Modern history

Chapter 17


I am poor, alone and naked,
I’ve no fire.
The lilac polar gloom
Is all around me . . .
I recite my poems
I shout them
The trees, bare and deaf,
Are frightened.
Only the echo from the distant mountains
Rings in the ears.
And with a deep sigh
I breathe easily again.

—Varlam Shalamov Neskolko moikh zhiznei1

IN THE END, prisoners survived. They survived even the worst camps, even the toughest conditions, even the war years, the famine years, the years of mass execution. Not only that, some survived psychologically intact enough to return home, to recover, and to live relatively normal lives. Janusz Bardach became a plastic surgeon in Iowa City. Isaak Filshtinsky went back to teaching Arabic literature. Lev Razgon went back to writing children’s fiction. Anatoly Zhigulin went back to writing poetry. Evgeniya Ginzburg moved to Moscow, and for years was the heart and soul of a circle of survivors, who met regularly to eat, drink, and argue around her kitchen table.

Ada Purizhinskaya, imprisoned as a teenager, went on to marry and produce four children, some of whom became accomplished musicians. I met two of them over a generous, good-humored family dinner, during which Purizhinskaya served dish after dish of delicious cold food, and seemed disappointed when I could not eat more. Irena Arginskaya’s home is also full of laughter, much of it coming from Irena herself. Forty years later, she was able to make fun of the clothes she had worn as a prisoner: “I suppose youcould call it a sort of jacket,” she said, trying to describe her shapeless camp overcoat. Her well-spoken, grown-up daughter laughed along with her.

Some even went on to lead extraordinary lives. Alexander Solzhenitsyn became one of the best-known, and best-selling, Russian writers in the world. General Gorbatov helped lead the Soviet assault on Berlin. After his terms in Kolyma and a wartime sharashka, Sergei Korolev went on to become the father of the Soviet Union’s space program. Gustav Herling left the camps, fought with the Polish army, and, although writing in Neapolitan exile, became one of the most revered men of letters in post-communist Poland. News of his death in July 2000 made the front pages of the Warsaw newspapers and an entire generation of Polish intellectuals paid tribute to his work—especially A World Apart, his Gulag memoir. In their ability to recover, these men and women were not alone. Isaac Vogelfanger, who himself became a professor of surgery at the University of Ottawa, wrote that “wounds heal, and you can become whole again, a little stronger and more human than before . . .”2

Not all Gulag survivors’ stories ended so well, of course, which one would not necessarily be able to tell from reading memoirs. Obviously, people who did not survive did not write. Those who were mentally or physically damaged by their camp experiences did not write either. Nor did those who had survived by doing things of which they were later ashamed write very often either—or, if they did, they did not necessarily tell the whole story. There are very, very few memoirs of informers—or of people who will confess to having been informers—and very few survivors who will admit to harming or killing fellow prisoners in order to stay alive.


In the Fifth Year of the Camp (Survivors): prisoners’ faces, transformed over time— a drawing by Aleksei Merekov, a prisoner, place and date unknown

For these reasons, some survivors question whether written memoirs have any validity at all. Yuri Zorin, an elderly and not very forthcoming survivor whom I interviewed in his home city, Arkhangelsk, waved away a question I asked him about philosophies of survival. There weren’t any, he said. Although it might seem, from their memoirs, as if prisoners “discussed everything, thought about everything,” it was not like that, he told me: “The whole task was to live through the next day, to stay alive, not to get sick, to work less, to eat more. And that was why philosophical discussions, as a rule, were not held . . . We were saved by youth, health, physical strength, because there we lived by Darwin’s laws, the survival of the fittest.” 3

The whole subject of who survived—and why they survived—must therefore be approached very carefully. In this matter, there are no archival documents to rely upon, and there is no real “evidence.” We have to take the word of those who were willing to describe their experiences, either on paper or for an interviewer. Any one of them might have had reason to conceal aspects of their biographies from their readers.

With that caveat, it is still possible to identify patterns within the several hundred memoirs which have been published or placed in archives. For there were strategies for survival, and they were well-known at the time, although they varied a great deal, depending on a prisoner’s particular circumstances. Surviving a labor colony in western Russia in the mid-1930s or even late 1940s, when most of the work was factory work and the food was regular if not plentiful, probably did not require any special mental adjustments. Surviving one of the far northern camps—Kolyma, Vorkuta, Norilsk—during the hungry war years, on the other hand, often required huge reserves of talent and willpower, or else an enormous capacity for evil, qualities that the prisoners, had they remained in freedom, might never have discovered within themselves.

Without a doubt, many such prisoners survived because they found ways to raise themselves above the other prisoners, to distinguish themselves from the swarming mass of starving zeks. Dozens of camp sayings and proverbs reflect the debilitating moral effects of this desperate competition. “You can die today—I’ll die tomorrow,” was one of them. “Man is wolf to man”—the phrase Janusz Bardach used as the title of his memoir—was another.

Many ex-zeks speak of the struggle for survival as cruel, and many, like Zorin, speak of it as Darwinian. “The camp was a great test of our moral strength, of our everyday morality, and 99 percent of us failed it,” wrote Shalamov.4 “After only three weeks most of the prisoners were broken men, interested in nothing but eating. They behaved like animals, disliked and suspected everyone else, seeing in yesterday’s friend a competitor in the struggle for survival,” wrote Edward Buca.5

Elinor Olitskaya, with her background in the pre-revolutionary social democratic movement, was particularly horrified by what she perceived as the amorality of the camps: while inmates in prisons had often cooperated, the strong helping the weak, in the Soviet camps every prisoner “lived for herself,” doing down the others in order to attain a slightly higher status on the camp hierarchy.6 Galina Usakova described how she felt her personality had changed in the camps: “I was a well-behaved girl, well brought up, from a family of intelligentsia. But with these characteristics you won’t survive, you have to harden yourself, you learn to lie, to be hypocritical in various ways.”7

Gustav Herling elaborated further, describing how it is that the new prisoner slowly learns to live “without pity”:

At first he shares his bread with hunger-demented prisoners, leads the night-blind on the way home from work, shouts for help when his neighbor in the forest has chopped off two fingers, and surreptitiously carries cans of soup and herring-heads to the mortuary. After several weeks he realizes that his motives in all this are neither pure nor really disinterested, that he is following the egotistic injunctions of his brain and saving first of all himself. The camp, where prisoners live at the lowest level of humanity and follow their own brutal code of behavior toward others, helps him to reach this conclusion. How could he have supposed, back in prison, that a man can be so degraded as to arouse not compassion but only loathing and repugnance in his fellow prisoners? How can he help the night-blind, when every day he sees them being jolted with rifle-butts because they are delaying the brigade’s return to work, and then impatiently pushed off the paths by prisoners hurrying to the kitchen for their soup; how visit the mortuary and brave the constant darkness and stench of excrement; how share his bread with a hungry madman who on the very next day will greet him in the barrack with a demanding, persistent stare . . . He remembers and believes the words of his examining judge, who told him that the iron broom of Soviet justice sweeps only rubbish into its camps . . .8

Such sentiments are not unique to the survivors of Soviet camps. “If one offers a position of privilege to a few individuals in a state of slavery,” wrote Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, “exacting in exchange the betrayal of a natural solidarity with their comrades, there will certainly be someone who will accept.”9 Also writing of German camps, Bruno Bettelheim observed that older prisoners often came to “accept SS values and behavior as their own,” in particular adopting their hatred of the weaker and lower-ranking inhabitants of the camps, especially the Jews.10

In the Soviet camps, as in the Nazi camps, the criminal prisoners also readily adopted the dehumanizing rhetoric of the NKVD, insulting political prisoners and “enemies,” and expressing disgust for the dokhodyagi among them. From his unusual position as the only political prisoner in a mostly criminal lagpunkt, Karol Colonna-Czosnowski was able to hear the criminal world’s view of the politicals: “The trouble is that there are just too many of them. They are weak, they are dirty, and they only want to eat. They produce nothing. Why the authorities bother, God only knows . . .” One criminal, Colonna-Czosnowski writes, said he had met a Westerner in a transit camp, a scientist and university professor. “I caught him eating, yes, actually eating, the half-rotten tail fin of a Treska fish. I gave him hell, you can imagine. I asked him if he knew what he was doing. He just said he was hungry . . . So I gave him such a wallop in the neck that he started vomiting there and then. Makes me sick to think about it. I even reported him to the guards, but the filthy old man was dead the following morning. Serves him right!”11

Other prisoners watched, learned and imitated, as Varlam Shalamov wrote:

The young peasant who has become a prisoner sees that in this hell only the criminals live comparatively well, that they are important, that the all-powerful camp administration fear them. The criminals always have clothes and food, and they support each other . . . it begins to seem to him that the criminals possess the truth of camp life, that only by imitating them will he tread the path that will save his life . . . . the intellectual convict is crushed by the camp. Everything he valued is ground into the dust while civilization and culture drop from him within weeks. The method of persuasion is the fist or the stick. The way to induce someone to do something is by means of a rifle butt, a punch in the teeth . . .12

And yet—it would be incorrect to say there was no morality in the camps at all, that no kindness or generosity was possible. Curiously, even the most pessimistic of memoirists often contradict themselves on this point. Shalamov himself, whose depiction of the barbarity of camp life surpasses all others, at one point wrote that “I refused to seek the job of foreman, which provided a chance to remain alive, for the worst thing in a camp was the forcing of one’s own or anyone else’s will on another person who was a convict just like oneself.” In other words, Shalamov was an exception to his own rule.13

Most memoirs also make clear that the Gulag was not a black-and-white world, where the line between masters and slaves was clearly delineated, and the only way to survive was through cruelty. Not only did inmates, free workers, and guards belong to a complex social network, but that network was also constantly in flux, as we have seen. Prisoners could move up and down the hierarchy, and many did. They could alter their fate not only through collaboration or defiance of the authorities but also through clever wheeling and dealing, through contacts and relationships. Simple good luck and bad luck also determined the course of a typical camp career, which, if it was a long one, might well have “happy” periods, when the prisoner was established in a good job, ate well, and worked little, as well as periods when the same prisoner dropped into the netherworld of the hospital, the mortuary, and the society of the dokhodyagi who crowded around the garbage heap, looking for scraps of food.

In fact, the methods of survival were built in to the system. Most of the time, the camp administration was not trying to kill prisoners; they were just trying to fulfill impossibly high norms set by the central planners in Moscow. As a result, camp guards were more than willing to reward prisoners whom they found useful toward this end. The prisoners, naturally, took advantage of this willingness. The two groups had different goals— the guards wanted to dig more gold or cut more wood, and the prisoners wanted to survive—but sometimes they found shared means to meet these different ends. A handful of survival strategies in particular suited both prisoners and guards, and a list of them follows.


To write a straightforward description of tufta—a word which translates, very imprecisely, as “swindling the boss”—is not an easy task. For one, such practices were so deeply ingrained in the Soviet system that it is hardly fair to describe them as if they were somehow unique to the Gulag.14Nor were they unique to the USSR. The communist-era proverb, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work,” could once be heard in most of the languages of the old Warsaw Pact.

