The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

“A Day in the Life Of…”: Women of the Soviet Gulag


The second in this year’s series of student authored articles considers some key aspects of women’s experiences in the Stalinist Gulag camps. Proportionally, women made up a small but significant percentage of the Gulag population and a rich body of written memoirs and personal testimony from surviving female inmates is available  today. In this article Katryna Coak draws on some of these accounts to argue that while women may have been subjected to broadly similar conditions as those experienced by male inmates, there were distinctly gendered aspects to the female Gulag experience, particularly relating to women’s experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood in the camps, which could be both uplifting and traumatic in equal measure.


“A Day in the Life Of…”: Women of the Soviet Gulag.

By Katryna Coak.


During the 1930s, the escalation of Stalinist terror and repression (particularly during the Great Terror of 1936-1939) meant that the population of the Gulag labour camps continued to grow. Anne Applebaum estimates that over 18 million people passed through the Gulag in total, and many women were sent to these labour camps, including large numbers of political prisoners, many of whom were sentenced under Article 58, their only crime being their association as ‘wives of enemies of the people’. However, proportionally their numbers remained relatively small in relation to the male population: for example, Mason estimates that in 1939 women only comprised 8.4 per cent of the total Gulag population, while Anne Applebaum has estimated that in 1942 only around 13% of Gulag inmates were female.[1] Initially many camp commanders were reluctant to accept women, as they believed they were weaker than men, so would take longer to fulfil the work norms set by the Gulag administration. In February 1941 the central camp administration even sent a letter to the NKVD and camp commanders ordering them to accept convoys of women and listing jobs that women could be particularly useful for, such as textiles, wood and metal work and light industry.[2]


However, despite their relatively small numbers and despite the fact that men and women had to endure broadly similar living and working conditions within the camps, women’s experiences of the Gulag were also distinctively different to those of their male counterparts in a number of ways, as depicted by the accounts in numerous female memoirs and personal testimonies.


Camp Life


Many women’s first memories of the Gulag tell of their fear, embarrassment and degradation. On arrival at their assigned camp, women were generally led to the bathhouse where they had a rare opportunity to wash. This was often an embarrassing and shocking experience. One former zek recalled how: ‘The personnel were all male. You had to overcome the shame and humiliation, clench your teeth and control yourself, to endure the dirty jokes calmly and not spit at those hideous faces, or punch them between the eyes’.[3] Another former prisoner drew the scene of humiliation, revealing that women were made to wait for their turn naked in the snow:


A drawing by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, a former Gulag prisoner, available via Gulag: Soviet Forced Labour and the Struggle for Freedom:


The humiliation did not stop there: guards often exploited the situation to ‘inspect’ the new arrivals, as women were a rarity within the Gulag: ‘After the bath, we had to wait a while for our clothes, which had been taken to be disinfected. This period of waiting was the worst…our guards came in under the pretext that one of us might attempt to escape’ recalled Anna Cieślikowska.[4] The disinfection of prisoner’s clothing was generally ineffective anyway as the water used to wash the clothes was often not hot enough to kill the parasites and merely served to excite them further. In order to reduce the incidence of lice, women therefore endured further embarrassment as their heads and pubis were shaved. This procedure was supposed to be carried out by a female doctor, but they were rarely available, so male guards and doctors gleefully stepped in.


Some women resisted: ‘I was so shocked about it that at first I refused…soldiers kept my hands behind my back, while another forced my legs apart’.[5] But women also had to submit to regular physical searches: ‘They searched our hair, our mouths and even our…[they] were carried out solely to frighten and humiliate us’.[6] This sense of humiliation is also depicted in another drawing by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, illustrating a physical search party, where it is evident that the women are hanging their heads due to the shame and awkwardness of this situation:


A drawing by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, a former Gulag prisoner, depicting a late night search of women, available online via Gulag: Soviet Forced Labour and the Struggle for Freedom:


Yet, other women quickly adopted a more pragmatic approach to their new situation. Speaking about the regular physical searches, Elinor Lipper argued that, ‘What we hated worse than the confiscation of the little things we needed, worse than the humiliation of the whole procedure, was the fact that we were robbed of our all-too-brief night’s sleep’ – something which was essential due to the toll taken by the physical labour that all Gulag inmates were subjected to in one form or another.[7] Some women appear to have adjusted to camp life more quickly than others as practical concerns took precedence. Furthermore, other women spoke about how they quickly became more adept at concealing the few personal possessions that they had, utilising fish bones from their daily soup to create needles in order to repair clothing and fashioning knives from bits of metal. Eleanor Lipper, a former Gulag inmate, claimed that ‘women are far more enduring than men…and also more adaptable to unaccustomed physical labour’, while Anne Applebaum has argued that camp women formed more powerful relationships with one another and helped each other in ways male prisoners did not such as by sharing food rations.[8] Kseniia Dmitrievna Medvedskaia also spoke of how she feared ostracism after a stint in the punishment cell, however her apprehensions were quickly dispelled as on her return to the barracks the other women greeted her warmly and shared the food they had saved for her.[9]


