Diary of a Prison Camp Guard

Building the Baikal-Amur Railway

22.00 hours, Svobodny. It’s dark and damp. Mud and more mud. The luggage store is low and smoke-filled. A prop holds up the sagging ceiling, people sprawl on the floor. A jumble of torn quilted jackets and non-matching patches. Difficult to find two people who look different as they all have the same look, suspicious, furtive. The same, strange mark of Cain. Unshaven faces, shaved heads. Trunks and knapsacks. Everybody bored and fed up. Siberia!

* * *

First night in my life spent feeding bedbugs. Cold. No discipline among the staff. Endless swearing.

Panteley Ivanovich, when are you going to pack in pretending to be ill? You know what we call that? It’s a crime, okay?

Endless 30-storey swearing so solid you could bury an axe in it.

The armed guards unit. Bunks, coloured blankets, illiterate slogans. Some are wearing summer tunics, some winter tunics, some jackets, quilted and un-, rope or leather or canvas belts. They lie around on their beds smoking. Two are grappling, rolling around locked together, one has lifted his legs and is laughing, squealing. Another is lying there, playing the accordion, bawling about his suffering: “We are not afraid of work and we will not go out to work”. They are cleaning rifles, shaving, playing chess, and one is somehow managing to read. “Who’s in charge?” I ask. “Me” another replies, getting up from the stove and furiously stirring the embers. Quilted trousers, summer tunic, felt boots, and a convict’s hat on his head with the ear flap to the front and a shock of ginger hair sticking out. A canvas cartridge pouch on his belt. Starts tidying himself up, shifting from foot to foot, uncertain how to react. I find out later he has never been in the Army and only had a few months training on the job. What a hero! Few of them are any better. What have I landed in, I ask myself. I feel ashamed of my lieutenant’s insignia, of having to command this shower, of being alive in 1935 just across from the second track of a Soviet railway line about which there is such a hullabaloo. I feel shamed by that brilliant, soaring concrete bridge.

* * *

The day greets me with a stiff breeze as I walk along the line. The prisoners are at work, moving towards their freedom with every cubic metre of soil they shift and every metre of rail they lay, but what do I have to do to get demobbed? I didn’t wash today: no water. And tomorrow? Probably the same. I dream of a bathhouse. Bathhouses make you happy.  Bathhouses are heaven.

* * *

The haze merges with the horizon and you can’t make out the sky, what is hilltops and what is rainclouds. A steady wind blows constantly, and the leaves on the oak tree monotonously rustle along with it. The sun is shining, but this is a pale, cold sun you can stare at which looks like a nickel-plated disc. Was I really born to be a platoon commander at the Baikal-Amur Railway forced labour camp? How smoothly it all happened. They just called me in and told me to go. Party members had the Party Committee, the Local Committee, the Trade Union to intercede for them and lo and behold Bazarov gets to stay in Moscow. Nobody puts in a word for a non-Party member.

* * *

The psychology of someone serving a sentence, the psychology of oppressive thoughts, oppressive toil, bad conditions, hopes for the future, the belief that some day they too will be free, of hopes disappointed, of desperation, and mental trauma. Focus on their psychology, adopt a subtle approach, be kind. For a prisoner kindness is like a second sun in the sky. The competitiveness here is cut-throat. A foul-up in the record-keeping of work credits can lead to murder, an escape attempt, etc. No amount of administrative measures will help, and neither does a pistol and bullet. A bullet only ends a life, solving nothing. A prisoner who dies can cause a lot of negativity, and a wounded prisoner is an animal.

* * *

You can find yourself in a stupid situation and the regulations are no help at all. I drove up wearing an “Abyssinian” style fur hat and must have looked a right prick because the director said, “What’s all this in aid of?” The deputy chief for political indoctrination, the adjutant and the entire HQ staff came to take a look, even the deputy political director of the armed guards unit. What could I say? They took the Headquarters clerk’s snazzy military cap off and put it on me. That cap meant a lot to the boy and made his life a bit more bearable. How easily his pride and joy was taken off him. My position as an officer. I would not have done that.

