The Gulag was a system of forced labor camps established during Joseph Stalin’s reign as dictator of the Soviet Union. The notorious prisons, which incarcerated about 18 million people throughout their history, operated from the 1920s until shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953. At its height, the Gulag network included hundreds of labor camps that held anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people each. Conditions at the Gulag were brutal: Prisoners could be required to work up to 14 hours a day, often in extreme weather. Many died of starvation, disease or exhaustion—others were simply executed.
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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, founder of the Russian Communist Party, took control of the Soviet Union. When Lenin died of a stroke in 1924, Joseph Stalin propelled 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 wasn’t 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 efficient way to boost industrialization in the Soviet Union and access valuable natural resources such as coal, other minerals and timber.
Additionally, 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 at Gulag camps included common criminals and prosperous peasants, known as kulaks. Many kulaks were arrested when they revolted against collectivization, a policy enforced by the Soviet government that demanded peasant farmers give up their individual farms and join collective farming.
When Stalin launched his purges, a wide variety of laborers, known as “political prisoners,” were transported to Gulag camps. Opposing members of the Communist Party, military officers and government officials were among the first targeted. Later, educated people and ordinary citizens—doctors, writers, intellects, students, artists and scientists—were sent into the Gulag system.
Anyone who had ties to disloyal anti-Stalinists 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 notice, some victims were randomly picked up by Stalin’s security police (the NKVD) and hauled to the prisons with no trial or rights to an attorney.
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Life at a Gulag Camp
Prisoners at the Gulag camps were forced to work on large-scale construction, mining and industrial projects. The type of industry depended on the camp’s location and the area’s needs.
Gulag labor crews worked on several massive Soviet endeavors, including the Moscow-Volga Canal, the White Sea-Baltic Canal and the Kolyma Highway.
Prisoners were given crude, simple tools and no safety equipment. Some workers spent their days cutting down trees or digging at frozen ground with handsaws and pickaxes. Others mined coal or copper, and many had to dig up dirt with their bare hands.
The work was often so grueling that prisoners would cut their hands with axes or place their arms in a wood stove to avoid work.
Camp prisoners often drudged through brutal weather, sometimes facing sub-zero temperatures. Food rations were tight, and workdays were long. If prisoners didn’t complete their work quotas, they received less food.
Gulag living conditions were cold, overcrowded and unsanitary. Violence was common among the camp inmates, who were made up of both hardened criminals and political prisoners. In desperation, some stole food and other supplies from each other.
Many workers died from exhaustion, 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.
Prison Terms and Release
Prisoners in the Gulag were given sentences, and if they survived the term, they were permitted to leave camp. For example, family members of a suspected traitor would receive a minimum sentence of five to eight years of labor.
If they worked extremely hard and surpassed their quotas, some prisoners qualified for early release. Between 1934 and 1953, about 150,000 to 500,000 people were released from the Gulag each year.
End of the Gulag
The Gulag started to weaken immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953. Within days, millions of prisoners were released.
Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was a staunch critic of the camps, the purges and most of Stalin’s policies.
But, the camps didn’t disappear completely. Some were restructured to serve as prisons for criminals, democratic activists and anti-Soviet nationalists during the 1970s and 1980s.
It wasn’t until about 1987 that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the grandson of Gulag victims, officially began the process of completely eliminating the camps.
Legacy of the Gulag
The true horrors of the Gulag system were revealed belatedly: Before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, state archives were sealed. Unlike the Holocaust camps in Europe during World War II, no film or images of the Gulag camps were available to the public.
In 1973, The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West by Russian historian and Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (though only a few underground copies were available in the Soviet Union at the time). The influential book detailed 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 didn’t make a significant contribution to the Soviet economy. Experts believe that without enough food and supplies, workers were unequipped to provide productive results.
The dark history of the Gulag has left generations of Russians scarred and damaged. Even today, some survivors are too fearful to discuss their experiences.
Gulag: Soviet Prison Camps and Their Legacy, A Project of the National Park Service and the National Resource Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies, Harvard University.
Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives. GulagHistory.org.
The Gulag Collection, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
13 Stomach-Churning Facts About Being Held Prisoner in the Soviet Gulags, Ranker.com.