The Gulag was the government agency that administered the penal labor camps of the Soviet Union. Gulag is the Russian acronym for The Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies (Russian: Главное Управление Исправительно-Трудовых Лагерей и колоний) of the NKVD. Eventually, by metonymy, the usage of "Gulag" began generally denoting the entire penal labor system in the USSR, then any such penal system. In Russian, Gulag is pronounced: (ГУЛАГ, )
Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum, explains: "It was the branch of the State Security that operated the penal system of forced labour camps and associated detention and transit camps and prisons. While these camps housed criminals of all types, the Gulag system has become primarily known as a place for political prisoners and as a mechanism for repressing political opposition to the Soviet state. Though it imprisoned millions, the name became familiar in the West only with the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1973 The Gulag Archipelago, which likened the scattered camps to a chain of islands."
There were at least 476 separate camps, some of them comprising hundreds, even thousands of camp units. Three of the most infamous complexes were those at Kolyma, Norilsk, and Vorkuta, all in arctic or subarctic regions.
More than 14 million people passed through the Gulag from 1929 to 1953, with a further 6 to 7 million being deported and exiled to remote areas of the USSR. According to de-classified archive data released by the KGB after Perestroika, the total population of the camps varied from 510,307 (in 1934) to 1,727,970 (in 1953)..
Most Gulag inmates were not political prisoners, although the political prisoner population was always significant. People could be imprisoned in a Gulag camp for crimes such as unexcused absences from work, petty theft, or anti-government jokes. About half of the political prisoners were sent to Gulag prison camps without trial; per official data, there were more than 2.6 million imprisonment sentences in cases investigated by the secret police, 1921-1953. While the Gulag was radically reduced in size following Stalin’s death in 1953, forced labor camps and political prisoners continued to exist in the Soviet Union right up to the Gorbachev era.
Although Gulag originally was the name of a government agency, the acronym acquired the qualities of a noun, denoting: the Soviet system of prison-based, unfree labor — including specific labor, punishment, criminal, political, and transit camps for men, women, and children. Thus, "Gulag" means the repressive Soviet "meat-grinder" procedural system and its consequences — arrests, interrogations, transport (in unheated rail road cattle cars), forced labor, familial separation, exile, and early death, while other authors use gulag as denoting all the prisons and internment camps in Soviet history (1917–1991) with the plural gulags. The term's contemporary usage is notably unrelated to the USSR, such as in the expression "North Korea's Gulag".
The word Gulag was not often used in Russian — either officially or colloquially; the predominant terms were the camps (лагеря, lagerya) and the zone (зона, zona), always singular — for the labor camp system and for the individual camps. The official term, "corrective labor camp", was suggested for official politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union use in the session of July 27, 1929, replacing concentration camp, then the common usage .
From 1918, camp-type detention facilities were set up, as a reformed analogy of the earlier system of penal labor (katorgas), operated in Siberia in Imperial Russia. The two main types were "Vechecka Special-purpose Camps" (особые лагеря ВЧК, osobiye lagerya VČK) and forced labor camps (лагеря принудительных работ, lagerya prinuditel'nikh rabot). They were installed for various categories of people deemed dangerous for the state: for common criminals, for prisoners of the Russian Civil War, for officials accused of corruption, sabotage and embezzlement, various political enemies and dissidents, as well as former aristocrats, businessmen and large land owners. These camps, however, were not on the same scale as those in the Stalin era. In 1928 there were 30,000 prisoners in camps, and the authorities were opposed to compelling them to work. In 1927 the official in charge of prison administration wrote that: "The exploitation of prison labour, the system of squeezing ‘golden sweat’ from them, the organisation of production in places of confinement, which while profitable from a commercial point of view is fundamentally lacking in corrective significance – these are entirely inadmissible in Soviet places of confinement.”
The legal base and the guidance for the creation of the system of "corrective labor camps" (исправительно-трудовые лагеря, Ispravitel'no-trudovye lagerya), the backbone of what is commonly referred to as the "Gulag", was a secret decree of Sovnarkom of July 11 1929 about the use of penal labor that duplicated the corresponding appendix to the minutes of Politburo meeting of June 27, 1929.
