On Guard at BAMlag: Representations of Guards in the 1930s Gulag Press

In: The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review
Alun ThomasRussian and Slavonic Studies, University of Sheffield, UK,

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The 1930s saw a dramatic escalation in the size and scope of the Soviet Union’s system of penal labour camps, the Gulag. Through analyses of memoir and other sources, the experiences of the Gulag’s prisoners at this time have been the subject of a great deal of scholarly investigation. Yet the guards who watched over these prisoners have received considerably less attention.

Newspapers printed for the VOKhR guards in the mid-1930s offer some information on their readers’ everyday duties and their status, both inside the Gulag and as citizens of the USSR. Publications taken from one particularly large camp responsible for the construction of the Baikal-Amur railway (BAMlag) depict guards as self-disciplined, industrious soldiers engaged in a war for economic and social development. But the specific dynamics and changing circumstances of the Soviet penal system at this time created an unusual contrast between newspapers printed for the guards and those printed for the prisoners of BAMlag. While the criticism levelled at prisoners by their own newspaper was often mitigated by a rehabilitative discourse, the guards were judged as full members of Soviet society, often harshly. However, the precise implications of this were rendered ambiguous by the indeterminate position of the Gulag itself at this point in Soviet history.

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