More to the point, tufta permeated virtually every aspect of work—work assignments, work organization, work accounting—and affected virtually every member of the camp community, from the Gulag bosses in Moscow, to the lowliest camp guards, to the most downtrodden prisoners. This was true from the very beginning of the Gulag until the very end. One much-repeated prisoners’ rhyme dated from the days of the White Sea Canal:

Bez tufty i ammonala
Ne postroili by kanala.
Without tufta and dynamite
They would never have built the canal.

In the years since this topic became the subject of debate, controversy has also surrounded the question of how hard prisoners did or did not work, and how much effort they did or did not put into evading work. Ever since the 1962 publication of Solzhenitsyn’sOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich opened up a more or less public debate about the subject of the camps, the broader community of survivors, polemicists, and camp historians has had notable difficulty in coming to a unanimous agreement about the morality of camp work. For much of Solzhenitsyn’s groundbreaking novella was indeed dedicated to its hero’s attempts to avoid work. During the course of Ivan Denisovich’s day, he approaches a doctor, hoping for sick leave; fantasizes about becoming ill for a few weeks; gazes up at the camp thermometer, hoping it will prove too cold to go to the workplace; speaks admirably of brigade leaders who can “make it look as if the work’s done, whether it is or not”; feels relieved when his brigade leader gets a “good rate for the job,” despite the fact that “half the day was gone and they’d done nothing”; steals wood chips from the workplace to light the barracks fire; and steals extra gruel at dinnertime. “Work,” thinks Ivan at one point, “is what horses die of.” He tries to avoid it.

In the years that followed the book’s publication, this portrait of a typical zek was disputed by other survivors, both for ideological and personal reasons. On the one hand, those who believed in the Soviet system—and therefore also believed that the “work” of the camps was valuable and necessary—found Denisovich’s “laziness” offensive. Many of the “alternative,” more “pro-Soviet” accounts of camp life, published in the official Soviet press in the wake of Ivan Denisovich, even focused explicitly on the dedication to work shown by those who, despite the unfairness of their arrests, remained true believers. The Soviet writer (and lifelong informer) Boris Dyakov described an engineer employed on a Gulag construction project near Perm. The engineer had been so engrossed in the job, he told Dyakov’s narrator, that he forgot he was a prisoner: “For a while I enjoyed my work so much I forgot what I had become.” So conscientious was the engineer in Dyakov’s story that he even secretly sent a letter to a local newspaper, complaining about the poor organization of the camp’s transport and supply systems. Although admonished by the camp commander for this indiscretion—it was unheard of for a prisoner’s name to appear in the newspaper—the engineer, as Dyakov tells it, remained pleased that “after the article, things improved a little.”16

The views of those who ran the camps were even more extreme. Anonymously, a former camp administrator told me quite angrily that all of the stories of camp inmates living badly were simply untrue. Those who worked well lived extremely well, she said, much better than the general public: they could even purchase condensed milk—my italics—which ordinary people could not. “It was only those who refused to work, they lived badly,” she told me.17 Such views were generally not voiced in public, but there were some exceptions. Anna Zakharova, the wife of an NKVD officer, whose letter to Izvestiya circulated in the Russian underground press in the 1960s, was sharply critical of Solzhenitsyn. Zakharova wrote that she was “angered to the depths of my soul” by Ivan Denisovich:

We can see why the hero of this story, having such an attitude to the Soviet people, hopes for nothing but the sick bay in order somehow to get out of redeeming his guilt, the wrong he did to his motherland, through toil . . . And why exactly should a person try to avoid physical labor and show scorn for it? After all, for us labor is the foundation of the Soviet system, and it is only in labor that man becomes cognizant of his true powers. 18

Other, less ideological objections have also come from ordinary zeks. V. K. Yasnyi, a prisoner for five years in the early 1940s, wrote in his memoirs that “We tried to work honestly, and not for fear of losing rations, or ending up in the isolator . . . hard work, and that was what it was in our brigade, helped you forget, helped chase away anxious thoughts.”19 Nadezhda Ulyanovskaya, who was imprisoned along with her mother, wrote that her mother worked hard “in order to prove that Jews and intelligentsia work no worse than others.” (“I worked because I was forced to do so,” she writes of herself, however. “I fear that on this point, I did not hold up the honor of the Jewish people.”) 20

Prisoners who had worked enthusiastically on behalf of the Soviet regime all of their lives did not quickly change either. Alexander Borin, a political prisoner and aviation engineer, was assigned to a Gulag metalworking plant. In his memoirs, he proudly describes the technical innovations he made there, mostly worked out in his spare time.21 Alla Shister, another political arrested in the late 1930s, told me in an interview that “I always worked as if I were free. This is my personality trait, I cannot work badly. If a hole has to be dug, I’ll keep on digging until it is finished.” After two years on general work, Shister became a brigade leader, because, she said, “They saw that I work not like a prisoner works, but with all of my strength.” In that capacity, she then made every attempt to inspire those beneath her, although admittedly not by firing them up with love of the Soviet state. This is how she described her first encounter with the men who were to work for her:

I came to the quarry where they were digging. The guards offered to accompany me, but I said that was unnecessary, and I went alone. It was midnight. I came up to the team, and told them, “I need to fulfill the plan, bricks are needed at the front.”

They said, “Alla Borisovna, we don’t care about the plan for bricks, give us our bread ration.”

I said, “You’ll get the ration, if you fulfill the plan.”

They said, “We’ll throw you in a hole now, dig you under and no one will find you.”

I stood there quietly, and said, “You won’t dig me under. I promise you that if today, by twelve noon, you fulfill the norm, I’ll bring you some tobacco.” Tobacco there was worth more than gold or diamonds . . .

Shister had, she said, simply saved her own allotted tobacco rations, as she herself did not smoke, and happily handed them over to her charges. 22

There were also those, of course, who recognized the material advantage to be gained in doing work. Some prisoners tried, simply, to do what was expected of them: to beat the norm, to attain the status of shock-worker, to receive better rations. Vladimir Petrov arrived at a Kolyma lagpunkt and immediately perceived that the inhabitants of the “Stakhanovite tent,” who worked harder than the other prisoners, possessed all of the attributes that the dokhodyagi did not:

They were incomparably cleaner. Even in the extremely harsh conditions of their life in camp they had managed to wash their faces every day, and when they could not get water they had used snow. They were better dressed, too . . . [and] more self-possessed. They did not crowd about the stoves, but sat on their bunks either doing something or talking about their affairs. Even from the outside their tent looked different.

Petrov begged to join their brigade, whose members received 1 kilo of bread every day. Once in, however, he could not keep up with the pace of work. He was expelled from the brigade, which could tolerate no weakness. 23 Nor was his experience atypical, as Herling wrote:

The fascination of the norm was not the exclusive privilege of the free men who imposed it, but also the dominating instinct of the slaves who worked to it. In those brigades where the work was done by teams of men working together, the most conscientious and fervent foremen were the prisoners themselves, for there the norm was reckoned collectively by dividing the total output by the number of workers. Any feeling of mutual friendliness was completely abolished in favor of a race for percentages. An unqualified prisoner who found himself assigned to a coordinated team of experienced workers could not expect to have any consideration shown to him; after a short struggle he was forced to give up and transfer to a team in which he in his turn frequently had to watch over weaker comrades. There was in all this something inhuman, mercilessly breaking the only natural bond between prisoners—their solidarity in face of their persecutors.24

But hard work sometimes backfired. Lev Razgon described peasants who killed themselves trying to overfulfill the norm, earning themselves a “big ration,” 1.5 kilos of bread: “It may have been raw and badly baked, but it was real bread. For peasants who had lived in semi-starvation for years this appeared an enormous quantity, even without any cooked food.” Yet even this “enormous quantity” of food did not make up for the energy expended in doing the forestry work. The forest worker was thus condemned, Razgon wrote: “quite literally, he would starve to death while eating one and a half kilos of bread a day.”25 Varlam Shalamov has also described the “myth of the big ration,” and Solzhenitsyn wrote that “the big ration is the one that kills. In one season of hauling timber the strongest slogger would end up a hopeless last-legger himself.”26

Nevertheless, the vast majority of memoirists (backed up, to a degree, by archival evidence) do indeed speak of avoiding work. Yet their primary motive was not usually mere sloth, or even the desire to “show scorn” for the Soviet system: their primary motive was survival. Having been given poor clothing and insufficient food, having been ordered to work in extreme weather with broken machinery, many realized that avoiding work would save their lives.

The unpublished memoir of Zinaida Usova, one of the wives arrested in 1938, illustrates beautifully how prisoners came to this conclusion. Usova was first placed in Temlag, a camp which mostly contained women like herself, the wives of leading Party members and army bigwigs who had been shot. With a relatively easygoing camp boss and reasonable work schedule, everyone in Temlag worked enthusiastically. Not only were most still “loyal Soviet citizens,” convinced that their arrests had been part of a giant mistake, but they also believed that by working hard they would earn an early release. Usova herself “went to sleep and woke up with thoughts of work, thinking through my designs. One of them was even taken into production.”

Later, however, Usova and a group of other wives moved to another camp, one which also contained criminals. There she found herself working in a furniture factory. Her new camp had much higher, much stricter norms—the “unreasonable” norms spoken of by so many other prisoners. This system, wrote Usova, “made people into slaves, with the psychology of slaves.” Only those who completed the whole norm received the full bread ration of 700 grams. Those who could not, or who were unable to work at all, got 300, barely enough to live on.

To compensate, the prisoners at her new camp tried as best they could to “trick the bosses, to wriggle out of work, to do as little as possible.” With their relative enthusiasm for work, the newly arrived prisoners from Temlag found themselves pariahs. “From the point of view of the older inhabitants, we were fools, or something like strike-breakers. They all hated us immediately.”27 Soon, of course, the women from Temlag adopted the techniques of work-avoidance already mastered by everyone else. Thus did the system itself create tufta, and not vice versa.

Sometimes, prisoners thought up methods of tufta on their own. One Polish woman worked in a Kolyma fish-processing plant where the only people who fulfilled the impossible norms were those who cheated. The Stakhanovites were simply the “cleverest cheaters”: rather than packing all of the herring, they would put a few pieces into a jar and toss the rest out, doing it “so cleverly that the foreman would never notice.” 28 While helping to build a camp bathhouse, Valery Frid was shown a similar trick: how to hide cracks in the building with moss instead of filling them with concrete. He had only one regret about this labor-saving device: “What if I would one day come to wash myself in that bath? After all, the moss would dry out, and then the cold wind would blow through the cracks.”29

Evgeniya Ginzburg has also described how she and her erstwhile logging partner, Galya, finally managed to fulfill their impossible tree-felling norm. Noticing that one of their colleagues always managed to reach the norm, “despite working on her own with a one-handed saw,” they asked her how she did it:

As we pressed her further, she looked around furtively and then explained:

“This forest is full of piles of timber cut by previous work gangs. No one ever counted how many there are.”

“Yes, but anyone can see that they’re not freshly cut . . .”

