Days and Lives :: Guards

Prisoner: Alfred Martinovich Mirek

“Our camp had a chief foreman who controlled everything. Our Stepan Gavrilovich—the local aristocracy, the criminal prisoners, foremen, heads of canteen, storeroom, and bakery, called him Stiopka-Butuz or simply Butuz—was stocky, young, red-faced bandit, always a little drunk… Crews, coming from the wood, went through the gate. He seemed to notice me one of those times. He looked at me intently (I probably looked extremely haggard and miserable) and I could detect compassion somewhere deep in his eyes. He came up to me and said that he has work for me: tomorrow morning he will show and tell me everything. He turned and left quickly before I could understand anything. In the morning, when we lined up near the gate, he indeed came up to me, took me aside where a horse and a carriage with a big barrel without a cover, and said: “You won’t go to work any more, you will clean latrines in the camp.” Of course, this was much easier than felling trees on the swamp after walking for 3-5 kilometers, and I, touched by his kindness, thanked him with all my heart. He blurted out something elaborate in his criminal slang and left.”


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.