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.”

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!"