate rituals surrounded their card games, which involved huge risks, both from the games themselves, which had high stakes, and from the authorities, who punished anyone caught playing. 34But the risks were probably part of their attraction for people accustomed to danger: Dmitri Likhachev, the literary critic imprisoned on Solovetsky, noted that many thieves “compare their emotions during card games to the emotions they feel while carrying out a crime.”35

Indeed, the criminals outwitted all NKVD attempts to stop the games. Searches and confiscations were of no use. “Experts” among the thieves specialized in the production of playing cards, a process which had become, by the 1940s, highly sophisticated. First, the “expert” would cut squares of paper with a razor blade. To ensure the cards were sturdy enough, he then pasted five or six squares together using “glue” made by rubbing a piece of damp bread against a handkerchief. After that, he put the cards under one of the bunks overnight to harden. When they were ready, he stamped the suits onto the card, using a stamp carved out of the bottom of a mug. He used black ash for the black cards. If the medicine streptomycin was available—if the camp or prison doctor had it, and could be threatened or bribed to give some away—he would make red cards as well.36

The card-playing rituals were another part of the terror that the thieves exerted over the political prisoners. When playing with one another, the thieves bet money, bread, and clothes. When they had lost their own they bet the money, bread, and clothes of other prisoners. Gustav Herling first witnessed such an incident on a Stolypin wagon bound for Siberia. He was traveling with a fellow Pole, Shklovski. In the same car, three urki, among them a “gorilla with a flat Mongolian face,” were playing cards.

. . . the gorilla suddenly threw down his cards, jumped down from the bench and came up to Shklovski.

“Give me the coat,” he yelled. “I’ve lost it at cards.”

Shklovski opened his eyes and, without moving from his seat, shrugged his shoulders.

“Give it to me,” the gorilla roared, enraged, “give it, or—glaza vykolu—I’ll poke your eyes out!” The colonel slowly got up and handed over the coat.

Only later, in the labor camp, I understood the meaning of this fantastic scene. To stake the possessions of other prisoners in their games of cards is one of the urkas’ most popular distractions, and its chief attraction lies in the fact that the loser is obliged to force from the victim the item previously agreed upon.37

One female prisoner was the inhabitant of an entire women’s barracks that had been “lost” in a card game. After hearing the news, the women waited anxiously for several days, “incredulous”—until, one night, the attack came: “The uproar was terrific—the women yelled, screamed the skies down, until men came to our rescue . . . in the end nothing but a few bundles of clothes were stolen and the starosta was stabbed.”38

But cards could be no less dangerous for the professional criminals themselves. General Gorbatov encountered a thief in Kolyma who had only two fingers on his left hand. He explained:

I was playing cards and I lost. I had no cash so I staked a good suit, not mine of course, one that a political had on. I meant to take the suit during the night when the new prisoner had stripped for bed. I had to hand it over before eight in the morning, only they took the political away to another camp that very day. Our council of seniors met to hand out my punishment. The plaintiff wanted all my left hand fingers off. The seniors offered two. They bargained a bit and agreed on three. So I put my hand on the table and the man I’d lost to took a stick and with five strokes knocked off my three fingers . . .

The man concluded, almost proudly: “We have our laws too, only tougher than yours. If you do your comrades down, you have to answer for it.”39 Indeed, the thieves’ judicial rituals were as elaborate as their initiation ceremonies, involving a “court,” a trial, and a sentence that could entail beating, humiliation, or even death. Colonna-Czosnowski witnessed a bitter, prolonged card game between two high-ranking thieves, which ended only when one of them had lost all of his possessions. Instead of an arm or a leg, the winner demanded a terrible humiliation as penalty: he commanded the barrack “artist” to tattoo an enormous penis on the man’s face, pointing at his mouth. Minutes later, the loser pressed a hot poker against his face, obliterating his tattoo, and scarring himself for life.40 Anton Antonov-Ovseenko, the son of a leading Bolshevik, also claimed to have met a “deaf-mute” in the camps, who had lost at cards and thereby forfeited the use of his voice for three years. Even as he was shipped from camp to camp, he dared not violate this penalty, as every local urka would know about it: “Violations of this agreement would be punished by death. No one can evade the law of thieves.”41

The authorities knew of these rituals and occasionally tried to intervene, not always successfully. In one incident in 1951, a thieves’ court sentenced a thief called Yurilkin to death. Camp authorities heard of the sentence, and transferred Yurilkin, first to another camp, then to a transit prison, then to a third camp in a completely different part of the country. Nevertheless, two thieves-in-law finally tracked him down there and murdered him—four years later. They were subsequently tried and executed for murder, but even such punishments were not necessarily a deterrent. In 1956, the Soviet prosecutor’s office circulated a frustrated note complaining that “this criminal formation exists in all Corrective-Labor Camps and often the decision of the group to murder one or another prisoner who is in a different camp is executed in that camp unquestioningly.”42

The thieves’ courts could exact punishment on outsiders too, which perhaps explains why they inspired so much terror. Leonid Finkelstein, a political prisoner in the early 1950s, remembered one such revenge murder:

I personally saw only one killing, but that was very spectacular. Do you know what a big metal file is? Such a file, sharpened at one end, is an absolutely murderous weapon . . .