23. One more day crossed out of my life in the service of pointless Army discipline. What if the Third Section read these lines, or the Political Department? They will understand them their way. I walk through a part of the site where women are working. Long torrents of virtuoso abuse, with trimmings.  To think that women can sink this low. They reckon this gutter language is chic and raffish. They disgust you as women. These ones really do deserve the rough end of Soviet power. Yet the countryside enchants you with its wild beauty. The hill slopes away further than you can imagine and dissolves in a distant purple haze.  Your body trembles as you take in this immensity, this barely populated scenery as yet untouched by man. Beyond the closest hill are other hills, and beyond them yet more, and more, and more, as many as you can picture all the way to the Arctic Ocean. You feel you own all this and that, if you wanted, you could come and live here, and sow, and plough, and reap to your heart’s content, with no limits and no end.

* * *

28. It’s cold outside, and inside too, and it’s cold and desolate inside me. How can you do a job properly when you have no wish or inclination to do it? And why is that? Because you lack the basic necessities of life and culture. The management don’t even talk about those things. Today we are faced with the fact that we have no firewood. I have to issue orders. I don’t need all this. Why has everything turned out this way?

My hands are stiff with cold. Where is that “caring attitude towards those in authority”, where are their brave words now? If here, on the railroad, we got even a hundredth of what Voroshilov promised it would at least kindle some hope. The Second Five-Year Plan, Maxim Gorky, Klim Voroshilov, and all that. The USSR has unique aeroplanes, but here we don’t even have the basics. Oh, dear! The only consolation is that it was even worse at the front. Some comfort! I sleep under two blankets, a leather coat, and a fur tunic.

I just can’t find my place in the Baikal-Amur Railway system, probably because it doesn’t exist. It’s different for peasants. They get something out of it, learn new tricks, find things out. All I’m going to learn is how not to be conscientious, not to give a damn about anything. And not to make a fool of myself.

* * *

4. Barely out of bed when we had another escape. I’ll have to go and report it tomorrow. We should just mow down three in each phalanx. That would soon stop them trying to escape. Escape attempts disrupt everything. This is a life for a dog:  search like a bloodhound, turn everyone and everything upside down. I banged one zek up for 24 hours in solitary.

7. In spite of everything, I am growing into the great railway project. Barely noticeably, the environment, the customs, the life are sucking me in. How could they not? I tried studying Leninism but it only made matters worse by emphasising the kind of conditions we are living in. What can I do that would be positive? Nothing. Nobody here needs knowledge which hasn’t got a practical application. I have no one to talk to, joke or argue with. It’s useless feeling superior when you’re surrounded by a bunch of inferiors. You need to feel superior among equals. You have to fight, aspire, try to hold on to your position. People give you a hard time, put pressure on you, and you have to be able to take it. A year from now people will look at me the way I look at the rest of them. An appalling prospect, but what’s to be done about it?

* * *

11. Now it’s -47 degrees. One cheek has puffed up and I have swelling near my eye. A frost like this makes all of you swell up. The prisoners work, digging out part of the embankment.

12. Last night I felt warm, but only because I kept all my clothes on. You feel tied and tethered and weighed down. I spent the day walking, 45 km. Afterwards the boots I had mended two days ago were wrecked again. I got to bed at four in the morning.

* * *

A new phalanx comes into being. In two days’ time there will be tents, huts, dugouts, a whole migratory town a few metres from the railway. It will come to life in the mornings, quieten down during the day, and come to life again in the evening. Nobody looks around or says this place is better or worse than the last. Everywhere is the same. We will live here for the next 3-5 months, and then move on. When we’ve got through the winter every shrub will come to life in the summer. “Momma! Momma!” I hear someone shouting, but it is not someone’s son or daughter calling. It is the Article 35-ers, the deported homeless, calling their brigade leader. There are no collectives like this among the men, no solidarity that takes in a whole team. The women are different, but only the 35-ers. They have a thieves’ collective, with thieves’ customs and ways. Their brigade leader is the ataman, the big boss, Momma. Momma organises everything and everybody. She beats them, pardons them, let’s them not go out to work, feeds them or makes them go hungry. Momma is top dog. The men keep themselves to themselves or, just sometimes, pair up. They play cards, win, lose. They rate belongings above friendship. They can make a pack of cards in 10 minutes, so it’s a waste of time confiscating them. They lose anything and everything. They lose stores, which means we can expect robberies. They lose and the forfeit is to say something filthy to the guards. They lose parts of their body, fingers and toes, hands. The person who has lost hacks off a finger or a hand in front of everyone and throws it on the table saying, “Drink my blood, you parasites!”

