Steal Anything Except Our Daily Bread

In the end, not everybody [in the Gulag] starved. For even if most food products disappeared before they made it into the soup, one staple food was usually available: bread. Like soup, the bread of the Gulag has been described many times. Sometimes it is remembered as badly baked: one prisoner remembered it being so hard it “resembled a brick,” and so small it could be eaten “in two bites.” Another wrote that it was “literally ‘black’ bread because the bran left in it colored the bread black and made the texture coarse.” He also noted that it was baked with a great deal of water, so that it was “wet and weighed heavy, so that in actual fact we received less than our allotted 700 grams.”

Others recalled that prisoners fought over the drier, less watery ends of the loaves. In Varlam Shalamov’s short story “Cherry Brandy,” a fictive description of the death of Osip Mandelstam, the poet’s approaching death is signaled by his loss of interest in such matters: “He no longer watched for the heel of the loaf or cried when he didn’t get it. He didn’t stuff the bread into his mouth with trembling fingers.”

In the hungrier camps, in the hungrier years, bread took on an almost sacred status, and a special etiquette grew up around its consumption. While camp thieves stole almost everything else with impunity, for example, the theft of bread was considered particularly heinous and unforgivable. Vladimir Petrov found on his long train journey to Kolyma that “thieving was permitted and could be applied to anything within the thiefs capacity and luck, but there was one exception–bread. Bread was sacred and inviolable, regardless of any distinctions in the population of the car.” Petrov had in fact been chosen as the starosta [leader] of the car, and in that capacity was charged with beating up a petty thief who had stolen bread. He duly did so. Thomas Sgovio [an American] also wrote that the unwritten law of the camp criminals in Kolyma was: “Steal anything–excepting the holy bread portion.” He too had “seen more than one prisoner beaten to death for violating the sacred tradition.” Similarly, Kazimierz Zarod remembered that

If a prisoner stole clothes, tobacco, or almost anything else and was discovered, he could expect a beating from his fellow prisoners, but the unwrit- ten law of the camp–and I have heard from men from other camps that it was the same everywhere-was that a prisoner caught stealing another’s bread earned a death sentence.

In his memoirs, Dmitri Panin, a close friend of Solzhenitsyn’s, described exactly how such a death sentence might be carried out: “An offender caught in the act of stealing bread would be tossed in the air by other prisoners and allowed to crash to the ground; this was repeated several times, damaging his kidneys. Then they would heave him out of the barracks like so much carrion.”

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 213-214

UPDATE: See also the story of Nicholas Nagy-Talavera, who survived both Auschwitz and the Gulag.

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