We had a naryadchik, the man who assigned work to prisoners—what he was guilty of, I cannot tell. But the thieves-in-law decided he should be killed. It happened when we were standing at the count, before going to work. Every brigade was standing separate from the others. The naryadchikwas standing in front. Kazakhov was his name, he was a heavy man with a heavy paunch. One of the thieves darted out of the formation, and thrust this file into his stomach, into his belly. It was probably a trained assassin. The man was caught immediately—but he had twenty-five years. He was of course retried, and given another twenty-five years. So his term was extended for a couple of years, so who cares . . . 43

Nevertheless, it was relatively rare for the thieves to aim their “justice” at those running the camps. By and large they were, if not exactly loyal Soviet citizens, then at least happy to cooperate in the one task that Soviet authorities set for them: they were perfectly happy, that is, to lord it over the politicals—that group which was, to quote Evgeniya Ginzburg again, “even more despised and outcast than themselves.”


With their special slang, distinctive clothing, and rigid culture, the professional criminals were easy to identify, and are easy to describe. It is far harder to make generalizations about the rest of the prisoners, the people who formed the raw material of the Gulag’s workforce, since they came from every strata of Soviet society. Indeed, for too long, our understanding of who exactly the majority of the camps’ inmates were has been skewed by our forced reliance on memoirs, particularly memoirs published outside the Soviet Union. Their authors were usually intellectuals, often foreigners, and almost universally political prisoners.

Since Gorbachev’s glasnost in 1989, however, a wider variety of memoir material has become available, along with some archival data. According to the latter, which must be treated with a great deal of caution, it now appears that the vast majority of prisoners were not intellectuals at all—not people, that is, from Russia’s technical and academic intelligentsia, which was effectively a separate social class—but workers and peasants. Some figures for the 1930s, the years when the bulk of the Gulag’s inmates were kulaks, are particularly revealing. In 1934, only .7 percent of the camp population had higher education, while 39.1 percent were classified as having only primary education. At the same time, 42.6 percent were described as “semiliterate,” and 12 percent were completely illiterate. Even in 1938, the year the Great Terror raged among Moscow and Leningrad intellectuals, those with higher education in the camps still numbered only 1.1 percent while over half had primary education and a third were semiliterate. 44

Comparable figures on the social origins of prisoners do not seem to be available, but it is worth noting that in 1948, less than one quarter of prisoners were politicals—those sentenced, according to Article 58 of the Criminal Code, for “counter-revolutionary” crimes. This follows an earlier pattern. Politicals accounted for a mere 12 and 18 percent of prisoners in the terror years of 1937 and 1938; hovered around 30 to 40 percent during the war; rose in 1946 to nearly 60 percent, as a result of the amnesty given to criminal prisoners in the wake of victory; and then remained steady, accounting for between a quarter and a third of all prisoners, throughout the rest of Stalin’s reign.45 Given the higher turnover of nonpolitical prisoners—they often had shorter sentences and were more likely to meet requirements for early release—it is safe to say that the vast majority of the inmates who passed through the Gulag system in both the 1930s and 1940s were people with criminal sentences, and therefore more likely to be workers and peasants.

Yet although these numbers may help to correct past impressions, they can be misleading too. Looking at the new memoir material accumulated in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is also becoming clear that many of the politicals were not really “political prisoners” in the way we define the term today. In the 1920s, the camps did indeed contain members of anti-Bolshevik parties, who actually called themselves “politicals.” There were also, in the 1930s, a few genuine Trotskyites—people who really did support Trotsky against Stalin. In the 1940s, following mass arrests in Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Poland, a wave of authentically anti-Soviet partisans and activists also arrived in the camps. In the early 1950s, a handful of anti-Stalinist students were arrested too.

Nevertheless, of the hundreds of thousands of people referred to in the camps as political prisoners, the vast majority were not dissidents, or priests saying mass in secret, or even Party bigwigs. They were ordinary people, swept up in mass arrests, who did not necessarily have strong political views of any kind. Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, once an employee of one of the industrial ministries in Moscow, wrote, “Before my arrest, I led a very ordinary life, typical of a professional Soviet woman who didn’t belong to the Party. I worked hard but took no particular part in politics or public affairs. My real interests lay with home and family.”46


Draft Portrait of Two Zeks: a drawing by Sergei Reikenberg, Magadan, date unknown

