Days and Lives :: Guards

Prisoner: Eugenia Ginzburg

“The key turned in the door. My heart jumped into my throat: any visit at an unscheduled time could only mean trouble. It was the block warder, ordering me to go with him. Finally we came to a halt in a sort of narrow dungeon, where I saw the stout, stocky figure of the senior warder. He pulled out a register and announced that the governor had given orders for me to be confined in an underground punishment cell for five days. He urged me forward into a sort of triangular stone space. There was no lamp or window, and the only light came from the open door. A narrow plank bed was fixed a few inches above the floor, and on it were the rags I was supposed to change into: the greasy remnants of a soldier’s overcoat, and enormous bast sandals. ‘I won’t!’


Guards played an integral role in the Gulag system. Soviet authorities indoctrinated them with propaganda emphasizing that they battled evil enemies of the state and were encouraged to treat prisoners brutally to prevent their escape. Guards endured only slightly better working conditions than prisoners in the brutal cold of Siberia.

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Movie Transcription

Every day, Gulag guards announced the march to work: “A step to the left or a step to the right is considered an attempt to escape. We will shoot without warning.” Sadistic guard behavior toward inmates was a hallmark of Gulag life. Blatant murder of prisoners could be covered up with two simple words “attempted escape.”

Soviet authorities constantly sought to prevent any sympathy from the guards for their prisoners. Guards were constantly reminded that they were the steel in the state’s sword battling the evil prisoners—enemies bent on destroying the glorious society being built in the Soviet Union. Propaganda hammered home the supposed perversions and dangers of these anti-Soviet, virtually sub-human prisoners. Conditions in the camps did little to belie the characterizations of the propaganda, especially if Gulag authorities could keep guards from getting to know prisoners on a personal level.

Working conditions for the guards reinforced the propaganda. While Gulag guards certainly had it easier than the prisoners, serving on a prisoners’ convoy in the harsh environments of Siberia was a difficult job. No amount of clothing completely protected a person in a Kolyma winter, and in these freezing temperatures, Gulag guards were required to maintain high vigilance. For they could be severely punished…could even become Gulag prisoners themselves, if an escape happened under their watch.

The entire Gulag apparatus was set up with incentives that heavily punished guards for prisoner escapes but rarely found fault with guard violence against prisoners—and often even rewarded violence against prisoners under the guise of preventing escapes. In such circumstances, guard brutality was unsurprising. Yet somehow, amidst all of this, signs of humanity, of guards taking pity on the prisoners, were surprisingly common.