Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Man is Wolf to Man

Man is Wolf to Man
Janus Bardach


PLOT SUMMARY: Man is Wolf to Man begins with Bardach’s recollections of life in Wolodzimierz-Wolynski, Poland, where his father worked as a dentist. When the Soviet Union takes over the area, Bardach is drafted into the military and is forced to leave his family and wife behind to train as a tank driver. After his training, on the way to fight the Nazis, Bardach accidentally gets his tank stuck in a river and is sentenced to death for being a Nazi saboteur. However, an NKVD agent, Efim Polzun, who knew Bardach’s family commutes his sentence to hard labor instead. Bardach is soon shipped off to Siberia to serve his hard labor sentence. In the prison car, he makes an unsuccessful escape attempt and is beaten close to death. He stops at several camps along the way to his final destination of Kolyma, in the far north of Siberia.


     Prior to arriving in Kolyma, Bardach meets Dr. Semyonov and poses as a medical student to try to get a job as a feldsher, or medical assistant within prison hospitals. Dr. Semyonov falsely declares Bardach ill to keep him from going to Kolyma, but Bardach is sent there anyway. At Kolyma, Bardach is put in isolation for five days for punching a prisoner. After getting out, his health deteriorates and a feldsher suggests that he be admitted into a hospital for scurvy—a request which is denied, and he is instead shipped to another prison camp. On the way there, the prison cart blows up and many of them are admitted to a prison hospital. Bardach claims to be a feldsher to the hospital staff, and this time is given the job in the tuberculosis unit. Eventually Bardach tells the prison doctor that he isn’t an actual feldsher, but the doctor allows him to stay and trains him. After contracting tuberculosis and recovering, Bardach transfers to the psychiatric unit to risk recontamination. He remains here up until receiving an early release from prison, at which point he reunites with extended family and his brother but learns that his wife and immediate family were all killed. Bardach goes on to train as a doctor and practice medicine in Poland.


ANALYSIS: Bardach’s memoir reflects on the ways in which the conditions of imprisonment and structural violence of the Gulag changes what it means to be human. The penal labor system is built around degradation, forcing prisoners into filthy and confined conditions, subjecting them to endless brutality, limiting their food and water, and ultimately turning them against one another to be agents in their own torment. Not just a side effect of the camp, degradation is the goal: “The intent wasn’t simply to extract as much labor as possible but also to force the prisoners to devolve into animals” (223). Once prisoners devolve to this level, they exact punishment on others. Bardach often depicts prisoners as fitting into two broad categories—those who have lost their humanity (through lack of a desire to live or through degradation of others) and those who have not (who strive to live and respect others). His narrative, like others in the Russian prison genre such as Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House, considers how this system of punishment is not meant to reform, but rather to brutally punish prisoners and wear away their humanity.


     Additionally, Bardach contemplates what it means, and requires, to survive in the Gulag. He does this primarily through reflections on how he came to survive his time in Siberia, as well as recollections of those who were broken, physically and mentally, by the system. Bardach many times discusses dokhodilovkas, or prisoners who have reached the lowest level of degradation and welcome
death, even killing themselves. While he comes close to reaching this point, especially when he is in solitary isolation, he resists it and reflects back on
those who have showned him kindness. One of these figures is Dr. Semyonov, and Bardach strives to embody his insistence that preserving humanity is dependent on resisting giving into the brutality all around and taking advantage of those less fortunate.




“The pit I was ordered to dig had the precise dimensions of a coffin. The Soviet officer carefully designed it. He measured me with a stick, made lines on the forest floor, and told me to dig. He wanted to make sure I’d fit well inside.” (1)


“My heart grew heavy as I looked around at the dying prisoners, my new living quarters, and the tiny compound in which my every move would be monitored by armed guards. I had believed there would be a base level of humanity in the camps—a regard for human life to keep prisoners from dying unnecessarily—but no one cared.” (127)


“There was no room left for human feelings such as friendship, compassion, generosity. This was why there were so many fights; why the weak were trodden upon—everyone was looking for someone on whom to take out his anger… I began losing what had been instilled in me since childhood—warmth, sensitivity, readiness to help. My humanity began slipping.” (222)

BIOGRAPHY: Janusz Bardach was born on in Odessa, Ukraine in 1919 to a Jewish family from Poland (Tanne). Bardach’s family returned to Poland shortly after his birth, and he grew up in the town of Wolodzimierz-Wolynski. After WWII broke out and the Soviet Union occupied Poland, Bardach was drafted into the Red Army and trained as a tank driver and mechanic. However, he never made it into battle. After overturning his tank in a riverbed, Bardach was accused of sabotaging the army. Put to a court-martial, Bardach was sentenced to death (Remstein, 1). But on his way to execution, Bardach was approached by Efim Polzun, a member of the communist secret police (NKVD), whose family grew up near Polzun’s in Odessa. Polzun commuted Bardach’s sentence to ten years of
hard labor in a Siberian prison mine (Tanne, Remstein, 1).


     Bardach served his hard labor sentence in Kolyma, Siberia. He “survived brutal beatings, torture, isolation, filth, starvation, tuberculosis and hard labor in the gold-mining camps” (Remstein, 2). But while in Kolyma, Bardach talked his way into a job at the prison hospital by convincing staff members he was a medical student. When WWII ended and Bardach’s prison sentence was ended in 1946, he learned that almost his entire family had been killed by the Germans. Upon his release, he traveled to Moscow and managed to enter medical school without taking the exams. Bardach then pursued a residency in plastic and reconstructive surgery before returning to Poland and practicing medicine for 18 years in Lodz, where he developed innovative techniques and contributed to the publication of papers and textbooks. In 1968, a time when many professionals were leaving Poland’s antisemitic environment, Bardach relocated to America and became a professor at the Iowa College of Medicine. In his later life, Bardach wrote about his experiences in Russian labor camps, with his most famous work being Man is Wolf to Man. He passed away from pancreatic cancer on August 16th, 2002.




Bardach, Janusz. Man is Wolf to Man. University of California Press. 1998.

Remstein, Henna. “When Humans Became Predators: Author Janusz Bardach describes the degradation he survived in the gulag.” Jewish Exponent, 1998, Philadelphia, PA.


Tanne, Janice Hopkins. “Obituaries. Janusz Bardach A plastic surgeon who survived imprisonment in the Siberian gold mines.” BMJ: British
Medical Journal,
vol. 325, no. 7369, 1998, p. 906.



“One of a Kind: Janusz Bardach.” Interview. Iowa Public Library. April 4, 2014.
of a Kind radio program interviews Janusz Bardach about his life, specifically concerning his experiences in the Gulag and how they have led up to where he is today.


Conquest, Robert. Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps. Viking Adult, 1978.
Robert Conquest describes the nature
of the forced labor camps in Kolyma during the Stalinist period. Conquest focuses on the typical, day-to-day life of prisoners in Kolyma, and traces their
experiences from arrest onward.


Barnes, Steven. “Categorizing Prisoners: The Identities of the Gulag.” Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Lives. Princeton University Press. 2011, pp. 79-106.
Barnes describes the fixation on categorizing prisoners within the Gulag as a project with the intent of knowing details about their prisoners.

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