If the politicals were not necessarily political, the vast majority of criminal prisoners were not necessarily criminals either. While there were some professional criminals and, during the war years, some genuine war criminals and Nazi collaborators in the camps, most of the others had been convicted of so-called “ordinary” or nonpolitical crimes that in other societies would not be considered crimes at all. The father of Alexander Lebed, the Russian general and politician, was twice ten minutes late to work for his factory job, for which he received a five-year camp sentence.47 At the largely criminal Polyansky camp near Krasnoyarsk-26, home of one of the Soviet Union’s nuclear reactors, archives record one “criminal” prisoner with a six-year sentence for stealing a single rubber boot in a bazaar, another with ten years for stealing ten loaves of bread, and another—a truck driver raising two children alone—with seven years for stealing three bottles of the wine he was delivering. Yet another got five years for “speculation,” meaning he had bought cigarettes in one place and sold them in another. 48 Antoni Ekart tells the story of a woman who was arrested because she took a pencil from the office where she worked. It was for her son, who had been unable to do his schoolwork for lack of something to write with.49 In the upside-down world of the Gulag, criminal prisoners were no more likely to be real criminals than political prisoners were likely to be active opponents of the regime.

In other words, criminals were not always people who had committed a real crime. And it was even rarer for a political to have committed a political offense. This did not stop the Soviet judicial system from classifying them with great care, however. As a group, the status of the counter-revolutionaries was lower than that of the criminals; as I say, they were considered to be “socially dangerous,” less compatible with Soviet society than the “socially close” criminals. But the politicals were also ranked according to whatever section of Article 58 of the Criminal Code they had been sentenced under. Evgeniya Ginzburg noted that among the political prisoners it was by far “best” to have been sentenced under Section 10 of Article 58, for “Anti-Soviet Agitation” (ASA). These were the “babblers”: they had told an unfortunate anti-Party joke, or had let slip some criticism of Stalin or the local Party boss (or had been accused by a jealous neighbor of having done so). Even the camp authorities tacitly recognized that the “babblers” had committed no crime whatsoever, so those sentenced for ASA sometimes found it easier to get lighter work assignments.

Below them were those convicted for “counter-revolutionary activity” (KRD). Lower still were those convicted of “counter-revolutionary terrorist activity” (KRTD). The additional “T” could mean, in some camps, that a prisoner was actually forbidden to be assigned to anything but the most difficult “general work”—cutting trees, digging mines, building roads—particularly if the KRTD was accompanied by a sentence of ten or fifteen years or more.50

And it was possible to go lower still. Below KRTD was yet another category: KRTTD, not just terrorist activities, but “Trotskyist terrorist activities.” “I knew of cases,” wrote Lev Razgon, “when the additional T would appear in a prisoner’s camp documents because of a quarrel during a general head-count with the work distributor or the head of Distribution, who were both criminals.”51 A minor change like that could mean the difference between life and death, since no foreman would assign a KRTTD prisoner to anything but the toughest physical labor.

These rules were not always clear-cut. In practice, prisoners constantly weighed the value of these different sentences, trying to work out what effect they would have on their lives. Varlam Shalamov records that after he had been selected to take a paramedical course, one which would enable him to become a feldsher—a doctor’s assistant, one of the most prestigious and comfortable jobs in the camp—he was worried about the effect his sentence would have on his ability to complete the course: “Would they accept political prisoners convicted under Article 58 of the Criminal Code? Only those who came under Section 10. And how about my neighbor in the rear of the truck? He too was ASA, anti-Soviet agitation.” 52

Official sentences alone did not determine the politicals’ place in the camp hierarchy. Although they did not have a rigid code of behavior like the criminals, or a unifying language, they did eventually segregate themselves into distinct groups. These political clans hung together for comradeship, for self-protection, or because they shared a common worldview. They were not distinct—they overlapped with one another, and with the clans of nonpolitical prisoners—and they did not exist in every camp. When they did, however, they could be vital to a prisoner’s survival.

The most fundamental, and ultimately the most powerful, of the political clans were those formed around nationality or place of origin. These grew more important during and after the Second World War, when the numbers of foreign prisoners increased dramatically. Their derivation was natural enough. A new prisoner would arrive, and immediately search his barracks for fellow Estonians, fellow Ukrainians, or, in a tiny number of cases, fellow Americans. Walter Warwick, one of the “American Finns” who wound up in the camps in the late 1930s, has described, in a manuscript he wrote for his family, how the Finnish speakers in his camp banded together specifically in order to protect themselves from the thievery and banditry of the professional criminals: “We came to the conclusion that if we wanted to have a little rest from them, we must have a gang. So we organized our own gang to help each other. There were six of us: two American Finns . . . two Finnish Finns . . . and two Leningrad District Finns ...”53

Not every national clan had the same character. Opinions differ, for example, as to whether Jewish prisoners actually had their own network, or whether they melded into the general Russian population (or, in the case of the large numbers of Polish Jews, into the general Polish population). At different times, it seems, the answer was different, and much depended on individual attitudes. Many of the Jews arrested in the late 1930s, during the repressions against top nomenklatura and the army, appear to have considered themselves communists first and Jews second. As one prisoner put it, in the camps “Everyone became Russian—Caucasians, Tartars, Jews.”54

