Days and Lives :: Guards

Prisoner: Margarete Buber Neumann

“One night the door of our cell opened. I was asleep and it was not until my neighbors shook me back into life that I realized that I was meant. I crawled over the sleeping bodies and staggered out into the corridor, where I found a uniformed man waiting for me. He seized me by the arm and hustled me along the corridor as though I were a tough criminal likely to offer resistance. We came to a staircase. The banisters were extended by a wire netting to prevent those who were tired of life from throwing themselves over. We went down a long corridor which was carpeted so that our footsteps made no sound. We came to a halt before a door. There was a picture of Stalin on the wall and behind a desk sat a robust young man in his shirt-sleeves with the self-confidence of a limited intelligence.”

Guarding Each Other

Gulag inmates were forced to be complicit in their own repression. Prisoners were constantly being watched, but not only by the guards. Prisoners were watching each other. Some prisoners worked as informants—telling camp authorities the secrets of their fellow inmates in exchange for better rations or to get a privileged job in the barracks or the kitchen. Others turned informer in order to avoid punishment or the revelation of some secret that a camp official was using as blackmail. To this day, the Gulag camp surveillance system remains shrouded in secrecy, the only section of the central Gulag archive still marked "top secret."

One official recalled to author Adam Hochschild: "People were carefully selected for this purpose, worthy people. They were reliable. They signed special papers, they were taught how to handle weapons. They were positioned at the watchtowers and they were guarding…themselves!"