NOTE: As to previous research, I simply did a google search, "soviet prison camp where both guards and prisoners perished" and I got nothing besides general information about deaths in camps. I am certain I read of a camp where even the guards perished but I can't find that mention. It sure seems like if somehow even the guards starved or froze to death, this would be in a book and I would like to know when/where/if it happened. I can think of no better way to find this than google but I would certainly search some other way if someone has a suggestion.

It is well known that conditions in the Siberian camps were beyond brutal: prisoners sent to a bare patch of land and expected to build their own camp. I have read, but I do not recall where, that things were so bad that in at least one such camp, both the guards and the prisoners perished.

I do not know if everyone died and it was later discovered by, for example, a group of new guards and prisoners or what the circumstances were -- it is not hard imagine a particularly bad winter supplies did not get through.

I have searched without finding a specific instance of large numbers of guards also dying -- there is of course plenty of stuff about prisoners and perhaps guards also resorting to cannibalism but I am looking for the name of a camp and details about such an occurrence.

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    What sources have you looked at? It's clear that you've done some background research but without details you're leaving us to start from scratch.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Feb 7 at 0:29
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    As far as I can tell, there was no such camp. The closest I can find is Valentin Baryshnikov (a journalist, not a historian) referring to SevVostLag (Northeast Camp, the organization responsible for settling the famous Magadan) as a place where the NKVD assigned operatives as punishment, and some died. Between the cold and epidemics it's not hard to see why - but he doesn't give concrete examples and I can't find any either.
    – SPavel
    Commented Feb 7 at 1:24
  • @SPavel: what i am really looking for is how something like an entire camp perishing occurred and both when and how it was discovered. i assume there was zero communication except for when new people arrived -- it might take 6 months before anyone was sent and prior to that time they would have had no indication of a problem. maybe some camps had radio but electricity probably did not exist at the beginning in these remote camps and perhaps radio did not work too well -- one would have needed a very tall antenna I think.
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 7 at 2:26

2 Answers 2


Nazino tragedy perhaps is rather close - although most of the guards survived, it provides a scenario of how such an event could happen. This party of prisoners was simply forgotten on an island in Ob river, with limited supplies and no organized means of resupplying or otherwise sustaining their existence. While this particular group was rediscovered just in time to rescue some of the people, it is possible that other such parties of prisoners were simply lost without trace, and their disappearance never investigated (or perhaps never declassified).

The original report on the incident was made by Vasily A. Velichko, a Soviet propaganda worker, and passed to Joseph Stalin and to other members of the Politburo. The report remained classified until the human rights organization Memorial conducted an investigation in 1988, five decades after the events. The tragedy was popularized in 2002, when reports from a September 1933 special commission by the Communist Party were published by Memorial.

  • Interesting -- I may have heard of this but it does not seem to emphasize the deaths of guards also. I am imagining a remote, cold place which was forgotten and perhaps the first winter (why would it have taken two?) everyone froze and starved, too far away to get word to authorities in time if indeed it was not intentional -- I can't imagine guards were sent to such camps as rewards as it seems thoroughly miserable even if you were commandant.
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 7 at 18:58
  • @releseabe the guards were simple soldiers, who had to obey their orders. Many of them 'ever returned back or even were jailed themselves. What the story of Nazino shows is that in practice a camp wasn't necessarily something with a barbed wire and guard towers - one cannot run away in Siberia: one risks to freeze in the forest, or be eaten by animals or starve to death. Those who did make it back to civilization often achieved it by eating their companions. But this is poorly documented, I imagine - mostly gossip.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Feb 7 at 19:15
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    @RogerV. No, they were not simple soldiers. Camp guards did not belong to the army or the police. It was and still is a special service for that. Something as executors in medieval Europe. All of them worked in that service at their will. And of course, a person had to be very special to work there. It was a hard life, but a nice place for a psychopath - they could beat, rape, and torture people at will, and often even kill them. Try to get and read the short novel en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faithful_Ruslan, it exists in English translation.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Feb 7 at 19:27
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    @RogerV. It was well documented, but the documents were and remain secret. In 90-ties the documentation was opened for relatives of victims - they could come and read some files. Of course, it was only what the FSB wanted to show - no information about guards was opened.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Feb 7 at 19:33
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    I was also thinking that what OP describes is much closer to a "special settlement" than a Gulag camp.
    – SPavel
    Commented Feb 7 at 20:55

Almost ANY camp is OK as an example for your question. The only exception is described in the bottom.