* * *

How can I just get away from the Baikal-Amur Railway? If you can think that one out, head, I’ll buy you a new cap. I don’t have time to think but I will all the same. I have to get out of this place. You can’t just hit the bottle because you only end up in the First Section. Can I get myself sacked as unfit for service? No platoon commander has been sacked yet, but if one thinks of a way I'll be next in line.  I'll take my chance.

29. In any action chance plays a big part, and a person’s attitude is crucial to success or failure. I don’t see any chances yet.  Perhaps it’s too soon, but a chance is a matter of chance.

If one is on its way, I hope it comes sooner rather than later. I’ll be waiting for it.

The phalanxes are gradually reducing as the prisoners go home. I can imagine how they feel. What a completely barbaric nightmare the camp must seem to them now, as it does to me. I still can’t believe I am really in a forced labour camp. You don’t need to be educated or know anything here, just make sure nobody escapes. I’ve come to Arkhara. It’s a complete dump.  You get here and there is nowhere to pass an hour or two. It’s cold, -37 degrees.

* * *

25. Somehow work goes better and more easily if you get support – advice, instructions – from your superiors. A lot of difficulties become easier to face. That’s how the Army operates:  the constant sense of being on the alert, the differences of rank, the endless rushing around. I got really chilled last night. I sneeze and the snot flies like a blowout from a borehole. The days are getting longer and sunnier, but no more cheerful. Our joy will be pure and unalloyed only when we are released from The Railway. I spent the whole day reading the wall newspaper. What does a person really need? Three sets of underwear and bed linen, three pairs of leg wrappings and socks, felt boots, ordinary boots, three handkerchiefs, a uniform, a blanket, a pillow, and that’s it. Add a little money and everything is fine. We live more than modestly on The Railway.

* * *

Sun, sun! How much joy you give us. How life-giving your rays are. We can even forget our misfortunes sometimes. How much lovelier you would be in freedom, or have people there forgotten you? I always thought of you as a god. You give life to the natural world, you reconcile people and make them kinder and happier. You inspire us and bring us joy. You are the wellspring of life and my only happiness. Many of my closest friends have stopped writing. They have forgotten me, but you don’t. Every morning and evening you feed my soul with beauty. During the day when your radiant disc is high in the sky I am in love with you. Your warm, caressing rays play on my cheek and gladden me and I am alive again and filled with energy. The Fourteenth are leaving, which is fine, only I ought to go and see they get away. I send my deputy. He needs practice.

One thought gives me no peace of mind. I used to know things, have aspirations, be useful. I was a teacher, a book for other people. Now, though, that book and its pages have been crossed through. What am I? Why do I exist? I have no idea. Not even the Red Army marksmen guarding the bridge respect me as an officer. They are right, of course, you can’t go over without a pass, but they could at least treat me like an officer. I live in this myth about enthusiasts giving the USSR a great new railway and feel like a white crow.  I have the feeling that if I return to civilian life I will be seen as primitive and backward. I will feel the full weight of my own insignificance.

* * *

They’ve started burning coal in the stove, which does seem to make the place warmer, or perhaps it’s just because it’s warmer outside. You can get frozen apples for four roubles fifty, which is good. Fruit, fruit! I can get butter too. Here that is quite an achievement. We get things we think might come in useful... We haven’t yet risen to the level where we just go and buy what we need. That’s not how we think.