“The only reason you can see it is that the cross sections are dark in color. If you saw off a small section at each end, it looks as if it has just been cut. Then you stack them up in another place, and there’s your ‘norm.’”

This trick, which we christened “freshening up the sandwiches,” saved our lives for the time being . . . I may add that we did not feel the slightest compunction . . .30

Thomas Sgovio also spent time in a Kolyma tree-felling brigade which, quite simply, did nothing at all:

During the first part of January, my partner Levin and I did not fell a single tree. Neither did any of the others in the lumber brigade. There were many log-piles in the forest. We selected one or two, cleaned off the snow and sat down by the fire. There was even no need to clean off the snow, because not once during the first month did the brigadier, foreman, or overseer come to check our work output.31

Others used connections and relationships to find their way around impossible work assignments. One prisoner in Kargopollag paid another—the payment took the form of a chunk of lard—to teach him how to cut trees more efficiently, thereby enabling him to fulfill the norm, and even to rest in the afternoons.32 Another prisoner assigned to pan for gold in Kolyma paid a bribe to be given an easier job, standing on a slag heap instead of standing in the water.33

More frequently, tufta was organized at the level of work brigades, for brigadiers were able to disguise how much individual prisoners had worked. One ex-zek described how his brigadier allowed him to declare that he had fulfilled 60 percent of the norm, when in fact he could barely do anything at all.34 Yet another prisoner wrote of how his brigadier negotiated with the camp authorities to have his brigade’s norms lowered, as all of his workers were dying off.35 Still other brigadiers took bribes, as Yuri Zorin, who was himself a brigadier, acknowledged: “There, in the camps, there are camp laws which may not be understood by those who live outside the zone,” was how he delicately put it.36 Leonid Trus recalled that his Norilsk brigadiers simply “decided which of his workers deserved better food and pay than others,” without any regard to what they had actually achieved. Bribery, and clan loyalties, determined a prisoner’s “output.”

From the zek’s point of view, the best brigadiers were those who were capable of organizing tufta on a grand scale. Working in a quarry in the northern Urals in the late 1940s, Leonid Finkelstein found himself in a brigade whose leader had worked out a highly complex system of cheating. In the mornings, the team would go down into the canyon. The guards would stay up on the rim, where they spent the day sitting around bonfires to keep warm. Ivan, the brigadier leader, would then organize the tufta:

We knew precisely which parts of the bottom of the canyon are visible from up there, and that was our swindle . . . in the visible part of the bottom, we were cutting very hard at the stone wall. We were working and it was a great deal of noise—the guards could both see and hear us work. Then, Ivan would walk along the row . . . and say, “One to the left”—and we would each make one step to the left. It was never noticed by the guards.

So we would step, one to the left, one to the left, until the last one would step into the invisible zone—we knew where it was, there was a chalk strip on the ground. Once we were in the invisible zone, we would relax, sit on the ground, take an ax and hit the ground next to us, in a relaxed way, just to produce the noise. Then someone else would join, someone else, and so on. Then Ivan would say—“You: to the right!”—and the man would go and join the cycle again. None of us ever worked even half the shift.

Finkelstein was also told, by other prisoners, of the techniques used elsewhere to build a canal. There, tufta was different, but no less sophisticated: “The main thing was to show that the gang has fulfilled its norm.” Workers were asked to dig, but to leave untouched “a little post, a pile, showing what height you dug on the shift, how deep you dug.” Although norms were very heavy, “There were artists, real artists, who managed to extend this post, its height. It is unbelievable, it was cut out of earth, so it would be immediately visible if somebody tampered with it, and yet it was tampered with in a most artistic way. Then, of course the whole gang gets the Stakhanovite dinner.” 37

Such special talents were not always necessary. At one point, Leonid Trus was assigned to unload goods wagons: “We would simply write that we had carried the goods farther than had actually been the case, say 300 meters, instead of 10 meters.” For that, they were given better food rations. “Tufta was constant,” he said of Norilsk; “without it there would have been nothing at all.”

Tufta could also be organized higher up the administrative hierarchy, through careful negotiations between brigadiers and norm-setters, the camp functionaries whose job it was to determine how much a brigade should or should not be able to achieve in one day. Norm-setters, like brigadiers, were very prone to favoritism and bribery—as well as to whim. In Kolyma in the late 1930s, Olga Adamova-Sliozberg found herself appointed brigadier, head of a women’s ditch-digging brigade composed mostly of political prisoners, all weakened by long jail sentences. When, after three days’ work, they had completed just 3 percent of the norm, she went to the norm-setter and begged for an easier assignment. Upon hearing that the weak brigade was mostly composed of former Party members, his face darkened.

“Oh yes, former members of the Party, are they? Now, if you’d been prostitutes, I’d have been happy to let you wash windows and do three times the norm. When those Party members in 1929 decided to punish me for being a kulak, threw me and my six children out of our home, I said to them, ‘What’ve the children ever done?’ and they told me, ‘That’s the Soviet law.’ So there you are, you can stick to your Soviet law and dig nine cubic meters of mud a day.”38

Norm-setters were also aware of the need to conserve the workforce at certain times—if, for example, the camp had been criticized for its high mortality rates, or when the camp was one of those in the far north which could only get replacement workers once a season. In such circumstances, they might indeed lower the norm, or turn a blind eye when it was not fulfilled. This practice was known in the camps as “norm-stretching,” and to call it widespread is an understatement.39 One prisoner worked in a mine which required prisoners to dig 5.5 tons of coal every day, an impossible task. Sensibly, the mine’s chief engineer—a free worker—asked around to find out how many prisoners ought to be fulfilling the norm every day, and simply told his norm-setters to make their decisions about how much had actually been done on that basis, rotating the shock-worker distinction among all of the prisoners so that they all got more or less the same amount of food.40

Bribery also worked higher up the hierarchy, sometimes through an entire chain of people. Alexander Klein was in a camp in the late 1940s, at a time when small salaries were introduced to inspire zeks to work harder:

Having received his earned money (it wasn’t much) the worker gave a bribe to the brigadier. This was obligatory: the brigadier then had to give a bribe to the foreman and the norm-setter, who determined what norm had been fulfilled by the brigade . . . aside from this, the foreman and the brigadiers had to give bribes to the naryadshchik, the work-assigner. The cooks also paid bribes to the chief cook, and the bathhouse workers to the director of the bathhouse.

On average, wrote Klein, he gave away half of his “salary.” The consequences for those who did not could be dire. Those inmates who failed to pay up were automatically put down as having achieved a lower percentage of the norm, and therefore received less food. Brigadiers who did not want to pay suffered worse. One, wrote Klein, was murdered in his bed. His head was bashed in with a rock—and those sleeping around him did not even wake up.41

Tufta also affected the keeping of statistics at all levels of camp life. Camp commanders and camp accountants frequently changed numbers to benefit themselves, according to the dozens of reports of larceny kept in the files of the inspectorate. Anyone with even a remote connection to a camp stole food, money, whatever there was to steal: in 1942, the sister of the former boss of the railways division of the camps in Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, was accused of having “unlawfully removed some food products,” and being involved in speculation. At one lagpunkt in 1941, the camp commander and the chief accountant “used their professional status” to set up a false bank account, enabling them to milk the camp accounts. The commander stole 25,000 rubles, the accountant 18,000, a fortune in Soviet terms. But the sums were not always large either: a thick file on Siblag, containing prosecutors’ reports from 1942 to 1944, includes, among other things, a long series of letters reflecting a bitter dispute over a camp employee who supposedly stole two iron bowls, one enamel teapot, one blanket, one mattress, two sheets, two pillows, and two pillowcases. 42

From theft, it was hardly a great moral leap to telling fibs about production statistics. If tufta began at the brigade level, and was compounded at the lagpunkt level, by the time the accountants at the larger camps were calculating total production statistics, the numbers were already very far from reality—and would, as we shall see, give very misleading ideas about the camps’ real productivity, which was in all probability extremely low.

In truth, it is almost impossible to know what to make of Gulag production figures, given the degree of lying and cheating that went on. For that reason, I am always mystified by the Gulag’s carefully detailed annual reports, such as the one produced in March 1940. More than 124 pages, this striking document describes the production figures for dozens of camps, carefully listing each one by specialty: the forestry camps, the factory camps, the mines, the collective farms. The report is accompanied by extensive charts and calculations, and many different sorts of figures. In conclusion, the report’s author confidently declared that the total value of Gulag production in 1940 was 2,659.5 million rubles—a figure which must, under the circumstances, be considered completely meaningless.43


Tufta was not the only method that prisoners used to bridge the gap between the impossible norms expected of them and the impossible rations they were allotted. Nor was it the only tool the authorities used to meet their own impossible production targets. There were other ways of persuading prisoners to cooperate, as Isaak Filshtinskii brilliantly and memorably describes in the first chapter of his memoirs, My shagaem pod konvoem (We March Under Convoy Guard).

Filshtinskii begins his story on one of his first days in Kargopollag, the logging and construction camp which lay to the north of Arkhangelsk. Newly arrived himself, he met another newcomer, a young woman. She was part of a female contingent that had been temporarily attached to his brigade. Noticing her “timid, frightened appearance” and her ragged camp clothes, he moved closer to her in the line of prisoners. Yes, she said, answering his query, “I arrived yesterday on a transport from prison.” They began to talk. She had what Filshtinskii described as “for that era, a rather banal personal history.” She was an artist, twenty-six years old. She was married, with a three-year-old son. She had been arrested because she had “said something or other to an artist friend, and the friend had informed.” Because her father had also been arrested in 1937, she had been quickly convicted of promoting anti-Soviet propaganda.

As they talked, the woman, still looking around with a frightened gaze, held on to Filshtinskii’s arm. Such contacts were forbidden, but fortunately the guards did not notice. As they arrived at the work site the men and women were divided, but on the way home the young artist found Filshtinskii again. For the next week and a half, they walked to and from the forest together, she telling him of her homesickness, of the husband who had abandoned her, of the child she might not see again. Then the women’s brigade was separated from the men’s brigade for good, and Filshtinskii lost track of his friend.

Three years passed. It was a hot day—a rarity in the far north—when Filshtinskii caught sight of the woman again. This time she was dressed in a “new jacket, perfectly fitting her size and figure.” Instead of the average prisoner’s tattered cap she wore a beret. Instead of prisoners’ worn boots she wore shoes. Her face had grown fatter, her looks more vulgar. When she opened her mouth, she spoke in the foulest slang, her language “testifying to long and durable links with the criminal world of the camp.” Catching sight of Filshtinskii, a look of horror came over her face. She turned and walked away, “almost running.”

