The category of guards in the GULAG included almost everyone who was constantly in contact with the prisoners: camp wardens, investigators, escort guards, guards, camp doctors, service dog instructors. What were they like? What brought them to this job? How were they treating the prisoners? What did they think of them?

Some considered their service in the camps as a normal job that must be done according to the rules and regulations. Others made a career out of these rules. Some were trying hard to get into the NKVD-KGB system because they were attracted to power over people and the benefits of it. Others suffered from a post-war hunger, and service in the Gulag meant serious social advancement. Others from the post-war conscription, were transferred to the system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs from the army.

Also, sometimes the former prisoners made a career and became the major managers in the camps. The most famous of them was Naftaly Aronovich Frenkel. He was a former scammer from Odessa. There were rumors that he was friends with Mishka Yaponchik in his younger years; A prisoner of the Solovki camp. He proved to be an outstanding organizer. He personally met with Stalin. He also was the creator of the economic model for the functioning of the Gulag. He became a Lieutenant-General and was awarded three Orders of Lenin. He lived honorably until 1960.

What did the prisoners remember about their guards, and what did they say about themselves and their work?

OLEG VOLKOV: The famous Yakov Moroz, the head of the Ukhta camps, declared that he did not need either cars or horses, «Give me more prisoners – and I will build a railway not only to Vorkuta, but also through the North Pole.» He was ready to send the prisoners into the cold winter taiga without tents (they will warm themselves up by the fire!) and without pans for cooking food – they will do without hot food! Since no one asked him about «losses of manpower,» he was considered for the time being, as an energetic and enterprising person. Often, cruelty was associated with profit. The guard who shot the prisoner while he was trying to escape, received a financial reward and vacation.

– “Hey, man!” the guard shouted, “Bring that log over there to sit on!”
– “It’s in the forbidden area, boss!”
– “It’s okay, I allow it. Go!”
He came out and immediately shot from the machine gun. The human was gone. This was typical.

YURI FIDELGOLTS: Kasimov, from the point of view of human morality, was a good person. A former front-line soldier, he screwed up somehow and ended up as the head of the camp. In the camp, the guilty and innocent were all with numbers. It’s very hard to distinguish between them. So, when my parents arrived and started to talk to him, he understood that I was not an enemy, but that I was a random person who had fallen into this situation. So, he decided to help.

IVAN GAYDUK: It was said that prisoners were getting shot by Chekists. I, as a Chekist, do not believe it. While I served, no one was ever shot and no one died of hunger. To torture the prisoners, beat them with a whip? No, there was nothing like that.

KOMUNELLA MARKMAN: There was a case when my friend tried to hide a letter to her parents in order to give it to the released person who would take it to the post office, but she was caught by the convoy. She was standing and crying, asking to give the letter back, but the convoy did not. He would get an extra vacation for this letter. An officer passed by his boss. He thanked the convoy for confiscating the letter and took it from him… A month later, this letter reached the address.

ALEXANDRA PETROVA: In prison, I didn’t have mercy for anyone. I was a heartless person. In 1953, Beria was taken away. I recalled a lot and felt sorry for many people… Before that, no. If you feel sorry for prisoners, it will be difficult to do the job. I don’t remember the prisoners. I didn’t talk to them. I didn’t have any discussions. I was hungry myself, but no one cared about it.

ALEXANDER SOROKIN: In prison, they called me «Кuum».
– «Where did you go?»
– «To Kuum»
– «Cracked?
– «No» and so on.
I served the special staff, meaning I recruited prisoners to work with the administration. This is the hardest job. If you don’t have a brain, you won’t be able to do this job because people in the prison are not stupid.

KONSTANTIN YEVSEEV: Beria was good. There was discipline when Beria was in charge! As the situation became better, they started to put TVs in the corridor and to communicate. Therefore, there is such an immorality among young people. However back then, straitjackets were used… They would put the straitjacket on a prisoner, twist his hands and then pour water on him, so the straitjacket would start to shrink… Of course, it was painful. They were beaten there. I went to all the cells and I saw them. What were they beaten for? Due to bad behavior…

VARLAM SHALAMOV: Bogdanov, former authorized representative of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, hero of the 1938 process. He issued disciplinary orders daily and built a punishment cell. This was the boss who received letters addressed to me from my wife. Our communication was lost for about three years! He called me to his apartment and in my presence tore up these letters. He threw the little pieces into the trash can.

IRINA VERZHBLOVSKAYA: I only once had one opportunity to meet a good convoyor. Having brought us to the logging site, he hung his machine gun on the branch, took a saw, and began to work with us. When he was loading logs onto the scraper, he said, “It’s not good for women to carry such heavy weights.”

DALYA GRINKEVICHUTE: In February 1943, we realized that we would all die. Mortality had reached its peak. The barracks were not heated at all and the dying ones had frostbite on their hands and feet. So exhausted, almost everyone would lay down and not get up, despite the diarrhea. The people were covered in lice. They were even in their eyebrows and on their eyelashes. The end was coming…

And when there was no longer any hope, a man appeared in Trofimovsk who saved the rest of us from death. It was the doctor Samodur Lazar Solomonovich.

He went into every barrack, saw what was being done, and started to act energetically. He bravely fought with the bosses who lived in warm houses built by us from logs, who were dressed from head to toe in furs, fur boots, ate bread, sugar, butter and canned pork sent by the Allies from America.

The very next day, we received a bowl of hot pea soup, half a kilogram of frozen fish, which according to the doctor’s advice, was supposed to be eaten raw in order to keep the ascorbic acid. He requested several bags of peas from the warehouse, sprouted them, and soon the sprouted peas (with sprouts) were brought to each barrack. Each received a handful, it’s about half a glass. Also, each person was given several kilograms of Canadian flour. Hunger and scurvy gradually started to reduce and so did death. A month later, Dr. Samodur left. We heard that he died at the front …

In the GULAG, guards believed that the prisoners were “enemies of the people” and that they were unworthy of a different fate. Those were the vast majority. However, there were others who, even in such conditions, remained human.