Despite this camaraderie however, many women found life in the Gulag to be a demoralising and defeminising experience. Solzhenitsyn commented that due to the toll of regular manual labour in the Gulag, women’s bodies became worn and ‘everything feminine about them ceased to be, both biologically and physically’.[10] Many women also described the shock they felt when they caught a rare glance of their reflections in a broken piece of glass or a mirror.  With shaved heads, lose fitting men’s clothing and skeletal bodies, they appeared genderless. Ginzberg described how, while watching another female work brigade: ‘As we continued to watch the files of workers passing by, an inclination of a joke left us. They were indeed sexless…this sight appalled us and took away the last remnants of or courage’.[11] Serving time in the Gulag proved to be a dehumanising experience for many women, many of whom felt they were forcibly stripped of their femininity.


Camp Relationships, Pregnancy and Motherhood


Life in the camps, Anatoly Zhigulin argues, was not all bad: ‘Sometimes people ask me whether there were ever any good times in the camps…of course there were…there were good, even joyful moments that had nothing to do with material comforts’.[12] This comfort could come in the form of a friend or a lover. Sadly, many women were physically abused by male inmates and camp guards, with horrific accounts of rape and abuse a frequent issue in Gulag memoirs. Some women therefore took ‘camp husbands’ to offer them protection, while others deliberately sought out sexual encounters with guards in order to receive physical protection, higher rations and time off work. Elinor Lipper described how ‘women who once dreamed of hearing the phrase “I love you” know found the words “butter, sugar and white bread” a proper substitute’, while another former Gulag inmate explained ‘(‘[I] don’t think that this is the place for love and commitment…I wasn’t in love with Victor. I stayed with him because it isn’t safe for a women to be alone’.[13] However, genuine relationships also formed within the Gulag: In Minlag camp, male and female prisoners sent notes to each other via their friends in the camp hospital. In other camps coded letters were thrown over the fence dividing the two sexes. Some lovers were even ‘married’ across the barbed wire.[14] These relationships could give a prisoner hope in what often seemed to be a hopeless situation.


Pregnancy was therefore a relatively common occurrence in the camps and stories of children and motherhood are a common theme within female memoir literature. Shapalov argues that for many, children symbolised ‘normal’ life and made prisoners feel as though they were on an equal footing with ‘free’ women, something which could have helped some women to regain a sense of femininity and purpose in a hostile environment, [15] while Hava Volovitch spoke of how: ‘our need for love was so desperate that it reached the point of insanity, of banging one’s head against the wall, of suicide. And we wanted a child – the dearest and closest of all people, someone for whom we could give our own life’.[16]


Potentially, there were practical benefits to pregnancy too. A decree of January 10, 1939, stated that female zeks were allowed thirty-five days off work before the birth of their child and twenty-eight after their child was born.[17] Pregnancy could save a woman from beatings and even from execution. Rumours circulated that pregnancy could ensure an early release, as amnesties for pregnant women were implemented at various points. However, pregnancy was seen as a camp offence and many inmates were forced to have abortions, even though the practice was made illegal in the Soviet Union in 1936.[18] Camp officials often took the decision to forcibly terminate a women’s pregnancy so that she could continue to work, in the interests of reaching production targets. There were also some women who attempted to end unwanted pregnancies themselves: Anna Andreevna talks of how she witnessed one woman stabbing herself with needles until she began bleeding heavily, signifying the end of her pregnancy. Even those terminations performed by camp doctors were often unskilled and dangerous.[19] Therefore, pregnancy could be a scary time for expectant mothers.


The survival rate of babies born in the Gulag was extremely low and children were often born in terrible, unhygienic conditions.  Hava Volovich retcalled her experience of giving birth to a daughter in the Gulag:


‘She was born in a remote camp barracks, not in the medical block. There were three mothers there, and we were given a tiny room to ourselves…bedbugs poured from the ceiling and walls; we spent the whole night brushing them off the child. During the day we had to go to work and leave the infants with any old woman…these women would calmly help themselves to the food we left for the children’.[20]


Children were not allowed to stay with their mother for long: after the birth they were quickly transferred to a camp nursery and the mothers were sent to a camp for mamki (nursing mothers). Despite ‘official’ camp regulations Mamki were often forced to return to work almost immediately after giving birth, and were only allowed to breast feed their babies at specific times. Mothers were only permitted to visit their children regularly if they were breast-feeding so sometimes camp commanders would claim that a mother had stopped lactating in order to get them back to work earlier. If a woman missed their feeding ‘appointment’, their child would generally go hungry.