My mom's third husband was a lieutenant commanding a spying company during WWII. For not allowing the NKVD (the USSR special service) to repress his two soldiers he was repressed later. Formally it was for "admiring the German army" (he complimented a German machine gun). He was convicted to death, but after 60 days of waiting for the execution, the sentence was changed to 10 years of hard labour.

He was a very hardy and healthy young man (about 20). In the camp, he tried to hold so healthy life, as was possible there. He dried nettle in summer and ate it in winter and spring, and took baths in the cold water in summer or in the snow in winter. The guards made fun of him, saying: "It's all in vain, you fool, you are doomed to death, and we'll see you dying" He translated their speech to the more normal style when he talked about it, and I simply don't know English curses enough, so the words here are much flatter than they were in reality.

And he was always proud that he was the person who remained alive, and saw as all these (...here you can set the worst curses you know, but we'll call them guards) died of different illnesses, and he had not to wait for long. One or two winters were enough for any usual person.

Let's recall that in Antarctica there are stations, such as where people come to live for a year or two, leaving their children in their countries. These people get big wages and are considered heroes. I am talking about townlets in the Antarctic Peninsula.

In Siberia, there are towns positioned at much higher latitudes and having much harsher climates than these stations. And people simply live there for their whole lives, sending children to school, marrying, and so on. You can guess that life in these towns is extremely harsh. And even in worse places camps were often set. And the camp had no normal houses not only for prisoners, but for guards, too.

That example of yours, about setting a camp in the wild nature, was a usual case - it was a standard start of a camp. But notice, in that place, there were both prisoners and guards. Yes, the first thing that prisoners did, was to set up buildings for the chief, thereafter for the guards, and only after that, they could take care of themselves. But even the quality of buildings for guards was very low, too. Only axes, nails, hammers, and saws were instruments, and the surrounding taiga was the material. It was luck if they got bricks for several ovens. And 95% of prisoners were not builders by profession. And who were, were not in command. Of course, the guards had a chance to live in such a camp, whereas the chance of the prisoners was negligible. But the chance of a guard to die was much higher than that in any contemporary profession, including, for example, a soldier in the Iraq war.

Even if vitamins were already known by science, nobody got any of them. Of course, the guards stole in mass the sendings that families dying of hunger sent to their dearest, and they got some better food officially, that food was OK in volume, but extremely low in quality. They tried to cure themselves from everything by alcohol, but of course, it didn't help much.

These guards worked in the open air the whole day, for unlimited hours. And their work was mostly standing, looking, and shouting. Sometimes they warmed themselves up by beating somebody or running somewhere, but the irregular activities in the frost are not healthy, too.

And as for summer - the taiga is full of ticks. Even now vaccinations against many diseases, transferred by ticks, are not satisfactory and much effective, but they had not gotten any of these vaccinations - for even the diseases themselves were mostly not known yet.

And if the camp was built for some underground mining, guards had not to mine, but they had to be there underground, and extremely scarce norms of safety killed them, too. (Vysotsky has an excellent song about an experienced guard buried in a fallen mine)

And don't forget that often enough guards were themselves imprisoned due to some changes in politics or changes in positions of their relatives, friends, or commanders. For example, if a commander had to be imprisoned or executed, all his people and close peers who didn't write enough "signals" about his contrarevolutionarity or antisovetism, or spying, were very soon imprisoned or executed, too.

Still, there were camps where there were good buildings, good food, and warm clothes for guards, for these guards had to be extremely vigilant and experienced. In these camps they mined the gold. These were the camps surely killing the prisoners in a season, and keeping the guards OK. But it was a small fracture of all camps, and these guards very often fell under the state machine themselves.

  • How does this description square with your claim that most guards did it voluntarily? Even psychopathes want to live.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Feb 7 at 19:57
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    @RogerV. 1. In the discussed times, the loss of population in the USSR was about 1/3-1/5 of the population. Even the wife of a minister could be murdered by the state. Even the heads of the special services. There was no safe position in the USSR. And if being a soldier at war practically guaranteed your death, being a guard put its probability to lesser numbers. And with you being a guard, you and your family for sure were not hungry. 2. The other answer is already written here. They did not know they could easily die, too. ... And not most guards, all guards did that job voluntarily.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Feb 7 at 20:26

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