As an all-Union institution and a main administration with the OGPU (the Soviet secret police), the GULAG was officially established on April 25, 1930 as the "ULAG" by the OGPU order 130/63 in accordance with the Sovnarkom order 22 p. 248 dated April 7, 1930, and was renamed into GULAG in November.
In the early 1930s a drastic tightening of Soviet penal policy caused a significant growth of the prison camp population. During the period of the Great Purge (1937–38) mass arrests caused another upsurge in inmate numbers. During these years hundreds of thousands of individuals were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms on the grounds of one of the multiple passages of the notorious Article 58 of the Criminal Codes of the Union republics, which defined punishment for various forms of "counterrevolutionary activities."
Under NKVD Order № 00447 tens of thousands of GULAG inmates who were accused of "continuing anti-Soviet activity in imprisonment" were executed in 1937-38.
The hypothesis that economic considerations were responsible for mass arrests during the period of Stalinism has been refuted on the grounds of former Soviet archives that have become accessible since the 1990s, although some archival sources also tend to support an economic hypothesis. In any case the development of the camp system followed economic lines. The growth of the camp system coincided with the peak of the Soviet industrialization campaign. Most of the camps established to accommodate the masses of incoming prisoners were assigned distinct economic tasks. These included the exploitation of natural resources and the colonization of remote areas as well as the realization of enormous infrastructural facilities and industrial construction projects.
In 1931–32 the Gulag had approximately 200,000 prisoners in the camps; in 1935 — approximately 800,000 in camps and 300,000 in colonies (annual averages), and in 1939 — about 1.3 millions in camps and 350,000 in colonies. (all data about the numbers of prisoners here and below are taken from formerly secret documents produced by the NKVD).
During the war, Gulag populations declined sharply, as a consequence of the mass releases of hundreds of thousands of prisoners who were conscripted and sent directly to the front lines and a steep rise in mortality in 1942–43. 516,841 prisoners died in prison camps in 1941-43.
In 1943, the term katorga works (каторжные работы) was reintroduced. They were initially intended for Nazi collaborators, but then other categories of political prisoners (for example, members of deported peoples who fled from exile) were also sentenced to "katorga works". Prisoners sentenced to "katorga works" were sent to Gulag prison camps with the most harsh regime and many of them perished.
After World War II the number of inmates in prison camps and colonies again rose sharply, reaching approximately 2.5 million people by the early 1950s (about 1.7 million of whom were in camps).
When the war ended in May 1945, as many as two million former Russian citizens were forcefully repatriated (against their will) into the USSR. On 11 February 1945, at the conclusion of the Yalta Conference, the United States and United Kingdom signed a Repatriation Agreement with the Soviet Union. One interpretation of this agreement resulted in the forcible repatriation of all Soviets. British and U.S. civilian authorities ordered their military forces in Europe to deport to the Soviet Union up to two million former residents of the Soviet Union, including persons who had left Russia and established different citizenship years before. The forced repatriation operations took place from 1945-1947.
Often, one finds statements that Soviet Soviet POWs on their return to the Soviet Union were often treated as traitors (see Order No. 270). According to some sources, over 1.5 million surviving Red Army soldiers imprisoned by the Germans were sent to the Gulag. However, that is a confusion with two other types of camps. During and after World War II freed PoWs went to special "filtration" camps. Of these, by 1944, more than 90 per cent were cleared, and about 8 per cent were arrested or condemned to penal battalions. In 1944, they were sent directly to reserve military formations to be cleared by the NKVD. Further, in 1945, about 100 filtration camps were set for repatriated Ostarbeiter, PoWs, and other displaced persons, which processed more than 4,000,000 people. By 1946, 80 per cent civilians and 20 per cent of PoWs were freed, 5 per cent of civilians, and 43 per cent of PoWs re-drafted, 10 per cent of civilians and 22 per cent of PoWs were sent to labor battalions, and 2 per cent of civilians and 15 per cent of the PoWs (226,127 out of 1,539,475 total) transferred to the NKVD, i.e. the Gulag.
For years after World War II, a significant minority of the inmates were Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians from lands newly incorporated into the Soviet Union, as well as Finns, Poles, Romanians and others. POWs, in contrast, were kept in a separate camp system (see POW labor in the Soviet Union), which was managed by GUPVI, a separate main administration with the NKVD/MVD.