Later, as more Jews arrived along with the Poles during the war, they seem to have formed recognizable ethnic networks. Ada Federolf, who wrote her memoirs together with Ariadna Efron, Marina Tsvetaeva’s daughter, described one camp where the tailors’ workshop—by camp standards a luxurious place to work—was run by a man called Lieberman. Whenever a new transport arrived, he would go through the crowd calling out, “Any Jews, any Jews?” When he found Jews he arranged for them to work for him in his workshop, thereby saving them from general work in the forests. Lieberman also devised ingenious plans to save rabbis, who needed to pray all day. He built a special closet for one rabbi, hiding him inside it so that no one would know that he was not working. He also invented the job of “quality controller” for another rabbi. This allowed the man to walk up and down the lines of sewing women all day long, smiling at them and praying under his breath.55

By the early 1950s, when official anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union began to grow stronger, buoyed by Stalin’s obsession with the Jewish doctors he thought were trying to kill him, it became more difficult to be Jewish once again. Although even at this time, the degree of anti-Semitism seemed to vary from camp to camp. Ada Purizhinskaya, a Jewish prisoner arrested at the height of the “Doctors’ Plot” (her brother had been tried and executed for “conspiring to kill Stalin”) remembered “no special problems because of being Jewish.”56 But Leonid Trus, another Jewish prisoner arrested at that time, remembered differently. Once, he said, an older zek saved him from a raving anti-Semite, a man who had been arrested for trading in icons. The older zek shouted at the trader: he, a man who had “bought and sold pictures of Christ,” should be ashamed of himself.

Nevertheless, Trus did not try to hide the fact that he was Jewish: on the contrary, he painted a Star of David on his boots, largely to prevent anyone from stealing them. In his camp, “Jews, like Russians, didn’t organize themselves into a group.” This left him without obvious companions: “The worst for me . . . was loneliness, the sense of being a Jew among Russians, that everyone has friends from their region, whereas I am completely alone.” 57

Because of their small numbers, the West Europeans and North Americans who found themselves in the camps also found it difficult to form strong networks. They were hardly in a position to help one another anyway: many were completely disoriented by camp life, did not speak Russian, found the food inedible and the living conditions intolerable. After watching a whole group of German women die in the Vladivostok transit prison, despite being allowed to drink boiled water, Nina Gagen-Torn, a Russian prisoner, wrote, only half tongue-in-cheek, that “If the barracks are filled with Soviet citizens, accustomed to the food, they can tolerate the salted fish, even if it is spoiled. When a big transport consisting of arrested members of the Third International arrived, they all came down with severe dysentery.”58 Lev Razgon also pitied foreigners, writing that “they could neither understand nor assimilate; they did not try to adapt and survive. They merely huddled together instinctively.” 59

But the Westerners—a group which included Poles, Czechs, and other East Europeans—had a few advantages too. They were the object of special fascination and interest, which sometimes paid off in contacts, in gifts of food, in kinder treatment. Antoni Ekart, a Pole educated in Switzerland, was given a place in a hospital thanks to an orderly named Ackerman, originally from Bessarabia: “The fact that I came from the West simplified matters”: everyone was interested in the Westerner, and had wanted to save him. 60 Flora Leipman, a Scottish woman whose Russian stepfather had talked her family into moving to the Soviet Union, deployed her “Scottishness” to entertain her fellow prisoners:

I pulled up my skirt above the knees to look like a kilt and turned down my stockings to make them look knee high. In Scots fashion my blanket was thrown over my shoulder and I hung my hat in front of me like a sporran. My voice soared with pride, singing “Annie-Laurie,” “Ye Banks and Braes o’Bonnie Doon,” always finishing up with “God Save the King”—without translation.61

Ekart also described what it felt like being an “object of curiosity” for Russian intellectuals:

At specially organized, carefully hidden meetings with some of the more trusted among them, I told them of my life in Zurich, in Warsaw, in Vienna and other cities of the West. My sports coat from Geneva, my silk shirts, were most carefully examined, for they were the only material evidence of the high standard of living outside the world of communism. Some of them were visibly incredulous when I said that I could easily buy all these articles on my monthly salary as a junior engineer in a cement factory.

“How many suits did you have?” asked one of the agricultural experts.

“Six or seven.”

“You are a liar!” said one man of not more than 25, and then, turning to the others: “Why should we tolerate such fantastic stories? Everything has its limits; we are not children.”

