Rations of the Gulag System & their (In)significance

“…And those are the aforementioned ‘bathrooms’ in the far right corner,” says the prisoner who helped you to your feet earlier as he points out “key” locations in the gulag courtyard. “Seriously, how can one bucket cater to 100 dysentery-afflicted men? Sukas…”


A loudspeaker crackles to life, and a guttural voice, presumably a camp officer, yells through the intercom that it is food time. Standing to their feet, the older and newer prisoners rise off the freezing concrete walkways and start migrating to the cafeteria. Guarded heavily by men armed with submachine guns, the cafeteria is an unimpressive, large communal room with no actual chairs or tables to sit at. Instead, rotting wooden planks nailed to the wall act as benches, and the current utensils each prisoner brings are their ONLY way to hold food. Falling into a creeping line of exhausted workers, you waddle up to the first food station, eyes greedily tracing the vibrantly colored vegetables in the back room. When it is your turn, the cafeteria prisoner looks you up and down, staring you in the eye as he ladles out supper. Sitting down with your newfound friend, you look into the watery soup the worker has given you, and the pitiful amount of oats that came with it.


“Best not to eat that too fast, comrade,” says another prisoner as he slowly spoons tiny mouthfuls of the soup into his maw. “Rat droppings, chemicals, an extra piece of frozen bread, who knows what is in this ‘soup’ that we are forced to eat…”.




So-called “rations” in the gulags tended to vary from camp to camp, but the amount of food the prisoner got was always consistent with their work quotas. According to a research paper, the Vorontsy labor camp had three massive separate “cauldrons”, in which a varying amount of food was given. Cauldron 1 was for the majority of prisoners who did not meet their quota, consisting of 300 grams of bread and a liter of (watery) soup for breakfast, a spoonful of groats (hulled kernels of whole grains) and a liter of soup for dinner. For the occasional worker that reached 100-125% of their work quota, they were fed from Cauldron 2, which contained 500 grams of bread and a liter of soup for breakfast,  two spoonfuls of groats and a piece of spoiled fish for dinner. On extremely rare occasions, those prisoners who filled more than 125% of their quota got to eat from the “big ration” of Cauldron 3, which included 700 grams of bread and half a liter of soup for breakfast; a liter of soup, two spoonfuls of groats, and a piece of spoiled fish for dinner.


These amounts of food are frighteningly low for the amount of calories burnt on an average workday of a gulag prisoner, and those who kept consistently achieving the “big ration” died from malnourishment. By exerting themselves more for just a little bit of fish or another half liter of soup, these men and women consumed far less calories than they had slaved off chopping down trees or mining for ores. Unrealistic quotas also attributed to this statistic, with starving prisoners having to chop down TONS worth of timber or cubic meters of coal, for example. All the while, prisoners had to watch out for thugs, camp guards, dangerous environmental hazards, disease, the cold or intense heat, and many other ailments which drained their energy. Other gulag prisoners were not so lucky, their rations being much worse than Vorontsy’s Cauldron system. One prisoner was in the gulag system for over a dozen years, eating nothing but two small, frozen potatoes and a crushed, salted fish per day.


On the next post I will discuss the living arrangements and barracks for the prisoners…


Do Svidaniya, Comrades


Sources Used:


White, Matthew. The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities


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