9/1. We are using coal for the heating. A thick  layer of dust settles on everything. It seems a bit warmer, but in any case you get used to the cold. There is a North and South Pole in the room, and we burn railway sleepers. There is no other solution, and both the representative of the Third Section and the director of the camp look the other way. This is the first time in two years they have started giving training to the middle ranks. It’ll be interesting to see how the director makes out as an officer.

Tomorrow we are commissioning the Zhuravli-Uletui stretch of track. You keep your spirits up with conversations, hypotheses, and it does help. I've been issued a greatcoat from the clothing section. I am acquiring military bits and pieces, but I have no interest in life whatsoever, under present conditions, of course. I have learnt a lot. I don’t get too worked up about orders, escapes, or training the marksmen and junior officers. You study in order not to fall behind yourself, to retain something at least in your memory. My manner and attitude probably seem odd. I’m beginning to have that mark on my face, the mark of stupidity, narrowness, and also a kind of moronic expression.

I remembered the white collar. It’s a luxury in our circumstances of course. I haven’t been in the bathhouse for a month, but my collar is dazzling. I can’t get my hands clean. Whatever you handle is covered in dirt, dust, and soot.

* * *

You can’t help becoming ill. It’s wrong to shoot or beat people to death, but you can’t not shoot. Every con is just looking for a chance to escape. Last night I was even more frozen than during the winter. You live in fear that someone may nick your kit. You are alive, but not enjoying life. Or anything else. You live in anticipation of your dinner, your break, and the night. You are waiting for something vague and unknown.


Thus day after day departs into eternity and your inner world seems to cool to freezing point. You start believing they can make you lose all emotion.

Yet every day that passes brings you nearer to freedom.

Only, what kind of path is bringing you there? A path of defeats, anguish and rage. A path which makes you even more contemptible and humiliated in human terms.

Sometimes, however, cold-blooded analysis takes over and a lot gets extinguished for lack of fuel.

There have been prisons throughout history so why, ha ha ha, shouldn’t I be in one rather than just other people?

This labour camp existence is necessary in certain historical circumstances, and it encompasses me.

As time passes, memories of that other life which everybody except the camp inmates and me are leading will cease to be painful.

I will be able to see everything clearly.

They will give me no option but to see things clearly, by deducting service credits which might have shortened my stint here.

* * *

13. It looks like they’ve invented a way of punishing people by forcing them to live a different life while still being fully aware. From the viewpoint of history you don’t count, so just stay where you are and keep your mouth shut.

But the reason we have minds is so we can be objective, and the reason I have awareness is in order to feel.

It’s easy to switch off from everything for a moment and rush headlong after horror, but you can’t do that every hour, every second, for long years. You have to face the question of whether you should win by dying.

There are more minutes when you feel you are being forced to live in a way and in circumstances designed to make you recognise how completely contemptible you are.


I've been talking to Torpan, reminiscing about escapes and murders. We went out searching the forests of the taiga and found here a corpse there a corpse.

Who killed them? When? Nobody has any idea who they were.

If someone gets your goat and you whack them, you just leave them where they fell.

If someone finds them, fine. If they don’t, it’s curtains.

Here’s an example:

“Bugaev went out into the taiga and brought one of them back. One he caught, one he shot.”

The one he shot the bullet went clean through his chest. The guy limped back the 35 km himself. We didn’t go out for him, of course. He rotted for 12 days.


Till late evening on 11. Went to bed without supper, everything aching. Rain again. We saw no sign of summer in terms of good weather or fruit and vegetables. That’s life!

I want to play sport, use a radio. I want to go back to my old job, learn how to research and test metals for engineering, to meet educated people. I want to go to the theatre and cinema. I want lectures and museums, and exhibitions. I want to draw. I want to ride a motorbike, and then maybe sell it and buy a bungee-launched glider and fly. Khrenkov and other maniacs like him can take over the armed guards unit. There’s no end to the things I would like to do.

Is any of it possible here? No.

I am going to have to win my freedom with blood, and my health, a chunk out of my life, and with what is most precious. By serving my time, by committing crimes I’ll get out of the armed unit. As of now I see no other way.

(Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait)

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