I had difficulty making it clear that in the West, an ordinary person, taking some care of his appearance, would aim at having several suits, because clothes keep better if one can change from time to time. For a member of the Russian intelligentsia, who seldom has more than one suit, this was difficult to grasp.62

John Noble, an American picked up in Dresden, also became a “Vorkuta VIP” and regaled his camp mates with tales of American life they found incredible. “Johnny,” one of them said to him, “you would have us believe American workers drive their own cars.”63

But although their foreignness won them admiration, it also prevented them from making the closer contacts which sustained so many in the camps. Leipman wrote that “even my new camp ‘friends’ were frightened of me because I was a foreigner in their own eyes.”64 Ekart suffered when he found himself the only non-Russian prisoner in a lagpunkt, both because Soviet citizens did not like him and because he did not like them: “I was surrounded by an aroma of dislike if not hatred . . . they resented the fact that I was not like them. At every step I felt their mistrust and brutishness, their ill-will and their innate vulgarity. I had to spend many sleepless nights in defense of myself and my belongings.” 65

Again, his feelings have an echo in an earlier era. Dostoevsky’s descriptions of the relationship between Poles and Russian criminals in the nineteenth century suggest that Ekart’s forebears had felt the same: “The Poles (I speak only of the political offenders) behaved with a sort of refined, insulting politeness towards them, were extremely uncommunicative and could in no way conceal from the convicts the revulsion they felt for them; the convicts, for their part, understood this very well and repaid them in their own coin.”66

In an even weaker position still were the Muslim and other prisoners from central Asia and some of the Caucasian republics. They suffered the same kind of disorientation as Westerners, but usually were not able to entertain or interest the Russians either. Known as natsmeny (from the Russian for “national minorities”), they had been part of camp life from the late 1920s. Large numbers had been arrested during the pacification—and Sovietization—of central Asia and the northern Caucasus, and sent to work on the White Sea Canal, where a contemporary wrote that “Everything is hard for them to understand: the people who direct them, the canal which they are building, the food they are eating.” 67 From 1933 on, many of them worked on the Moscow–Volga Canal as well, where the camp boss seems to have taken pity on them. At one point he ordered his subordinates to set up separate barracks and separate work brigades for them, so that they would at least be surrounded by fellow countrymen. 68 Later, Gustav Herling encountered them in a northern logging camp. He remembered seeing them every evening in the camp infirmary, waiting to see the camp doctor:

Even in the waiting-room they clasped their stomachs in pain, and the moment they entered behind the partition burst into a sorrowful whining, in which moans were mixed indistinguishably with their curious broken Russian. There was no remedy for their disease . . . they were dying simply of homesickness, of longing for their native country, of hunger, cold and the monotonous whiteness of snow. Their slanting eyes, unused to the northern landscape, were always watering and their eyelashes were stuck together by a thin yellow crust. On the rare days on which we were free from work, the Uzbeks, Turcomen and Kirghiz gathered in a corner of the barrack, dressed in their holiday clothes, long colored silk robes and embroidered skullcaps. It was impossible to guess of what they talked with such great animation and excitement, gesticulating, shouting each other down and nodding their heads sadly, but I was certain that it was not of the camp.69

Life was not much better for the Koreans, usually Soviet citizens of Korean extraction, or the Japanese, a staggering 600,000 of whom arrived in the Gulag and the prisoner-of-war camp system at the end of the war. The Japanese suffered in particular from the food, which seemed not only scarce but strange and virtually inedible. As a result, they would hunt and eat things that seemed to their fellow prisoners equally inedible: wild herbs, insects, beetles, snakes, and mushrooms that even Russians would not touch. Occasionally, these forays ended badly: there are records of Japanese prisoners dying from eating poisonous grasses or wild herbs.70 A hint at how isolated the Japanese felt in the camps comes from the memoirs of a Russian prisoner who once, in a camp library, found a brochure—a speech by the Bolshevik Zhdanov—written in Japanese. He brought it to a Japanese acquaintance, a war prisoner: “I saw him genuinely happy for the first time. Later he told me that he read it every day, just to have contact with his native language.”71

Some of the other Far Eastern nationalities adapted more rapidly. A number of memoirists mention the tight organization of the Chinese— some of whom were “Soviet” ethnic Chinese born in the USSR, some of whom had been legal guest workers in the 1920s, and some of whom were unlucky people who had accidentally or whimsically walked over the very long Chinese–Soviet border. One prisoner recalled being told by a Chinaman that he, like many others, had been arrested because he had swum across the Amur River to the Soviet Union, attracted by the views on the other side: “The green and gold of the trees . . . the steppes looked so beautiful! And everyone who crossed the river from our area never came back. We thought this meant that life must be good over there, so we decided to cross. The minute we did we were arrested and charged under Article 58, Section 6, espionage. Ten years.”72

In the camps, remembered Dmitri Panin, one of Solzhenitsyn’s camp companions, the Chinese “communicated only among themselves. By way of reply to any question of ours, they put on a look of incomprehension.” 73 Karlo Stajner recalled that they were very good at procuring jobs for one another: “All over Europe, the Chinese are famous as jugglers, but in the camps they were employed in the laundry. I cannot remember seeing any non-Chinese laundry workers in any of the camps I passed through.” 74

