Guards played an integral role in the Gulag system. Soviet authorities indoctrinated them with propaganda emphasizing that they battled evil enemies of the state and were encouraged to treat prisoners brutally to prevent their escape. Guards endured only slightly better working conditions than prisoners in the brutal cold of Siberia.
Soviet authorities aimed a constant propaganda barrage at the guards, designed to convince them that they were watching over dangerous enemies, fascists, and spies. The propaganda dehumanized prisoners in the guards’ eyes and contributed to the atmosphere of extreme violence. As former prisoner Tomas Sgovio wrote, "That summer, during Komsomol meetings, the guards were indoctrinated—to guard... Read More »
Prisoners performed back-breaking physical labor in inhospitable climates and received food rations that barely sustained their nutritional needs. Work defined life in the Gulag, but some prisoners occasionally found ways to avoid the hardest labor which gave them some feeling of control over their difficult situation.
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.
Prisoners faced the constant threat of rape, both homosexual and heterosexual. In this excerpt from Stolen Years, Yelena Glinka describes gang rape on a ship transporting prisoners to the Gulag.
Conflict divided prisoners, yet solidarity and compassion grew among inmates who shared similar backgrounds, especially ethno-national or religious. These strong bonds protected and supported prisoners during their daily lives in the Gulag.
The content of the propaganda activities in Gulag camps mirrored those in the Soviet Union at large. Images of Stalin, slogans extolling the heroism of labor in the Soviet Union, explanations of the superiority of socialism to capitalism, lessons on hygiene and cultured living—all showed the type of society and the type of person Soviet authorities were trying to create. Above all, propaganda... Read More »
Gulag prisoners suffered from terrible living and working conditions in the Gulag. They froze in poorly heated barracks after working in sub-freezing temperatures; battled against hunger; and suffered from treatment that stole their dignity.
Gulag prisoners worked in some of the harshest inhabited climatic environments on the planet, whether north of the Arctic Circle or deep in the taiga and steppe of Siberia and Central Asia. Prisoners were frequently forced to work outside in temperatures of -30 to -40 degrees Celsius (-22 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit) with extreme winds. In this excerpt from the documentary film Red Flag... Read More »
Surviving the Gulag required prisoners to compete daily with fellow inmates for food, living space, and medical care. Some prisoners retreated into religious or intellectual contemplation to maintain some semblance of sanity.