By the time Filshtinskii encountered her for the third and final time, the woman was dressed in what seemed to him to be “the latest in city fashions.” She was sitting behind a boss’s desk, and was no longer a prisoner at all. She was also now married to Major L., a camp administrator famous for his cruelty. She addressed Filshtinskii rudely, and was no longer embarrassed to speak to him. The metamorphosis was complete: she had changed from prisoner to collaborator, and then from collaborator to camp boss. She had adopted first the language of the criminal world, then its dress and its habits. Through that route she had, finally, attained the privileged status of the camp authorities. Filshtinskii felt he had “nothing more to say to her”— although, as he left the room, he turned to look at her again. Their eyes met for an instant, and he thought he perceived in hers a flash of “limitless melancholy” and a hint of tears.44

The fate of Filshtinskii’s acquaintance is one that readers familiar with other camp systems will recognize. In describing the Nazi camps, the German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky wrote that “absolute power is a structure, not a possession.” By this, he meant that power in the German camps was not a simple matter of one person controlling the lives of others. Instead, “by making a small number of victims into its accomplices, the regime blurred the boundary between personnel and inmates.” 45 Although the brutality that reigned in the Gulag was different, in its organization and its effects, Nazi and Soviet camps were similar in this respect: the Soviet regime also made such use of prisoners, tempting some into collaboration with the repressive system, raising them above the others, and granting them privileges which allowed them, in turn, to help the authorities exert their power. It is no accident that Filshtinskii concentrated, in his story, on the ever-improving wardrobe of his female acquaintance: in the camps, where everything was in chronic shortage, tiny improvements in clothing or food or living conditions were enough to persuade prisoners to cooperate, to strive for advancement. Those prisoners who succeeded were the pridurki, or “trusties.” And once they attained that status, their lives in the camps improved in a myriad of small ways.

Solzhenitsyn, who returns to the subject of trusties again and again, describes their obsession with small privileges and favors in The Gulag Archipelago:

Because of the human race’s customary narrow-minded attachment to caste, it very soon became inconvenient for trusties to sleep in the same barracks as ordinary sloggers, on the same multiple bunks, or even, for that matter, on any multiple bunk at all, or anywhere else except a bed, or to eat at the same table, to undress in the same bath, or to put on the same underwear in which the sloggers had sweated and which they had torn . . .

Although recognizing that “all classifications in this world lack sharp boundaries,” Solzhenitsyn did his best to describe the trusties’ hierarchy. On the lowest rung, he explained, were the “work trusties”: the prisoner engineers, designers, mechanics, and geologists. Ranked just above them were the prisoner foremen, planners, norm-setters, construction superintendents, technicians. Both of these groups had to line up and be counted in the morning, and marched to work under convoy. On the other hand, they did not do physical work and were therefore not “utterly exhausted” at the end of the day; this made them more privileged than prisoners on general work.

“Compound trusties” were more privileged still. These were prisoners who never left the zona during the day. According to Solzhenitsyn,

A worker in the camp workshops lived much more easily and better than the slogger out on general work: he did not have to go out for line-up, and this meant he could rise and breakfast much later; he did not have to march under convoy to the work site and back; there were fewer severities, less cold, less strength spent; also, his workday ended earlier; either his work was in a warm place or else a place to warm up was always handy . . . “Tailor” in camp sounds and means something like “Assistant Professor” out in freedom.46

The lowest in the compound trusty hierarchy actually did physical work: bathhouse attendants, laundresses, dishwashers, stokers, and orderlies, as well as those who worked in the camp workshops, repairing clothes, shoes, and machinery. Ranked above these indoor workers were the “genuine” compound trusties, who did no physical work at all: the cooks, bread-cutters, clerks, doctors, nurses, medical assistants, barbers, senior orderlies, work-assigners, accountants. In some camps, there were even prisoners employed as official food-tasters.47 This latter group, writes Solzhenitsyn, were “Not only well-fed, clad in clean clothes, and exempt from lifting heavy weights and from crooks in their backs, but they had great power over what was most needed by a human being, and consequently power over people.”48 These were the trusties who had the power to decide what sort of work ordinary prisoners were to do, how much food they were going to receive, and whether they would receive medical treatment or not—whether, in short, they would live or die.

Unlike the privileged prisoners in the Nazi camps, the trusties of the Soviet camps did not have to belong to a particular racial category. In theory, anybody could rise to the status of trusty—just as anybody could become a prison guard—and there was a great deal of fluctuation between the two groups. Although in principle ordinary prisoners could become trusties, and in principle trusties could be demoted to the ranks of ordinary prisoners, there were complicated rules governing this process.

These rules differed greatly from camp to camp and from era to era, although there do seem to be a few conventions that held more or less true over time. Most important, it was easier to become a trusty if a prisoner was classified as a “socially close” criminal prisoner, and not a “socially dangerous” political. Because the twisted moral hierarchy of the Soviet camp system decreed the “socially close”—not just the professional criminals, but the ordinary thieves, swindlers, murderers, and rapists—more capable of being reformed into good Soviet citizens, they were automatically more likely to receive trusty status. And in a certain sense, the thieves, who had no fear of using brutality, made ideal trusties. “Everywhere and at all times,” wrote one political bitterly, “these convicts enjoyed almost unlimited confidence of the prison and camp administration, and were appointed to such soft jobs as working in offices, prison stores, canteens, bath-houses, barber shops and so on.”49 As I’ve said, this was particularly the case during the late 1930s and throughout the war, the years when criminal gangs ruled supreme in the Soviet camps. Even afterward—Filshtinskii was writing of the late 1940s— the “culture” of the trusties was hardly distinguishable from the culture of the professional criminals.

But the criminal trusties also presented a problem for the camp authorities. They were not “enemies”—but they were not educated either. In many cases they were not even literate, and did not want to become literate: even when camps set up literacy classes, criminals often did not bother to go to them.50 That left camp bosses with no choice, wrote Lev Razgon, except to employ the politicals: “The plan exerted an implacable pressure of its own which tolerated no excuses. Under its influence even the most zealous camp bosses who expressed the greatest hatred for the counter-revolutionary prisoners were obliged to put political prisoners to work.”51

In fact, after 1939, when Beria replaced Yezhov—and simultaneously set about trying to make the Gulag profitable—the rules were never clear one way or another. Beria’s instructions of August 1939, while explicitly forbidding camp commanders to make use of political prisoners in any administrative capacity whatsoever, did, in fact, make exceptions. Qualified doctors were to be used in their professional capacity and, under special circumstances, so were prisoners sentenced according to some of the “lesser” crimes of Article 58—Sections 7, 10, 12, and 14, which included “Anti-Soviet Agitation” (telling anti-regime jokes, for example) and “anti-Soviet propaganda.” Those sentenced for “terrorism” or “betrayal of the motherland,” on the other hand, were theoretically not to be employed as anything except hard laborers.52 When the war broke out, even this command was reversed. Stalin and Molotov sent out a special circular allowing Dalstroi, “in view of the exceptional situation,” to “conclude individual agreements for a particular time period with engineers, technicians, and administrative workers who have been sent to work in Kolyma.”53

Nevertheless camp administrators who had too many politicals in high-ranking jobs still risked censure, and a degree of ambivalence always remained. According to both Solzhenitsyn and Razgon, it sometimes therefore happened that political prisoners were given “good” indoor jobs, accounting and bookkeeping—but only temporarily. Once every year, when the inspection teams from Moscow were due to arrive, they were fired again. Razgon developed a theory about this procedure:

A good camp boss would wait for the commission to arrive, let the commission do its work, remove anyone who had to be removed. It was not a time-consuming process and anyone not removed would remain for a long time—for a year, until the next December, or for a half-year at least. A less capable camp boss, a more foolish one, would remove such persons in advance so as to report that everything was in order. The worst camp boss, those who had the least experience, would conscientiously carry out the orders of their superiors and not permit persons condemned under Article 58 to work with any instrument other than the pick and the wheelbarrow, the saw and the axe. Such camp bosses were the least successful. Such camp bosses were quickly fired.54

In practice, the rules were often simply nonsensical. As a political prisoner in Kargopollag, Filshtinskii was strictly forbidden from taking a prisoners’ course in forestry technology. However, he was allowed to read the course books, and once he had passed the exam, studying on his own, he was allowed to work as a forestry specialist as well.55 Meanwhile, V. K. Yasnyi, also a political prisoner in the late 1940s, worked as an engineer in Vorkuta without causing any controversy at all.56 In the postwar years, as the stronger national groups began to make an impact in the camp, the reign of the criminals was frequently supplanted by that of the better-organized prisoners, often Ukrainians and Balts. Those in better jobs—the foreman and supervisors—could and did look after their own, and distributed other plum posts to political prisoners who happened to be their countrymen.

At no point did prisoners have full power to distribute trusty jobs, however. The camp administration had the ultimate say over who would become a trusty, and most camp commanders were inclined to give the cushier trusty jobs to those willing to collaborate more openly—in other words, to inform. Alas, it is difficult to say how many informers the system employed. Although the Russian state archives have opened up the rest of the Gulag administration archive, they have left closed the documents on the “Third Division,” the camp division responsible for informers. The Russian historian Viktor Berdinskikh, in his book on Vyatlag, cites some figures without naming a source: “In the 1920s, the leadership of the OGPU set itself the task of having no less than 25 percent informers among camp prisoners. In the 1930s and 1940s, this planned number was lowered to 10 percent.” But Berdinskikh also agrees that a real assessment of the numbers is “complicated” without better access to archives. 57

Nor are there many memoirists who will admit openly to having been informers, although some admit that they were recruited. Clearly, prisoners who had served as informers in prison (or even before their arrests) would have arrived in the camp with a note of their willingness to cooperate already in their files. Others, it seemed, were approached just after their arrival in camp, when they were still extremely disoriented and afraid. On his second day in camp, Leonid Trus was taken to the operative commander— known in camp slang as the kum, the recruiter of informers—and asked to cooperate. Not really understanding what he was being asked, he refused. This, he thinks, is why he was initially given difficult physical work, a low-status job by camp standards. Berdinskikh also quotes from his own interviews and correspondence with former prisoners:

From the first day in the zone, the new arrivals were called to the kum. I was called to the kum as well. Flattering, slippery, smooth, he played on the fact that the car accident, for which I was sentenced (ten years in camp, plus three years without full legal rights) was not shameful (it was not robbery, murder or something similar) and he proposed that I inform—that I become a sneak. I politely refused and didn’t sign the proposal of the kum.

Although the kum swore at him, this prisoner was not sent to the punishment cells. Upon returning to his barracks, he found no one would come near him: knowing that he had been asked to inform, seeing that he had not been beaten up or punished, the other prisoners assumed he had agreed. 58

Perhaps the most famous exception to the near-universal refusal to admit to informing is, once again, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who describes his flirtation with the camp authorities at length. He dates his initial moment of weakness to his early days in camp, when he was still struggling to accustom himself to his abrupt loss of status. When invited to speak to the operative commander, he was ushered into a “small, cozily furnished room” where a radio was playing classical music. After politely asking him whether he was comfortable and adjusting to camp life, the commander asked him, “Are you still a Soviet person?” After hemming and hawing, Solzhenitsyn agreed that he was.