By far the most influential ethnic groups in the camps were those formed by the Balts and west Ukrainians who had been swept en masse into the camps during and after the war (see Chapter 20). Fewer in numbers, but also influential, were the Poles, particularly the anti-communist Polish partisans who also appeared in the camps in the late 1940s—as well as the Chechens, whom Solzhenitsyn described as “the one nation which would not give in, would not acquire the mental habits of submission,” and who stood out, in a number of ways, from the other Caucasians.75 The strength of these particular ethnic groups was in their sheer numbers, and in their clear opposition to the Soviet Union, whose invasion of their respective countries they regarded as illegal. The postwar Poles, Balts, and Ukrainians also had military and partisan experience, and in some cases their partisan organizations were maintained in the camps. Just after the war, the general staff of UPA, the Ukrainian Rebel Army, one of several groups fighting for control of Ukraine at that time, issued a statement to all Ukrainians who had been deported into exile or sent to camps: “Wherever you are, in the mines, the forest or the camps, always remain what you have formerly been, remain true Ukrainian, and continue our fight.”

In the camps, ex-partisans self-consciously helped one another, and watched over newcomers. Adam Galinski, a Pole who had fought with the anti-Soviet Polish Home Army, both during and after the war, wrote that: “We took special care of the youth of the Home Army and kept up its morale, the highest in the degrading atmosphere of moral decline that prevailed among the different national groups imprisoned in Vorkuta.”76

In later years, when they acquired more power to influence the running of the camps, Poles, Balts, and Ukrainians—like Georgians, Armenians, and Chechens—also formed their own national brigades, slept separately in national barracks, and organized celebrations of national holidays. At times, these powerful groups cooperated with one another. The Polish writer Alexander Wat wrote that Ukrainians and Poles, bitter wartime enemies whose partisan movements fought one another over every inch of western Ukraine, related to one another in Soviet prisons “with reserve but with incredible loyalty. ‘We are enemies, but not here.’”77

At other times these ethnic groups competed, both with one another and with Russians. Lyudmila Khachatryan, herself arrested for falling in love with a Yugoslav soldier, remembered the Ukrainians in her camp refusing to work with the Russians.78 The national resistance groups, wrote another observer, “are characterized on the one hand by hostility to the regime, on the other by hostility to the Russians.” Edward Buca remembered a more generalized hostility—“It was unusual for a prisoner to give any help to anyone of a different nationality” 79—although Pavel Negretov, in Vorkuta at the same time as Buca, felt that most nationalities got along, except when they succumbed to the administration’s “provocations”: “they tried, through their informers . . . to get us to quarrel.”80

During the late 1940s, when the various ethnic groups took over the criminals’ role as de facto policemen within the camps, they sometimes fought one another for control. Marlen Korallov recalled that “they began to fight for power, and power meant a great deal: who controlled the dining hall, for instance, mattered a great deal, because the cook would work directly for its master.” According to Korallov, the balance between the various groups at that time was extremely delicate, and could be upset by the arrival of a new transport. When a group of Chechens arrived in hislagpunkt, for example, they entered the barracks and “threw all of the belongings on the lower bunks on to the floor”—in that camp the lower bunks were the “aristocratic” bunks—“and moved in with their own possessions.”81

Leonid Sitko, a prisoner who spent time in a Nazi POW camp only to be arrested on his return to Russia, witnessed a far more serious battle between Chechens, Russians, and Ukrainians in the late 1940s. The argument started with a personal dispute between brigade leaders and escalated: “it became war, all out war.” The Chechens staged an attack on a Russian barracks, and many were wounded. Later, all of the ringleaders were put in a punishment cell. Although the disputes were over influence within the camp, they had their origin in deeper national feelings, Sitko explained: “The Balts and Ukrainians considered Soviets and Russians to be one and the same thing. Although there were plenty of Russians in the camp, that didn’t stop them from thinking of Russians as occupiers and thieves.”

Sitko himself was once approached in the middle of the night by a group of west Ukrainians:

“Your name is Ukrainian,” they said to me. “Who are you, a traitor?”

I explained to them that I had grown up in the North Caucasus, in a family that spoke Russian, and that I didn’t know why I had a Ukrainian name. They sat for a while, and then left. They could have killed me though—they had a knife.82

One woman prisoner, who otherwise remembered national differences as being “no big deal,” also joked that this was true for everyone except the Ukrainians, who simply “hated everyone else.” 83

Odd though it sounds, in most camps there was no clan for Russians, the ethnic group which formed the decided majority in the camps, according to the Gulag’s own statistics, throughout their existence.84 Russians did, it is true, attach themselves to one another according to what city or part of the country they came from. Muscovites found other Muscovites, Leningraders other Leningraders, and so on. Vladimir Petrov was helped, at one point, by a doctor who asked him,

“What were you, before?”