Yet the major reason for the post-war increase in the number of prisoners was the tightening of legislation on property offences in summer 1947 (at this time there was a famine in some parts of the Soviet Union, claiming about 1 million lives), which resulted in hundreds of thousands of convictions to lengthy prison terms, sometimes on the basis of cases of petty theft or embezzlement. At the beginning of 1953 the total number of prisoners in prison camps was more than 2.4 million of which more than 465 thousand were political prisoners.
The state continued to maintain the extensive camp system for a while after Stalin's death in March 1953, although the period saw the grip of the camp authorities weaken and a number of conflicts and uprisings occur (see Bitch Wars; Kengir uprising; Vorkuta uprising).
The amnesty in March 1953 was limited to non-political prisoners and for political prisoners sentenced to not more than 5 years, therefore mostly those convicted for common crimes were then freed. The release of political prisoners started in 1954 and became widespread, and also coupled with mass rehabilitations, after Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism in his Secret Speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956.
Living and working conditions in the camps varied significantly across time and place, depending, among other things, on the impact of broader events (World War II, countrywide famines and shortages, waves of terror, sudden influx or release of large numbers of prisoners). However, to one degree or another, the large majority of prisoners at most times faced meagre food rations, inadequate clothing, overcrowding, poorly insulated housing; poor hygiene, and insufficient or inadequate health care. The overwhelming majority of prisoners were compelled to perform harsh physical labor. In most periods and economic branches, the degree of mechanization of work processes was significantly lower than in the civilian industry: tools were often primitive and machinery, if existent, short in supply. Officially established work hours were in most periods longer and days off were fewer than for civilian workers. Often official work time regulations were extended by local camp administrators.
In general, the central administrative bodies showed a discernible interest in maintaining the labor force of prisoners in a condition allowing the fulfillment of construction and production plans handed down from above. Besides a wide array of punishments for prisoners refusing to work (which, in practice, were sometimes applied to prisoners that were too enfeebled to meet production quota), they instituted a number of positive incentives intended to boost productivity. These included monetary bonuses (since the early 1930s) and wage payments (from 1950 onwards), cuts of sentences on an individual basis, general early release schemes for norm fulfillment and overfulfillment (until 1939, again in selected camps from 1946 onwards), preferential treatment and privileges for the most productive workers (shock workers or Stakhanovites in Soviet parlance). A distinctive incentive scheme that included both coercive and motivational elements and was applied universally in all camps consisted in standardized "nourishment scales": the size of the inmates’ ration depended on the percentage of the work quota delivered. Naftaly Frenkel is credited for the introduction of this policy. While it was effective in compelling many prisoners to make serious work efforts, for many a prisoner it had the adverse effect, accelerating the exhaustion and sometimes causing the death of persons unable to fulfill high production quota.
Immediately after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 the conditions in camps worsened drastically: quotas were increased, rations cut, and medical supplies came close to none, all of which led to a sharp increase in mortality. The situation slowly improved in the final period and after the end of the war.
Considering the overall conditions and their influence on inmates, it is important to distinguish three major strata of Gulag inmates:
Mortality in GULAG camps in 1934-40 was 4-6 times higher than average in Russia. The estimated total number of those who died in imprisonment in 1930-1953 is 1.76 million, about half of which occurred between 1941-1943 following the German invasion.
In the early days of Gulag, the locations for the camps were chosen primarily for the ease of isolation of prisoners. Remote monasteries in particular were frequently reused as sites for new camps. The site on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea is one of the earliest and also most noteworthy, taking root soon after the Revolution in 1918. The colloquial name for the islands, "Solovki", entered the vernacular as a synonym for the labour camp in general. It was being presented to the world as an example of the new Soviet way of "re-education of class enemies" and reintegrating them through labour into the Soviet society. Initially the inmates, the significant part being Russian intelligentsia, enjoyed relative freedom (within the natural confinement of the islands). Local newspapers and magazines were edited and even some scientific research was carried out (e.g., a local botanical garden was maintained, but unfortunately later lost completely). Eventually it turned into an ordinary Gulag camp; in fact some historians maintain that Solovki was a pilot camp of this type. See Solovki for more detail. Maxim Gorky visited the camp in 1929 and published an apology of it.
