The Gulag was a system of forced labor camps created under Joseph Stalin as the dictator of the Soviet Union. The prison was notorious, which held some 18 million people over its history, from the 1920s until shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953. At its height, the Gulag network included hundreds of labor camps that each held 2,000 to 10,000 people. Conditions in the gulag were harsh: prisoners could be required to work up to 14 hours a day, often in harsh weather conditions. Many died of starvation, disease or exhaustion – others were simply executed.
What is a gulag?
The word “gulag” is an acronym for the Russian phrase Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or main camp administration.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Russian Communist Party, took over the Soviet Union. When Lenin died of a stroke in 1924, Joseph Stalin fought his way to power and became dictator.
The Gulag was first established during Lenin’s rule in 1919, and by 1921 the Gulag system had 84 camps. But it was not until Stalin’s rule that the prison population reached significant numbers.
From 1929 until Stalin’s death, the Gulag went through a period of rapid expansion. Stalin viewed the camps as an effective means of promoting industrialization in the Soviet Union and access to valuable natural resources such as coal, other minerals, and timber.
In addition, the Gulag camps became a destination for victims of Stalin’s Great Purge, a campaign to eliminate dissenting members of the Communist Party and anyone who challenged the leader.
The first group of prisoners in the Gulag camps included common criminals and wealthy peasants, known as kulaks. Many kulaks were arrested when they revolted against collectivization, a policy imposed by the Soviet government that required peasants to abandon their individual farms and join collective farming.
When Stalin launched the purges, an assortment of workers, known as “political prisoners”, were transferred to the Gulag camps. Among the first targets were members of the opposition Communist Party, military officers and government officials. Later, educated people and ordinary citizens—doctors, writers, thinkers, students, artists, and scientists—were sent to the Gulag system.
Anyone with links to an anti-Stalinist traitor could be imprisoned. Even women and children endured the harsh conditions of the camps. Many women faced the threat of rape or assault by male prisoners or guards.
Without warning, some of the victims were randomly arrested by Stalin’s security police (NKVD) and taken to prisons without trial or rights to a lawyer.
Life in the gulag camp
Prisoners in the Gulag camps were forced to work on large-scale construction, mining, and industrial projects. The type of industry depends on the camp site and the needs of the area.
Crews worked in the Gulag on several massive Soviet endeavors, including the Moscow-Volga Canal, the White Sea-Baltic Canal and the Kolyma Highway.
The prisoners were given primitive and simple tools and had no safety equipment. Some workers spent their days cutting trees or digging in the frozen ground with hand saws and axes. Others mined coal or copper, and many had to dig up dirt with their hands.
The work was often so exhausting that prisoners would cut their hands with axes or stick their arms in a wood stove to avoid the work.
The camp prisoners often experienced harsh weather, sometimes facing sub-zero temperatures. Rations were tight, and working days were long. If the prisoners did not complete their work rations, they were given less food.
Living conditions in the Gulag were cold, overcrowded, and unsanitary. Violence was common among the camp’s inmates, who consisted of hardened criminals and political prisoners. In desperation, some stole food and other supplies from each other.
Many workers died of overwork, while others were physically assaulted or shot by camp guards. Historians estimate that at least 10 percent of the total Gulag prison population was killed each year.
Terms of imprisonment and release
Prisoners were sentenced to a gulag, and if they survived the term, they were allowed to leave the camp. For example, family members of a suspected traitor will receive a sentence of at least five to eight years’ imprisonment.
If they work hard and exceed their quotas, some prisoners are eligible for early release. Between 1934 and 1953, approximately 150,000 to 500,000 people were released from labor camps each year.
The end of the gulag
The gulag began to weaken immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953. Within days, millions of prisoners were freed.
Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was a vocal critic of the camps, purges, and most of Stalin’s policies.
But the camps have not completely disappeared. Some were restructured to serve as prisons for criminals, democratic activists, and anti-Soviet nationalists during the 1970s and 1980s.
It wasn’t until 1987 that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the grandson of Gulag victims, officially began the process of completely eliminating the camps.
The true atrocities of the Gulag system were revealed belatedly: before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, state archives were closed. Unlike the Holocaust camps in Europe during World War II, there was no film or photographs of the gulag camps available to the public.
In 1973, The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West by Russian historian and Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (although only a few underground copies were available in the Soviet Union at the time). The influential book described the atrocities of the Gulag system and its impact on the lives of prisoners and their families.
Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970; He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned to Russia in 1994.
Although the Gulag provided a system of cheap labor, most historians agree that the camps ultimately did not make a significant contribution to the Soviet economy. Experts believe that without adequate food and supplies, the workers were not equipped to deliver productive results.
The dark history of the Gulag has left generations of Russians scarred and damaged. Even today, some survivors are afraid to discuss their experiences.