“A student in Leningrad.”

“Ah! So you are a countryman of mine—very good,” said the doctor, patting my shoulder.85

Often, the Muscovites were particularly powerful and organized. Leonid Trus, arrested while still a student, recalled the older Muscovites in his camp forming a tight network which left him out. Even when, on one occasion, he wanted to borrow a book from the camp library, he first had to convince the librarian, a member of this clan, that he could be trusted with it.86

More often, however, such links were weak, providing prisoners with nothing more than people who remembered the street where they had lived or knew the school they had attended. Whereas other ethnic groups formed whole networks of support, finding places in barracks for newcomers, helping them to get easier jobs, the Russians did not. Ariadna Efron wrote that upon arrival in Turukhansk, where she was exiled with other prisoners at the end of her camp sentence, her train was met by exiles already living there:

A Jewish man took aside the Jewish women in our group, gave them bread, explained to them how to comport themselves, what to do. Then a group of Georgian women were met by a Georgian—and, after a while, there were only us Russians left, perhaps ten to fifteen people. No one came to us, offered us bread, or gave us any advice.87

Still, there were some distinctions among the Russian inmates—distinctions based on ideology rather than ethnicity. Nina Gagen-Torn wrote that the “definite majority of women in the camps understood their fate and their suffering as an accidental misfortune, not trying to look for reasons.” For those, however, who “found for themselves some kind of explanation for what was happening, and believed in it, things were easier.”88 Chief among those who had an explanation were the communists; those prisoners, that is, who continued to maintain their innocence, continued to profess loyalty to the Soviet Union, and continued to believe, against all of the evidence, that everyone else was a genuine enemy and should be avoided. Anna Andreeva remembered the communists searching one another out: “They found one another and clung together, they were clean, Soviet people, and thought everyone else were criminals.”89 Susanna Pechora described seeing them upon arrival in Minlag in the early 1950s, “sitting in a corner and telling one another, ‘We are honest Soviet people, hurrah for Stalin, we aren’t guilty and our state will free us from the company of all these enemies.’”90

Both Pechora and Irena Arginskaya, a prisoner in Kengir at the same time, recall that most of the members of this group belonged to the class of high-ranking Party members arrested in 1937 and 1938. They were mostly older; Arginskaya remembered that they were often grouped in the invalid camps, which still contained many people arrested in that earlier era. Anna Larina, the wife of the Soviet leader Nikolai Bukharin, was one of those arrested at this time who remained faithful to the Revolution at first. While still in prison, she wrote a poem commemorating the anniversary of the October Revolution:

Yet, though behind iron bars I stay, Feeling the anguish of the damned Still I celebrate this day Together with my happy land.

Today I have a new belief I will enter life again, And stride again with my Komsomol Side by side across Red Square!

Later, Larina came to regard this poem “as the ravings of a lunatic.” But at the time, she recited it to the imprisoned wives of the Old Bolsheviks, and “they were moved to tears and applause.” 91

Solzhenitsyn dedicated a chapter of The Gulag Archipelago to the communists, whom he referred to, not very charitably, as “Goodthinkers.” He marveled at their ability to explain away even their own arrest, torture, and incarceration as, alternately, “the very cunning work of foreign intelligence services” or “wrecking on an enormous scale” or “a plot by the local NKVD” or “treason.” Some came up with an even more magisterial explanation: “These repressions are a historical necessity for the development of our society.” 92

Later, a few of these loyalists also wrote memoirs, willingly published by the Soviet regime. Boris Dyakov’s novella, A Story of Survival, was published in 1964 in the journal Oktyabr, for example, with the following introduction: “The strength of Dyakov’s story lies in the fact that it is about genuine Soviet people, about authentic communists. In difficult conditions, they never lost their humanity, they were true to their Party ideals, they were devoted to the Motherland.” One of Dyakov’s heroes, Todorsky, describes how he helps an NKVD lieutenant write a speech on the history of the Party. On another occasion, he tells the camp security officer, Major Yakovlev, that despite his unfair conviction, he believes himself to be a true communist: “I am guilty of no crime against Soviet authority. Therefore I was, and I remain, a communist.” The major advises him to keep quiet about it: “Why shout about it? You think everyone in the camp loves communists?”93

Indeed they did not: open communists were often suspected of working, secretly or otherwise, for the camp authorities. Writing about Dyakov, Solzhenitsyn noted that his memoir appeared to leave some things out. “In exchange for what?” he asks, did security officer Sokovikov agree to secretly post Dyakov’s letters for him, bypassing the camp censor. “That kind of friendship—whence came it? ”94 In fact, archives now show that Dyakov had been a secret police agent all of his life—code-named “Woodpecker”—and that he had continued to work as an informer in the camps.95