But although confessing to being “Soviet” was tantamount to confessing a desire to collaborate, Solzhenitsyn initially declined to inform. That was when the commander switched tactics. He turned off the music, and began to speak to Solzhenitsyn about the camp criminals, asking how he would feel if his wife in Moscow were attacked by some who managed to escape. Finally, Solzhenitsyn agreed that if he should hear any of them planning to escape, he would report it. He signed a pledge, promising to report news of any escapes to the authorities, and chose a conspiratorial pseudonym: Vetrov. “Those six letters,” he writes, “are branded in shameful grooves on my memory.”59

By his own account, Solzhenitsyn never did actually report on anything. When recruited again in 1956, he says he refused to sign anything at all. Nevertheless, his initial promise was enough to keep him, while in camp, in one of the trusty jobs, living in the trusties’ special quarters, slightly better dressed and better fed than other prisoners. This experience “filled me with shame,” he wrote—and doubtless provoked his disdain for all trusties.

At the time of its publication, Solzhenitsyn’s description of the camp trusties was controversial—and it still is. Like his description of inmate work habits, it also sparked a running debate in the world of camp survivors and historians, one which continues to this day. Virtually all of the classic, most widely read memoirists were trusties at one time or another: Evgeniya Ginzburg, Lev Razgon, Varlam Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn. It may well be, as some claim, that the majority of all prisoners who survived long sentences were trusties at some point in their camp career. I once met a survivor who recounted to me a reunion of old camp friends he had once attended. The group had taken to reminiscing, and were laughing at old camp stories, when one of them looked around the room and realized what it was that held them together, what made it possible for them to laugh at the past instead of crying: “All of us had been pridurki.”

There is no doubt that many people survived because they were able to get indoor trusty jobs, thereby escaping the horrors of general work. But did this always amount to active collaboration with the camp regime? Solzhenitsyn felt that it did. Even those trusties who were not informers could, he alleged, still be described as collaborators. “What trusty position,” he asked, “did not in fact involve playing up to the bosses and participating in the general system of compulsion?”

Sometimes the collaboration was indirect, Solzhenitsyn explained, but damaging nonetheless. The “work trusties”—the norm-setters, bookkeepers, engineers—did not actually torture people, but they all participated in a system that forced prisoners to work to their deaths. The same was true of “compound trusties”: typists ran off orders for the camp command. Every bread-cutter who was able to steal an extra loaf for himself might be said to be depriving a zek working in the forest of his full portion, wrote Solzhenitsyn: “Who short-weighed Ivan Denisovich’s bread? Who stole his sugar by dampening it with water? Who kept fats, meat or good cereals from the common pot?”60

Others felt the same way. One ex-zek wrote that she had deliberately remained assigned to general work for nine years in order to avoid being caught up in the corrupt relationships which were needed to stay in a trusty job.61 Dmitri Panin (who, as I’ve written, knew Solzhenitsyn in the camps and features in his novel The First Circle) also confessed that he was greatly embarrassed by the two weeks he had held a soft job in the camp kitchen: “Even worse was the realization that I was stealing food from other prisoners. I tried to gain comfort from the thought that when a man has been reduced to the condition I was in then, he doesn’t fret over niceties; but it did not lighten my sense of wrongdoing, and when they kicked me out of the kitchen, I was actually glad.”62

Bitterly opposed to Solzhenitsyn—as many others were and are—was Lev Razgon, a writer who became, in the 1990s, almost as great an authority on the Gulag inside Russia. While in the camps, Razgon had been a norm-setter, one of the top trusty jobs. Razgon argued that for him, and for many others, choosing to become a trusty was simply a matter of choosing to live. Particularly during the war years, “it was impossible to survive if you were felling timber.” Only peasants survived: “those who knew how to sharpen and set instruments, and those given familiar agricultural work to do who could make up their diet with filched potato, radish, or any other kind of vegetable.”63

Razgon did not believe that it was immoral to choose life, nor that those who did so were “no better than the people who arrested them.” He also disputed Solzhenitsyn’s venal portrait of the trusties. Once they were in more comfortable jobs, many trusties routinely helped other prisoners:

It was not that they were indifferent to the Ivan Denisoviches who went out to fell timber or that they felt estranged from them. Simply, they could not help those who did not know how to do anything other than physical work. And even among the latter they sought and found people with the most unexpected skills: those who knew how to make shaft-bows and barrels were sent to the outpost where skis were produced; those who could weave baskets began to fashion basketwork armchairs, chairs and sofas for the bosses. 64

Just as there were good guards and bad guards, Razgon argued, so too were there good trusties and bad trusties, people who helped other people, people who harmed them. And in the end, they were no more secure than the people who came below them on the hierarchy. If they were not being worked to death, they knew that they soon could be. At any moment, a distant camp boss could order a transfer to take them away to another camp, to another job, to another, deadlier fate.


Of the many absurdities found in camp life, perhaps the strangest was also one of the most mundane: the camp doctor. Every lagpunkt had one. If there were not enough trained doctors, then at the very least the lagpunkt would have a nurse or a feldsher, a medical assistant who may or may not have had medical training. Like guardian angels, medical personnel had the power to pluck inmates out of the cold, to deposit them in clean camp hospitals, where they might be fed and nursed back to life. Everyone else—the guards, the camp commander, the brigadiers—constantly told thezeks to work harder. The doctor alone was not obligated to do so. “Only the doctor,” wrote Varlam Shalamov, “has the authority to save the convict from going out into the white winter fog to the icy stone face of the mine for many hours a day.”65

Some inmates were quite literally saved thanks to a few words from a medical man. Burning with fever, reduced to a skeleton, tortured by hunger, one doctor diagnosed Lev Kopelev with pellagra, a bowel infection, and a bad cold. “I’m sending you to the hospital,” she declared. It was not an easy journey from the lagpunkt to the camp central hospital, the sanchast. Kopelev gave up all of his property—on the grounds that all camp belongings must stay in the camp—marched through “deep, icy puddles” and crowded into a cattle car with other sick and dying prisoners. The journey was hellish. But when he awoke in his new surroundings, he found his life transformed:

In a blissful half-sleep, I sat in a bright, clean hospital room, on a bunk covered with an unbelievably clean sheet . . . The doctor was a small, round-faced man, whose grey moustache and thick eyeglasses added to his air of kindness and concern. “In Moscow,” he asked, “did you know a literary critic named Motylova?”

“Tamara Lazarevna Motylova? Of course!”

“She’s my niece.”

Uncle Borya, as I came to know him, looked at the thermometer. “Oho! Have him washed,” he told his assistant. “Have his clothes boiled. Get him into bed.”

Upon awaking again, Kopelev discovered he had been brought six pieces of bread: “Three pieces of black bread and—miraculous sight! Three pieces of white bread! I ate them greedily, my eyes filled with tears.” Better still, he was given anti-pellagra rations: turnips and carrots, as well as yeast and mustard to spread on bread. He was for the first time allowed to receive parcels and money from home, and was thus able to buy boiled potatoes, milk, and makhorka, the cheapest form of tobacco. Having been, it seemed, condemned to a living death, he realized he was now destined to be saved.66

This was a common experience. “Paradise” is what Evgeniya Ginzburg called the hospital where she worked in Kolyma.67 “We felt like kings,” wrote Thomas Sgovio of the “recovery barracks” in the Srednikan lagpunkt, where he received a “fresh, sweet roll in the morning.”68 Others write with remembered awe of the clean sheets, of the kindness of nurses, of the lengths to which doctors went to save their patients. One prisoner tells the story of a doctor who, risking his own position, illegally left the camp to procure necessary medications. 69 Tatyana Okunevskaya wrote that her doctor “brought the dead back to life.”70 Vadim Aleksandrovich, who was himself a camp doctor, remembered that “The doctor and his assistant in the camps are, if not gods, then demi-gods. Upon them hangs the possibility of a few days’ freedom from killing work, even the possibility of being sent to a sanatorium.”71

Janos Rozsas, an eighteen-year-old Hungarian who found himself in the same camp as Alexander Solzhenitsyn after the war, wrote a book entitled Sister Dusya, named in honor of the camp nurse he believed had saved his life. Not only did she sit and talk to him, convincing him that it was impossible to die under her care, Sister Dusya even traded her own bread ration in order to procure milk for Rozsas, who could digest very little food. He remained grateful for the rest of his life: “I conjured up in my head two beloved faces, the faraway face of my natural mother, and the face of Sister Dusya. They were amazingly similar . . . I told myself that if, in time, I were ever to forget my mother’s face, I would only need to think of the face of Sister Dusya, and through her I would always see my mother.” 72

Rozsas’s gratitude to Sister Dusya eventually translated itself into a love of the Russian language and Russian culture. When I met Rozsas in Budapest half a century after his release, he still spoke elegant, fluent Russian, still maintained contact with Russian friends, and proudly told me where to find the references to his story in The Gulag Archipelago and in the memoirs of Solzhenitsyn’s wife.73

Yet there was, as many also noticed, another paradox at work here. When a prisoner with mild scurvy was in the work brigade, no one was interested in his loose teeth or the boils on his legs. His complaints would bring derisive scorn from the guards, or worse. If he became a dokhodyagadying on a camp bunk, he would be a figure of fun. But when his temperature finally reached the requisite level or his illness reached the critical moment—when he “qualified” as sick, in other words—the same dying man would immediately be given “scurvy rations” or “pellagra rations,” and would receive all the medical care that the Gulag could muster.

This paradox was built right into the system. From the beginning of the camps’ existence, sick prisoners had been treated differently. Invalid brigades were set up, for prisoners who could no longer do hard physical work, as early as January 1931.74 Later, there would be invalid barracks, and even whole invalid lagpunkts, devoted to nursing weak prisoners back to life. In 1933, Dmitlag organized “recovery lagpunkts ” designed to hold 3,600 prisoners.75 Official Gulag documents carefully describe the extra rations for hospitalized prisoners: a few meat products, real tea (as opposed to the surrogate offered to ordinary prisoners), onions to ward off scurvy, and, inexplicably, pepper and bay leaves. Even if, in practice, the extra food only amounted to “a bit of potatoes or dried green peas (only half-cooked to retain the vitamins) or sauerkraut” it was, compared to ordinary rations, real luxury.76

So bizarre did Gustav Herling find this contrast between the murderous conditions of camp life, and the efforts which camp doctors invested in reviving the prisoners whose health had been duly destroyed, he concluded that a “hospital cult” must exist in the Soviet Union:

There was something incomprehensible in the fact that the moment a prisoner left the hospital he became a prisoner again, but as long as he had been lying motionless in a clean bed all the rights of a human being, though always with the exception of freedom, had been accorded to him. For a man unaccustomed to the violent contrasts of Soviet life, camp hospitals seemed like churches which offer sanctuary from an all-powerful Inquisition. 77

George Bien, a Hungarian prisoner who was sent to a well-stocked hospital in Magadan, also found it hard to understand: “I asked myself why they were trying to save me when it had seemed that they only wanted my tortured death—but logic had left a long time ago.”78

Certainly the Gulag bosses in Moscow took the problems posed by the large numbers of invalid “work-incapable” prisoners very seriously. Although their existence was hardly new, the problem became acute after Stalin and Beria’s 1939 decision to eliminate the policy of “conditional early release” for invalids: suddenly, the ill could no longer be easily shucked off the work rolls. This, if nothing else, would have forced camp commanders to turn their attention to camp hospitals. One inspector did a precise calculation of the time and money lost to illness: “From October of 1940, to the first half of March 1941, there were 3,472 cases of frostbite, thanks to which 42,334 working days were lost. Two thousand four hundred prisoners became too weak to work.” Another inspector reported that in that same year, of 2,398 prisoners in the labor camps in the Crimea, 860 had only a limited ability to work, and 273 could not work at all. Some were in hospital beds, some, for lack of beds, were being kept in prison cells, producing a drag on the whole system.79