With the new emphasis on Gulag as the means of concentrating cheap labour, new camps were then constructed throughout the Soviet sphere of influence, wherever the economic task at hand dictated their existence (or was designed specifically to avail itself of them, such as Belomorkanal or Baikal Amur Mainline), including facilities in big cities — parts of the famous Moscow Metro and the Moscow State University new campus were built by forced labour. Many more projects during the rapid industrialization of the 1930s, war-time and post-war periods were fulfilled on the backs of convicts, and the activity of Gulag camps spanned a wide cross-section of Soviet industry.
The majority of Gulag camps were positioned in extremely remote areas of north-eastern Siberia (the best known clusters are Sevvostlag (The North-East Camps) along Kolyma river and Norillag near Norilsk) and in the south-eastern parts of the Soviet Union, mainly in the steppes of Kazakhstan (Luglag, Steplag, Peschanlag). These were vast and sparsely inhabited regions with no roads (in fact, the construction of the roads themselves was assigned to the inmates of specialized railroad camps) or sources of food, but rich in minerals and other natural resources (such as timber). However, camps were generally spread throughout the entire Soviet Union, including the European parts of Russia, Byelorussia, and Ukraine. There were also several camps located outside of the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Mongolia, which were under the direct control of the Gulag.
Not all camps were fortified; in fact some in Siberia were marked only by posts. Escape was deterred by the harsh elements, as well as tracking dogs that were assigned to each camp. While during the 1920s and 1930s native tribes often aided escapees, many of the tribes were also victimized by escaped thieves. Tantalized by large rewards as well, they began aiding authorities in the capture of Gulag inmates. Camp guards were also given stern incentive to keep their inmates in line at all costs; if a prisoner escaped under a guard's watch, the guard would often be stripped of his uniform and become a Gulag inmate himself. Further, if an escaping prisoner was shot, guards could be fined amounts that were often equivalent to one or two weeks wages.
In some cases, teams of inmates were dropped to a new territory with a limited supply of resources and left to set up a new camp or die. Sometimes it took several attempts before the next wave of colonists could survive the elements.
Under the supervision of Lavrenty Beria who headed both NKVD and the Soviet Atom bomb program until his demise in 1953, thousands of zeks were used to mine uranium ore and prepare test facilities on Novaya Zemlya, Vaygach Island, Semipalatinsk, among other sites.
The Gulag spanned nearly four decades of Soviet and East European history and affected millions of individuals. Its cultural impact was enormous.
The Gulag has become a major influence on contemporary Russian thinking, and an important part of modern Russian folklore. Many songs by the authors-performers known as the bards, most notably Vladimir Vysotsky and Alexander Galich, neither of whom ever served time in the camps, describe life inside the Gulag and glorified the life of "Zeks". Words and phrases which originated in the labor camps became part of the Russian/Soviet vernacular in the 1960s and 1970s.
The memoirs of Alexander Dolgun, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov and Yevgenia Ginzburg, among others, became a symbol of defiance in Soviet society. These writings, particularly those of Solzhenitsyn, harshly chastised the Soviet people for their tolerance and apathy regarding the Gulag, but at the same time provided a testament to the courage and resolve of those who were imprisoned.
Another cultural phenomenon in the Soviet Union linked with the Gulag was the forced migration of many artists and other people of culture to Siberia. This resulted in a Renaissance of sorts in places like Magadan, where, for example, the quality of theatre production was comparable to Moscow's.
When well-behaved persons had served the majority of their terms, they could be released for "free settlement" (вольное поселение, volnoye poseleniye) outside the confinement of the camp. They were known as "free settlers" (вольнопоселенцы, volnoposelentsy, not to be confused with the term ссыльнопоселенцы,ssyl'noposelentsy, "exile settlers"). In addition, for persons who served full term, but who were denied the free choice of place of residence, it was recommended to assign them for "free settlement" and give them land in the general vicinity of the place of confinement.
This implement was also inherited from the katorga system.
Many people released from camps were restricted from settling in larger cities.
The Memorial pictured below in St Petersburg is made of a boulder from the Solovki camp — the first prison camp in the Gulag system. People gather here every year on the Day of Victims of the Repression (October 30).