In the GULAG’s system, the prison was the place where a person was placed from the moment of his arrest. In that prison, he was informed of the verdict, after which he was transferred to the place where he served his sentence. Sometimes, those prisoners were executed in prison, so prison was the last home in their lives. In any case, the purpose of the prison was that the accused had to be broken. His will to resist had to be suppressed. To make the prisoner capable of giving the most monstrous testimony was necessary for the investigator. This was often achieved using methods of physical influence or merely torture.

The main difference in comparing prison and camp was the complete absence of any kind of freedom of movement: the limits were four walls and often the same cellmates. The rest of life in prison was strictly regulated and reminded of an endless ‘Groundhog Day’: poor food, getting up at 6 am, and going to bed at 11 pm. The prohibition of sleeping during the day, the prohibition of sitting on the bed, the prohibition of leaning on a chair or on a wall. At night, the bright light that never turned off prevented the prisoners from sleeping. It was forbidden to keep hands under the blanket and cover the face.

There was always a snitch in every cell. It was strictly forbidden to communicate with prisoners from other cells. In some prisons, in the cells, it was generally forbidden to talk, shout, sing, write on the walls or stand by the windows. The punishment for violating those rules was deprivation of walks and even a special punishment cell. Prisons were different: investigative, transferable or special. And in all prisons, people suffered unbearably from overcrowded cells. This tightness, multiplied by exhausting nighttime interrogations, gave rise to mutual anger and the loss of human dignity because the understanding of the word FREEDOM came down to the ability to go to the toilet at any time.

NIKOLAY ALEKSEEVICH ZABOLOTSKY: This whole process of human decomposition took place in front of the entire cell. A person could not be alone for a moment and even the toilet was an open concept, located right there. Whoever wanted to cry, cried in front of everyone and the feeling of shame multiplied his torture. Whoever wanted to commit suicide would try at night under the blanket. Clenching their teeth, they would try to cut the veins on his arm with a piece of glass, but someone would always quickly notice the suicide attempt.

BELYKH PETER IVANOVICH: In prison, I was pushed into an overcrowded cell. From the first day, my place was in the corner, by the toilet pot on the floor. During the day we sat huddled, napping. There was no movement. At night, without closing our eyes, we listened to every rustle. With the touch of the keys to the lock, everyone flinched. The door would open and the warden would call out a last name in a loud voice and add, “Out with all of your belongings.” After the last name, there was a pause during which everyone’s heart froze of fear. Those who were called out did not return to the cell and didn’t make it to the prison transfer. Disappeared without a trace. We listened to the groans and knocks. Nobody knew the charges or the sentence time. They knew one thing, that we are considered enemies of the people.

KONSTANTIN VASILYEVICH REEV: The daily routine was violated by night searches, when all the prisoners were driven into a circle and we stood there in a terrible crowding for two or three hours. In the cells, the guards were throwing away small belongings of prisoners and tearing mattresses open. They were looking for something. Sometimes, they gathered everyone with their belongings and were relocating prisoners to other cells as the search was done on the go. Sometimes, while forming the next group of prisoners to the next transfer, they placed people into the cells in a circle. Inside those overcrowded cells, about thirty or forty people would be clinging tightly to each other and wait for two or three days. Many of those who got there, by mistake or for some other reason, were kicked out and ten or fifteen people were sent to be transferred between camps.

ALEXANDRA IVANOVNA PETROVA: I worked in the visiting room in prison. They sit on opposite sides of the table and I am between them. First, they bring her in, then him. «Hello» … «Hello» and that’s it. You cannot touch, even shake hands. Then they will hug, and she will pass something to him. No way! It is strictly prohibited! But they still tried to hug and hold hands. You immediately shout, “Stop! Otherwise, I’ll end the date.” And everyone would calm down. They were crying, but there was nothing to do. Especially when they say goodbye, they always cry. About four times they offered me money, so that I would pass either tea or a small letter or extend the date. But I NEVER agreed. No way! I would be fired right away.

NINA GAGEN-TORN: The investigator transferred me from the cell to the punishment cell. A low stone box without a window. Soon, the oxygen ended and the person was suffocating. There were small holes in the metal door near the floor, but prisoners were not allowed to sit on the floor to breathe air. The peephole of the door opens, the voice says: “Get up!” But the prisoner is already suffocating. The duty officer looks into the peephole about half an hour later, when the person’s consciousness is already clouded. Then, the warden opens the door and says: “To the toilet!” While a person goes to the restroom and stays there, he breathes. Such exercises could be repeated several times, apparently following predetermined scenarios.

And yet in most cases, despite the brutal and inhumane system, the prisoners tried their best to remain human, show solidarity with others, and use their stay in the cell as a kind of survival course before the stage and further term in the Gulag. They adopted simple hygiene practices from inmates. They studied sewing for example, by making a needle from a fish bone and threads from old socks. They mastered ways of communication with the help of prisoner’s tapping alphabets as best they could, fought against prison boredom and mind losing monotony, forcing themselves to say poems by heart or imagining they are taking walks to their favorite places. Neither strict prison rules nor the notorious 4 walls that limited their life in the cell could prevent them from doing this. After all, the Gulag was waiting for them and this was also a prison, only coinciding with the borders of the whole country.