European Memories

of the Gulag


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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. In the camps, the prisoners were used mainly to build towns, railways, and factories and to open up and work coal and mineral mines. The distinction between special resettlers and prisoners was not a hard and fast one. For example, there were agricultural camps.

The deportees could survive by doing extra jobs. 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. The deportees discovered work that was chosen for them. They were often recruited on arrival, as in a slave market, by kolkhoz chiefs. 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. The special resettlers often worked alongside the locals in the same working teams and on the same conditions.

Forced labour was one of the essential means of industrial development in the USSR. Despite its poor economic return and extremely high human cost, it was standard in a number of regions of the USSR.



Promotion through work

Since Domas’s mother could not work, he began cutting timber at a young age, and then was hired for building work. He went from being an unqualified labourer to crane operator in 1951, and was employed outside the special settlement with the tacit agreement of the commandant, under the surveillance of his employer. He followed a career as mechanical plant operator.


Work in the camps

Work in the camps was different from the special resettlers’ work. The location was often harsh, the days endless, and the work itself – mining, building in extreme conditions – were at the limit of what a human being could take.





Work in the mine


Building a railway line

Newsreel film from 1950. It is not known whether prisoners worked on this site, but it is quite possible for they were often used for this type of construction.


Jakobs Shats: Logging


"They ordered us out of the train and onto buses and took us north of Kansk in Taseevo district. There, they found us accommodation with local people, took our passports away and gave my father a paper to report with every week. That is how our life in Siberia began.

My parents were not allowed to do intellectual work, they had no authorisation. They could only do very hard physical tasks, such as work in forestry, kolkhoz or camps. Remember that all of us deportees were townsfolk, not used to hard labour in the fields.

Remember, too, that in that region it is very cold in winter, down to minus 50°C. We were not prepared for the cold; we’d been arrested and deported in June and hadn’t brought any warm clothes with us; there were major supply problems, the locals also suffered from the lack of food, and a lot of deportees who didn’t manage to sell or barter clothes died of hunger.

Q. Did you go to school?

I didn’t go to school because I had no warm clothes to go out in; in winter you had to have fur coats, hats, warm boots, and I didn’t have any; so for three years I couldn’t go to school and it wasn’t until 1944 that my parents could afford to buy clothes, so I then went to school for two years. We spent five years in Siberia.

Q. You didn’t go to school. What did you and your sister do?

All of us in the family worked, my parents started working because if you didn’t work you had no money and you couldn’t afford the essentials. My mother worked, my sister worked. In 1943 my elder sister was drafted again and sent further to the east, where a railway line was being built.

Q. What work did your family do in the Krasnoyarsk region?

We felled trees, my second sister was drafted to help with floating timber downstream. I was younger than 18, under age, but I went working too with my mother in the fields on the kolkhoz, I helped my mother during the harvest and took part in the fieldwork in that way.


Adam Chwaliński work in the taiga

In these two extracts, Adam Chwaliński describes how at the age of eleven and a half he worked sawing lumber in the forests of Siberia.


Alexandra Belomestnykh, as a child, follows a plough