Yet, like everything else in the Gulag, there was nothing straightforward about the need to heal the sick. In some camps, it seems the special invalid lagpunkts were created largely to prevent the invalids from dragging down the camp production statistics. This was the case in Siblag, which counted 9,000 invalids and 15,000 “half-invalids” among its 63,000 prisoners in 1940 and 1941—more than a third. When these weak prisoners were removed from the significant work sites and replaced with brigades of “fresh” new workers, the camp’s production figures magically rose much higher.80

Pressure to meet the plan forced many camp commanders into a dilemma. On the one hand, they genuinely wanted to cure the sick—so that they could be put back to work. On the other hand, they did not want to encourage the “lazy.” In practice, this often meant that camp administrations set limits—sometimes very precise—on how many prisoners were allowed to be ill at any one time, and how many could be sent to recovery lagpunkts. 81 Whatever the actual number of suffering prisoners, in other words, they permitted doctors to grant rest days only to a small percentage. Aleksandrovich, the camp doctor, remembered that in his camp “about 10 percent of the lagpunkt,” thirty or forty people, showed up every evening at the doctor’s receiving hour. It was understood, however, that no more than 3 to 5 percent could be freed from work: “more than that, and an investigation would begin.”82

If more were ill, they would have to wait. Typical was the story of one prisoner in Ustvymlag, who stated several times that he was ill and could not work. According to the official report filed afterward, “The medical workers paid no attention to his protest, and he was sent to work. Not being in a condition to work, he refused to work, for which he was shut up in the punishment cell. There he was kept for four days, after which he was taken in very poor condition to the hospital, where he died.” In another camp, a tubercular patient was sent out to work and, according to the inspectors’ report, “was in such poor condition that he could not return to the camp without assistance.”83

The low numbers set on those “allowed” to be sick meant that doctors were under terrible, conflicting pressures. They could be censured, or even sentenced, if too many sick prisoners died, having been refused access to the camp hospital.84 They could also be threatened by the more violent and aggressive members of the camp criminal elite, who wanted release from work. If the camp doctor wanted to give rest days to genuinely sick prisoners, he had to resist these criminals’ advances. Shalamov, again, described the fate of one Doctor Surovoy, sent to work in the largely criminallagpunkt at the Spokoiny mine in Kolyma:

He was a young doctor, and—more important—he was a convict doctor. Surovoy’s friend tried to persuade him not to go. He could have refused and been sent to a general work gang instead of taking on this patently dangerous work. Surovoy had come to the hospital from a general work gang; he was afraid to return to it and agreed to go to the mine and work at his profession. The camp authorities gave him instructions but no advice on how to conduct himself. He was categorically forbidden to send healthy thieves from the mine to the hospital. Within a month he was killed while admitting patients; on his body were fifty-two knife wounds.85

When he arrived to work as a feldsher in a criminal lagpunkt , Karol Colonna-Czosnowski was also warned that his predecessor had been “hacked to death” by his patients. On his first night in camp, he was confronted with a man carrying an ax, demanding to be excused from the following day’s work. Karol managed, he claims, to surprise him and throw him out of the feldsher’s hut. The next day he did a deal with Grisha, the camp criminal boss: in addition to the genuinely ill, Grisha would give him the names of two additional people a day who were to be freed from work. 86

Alexander Dolgun also describes a similar experience. On one of his first days as a feldsher, a criminal prisoner presented himself to Dolgun, claiming to have a stomachache—and demanding opium. “He motioned me to come close. ‘Here!’ he whispered fiercely, pulling back his shirt. His right hand was inside his shirt, holding a wicked carved knife like a miniature scimitar. ‘I want opium. I am always treated very well here. You’re new. You might as well know that if I don’t get my opium, you get the knife.’” Dolgun managed to fend him off with a fake opium solution. Others were not so quick-witted, and could be kept in the criminals’ power indefinitely.87

Even when a prisoner finally made it into the hospital, he often found that the quality of medical care varied widely. The larger camps had proper hospitals, with staff and medicines. The central Dalstroi hospital, in the city of Magadan, was known for having the latest equipment, as well as for being staffed by the best prisoner doctors, often Moscow specialists. While most of its patients were NKVD officers or camp employees, some of the more fortunate prisoners got treated by specialists as well, there and elsewhere: during his camp sentence, Leonid Finkelstein was even allowed to visit a dentist.88 Some of the invalid lagpunkts were also well-appointed, and seem to have been genuinely intended to nurse prisoners back to health. Tatyana Okunevskaya was sent to one, and marveled at the open spaces, the generous barracks, the trees: “I hadn’t seen them in so many years! And it was springtime!”89

In the smaller lagpunkt hospitals, the situation was far grimmer. Usually, lagpunkt doctors found it impossible to maintain even minimal standards of sterility and cleanliness.90 Hospitals were often no more than ordinary barracks in which the sick were simply dumped on ordinary beds—sometimes two to a bed—with only minimal supplies of medicine. An inspector reporting on one small camp complained that it had no designated hospital building, no sheets and underwear for patients, no medicine, and no qualified medical personnel. Death rates, as a result, were extremely high.91

Eyewitnesses concur. In one small hospital, in a lagpunkt of Sevurallag, “treatment and documentation were poor,” according to Isaac Vogelfanger, once the camp’s chief surgeon. Worse, food rations were remarkably inadequate and very few drugs were available. Surgical cases such as fractures and major injuries to soft tissues were badly handled and neglected. Seldom, as I later discovered, were patients discharged to return to work. Having been admitted with advanced signs of malnutrition, the majority would die in the hospital.92

A Polish prisoner, Jerzy Gliksman, remembered that in one lagpunkt prisoners actually lay “in a clutter” on the floor: “All passages were crowded with lying bodies. Filth and wretchedness were everywhere. Many of the patients raved and shouted incoherently, while others lay motionless and pale.”93

Worse were the barracks, or rather mortuaries, for terminally ill patients. In one such barrack, set up for prisoners with dysentery, “patients lay in bed for weeks. If they were lucky they recovered. More often they died. There was no treatment, no medicines . . . patients usually tried to conceal a death for three or four days in order to get the dead man’s rations for themselves.”94

Conditions were worsened by Gulag bureaucracy. In 1940, a camp inspector complained that one camp simply did not have enough hospital beds for sick prisoners. Since a prisoner who was not actually lying down inside a hospital was not allowed to receive a hospital ration, this meant that ill prisoners outside the hospital were simply receiving the reduced “shirkers” ration.95

Nor, although many camp doctors can be said to have saved the lives of many people, were they all necessarily inclined to be helpful. Some, from their privileged perspective, had come to sympathize more with the bosses than with the “enemies” whom they were required to treat. Elinor Lipper described one doctor, the head of a hospital for 500 patients: “She behaved like a pomeshchitsa, a great lady and landowner of Tsarist times, and considered the entire staff of the hospital her personal serfs. With her fleshy hand, she once took hold of a neglectful orderly and pulled his hair until he screamed.”96 In another camp, the wife of the camp commander, a doctor in the hospital section, was actually censured by the camp inspectorate because she “allowed the seriously ill into the hospital far too late, didn’t free the sick from work, was rude, and threw sick prisoners out of the infirmary.”97

In some cases, doctors knowingly mistreated prisoner patients. While working in a mining camp in the early 1950s, one of Leonid Trus’s legs was crushed. The camp doctor bound the wound, but more was needed. Trus had already lost a great deal of blood, and was beginning to feel very cold. Because the camp did not have its own facilities for blood transfusions, the camp authorities sent him, in the back of a truck, to a local hospital. Half-conscious, he heard the doctor ask a nurse to begin a blood transfusion. The friend accompanying him gave his personal details: name, age, sex, place of work—after which the doctor halted the blood transfusion. Such help was not given to a prisoner. Trus recalls being given some glucose to drink— thanks to the friend, who paid a bribe for it—and some morphine. The following day, his leg was amputated:

The surgeon was so convinced I wouldn’t live that he didn’t even do the operation himself, but gave it to his wife, a therapist who was trying to re-qualify as a surgeon. Later they told me that she did everything well, that she knew what she was doing, except that she left out a few details. She hadn’t forgotten them, but she didn’t think I would live, and therefore it was immaterial whether these medical details were completed. And look, I remained alive!98

Not that camp doctors, whether kind or indifferent, were necessarily qualified either. Those who carried the title ranged from top Moscow specialists serving out their prison sentences, to charlatans who knew nothing whatsoever about medicine, but were willing to fake knowledge in order to get a high-status job. As early as 1932, the OGPU had complained of the dearth of qualified medical personnel.99 This meant that prisoners with medical degrees were the exception to every rule governing trusty jobs: whatever counter-revolutionary terrorist act they were alleged to have committed, they were almost always allowed to practice medicine.100

Shortages also meant that prisoners received training as nurses and feldshers—training which was often rudimentary. Evgeniya Ginzburg qualified as a nurse after spending “several days” in a camp hospital, learning the art of “cupping” and how to give an injection.101 Alexander Dolgun, having been taught in one camp the basics of the feldsher’s job, was tested on his knowledge after being transferred to another camp. Told to do an autopsy by an officer suspicious of his qualifications, he “put on the best show I could and acted as if I did this sort of thing all the time.”102 In order to get his job as feldsher, Janusz Bardach also lied: he claimed to be a third-year medical student when, in fact, he had not yet entered university. 103

The results were predictable. Upon arriving at his first posting as a convict doctor in Sevurallag, Isaac Vogelfanger, himself a qualified surgeon, was surprised to find the local feldsher treating scurvy boils—a condition caused by malnutrition, not infection—with iodine. Later, he witnessed a number of patients die because an unqualified doctor insisted upon injecting patients with a solution made of ordinary sugar. 104

None of this would have come as a surprise to the Gulag bosses, one of whom complained, in a letter to his Moscow boss, of a doctor shortage: “In several lagpunkts, medical help is given by self-taught nurses, prisoners without any medical qualification whatsoever.” Another wrote of a camp medical system which defied “all principles of the Soviet health service.” 105 The bosses knew they were flawed, the prisoners knew they were flawed— and yet the camp medical services went on functioning all the same.

Even with all of their faults—even when doctors were venal, wards were poorly equipped, medication was scarce—so attractive did life in the hospital or the infirmary seem to prisoners, that to get there they were willing not only to injure or threaten doctors, but to hurt themselves too. Like soldiers trying to avoid the battlefield, zeks also engaged in samorub (self-mutilation) and mastyrka (faking illness) in desperate attempts to save their lives. Some believed they would eventually receive an invalid’s amnesty. So many belived this, in fact, that the Gulag on at least one occasion issued a declaration denying that invalids would be freed (although they were, occasionally).106 Most, however, were simply glad to avoid work.

