Days and Lives :: Propaganda

Prisoner: Edward Buca

“The hard work in the arctic cold and the poor food wore away our energy and our health. After only three weeks most of the prisoners were broken men, interested in nothing but eating. They behaved like animals, disliked and suspected everyone else, seeing in yesterday’s friend a competitor in the struggle for survival. When work brigades returned to the camp and formed up at the gate you could see only rows of yellow-grey faces, rimmed with snow and ice, their eyes leaking tears which froze on their cheeks. These weren’t normal tears, but were caused by the bitter cold and the feeling of hopeless desperation. This feeling limited our horizons to the thought of the next meal and the chance of getting a little warmer. At the gate we simply stood and waited to be counted and transferred to the camp guard.”

Introduction

The atrocities of working and living conditions in the camps went unnoticed as Soviet authorities promoted the Gulag as a progressive educational prison system to the general populace and prisoners. Posters displayed at the camps reinforced labor—at whatever cost—as a heroic and honorable contribution to the state.

Listen to the sound or read transcript below.

Movie Transcription

Over many Gulag camp gates, a slogan declared: “Labor in the USSR is a matter of honor, glory, courage and heroism.”

In the barracks, posters screamed, “Glory to Stalin, the Greatest Genius of Mankind.”

At the work place, banners urged, “More Gold for Our Country, More Gold for Victory!”

These proclamations of the glories of socialism, the heroism of Soviet labor, and the possibilities of reeducation and reintegration into Soviet society sat uneasily in an environment saturated with death and deprivation.

Millions survived their Gulag, but they would have laughed at the notion that they were re-educated. Most would have used words such as “traumatized,” “brutalized,” or “disfigured”—terms not featured on the propaganda posters.