Days and Lives :: Propaganda

Prisoner: Lev Kopelev

“It was unbearably hot and stuffy. We sat on the floor in our underpants. We were all thirsty. The [toilet] bucket could be carried out only when it was full to the brim. There was no shortage of volunteers for the malodorous task: they could stop by a water faucet outside. On the third day there was still no bread. The shouts and wails were louder than ever and the reports of automatic rifle fire more frequent. ‘Shot three of them today,’ said one of the guards who brought us the midday meal. He explained that there was no bread because the bakery had burned down, and they were waiting for bread from another bakery.”

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.