Days and Lives :: Guards

Prisoner: Lev Kopelev

“An order: Everyone out. The prison was being moved to keep up with the front. We were packed together in an open truck, with our belongings. Two guards with submachine guns sat on wooden benches on either side of us, and two others, with police dogs, guarded the back. ‘No talking! No squirming about! Any move to get up will be taken as an attempt to escape! The guards will shoot without warning!’ Turning off the highway into a wood, we drove through a gate and stopped before a long, white, two-story structure. We were herded into a large basement room and told to sit down on the floor. Roll call. By surname. In reply, you were supposed to give your first name and patronymic; specify the statute under which you were arrested; state whether you had been sentenced or were awaiting trial; and if sentenced, specify the number of years.”

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."