The high infant mortality rate in the camps is therefore understandable. Giuli Fedorovna Tsivirko recalls her experience of being a mother in the Gulag: ‘my son died after eight months. He died. He was born weighing one and a half kilograms, blue. He looked at me with the eyes of a grown person. I felt that he was doomed’ And Hava Volovich watched her child slowly turn into ‘a pale ghost with blue shadows under her eyes and sores all over her lips’.[21]


If a child did survive, they would be removed from the camps within two years. This operation was usually carried out at night to take the mothers by surprise and to avoid emotional displays: ‘Then came the order to take the children away from their mothers and send them to a nursery away from Solovki. We were heartbroken! There were so many tears!’ recalls Anna Petrovna Zborovskaia.[22] On discovering that their children had been taken, many women would fling themselves against the barbed wire in an attempt to take their own lives. Once removed from the camp, the address of a child’s whereabouts was usually omitted from the mother’s records making it almost impossible for a mother to trace her child even after she was released.


Not all women in the Gulag camps embraced motherhood: Solzhenitsyn has claimed that some women used pregnancy to ensure early liberation from the Gulag and once freed, they would leave their children on the nearest porch or train station bench, as they no longer had any need for them.[23] However in their memoirs, many female zeks appear to have viewed their children as a humanising force in a dehumanising situation and a way of reclaiming their identity. The birth of a child could will a woman to survive for the child’s sake. However, these children were unlikely to survive, and if they did, ultimately they would be forcibly taken from their mothers. So pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood within the camps could also be an extremely traumatic experience that had the potential to leave both physical and psychological scars.


About the Author:


Katryna Coak has just completed her BA in History at Swansea University. During her final year of study, Katryna specialised in the study of communist Eastern Europe and also researched and wrote her History dissertation about the experiences of Women in the Stalinist-era Gulag camps. Katryna will commence postgraduate study at the University of East Anglia in September 2012.


[1] Emma Mason, ‘Women in the Gulag in the 1930s,’ in Illič, Melanie, ed., Women in the Stalin Era, (Palgrave: 2001); Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 287

[2] Anne Applebaum, Ibid, 287

[3] Anna Cieślikowska, ‘Fragments,’ reproduced in Jehanne Gheith and Katherine Jolluck, Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile, Palgrave Macmilian: 2011).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael Solomon, Magadan, (Vertex Books: 1971)

[6] Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, ‘My Journey,’ reproduced in Simeon Vilensky, Till my Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag, (Virago Press: 1999)

[7] Elinor Lipper, Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps (London: Photolith-Merchana, 1950) 206

[8] Elinor Lipper, quoted in Robert Conquest, Kolyma: The Artic Death Camps, 177; Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (London: Penguin Books, 2003) 284.

[9] Dmitrievna Medvedskaia, ‘Life is Everywhere,’ reproduced in Veronica Shapovalov, ed., Remembering the Darkness: Women in Soviet Prisons (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2001) 232

[10] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 235-236

[11] Evgenia Ginzburg, Into the Whirlwind, 300

[12] Anatoly Zhigulin, ‘On Work,’ reproduced in Anne Applebaum, Gulag Voices: An Anthology, (Yale University Press, 2011)

[13] Elinor Lipper, Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps (London: Photolith-Merchana, 1950) 119; Janusz Bardach and Kathleen Gleeson, Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving Stalin’s Gulag (London: Simon and Schuster, 1998) 296 and 298

[14] Anne Applebaum, Gulag, 291; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 248; Emma Mason, ‘Women in the Gulag in the 1930s,’ in Illič, ed., Women in the Stalin Era, 141

[15] Veronica Shapovalov,  Remembering the Darkness: Women in Soviet Prisons (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2001)

[16] Hava Volovich, ‘My Past,’ reproduced in Vilensky, Simeon, Till my Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag (Indiana: Virago Press, 1999) 260

[17] Emma Mason, ‘Women in the Gulag in the 1930s,’ in Illič, ed., Women in the Stalin Era, (Palgrave: 2001)

[18] Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, (Penguin Books: 2003)

[19] Ibid, 294

[20] Hava Volovich, ‘My Past,’ reproduced in Simeon Vilensky, Till my Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag (Virago Press: 1999)

[21] Interview with Giuli Fedorovna Tsivirko, ‘Surrounded by Death,’ May 1988, reproduced in Gheith, and Jolluck, Gulag Voices, 95; Volovich, ‘My Past,’ reproduced in Vilensky, Till my Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag.

[22] Anna Petrovna Zborovskaia, 291; Mason, ‘Women in the Gulag in the 1930s,’ in Illič, ed., Women in the Stalin Era, 144

[23] Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, (Harper Collins: 1973)


June 19, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , ,


  1. […] pregnant in the camps (for more on pregnancy and childbirth in the Gulag see the previous blog post HERE). Life for children who found themselves in the camp nurseries was horrendous. They were often […]

    Pingback by ‘The Littlest Enemies’: Children of the Stalinist Era « The View East | June 21, 2012 | Reply

  2. Thank you for writing about this subject. My boyfriend’s grandma, great aunt, and great grandparents were sent to gulag’s from Ukraine. His grandma and great grandparents survived, but the great aunt died.

    Comment by reknapp | July 26, 2015 | Reply

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