“My bones feel like jelly. Everything…hurts,” says a prisoner as he suddenly falls to the floor when marching back to the barracks. No one minds him except the guards, who hit him with clubs and scream at his motionless body to keep moving. Turning away, you feel the same pain he does, but are unwilling to give up to the elements and cruelty of the guards. Pushing onwards, the prisoners once again enter the damp living quarters, not having enough energy to speak to each other this time. Some prisoners pay others with bread crumbs to go fetch their dinner for them, while others immediately sleep on the hard wooden benches. After the third day of timber-chopping, you feel literally dead tired, searching for ANY way to get out of the virtual death sentence.
“Hey comrade, over here!”, whispers a voice from outside. Looking at the point of sound, a roundish face of another prisoner watches you from outside the barracks through the barred windows. Beckoning you to come, you sneak out of a tiny hole in the side of the barracks, unchecked by guards at this point. Following the footsteps in the snow, you come upon the prisoner, who is carrying a small torch and a blunted axe.
“I see that look of ‘dead man’ on your face comrade. I can show you a way out of it…for a nominal fee.”
Too tired to even think, you rummage around in your pocket for bread crumbs and hand them over to the man. He grins widely, instantaneously gagging you with a cork wrapped in a moth-eaten cloth. Before you can make a sound, he grabs one of your fingers and lays it on a freezing barrel, axe over his head ready to strike…
Constant exposure to the elements and the shortage of food for prisoners meant people would get sick easily. As discussed in “The Hellish Living Arrangements” blog post, this can be treated by staying in the infirmary for a few days, but the clinics could only accept a certain number of people per day. Last blog post also discussed “trustees”, the prisoners who had easier jobs in the gulags as a result of bribery. These are only two examples of what prisoners would do to get out of work, and there are many more. For example, many of the infirmary’s patients had self-inflicted wounds so that they could avoid working for a few days. What would be treated as a court martial or death sentence in the field of battle would be treated the same in the gulags, if there was “evidence” pointing out the prisoner that performed the dead. Among the generally common wounds of missing hands and burnt extremities, prisoners also founded horribly ingenious ways of avoiding labor, such as drinking soap and injecting petrol into the skin to create boils. Urkas tended to perform self-inflicted wounds the most to avoid being placed in a barracks with other generic prisoners and losing their “special privileges”.
At the work sites, prisoners were sometimes able to bribe their supervisors to give them a boost in production on a formal report, which would net more food for the prisoner. On starvation rations, the prisoners would find previously chopped wood or piles of coal and pretend to have done it themselves. Cheating was a large incentive for prisoners working on timber, since they were expected to clear ten square meters of frozen ground per person when constructing a road in the colder regions. It is believed that, through genuinely working (which would be practically impossible), the average prisoner could clear five square meters per day. This is one of the underlying reasons why timber chopping was labelled “green death” by other prisoners. In carefully cheating the system, many prisoners managed to survive the gulags
On the next post, I will discuss the “trials” the prisoners went through before they were sentenced to the gulags.
Do Svidaniya, Comrades