European Memories

of the Gulag


Work in deportation

Work was the centre of life in deportation. It was the whole of life in the camps. It was essential both for survival and for integration into the world where the deportees would have to live.

Work in the villages of special resettlers was different from that in the camps. It was usually rural work, fieldwork on kolkhoz and sovkhoz farms, logging. In the camps, the prisoners were used mainly in building railways and mining. The distinction between special resettlers and prisoners was not a hard and fast one. For example, there were agricultural camps, particularly in Kazakhstan. Special resettlers often worked alongside prisoners building railways or in factory work.

The deportees could survive by doing extra work personally, which enabled them to integrate into the local social fabric. In the camps, forced labour was 100% of their work. Although they were all subject to extremely hard work, the depths of violence were to be found in the camps, where working conditions, especially in winter, were at the limit of what a human being could take.

The camps formed the basis of a vast industrial sector covering the whole production process from mining in Siberia to the finished manufactured product, even including basic and applied research, in specially designed camps for purged scientists and engineers. The resettlers often worked alongside prisoners building railway lines or new cities to support the industrial development of a region.

The resettlers discovered work that was chosen for them. They were often recruited on arrival, as in a slave market, by kolkhoz chiefs. They were given the hardest work, particularly on the huge logging operations, lespromhoz, in Siberia. This was probably less of a contrast for Lithuanian or Latvian peasants, or Ukrainian farm workers, than for towndwellers who knew little of rural life. But the latter had skills that stood in for their lack of experience.

The line between free or deported workers and prisoners was not always a clear one in areas where forced labour was the rule. Often, when their sentence was over, prisoners would settle locally either voluntarily, because they had nowhere to go back to, or because they were under restricted residence with no right of return. So they would be living among their former camp mates. The special resettlers often worked alongside the locals in the same working teams and on the same conditions.

Alain Blum and Emilia Koustova