The prisoners open the door to their barracks, going inside quickly so that the cold air does not reach their living quarters. Even then, the air within is only a few degrees warmer than the outside air, and your new cellmates collapse onto their bunks, which are nothing more than frozen wooden planks. Some bunks have a few armfuls of straw on them to act as blankets, which conceal dozens of lice, ticks, or fleas. Judging by their previous workload, some prisoners surprisingly do not sleep right away, rather, they take out pieces of toilet paper and write on them with blackened coal sticks as a form of journal or checklist. Sweeping the room, you realize that maybe three men have to share one bunk due to excessive overcrowding, and the sick must share the same bed with the healthy. Much of the floor is covered in freezing mud, and the air is heavy and damp enough to kill a very tired worker. Pulling a little string, a single lightbulb dimly illuminates the room, exposing streaks of peeling paint and endless rows of ragged shoes.
“That one passed in the night,” says a prisoner as he points to a seemingly sleeping man, who upon closer inspection is not breathing. “We still haven’t told the guards, for we would have to drag his body out for roll call. But anyway, come to my bunk. I have something to show you.”
Shuffling along, he opens a secret compartment in his shelf bunk and takes out a bundle of toilet papers that reads “Gulag Survival Guide”…
Despite the appalling hygiene and disrepair of the prisoners’ living quarters, some tried to make the best of it. They made little messages to friends, communicated with prisoners in solitary confinement through morse code, and even gambled for extra rations or other tidbits. Those that even had bunks were lucky, for others in different camps possibly slept on the floor or in hastily erected chairs. In many barracks, the air was humid and actually quite warm, if the stove had fuel of course. If not, the air would be understandably freezing and body parts would get frozen to the surfaces they touched, if the camp is in a remotely cold region. Humidity would breed insects in standing pools of water and get people with straining immune systems sick. Prisoners tended to get a sack mattress filled with wood shavings and a moth-eaten blanket, but some sacrificed these for more fuel to feed the weak stoves. Bathing was actually possible whenever one wanted to, but the lines were long and people were extremely tired, so many disregarded them. Some of the simplest comforts, such as how to sleep correctly, were now desperately desired by many, as provided by this light-hearted excerpt,
“A lesson to learn: How to distribute your body on the planks trying to avoid excessive suffering? A position on your back means all your bones are in direct painful contact with wood… To sleep on your belly is equally uncomfortable. Until you sleep on your right side with your left knee pushed against your chest, you counterbalance the weight of your left hip and relieve the right side of your rib cage. You leave your right arm along the body, and put your right… cheekbone against the back of your left hand.”
Even more unfortunate gulag victims had to sometimes build an entire camp on the spot with only the given materials they were supplied with, so living conditions could be understandably poor. A light in the tunnel comes from gulag hospitals, which were almost a complete opposite from camp life; they had compassionate staff, decent rations, and allowed rest for a few days. However, only a certain number of prisoners could be admitted any given day, so the queues tended to be filled with petty injuries or blatant lies before someone with a serious injury could seek medical help.
The next post will be discussing the actual slave labor that occurred in the gulag systems.
Do Svidaniya, Comrades