Days and Lives :: Guards

Prisoner: Lev Razgon

“At last the door swung open, confidently and wide, and in strode a young NKVD lieutenant. Two warders stood by the door. The lieutenant was neatly dressed and close-shaven, the buckles of his belt and shoulder straps shone, and folds of his field shirt were creased perfectly, and he gave off an aroma of eau de cologne, good tobacco, health, youth, home and good fortune – all the things that I had once considered quite natural…Only for the first few weeks had I continued to look on the jailers and interrogators as people just like me: they might be mistaken or worthless scoundrels, I had thought, but they were human beings, nevertheless. Then, in an instant, I changed my mind. It was impossible to establish any human contact with such people, or regard them as human beings; they were only pretending and we, for our part, also had to make believe that they were just like us.”

Indoctrinating the Guards

Soviet authorities aimed a constant propaganda barrage at the guards, designed to convince them that they were watching over dangerous enemies, fascists, and spies. The propaganda dehumanized prisoners in the guards’ eyes and contributed to the atmosphere of extreme violence. As former prisoner Tomas Sgovio wrote, "That summer, during Komsomol meetings, the guards were indoctrinated—to guard us was not enough! No one escapes from Kolyma anyway! And it was drummed into them that we were Enemies of the People—scum—saboteurs—and anyone who threw a stone into the mechanism of Socialism was to be shot!"

They knew the rules. If they did act up, we would make them lie down, in mud, snow, whatever.

Andrei Cheburkin Camp Guard in Norilsk

In this videoclip, a former Gulag guard explains his work.

Movie Transcription

Oleg Volkov – "The northern mosquitoes were used to punish the prisoners. There was a square cordoned off by the barbed wire—a marshy shoreline and large boulders. On one of those large, table like boulders, they put the prisoners stripped naked with guards all around them. They had to stand there without stirring. The midges and mosquitoes fly in thick clouds there, they covered the prisoners and bit them. I remember the punishment of the "little Christs," prisoner from a religious sect who considered it a sin to give their name or work for the "Antichrists," when asked their name, they answered, “God knows." To break their resistance, they used mosquito punishment. Then the commandant ran up to them and said: "Now, we’ll finish you off, you scoundrels!" When the guards had already loaded up…stop filming…it’s very upsetting to talk about."

Oleg Volkov – "I didn’t experience the full horror of Sekirny Hill. They were very cruel. They beat and tortured people. They pushed bound prisoners down this long flight of stairs [375 in all]. Then there was another punishment, “the pole.” You had to stay sitting on a narrow beam and the guards would not let you get down. It was very exhausting. You might sit there for days on end."