I Speak for the Silent Prisoners of the Soviets - V. Tchernavin


Slave labor in its enterprises forces the GPU to maintain in its camps three special organizations unknown in regular Soviet concerns: the Military Guard—VOHR; the Information-Investigation Department—ISO; and the Cultural-Educational Department—KVO.


The military guard is designed to prevent escapes and to pursue fugitives. Organized like an army with headquarters at the Camp Administration, its troops are attached to every section of the camp and detachments are stationed at every point, in every sub-camp and district where prisoners may be found.

The members of the guard wear army uniforms; the officers have revolvers, the enlisted men rifles. There are no free enlisted men; without exception all are prisoners—criminal convicts, recruited for the most part from Red Army men serving sentences. And but a very few officers are free men. Thus it appears that prisoners are guarding themselves and the cost of maintenance is very low.

Their duties and responsibilities are numerous: policing the camp, escorting prisoners inside and outside its limits; operating the punitive cells at all the points of the camp; watching the routes along which fugitives might pass, including sentry duty at all railway stations from Petrozavodsk to Murmansk; inspection of all trains along this section of the railroad in order to detect fugitives; the training of German shepherd dogs to follow the scent, leap at a fugitive, throw him to the ground and seize him by the back of his collar. We could watch this training of the dogs as we marched past the kennels near the Veguerashka camp. There was also rifle practice and hand grenade instruction for the guards, both of which we could see.

The VOHR is quartered in special barracks, 100 men to a building in which ten times that number of prisoners would have been packed. They have cots with sheets and blankets, and get better food: one kilo of bread per day, sugar, butter and other luxuries. During pursuits of fugitives they are given special rations: canned beef, butter, sugar, biscuits and macaroni; and they receive a premium of 10 roubles a head (in GPU scrip) for the recapture of an escaped prisoner.

The VOHR eats well, drinks well and does not lack women, especially in the big camps where there are always enough women prisoners, thieves and prostitutes from the city underworld and many peasant women who are scared into cohabitation. (In 1931 at Veguerashka a medical examination disclosed the fact that 90% of the guard suffered from venereal diseases in an acute form and 10% in a chronic form.) At distant points, where there are no women, the guard detachment sends for a cook, a washer-woman or a charwoman—a prisoner—who is forced to serve them in all respects.


The Information-Investigation Department with its branches in every major camp and section plays the same role inside the camp that the GPU does "outside," but perhaps still more mercilessly. The functions of this "GPU within the GPU" are the same: undercover spying on the prisoners as well as on the free hired Gepeists; secret observation of all institutions and enterprises of the camp; instigated "cases" of "espionage," "wrecking," "counterrevolution"; the handling of all cases of "escapes." The ISO maintains camp prisons known as "isolators" where "confessions" are forced: detention in them is terrible.

Like the GPU, the ISO has a staff of examining officers who also fabricate "cases" against prisoners—a careless word or the slightest, even involuntary, negligence are considered heinous crimes. Sometimes even these pretexts are unnecessary, for the ISO can convict a man of "incorrigibility" when the camp authorities decide to get rid of an undesirable prisoner.

Secret lists are kept of all prisoners and none of them may be appointed to any work, or transferred to a new assignment, without the approval of the ISO—which need not give its reasons for disapproval. In addition, it conducts all searches, censors prisoner correspondence, issues permits for visitors, and so on.

The staff of the ISO is not large and, except for the highest offices, is recruited from Gepeists sent to the camp for criminal offences. Its secret agents, however, called "SEESOT" are legion; they permeate all camp activities. It strives, by every possible device, to enlist political prisoners for this contingent because they have better education and are not so readily suspected of being spies; the number of educated men who yield to this temptation is probably too small to suit the ISO, but they can be found in every camp.

The quarters of the ISO are isolated from all other camp activities and its staff employees enjoy all possible comfort including a "free apartment," choice rations, and the services of young educated women from among the political prisoners. In general, the position of young women in the camp is pitiable. Resistance to attentions from a free hired Gepeist or an employee of the ISO leads to a transfer to "general" work in the company of thieves and prostitutes, where "attentions" may take a still more disgusting form; it may also lead to the institution of a "case," an accusation of counter-revolution or "incorrigibility"—and execution.


The third organization—the Cultural-Educational Department (KVO) closely corresponds to the ISO and has its own corps of agents, officially called "camp correspondents" (LAGCOR) but regarded by the prisoners as also spies.

KVO's activity is two-fold: detection and publicity. The first, and most important, involves active assistance to the ISO in the organization of detection; the majority of KVO employees are at the same time secret agents of the ISO, and both departments often interchange their members. An "educator" who had distinguished himself by a denunciation is promoted to examining officer while an incompetent examining officer, or one who had become a drink addict, is demoted to "educator."

