Days and Lives :: Guards

Prisoner: Michael Solomon

“Among the soldiers guarding us there were men of all the nationalities living within the borders of the Soviet Union. Quite a few were Bessarabians, whose mother tongue was Romanian. When the armistice between Romania and Russia was signed on September 12, 1944, they were discharged from the Romanian Army and sent to their native Bessarabia. They were arrested as soon as they crossed the border, kept under interrogation for several months, and then given the alternative: agree to serve three years in the NKVD or go to jail as ‘traitors to the motherland.’ They made their choice and now were guarding other ‘traitors’ under barbed wire.”

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!"