The punishment for self-mutilation was particularly high: an extra camp sentence. This reflected, perhaps, the fact that a disabled worker was a burden to the state and a drag on the production plan. “Self-mutilation was punished viciously, like for sabotage,” wrote Anatoly Zhigulin. 107 One prisoner tells the story of a thief who cut off four fingers of his left hand. Instead of being sent to an invalid camp, however, the invalid was made to sit in the snow and watch as others worked. Forbidden to move around, on pain of being shot for attempted escape, “very soon he himself requested a shovel and, moving it like a crutch, with his surviving hand, poked at the frozen earth, crying and swearing.”108

Nevertheless, many prisoners thought the potential benefits made the risk worth taking. Some of the methods were crude. Criminals in particular were famous for simply cutting off their three middle fingers with an ax, so they could no longer cut trees or hold a wheelbarrow in the mines. Others cut off a foot, or a hand, or rubbed acid into their eyes. Still others, upon departing for work, wrapped a wet rag around one foot: in the evening they returned with third-degree frostbite. The same method could be applied to fingers. In the 1960s, Anatoly Marchenko watched a man nail his testicles to a prison bench.109 Nor was he the first: Valery Frid describes a man who nailed his scrotum to a tree stump.110

But there were subtler methods used as well. The more daring criminal would steal a syringe and inject melted soap into his penis: the resulting ejaculation looked like venereal disease. Another prisoner found a way to fake silicosis, a lung disease. First, he filed a small quantity of silver dust from a silver ring which he had managed to keep among his personal belongings. He then mixed the silver dust with tobacco, and smoked it. Although he felt nothing, he then took himself to the hospital coughing in the way that he had seen silicosis victims cough. On the subsequent X ray, a terrible shadow appeared on his lungs—enough to disqualify him from hard labor and get him sent to a camp for the incurably ill.111

Prisoners also attempted to create infections, or long-term illnesses. Vadim Aleksandrovich treated a patient who had infected himself with a dirty sewing needle.112 Gustav Herling watched one prisoner thrust his arm in the fire, when he thought no one was looking; he did it once every day, the better to maintain a mysteriously persistent wound.113 Zhigulin made himself ill by drinking ice water and then breathing cold air. It gave him a temperature high enough to allow him to be excused from work: “Oh happy ten days in the hospital!” 114

Prisoners also faked insanity. Bardach, during his career as feldsher, worked for a time in the psychiatric ward of the central Magadan hospital. There, the primary method of unmasking fake schizophrenics was to put them on a ward with real schizophrenics: “Within hours, many prisoners, even the most determined, knocked on the door to be let out.” If that failed, the prisoner was given a camphor injection, which induced a seizure. Those who survived rarely wanted the procedure repeated. 115

There was even a standard procedure for prisoners who attempted to fake paralysis, according to Elinor Lipper. The patient was put on an operating table and given a slight anesthetic. When he awoke, the doctors would place him on his feet. Inevitably, when they called his name, he would take a few steps before remembering to collapse to the floor.116 Dmitri Bystroletov also witnessed a woman cured of “deafness” by her own mother. The administration, suspicious of the woman’s claim to be hard of hearing, invited the mother to visit her imprisoned daughter, but refused to let her in the barracks. Instead, she was made to stay outside the gates, where she stood, calling her daughter’s name. Naturally, the daughter responded.117

But there were also doctors who helped patients find methods of self-mutilation. Alexander Dolgun, although very weak and suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea, did not have a fever high enough to merit being excused from work. Nevertheless, when he told the camp doctor, an educated Latvian, that he was American, the man brightened. “I’ve been dying to find someone to talk English with,” he said—and showed Dolgun how to infect his own cut. This produced an enormous purple boil on his arm, enough to impress the MVD guards inspecting the hospital with the seriousness of his illness.118

Once again, ordinary morality was reversed. In the free world, no doctor who deliberately made his patients ill would be considered a good man. In the camps, however, such a doctor was revered as a saint.


Not all of the strategies for survival in the camps necessarily derived from the system itself. Nor did they all involve collaboration, cruelty, or selfmutiliation. If some prisoners—perhaps the vast majority of prisoners— managed to stay alive through manipulating the rules of the camp to their advantage, there were also some who built upon what Tzvetan Todorov, in his book on concentration camp morality, has called the “ordinary virtues”: caring and friendship, dignity, and the life of the mind.119

Caring took many forms. There were prisoners, as we’ve seen, who built their own survival networks. Members of the ethnic groups which dominated some of the camps in the late 1940s—Ukrainians, Balts, Poles—created whole systems of mutual assistance. Others built up independent networks of acquaintances over years in the camps. Still others simply made one or two extremely close friends. Perhaps the best known of these Gulag friendships was that between Ariadna Efron, the daughter of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, and her friend Ada Federolf. They exerted enormous efforts in order to remain together, both in camps and in exile, and later published their memoirs together in one volume. At one point in her half of the story, Federolf told of how they were reunited after a long separation when Efron was put on a different transport:

It was already summer. The first days after we arrived were horrible. They took us out to exercise once a day—the heat was intolerable. Then suddenly a new transport from Ryazan and—Alya. I gasped with happiness, pulled her on to the upper bunks, closer to the fresh air . . . There it is, prisoners’ happiness, the happiness of simply meeting a person.120

Others agreed. “It is very important to have a friend, a trusted face, who will not leave if you are in trouble,” wrote Zoya Marchenko. 121 “It was impossible to survive alone. People organized themselves into groups of two or three,” wrote another prisoner.122Dmitri Panin also attributes his ability to withstand the attacks of criminals to the self-defense pact he made with a group of other prisoners.123 There were limits, of course. Janusz Bardach wrote of his best camp friend that “neither one of us ever asked the other for food, nor did we offer it. We both knew that this sanctum could not be violated if we were to remain friends.”124

If respect for others helped some maintain their humanity, respect for themselves helped others. Many, particularly women, speak of the need to keep clean, or as clean as possible, as a way of preserving one’s dignity. Olga Adamova-Sliozberg describes how a prison cell mate “washed and dried her white collar and sewed it back on her blouse” every morning.125 Japanese prisoners in Magadan set up a Japanese “bath”—a large barrel, to which benches were attached—along the bay.126 During sixteen months in Leningrad’s Kresty prison, Boris Chetverikov washed his clothes over and over again, as well as the walls and the floors of his cell—before going through all of the opera arias he knew in his head.127 Others practiced exercise or hygienic routines. This is Bardach again:

. . . despite my fatigue and the cold, I kept the exercise routine I had followed at home and in the Red Army, washing my face and hands at the hand pump. I wanted to retain as much pride in myself as I could, separating myself from the many prisoners I had seen give up day by day. They’d stop caring first about their hygiene or appearance, then about their fellow prisoners, and finally about their own lives. If I had control over nothing else, I had control over this ritual which I believed would keep me from degradation and certain death.128

Still others practiced intellectual disciplines. Many, many prisoners wrote or memorized poetry, repeating their verses and those of others to themselves over and over again, later repeating them to friends. In Moscow, in the 1960s, Ginzburg once met a writer who could not believe that in such conditions prisoners had really been able to repeat poems to themselves and derive mental relief from doing so. “Yes, yes,” he told her: “he knew I was not the first person to attest to this, but, well, it still seemed to him that the idea came to us after the event.” Ginzburg writes that the man did not understand her generation, the men and women who still belonged to an “epoch of magnificent illusions . . . we were flinging ourselves into Communism from the poetic heights.”129

Nina Gagen-Torn, herself an ethnographer, wrote poetry, often singing her own verses to herself:

In the camps I understood, at a practical level, why pre-literate cultures had always passed on texts in the form of song—otherwise you don’t remember, you can’t be sure of the exact words. Books appeared among us accidentally, they were given and then taken away. Writing was forbidden, as were study groups: the authorities feared they would lead to counter-revolution. Thus did everyone prepare for himself, as well as he could, food for the brain.130

Shalamov has written that poetry, among “pretense and evil, decay” saved him from becoming completely callous. This is one verse he wrote, entitled “To a Poet”:

I ate as a beast, growling over food A simple sheet of writing-paper Seemed a miracle Falling from the sky to the dark forest.

I drank as a beast, lapping up water Soaking my long whiskers Measuring my life not by months or years But by hours.

And every evening Surprised that I was still alive I repeated verses As if I heard your voice.

And I whispered them as prayers, I honored them as the water of life As an icon saved in battle As a guiding star.

They were the only link with another life There, where the world choked us With everyday filth And death followed closely on our heels. 131

Solzhenitsyn “wrote” poetry in the camps, composing it in his head and then reciting it to himself with the aid of a collection of broken matchsticks, as his biographer Michael Scammell recounts:

He would lay out two rows of ten pieces of matchstick with his cigarette-case, one row representing tens and the other units. He then recited his verses silently to himself, moving one “unit” for each line and one “ten” for every ten lines. Every fiftieth and hundredth line was memorized with special care, and once a month he recited the whole poem once through. If a line was misplaced or forgotten, he would go through the whole thing again until he got it right.132

Perhaps for similar reasons, prayer helped some too. The memoir of one Baptist believer, sent to the post-Stalinist camps in the 1970s, consists almost entirely of accounts of when and where he prayed, and of where and how he hid his Bibles.133 Many memoirists have written of the importance of religious festivals. Easter could take place secretly, in a camp bakery—as it did one year in a Solovetsky transit prison—or it could take place openly, in transport trains: “the wagon rocked, the songs were discordant and shrill, the guards banged on the wagon walls at every stop. Still, they kept singing.”134 Christmas could take place in a barrack. Yuri Zorin, a Russian prisoner, recalled with amazement how well the Lithuanians in his camp had organized the celebration of Christmas, a feast which they had begun preparing for a year in advance: “Can you imagine, in the barracks, a table laid with everything, vodka, ham, everything.” They had, he thought, brought the vodka in “by thimblefuls” in their shoes.135

Lev Kopelev, himself an atheist, attended a secret Easter ceremony:

The beds were placed alongside the walls. There was a fragrant smell of incense. A little table covered by a blanket was the altar. Several homemade candles cast their glow on an icon. The priest, wearing vestments made of sheets, held up an iron cross. The candles flickered in the dark. We could hardly see the faces of the others in the room, but I felt sure that we were not the only unbelievers present. The priest chanted the service in an old man’s quaver. Several women in white handkerchiefs joined in softly, their voices ardent and pure. A choir gave harmonious responses, softly, softly, in order not to be heard outside.136

Kazimierz Zarod was among fellow Poles who celebrated the Christmas Eve of 1940 in a labor camp, under the guidance of a priest who stole quietly around the camp that evening, saying mass in each barrack:

Without benefit of Bible or prayer book, he began to speak the words of the Mass, the familiar Latin, spoken in a whisper barely audible and answered so quietly it was like a sigh—

“Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison—Lord have mercy on us. Christ have mercy on us. Gloria in excelsis Deo . . .”

The words washed over us and the atmosphere in the hut, usually so brutal and raw, changed imperceptibly, the faces turned towards the priest softening and relaxing as the men strained to hear the barely discernible whisper.

