Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

An ordinary political prisoner in the forced-labor camps of Kolyma might survive cold, hunger, and disease; he might survive overwork and lack of sleep; he might survive brutal beatings by the camp guards. However, even if he lived through all these things, he might not make it through the encounter with one group of his fellow prisoners—the common criminals, or urkas. Thieves, murderers, and rapists in the outside world, they exercise their talents in the camps as well.

The urka subculture—and here that term is frighteningly literal—dates back to brigand gangs of the seventeenth century and has lived on through revolution and social upheaval. Often bizarrely and profusely tattooed, maimed, and scarred, speaking their own argot, rewarding and punishing according to their own code, the urkas have seemed barely human to many a new arrival in the camps. However, their position is a privileged one. They receive better food, warmer clothing, lighter work—and steal or extort whatever they cannot get “legally.” Anything a political owns is fair game. The urkas live in an uneasy truce—not alliance—with the camp administration, not only because the administration fears them, not only because their absolute amorality terrifies the other prisoners, but also because they are useful in enforcing official policy. They are one more means of breaking the politicals’ spirit. The urkas are told that though they...

(The entire section is 586 words.)