The second field of activity is known as "reeducation" or "reforging." Under this mask the GPU camouflages its commercial enterprises, representing them as institutions designed to reeducate inveterate criminals and reforge them into "enthusiasts of Soviet construction." The method is rather primitive. Men unfit for any other kind of work are enlisted as "educators." The chiefs of the KVO and of its branches are mostly Chekists who had become inveterate drunkards and for whom a position had to be found. The prisoners working in the KVO are persons quite unfit for any production enterprises; with the exception of lecturers, of whom I shall speak later, they are criminals, former contributors to Soviet newspapers or employees of professional unions who had been deported for systematic embezzlement or fraud.

The appropriation for "cultural-educational" work is small and most of it is allotted to the publication of the camp newspaper; since the work in the printing room is done by the prisoners and since they are compelled to buy it when they receive any premiums in GPU scrip, its publication cannot be a heavy financial burden on the GPU.

This newspaper is a strange thing. An edition appears every three days in every camp. The pioneer in the field was the "Perekovka"  (Reforgery) first published in the Solovetzki camp and later transferred to the White Sea-Baltic camp; to take its place "Trudovoi Trut"  in no way different from the "Perekovka,"  was published in the Solovetki camp in the autumn of 1931.

In the heading "Perekovka," the letter "K" was represented as a hammer striking the letter "O," from which small fragments and sparks flew in all directions. At the top of the sheet were two inscriptions: "Not for circulation outside the camp" and "Work in the U.S.S.R. is honor, glory, valor and heroism!"

In outward appearance it looks just like any other provincial Soviet paper: the same mottoes, slogans of the day and screaming titles. In the text, the same talk about phalanxes, shock workers, storm columns, enthusiasts, vanguard of storm positions, socialistic achievements, fronts of proletarian victories, and so on—all this enhanced by an immoderate use of exclamation marks and titles in the imperative, such as: "Stop!"—"Accomplish!"—"Liquidate!"—"Develop!"—"Break!"&# 8212;"Strike!"

The paper is devoted to camp life; news from the U.S.S.R. or the rest of the world is given a very small space on the last page, such as the 100-200-300 percent over-fulfillment of Soviet plans, or the strikes, famines and crises in the outer world. Articles, written by prisoners of the editorial staff, sing praises of the authorities or demand the disclosure and punishment of those guilty of various "breaches in the front." The guilty men are always prisoners. Anonymous denunciations sent from places of work appear in a special column headed "Camp correspondents write"; this correspondence serves as basis for the framing of "cases" against prisoners by the ISO.

Penniless though we were, and confined behind barbed wire, even here we were not free from lies, denunciation and the constant threat of some new fantastic and senseless accusation. And all of us who were receiving premium compensation were compelled to subscribe to this paper, although we had no protection whatsoever from its dirty slander.

Besides this printed paper, which is edited at the camp center, each "point" has its "wall newspaper," with hand-written articles composed under the auspices of the KVO and appearing five or six times a year in major camps and once or twice a year in smaller camps. Not only the prisoners, but even the hired Gepeists regard these papers with disgust and loathing.

KVO also manages the mass meetings for prisoners, as ordered by headquarters from time to time especially on the occasion of a new State bond issue, or the organization of "shock activity" for a new drive against bed bugs. Such meetings are held in the workshops after the day's work is done. The more formal "general" meetings take place outdoors in a space enclosed by a wire fence, within which the prisoners, accompanied by guards, are lined up in military formation around a platform to await, in freezing weather, the arrival of the authorities. Then one of the chief "educators" delivers his address; in my time (1931-32) the favorite subjects were the "intrigues of French imperialism," "Communist progress in the German elections," the "victorious march of Communistic revolution in China," and "the success of the Piatiletka."  No doubt other subjects are being used now.

Speeches about the re-education of prisoners were less frequent and were delivered by radio so as to reach a wider public than the convicts who were experiencing the benefits of this "reforging." An amusing incident occurred once at Solovetzki in 1931 in connection with such a speech. The senior "educator" was drunk but this fact had been discovered too late, and he could not be stopped. The poor devil, in his enthusiasm, went beyond all limits of discretion; but it was the only speech to which the prisoners listened with interest and attention. Incidentally, he stated that the "camp correspondence" movement (which means anonymous denunciation) was growing enormously, that already five million "camp correspondents" had been enrolled from among the prisoners . . . here he stopped abruptly for no apparent reason and then shouted into the microphone his brilliant concluding phrase: "Lenin himself was an honorary camp correspondent."

Thus it can be seen that prisoners in concentration camps not only form the labor force and organize production and trade, but also guard against their own escape and pursue themselves as fugitives, organize a system for spying on themselves, imprison themselves in "isolators," and either sentence themselves to execution or "reeducate" and "reforge" themselves.

At first glance, this would seem incredible. But, if it is borne in mind that this system had developed from "camps of special designation," whose main purpose—extermination—was being accomplished by the prisoners themselves, the contemporary situation in camps of the new type will not seem so extraordinary. It must be remembered that the contingent of prisoners is not homogeneous, that by cleverly breaking it up into such groups as former Chekists, criminals and politicals, by placing these groups under different conditions of life and work and then inciting them against each other, the GPU is able to accomplish anything it may desire.