“All clear,” came the voice of the man sitting watching from the window.137

More broadly, involvement in some larger intellectual or artistic project kept many educated people alive, spiritually and physically—for those with gifts or talents often found practical uses for them. In a world of constant shortage, for example, where the most elementary possessions took on enormous significance, people who could supply something others needed were in constant demand. Thus did Prince Kirill Golitsyn learn to make needles of fishbone while still in Butyrka prison.138 Thus did Alexander Dolgun, before he found his job as feldsher, look around for a way to “make a few rubles or extra grams of bread”:

I saw that there was a very good supply of aluminium in the cables that the arc welders used. I thought that if I could learn to melt it down, I might be able to mold some spoons. I did a little talking around to some prisoners who seemed to know what they were doing with metal, and picked up some ideas without giving my own away. I also found some good hiding places, where you could spend part of the day without being rousted out to work, and some other hiding places where you could conceal tools or bits of scrap aluminium wire.

I built two shallow boxes for my foundry, stole myself some scraps of aluminium wire, fashioned a rough crucible from some thin steel from the stove works, scrounged some good charcoal and diesel fuel to fire my forge, and was ready to go into business.

Soon, wrote Dolgun, he was able to “turn out two spoons almost every day.” These he traded to other prisoners for a water flask, and for cooking oil to keep inside it. That way he had something in which to dip his bread.139

Not all of the objects that prisoners produced for one another were necessarily utilitarian. Anna Andreeva, an artist, received constant requests for her services—and not only from prisoners. She was asked by the camp authorities to decorate a tombstone during a funeral, to fix broken crockery and toys, and to make toys as well: “We did everything for the bosses, whatever they needed or asked.”140 Another prisoner carved small “souvenirs” for other prisoners out of mammoth tusks: bracelets, small figurines with “northern” themes, rings, medallions, buttons. Occasionally, he felt guilty for taking money from other prisoners: “But so what? Everyone is free to think for themselves . . . for work it is not shameful to take money.” 141

The museum of the Memorial Society in Moscow—set up by ex-prisoners and dedicated to telling the history of Stalin’s repressions—is to this day full of such things: bits of embroidered lace, hand-carved trinkets, painted playing cards, and even small works of art—paintings, drawings, sculptures— which prisoners preserved, brought home with them, and later donated.

The goods that prisoners learned to provide were not always tangible either. Strange though it sounds, in the Gulag it was possible to sing—or dance, or act—for your life. This was true particularly for talented prisoners in the larger camps, with the flashier bosses, those who longed to show off their camp orchestras and theatrical troupes. If the commander of Ukhtizhemlag aspired to maintain a real opera troupe—as one of them did—that meant that the lives of dozens of singers and dancers would be saved. At the very least, they would get time off from work in the forests for rehearsals. More important, they might regain some feeling of humanity. “When the actors were onstage, they forgot about their constant feeling of hunger, about their lack of rights, about the convoy waiting with guard dogs outside the gate,” wrote Alexander Klein.142 While playing in the Dalstroi orchestra, the prisoner and violinist Georgy Feldgun felt “as if I breathed the full air of freedom.”143

Sometimes the rewards were even greater. A document from Dmitlag describes the special clothing to be distributed to members of the camp orchestra—including highly coveted officers’ boots—and orders a lagpunkt commander to supply them with special barracks as well.144 Thomas Sgovio visited one such musicians’ barrack in Magadan: “Upon entering, to the right was a separate compartment with a small stove. Foot coverings and felt boots hung on wires stretched from wall to wall. Individual bunks were neatly covered by blankets. Mattresses and pillowcases were filled with straw. Instruments hung on the walls—a tuba, a french horn, a trombone, trumpet, etc. About half the musicians were criminals. All of them held soft jobs—the cook, the barber, the bath manager, the accountants, etc.” 145

Better conditions were supplied for performers in smaller camps as well, however, and even in some prisons. Georgy Feldgun received extra food while in transit camp, after performing on his violin for a group of criminals. He found the experience very strange: “Here we are on the edge of the world, in Vanino Port . . . and we are playing eternal music, written more than 200 years ago. We are playing Vivaldi for fifty gorillas.”146

Another prisoner found herself in a cell with a troupe of singers and actresses who were, thanks to their talents, not being sent out on the transports to the camps. Seeing their better treatment, she convinced them to let her appear with them, then sang off-key and made fun of herself. Throughout the rest of her camp career, her previously undiscovered comic talents won her extra food and help from her fellow prisoners.147 Others used humor to survive as well. Dmitri Panin has written of a professional clown from Odessa who performed for his life, knowing that if he made the camp authorities laugh, he would save himself from being transferred to a punishment camp. “The only incongruity in this gay dance came from the clown’s large black eyes, which seemed to be begging for mercy. I have never seen such an emotional performance.”148

Out of all the many ways of surviving through collaboration with the authorities, “saving oneself ” through acting in the camp theater or participating in other cultural activities was the method which seemed to prisoners the least morally problematic. This may have been because other prisoners derived some benefit too. Even for those who did not receive special treatment, the theater provided tremendous moral support, something which was also necessary for survival. “For the prisoners, the theater was the source of happiness, it was loved, it was adored,” wrote one. 149 Gustav Herling remembered that for concerts “the prisoners took their caps off at the door, shook the snow from their boots in the passage outside, and took their places on the benches with ceremonious anticipation and almost religious awe.”150

Perhaps that was why those whose artistic talent enabled them to live better inspired admiration, not envy and hatred. Tatyana Okunevskaya— the film star sent to the camps for her refusal to sleep with Abakumov, the head of Soviet counter-intelligence—was recognized everywhere, and helped by everyone. During one camp concert, she felt what seemed to be stones being thrown at her legs; she looked down and realized they were cans of Mexican pineapple, an unheard of delicacy, which a group of thieves had acquired just for her.151

Nikolai Starostin, the soccer player, was also held in the highest respect by the urki, who, he wrote, passed the message to one another: don’t touch Starostin. In the evenings, when he began to recount soccer stories, the “card games ceased” as prisoners gathered around him. When he arrived at a new camp, he was usually offered a clean bed in the camp hospital. “It was the first thing that was proposed to me, whenever I arrived, if, among the doctors or the bosses, there was a fan.”152

Only a very few were bothered by the more complex moral question of whether it was “right” to sing and dance while in prison. Nadezhda Joffe was one of them: “When I look back at my five years, I am not ashamed to recall them and I have nothing to blush about. There is only the question of the amateur theater . . . Essentially there was nothing wrong with it, and yet . . . our distant ancestors, in approximately analogous conditions, hung up their lutes and said they wouldn’t sing in bondage.” 153

Some prisoners, particularly those of non-Soviet origin, also had their doubts about the productions. One Polish prisoner, arrested during the war, wrote that the camp theater was “designed to destroy your self-respect further . . . Sometimes there were ‘artistic’ performances, or some sort of strange orchestra, but it was not done for the satisfaction of the soul. Rather, it was designed to show you their [Soviet] ‘culture,’ to unnerve you further.”154

Still, for those who felt uncomfortable, it was not necessary to participate in the official performances. A striking number of political prisoners who wrote memoirs—and this may explain why they wrote memoirs—attribute their survival to their ability to “tell stories”: to entertain criminal prisoners by recounting the plots of novels or of films. In the world of the camps and the prisons, where books were scarce and films were rare, a good storyteller was highly prized. Leonid Finkelstein says that he will be “forever grateful to a thief who, on my first prison day, recognized this potential in me, and said, ‘You’ve probably read a lot of books. Tell them to people, and you will be living very well.’ And indeed I was living better than the rest. I had some notoriety, some fame . . . I ran into people who said, ‘You are Leonchik-Romanist [Leonchik-the-storyteller], I heard about you in Taishet.’” Because of this skill, Finkelstein was invited, twice a day, into the brigadier leader’s hut where he received a mug of hot water. In the quarry where he was then working, “that meant life.” Finkelstein found, he said, that Russian and foreign classics worked best: he had far less success retelling the plots of more recent Soviet novels.155

Others found the same. On her hot, stuffy train to Vladivostok, Evgeniya Ginzburg learned that “there were material advantages in reciting poetry . . . For instance, after each act of Griboyedov’s The Misfortune of Being Clever, I was given a drink of water out of someone else’s mug as a reward for ‘services to the community.’” 156

Alexander Wat retold Stendhal’s The Red and the Black to a group of bandits while in prison.157 Alexander Dolgun recounted the plot of Les Misérables.158 Janusz Bardach told the story of The Three Musketeers: “I felt my status rise with every twist of the plot.”159 In response to the thieves who dismissed the starving politicals as “vermin,” Colonna-Czosnowski also defended himself by telling them “my own version of a film, suitably embellished for maximum dramatic effect, which I had seen in Poland some years earlier. It was a ‘Cops and Robbers’ story, taking place in Chicago, involving Al Capone. For good measure, I threw in Bugsy Malone, maybe even Bonnie and Clyde. I decided to include everything I could remember, plus some extra refinements which I invented on the spur of the moment.” The story impressed its listeners, and they asked the Pole to repeat it many times: “Like children, they would listen intently. They didn’t mind hearing the same stories over and over again. Like children, too, they liked me to use the same words every time. They also noticed the slightest change or the smallest omission . . . within three weeks of my arrival I was a different man.”160

Yet an artistic gift did not need to earn a prisoner money or bread in order to save his life. Nina Gagen-Torn describes a musical historian, a lover of Wagner, who managed to write an opera while in the camps. Voluntarily, she chose to work cleaning camp sewers and outhouses, since this otherwise unpleasant job gave her enough freedom to think through her music.161 Aleksei Smirnov, one of contemporary Russia’s leading advocates of press freedom, tells the story of two literary scholars who, while in the camps, created a fictitious eighteenth-century French poet, and wrote pastiche eighteenth-century French verse.162 Gustav Herling also derived enormous benefit from the “lessons” in the history of literature which he received from a former professor: his teacher, he speculated, may have benefited even more.163

Irena Arginskaya was even helped by her aesthetic sensibility. Years after her release, she could still speak of the “incredible beauty” of the far north, how at times the sunsets and the views of the open spaces and great forests left her breathless. It even once happened that her mother made the long, terrible journey to visit her in camp, only to discover upon arrival that her daughter had been taken away to the hospital: the visit was in vain. Nevertheless, she spoke “until the end of her life,” as did her daughter, about the beauty of the taiga. 164

And yet—beauty could not help everybody, and its perception was subjective. Surrounded by the same taiga, the same open air, the same sweeping landscapes, Nadezhda Ulyanovskaya found that the scenery made her feel only disgust: “Almost against my will, I remember grandiose sunrises and sunsets, pine tree forests, bright flowers which for some reason had no scent.”165

So struck was I by this comment, that when I myself visited the far north in high summer, I looked with different eyes at the wide rivers and the endless forests of Siberia, at the empty moonscape that is the Arctic tundra. Just outside a coal mine, which stands on what used to be a Vorkutalagpunkt, I even picked a handful of Arctic wildflowers to see if they had a scent. They do. Perhaps Ulyanovskaya had simply not wanted to detect it.

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