Horse thieves and bread thieves

Most people in the United States have probably heard at some point that in the Wild West (which was not actually so wild) the penalty for horse theft was death because of how important horses often were to survival; a man robbed of his horse might very easily die in a hostile landscape as a result. I don’t have documentation on this, but it has a ring of truth to it.

Anne Applebaum’s so-far-excellent book Gulag: A History records a similar custom spontaneously arising in the Soviet concentration camp system. From pp. 213-214:

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 thief’s 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 [“elder”/boss] 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 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 unwritten 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.


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