The only group that surpassed the communists in their absolute faith were the Orthodox believers, as well as the members of the various Russian Protestant religious sects who were also subject to political persecution: Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Russian variations thereof. They were a particularly strong presence in the women’s camps, where they were colloquially known as monashki, or “nuns.” In the late 1940s, in the women’s camp in Mordovia, Anna Andreeva remembered that “the majority of the prisoners were believers,” who organized themselves so that “on holidays the Catholics would work for the Orthodox and vice versa.” 96

As previously noted, some of these sects refused to cooperate in any way with the Soviet Satan, and would neither work nor sign any official documents. Gagen-Torn describes one religious woman who was released on grounds of illness, but refused to leave the camps. “I don’t recognize your authority,” she told the guard who offered to give her the necessary documents and send her home. “Your power is illegitimate, the Anti-Christ appears on your passports . . . If I go free, you’ll arrest me again. There isn’t any reason to leave.”97 Aino Kuusinen was in a camp with a group of women prisoners who refused to wear numbered clothing, as a result of which “the numbers were stamped on their bare flesh instead,” and they were forced to attend morning and evening roll-calls stark naked. 98

Solzhenitsyn tells the story, repeated in various forms by others, of a group of religious sectarians who were brought to Solovetsky in 1930. They rejected anything that came from the “Anti-Christ,” refusing to handle Soviet passports or money. As punishment, they were sent to a small island in the Solovetsky archipelago, where they were told they would receive food only if they agreed to sign for it. They refused. Within two months they had all starved to death. The next boat to the island, remembered one eyewitness, “found only corpses which had been picked by the birds.” 99

Even those sectarians who did work did not necessarily mix with other prisoners, and sometimes refused to speak to them at all. They would huddle together in one barrack, keeping absolutely silent, or else singing their prayers and their religious songs at the appointed times:

I sat behind the prison bars Remembering how Christ Humbly and mildly carried his heavy Cross With penitence, to Golgotha.100

The more extreme believers tended to inspire mixed feelings on the part of other prisoners. Arginskaya, a decidedly secular prisoner, jokingly remembered that “we all loathed them,” particularly those who, for religious reasons, refused to bathe.101 Gagen-Torn remembered other prisoners complaining about those who refused to work: “We work and they don’t! And they take bread too! ”102

Yet in one sense, those men or women who arrived at a new camp and immediately joined a clan or a religious sect were lucky. For those who belonged to them, the criminal gangs, the more militant national groups, the true communists, and the religious sects provided instant communities, networks of support, and companionship. Most political prisoners, on the other hand, and most “ordinary” criminals—the vast majority of the Gulag’s inhabitants—did not fit in so easily with one or another of these groups. They found it more difficult to know how to live life in the camp, more difficult to cope with camp morality and the camp hierarchy. Without a strong network of contacts they would have to learn the rules of advancement by themselves.


1 Vasily Zhurid; Aleksandr Petlosy; Grigori Maifet; Arnold Karro; Valentina Orlova (top to bottom, left to right)


2a Prisoners arriving at Kem, the Solovetsky transit camp


2b Women harvesting peat, Solovetsky, 1928


3a Maxim Gorky (center), wearing a cloth cap, coat and tie, visiting Solovetsky, 1929, with his son, daughter-in-law, and camp commanders. Sekirka church— the punishment cell—is in the background.


3b The Solovetsky monastery, as it appears today


3c Naftaly Frenkel


4a Prisoners breaking rocks, with handmade tools


4b “Everything was done by hand . . . We dug earth by hand, and carried it out in wheelbarrows, we dug through the hills by hand as well . . .”


5a “The best shock-workers”: this placard hung in a place of honor


5b Stalin and Yezhov, visiting the White Sea Canal to celebrate its completion


6a “We will eradicate Spies and Diversionists, Agents of the Trotskyite-Bukharinite Fascists!”—NKVD poster, 1937


6b Arrest of an Enemy in the Workplace—Soviet painting, 1937


7a Four camp commanders, Kolyma, 1950. The daughter of a prisoner has written “Killers!” across the photograph.


7b Armed guards, with dogs


8a Beside a grandmother’s grave


8b In central Asia


8c Outside a zemlyanka, an earth dugout


9a Kolyma landscape


9b Entrance to a Vorkuta lagpunkt (the sign reads: “Work in the USSR is a matter of Honour and Glory . . .”)


10a Sawing logs


10b Hauling timber


11a Digging the Fergana Canal


11b Digging coal


12a “If you have your own bowl, you get the first portions.”


12b “They surrendered their bronze skin to tattooing and in this way gradually satisfied their artistic, their erotic, and even their moral needs.”


13a “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 . . .”


13b “Having been admitted with advanced signs of malnutrition, the majority would die in hospital . . .”


14a&b Polish children, photographed just after amnesty, 1941


15a Camp maternity ward: a prisoner nursing her newborn


15b Camp nursery: decorating a holiday tree


16a A crowded barracks . . .


16 b . . . a punishment isolator

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