The Gulag has become synonymous with the Siberian forced labour camps of Stalin’s Russia: places from which few returned and where life was almost unimaginably hard. But the name Gulag actually originally referred to the agency in charge of the labour camps: the word is an acronym for the Russian phrase meaning “chief administration of the camps”.
One of the main tools of repression in Russia for much of the 20th century, the Gulag camps were used to remove anyone who was deemed undesirable from mainstream society. Those sent to them were subjected to months or years of gruelling physical labour, harsh conditions, the brutal Siberian climate and almost complete isolation from family and friends.
Here are 10 facts about the infamous prison camps.
1. Forced labour camps were already in existence in Imperial Russia
Forced labour camps in Siberia had been used as punishment in Russia for centuries. The Romanov tsars had sent political opponents and criminals to these internment camps or forced them into exile in Siberia since the 17th century.
However, in the early 20th century, the number being subjected to katorga (the Russian name for this punishment) skyrocketed, growing five-fold in 10 years, at least in part fuelled by a rise in social unrest and political instability.
2. The Gulag was created by Lenin, not Stalin
Although the Russian Revolution transformed Russia in a multitude of ways, the new government was much like the old tsarist system in its desire to ensure political repression for the best functioning of the state.
During the Russian Civil War, Lenin established a ‘special’ prison camp system, distinct and separate from the normal system in its innately political purpose. These new camps aimed to isolate and ‘eliminate’ disruptive, disloyal or suspicious people who were not contributing to society or were actively jeopardising the new dictatorship of the proletariat.
3. The camps were designed to be correctional facilities
The original intention of the camps was ‘reeducation’ or correction through forced labour: they were designed to give inmates plenty of time to think about their decisions. Similarly, many camps used what was known as the ‘nourishment scale’, where your food rations were directly correlated to your productivity.
Inmates were also forced into contributing to the new economy: their labour was profitable for the Bolshevik regime.
4. Stalin transformed the Gulag system
After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin seized power. He changed the existing Gulag prison system: only prisoners who received a sentence longer than 3 years were sent to Gulag camps. Stalin was also keen to colonise the far-flung reaches of Siberia, which he believed the camps could do.
His programme of dekulakization (the removal of wealthy peasants) in the late 1920s saw literally millions of people exiled or sent to prison camps. Whilst this was successful in gaining Stalin’s regime a vast amount of free labour, it was no longer intended to be corrective in nature. The harsh conditions actually meant that the government ended up losing money as they were spending more on rations than they were getting back in terms of labour from the half-starved inmates.
5. The numbers in the camps ballooned in the 1930s
As Stalin’s infamous purges began, the numbers being exiled or sent to the Gulag rose drastically. In 1931 alone, nearly 2 million people were exiled and by 1935, there were over 1.2 million people in Gulag camps and colonies. Many of those entering the camps were members of the intelligentsia – highly-educated and dissatisfied with Stalin’s regime.
6. The camps were used to hold prisoners of war
When World War Two broke out in 1939, Russia annexed large parts of Eastern Europe and Poland: unofficial reports implied hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities were exiled to Siberia in the process, although official reports suggest it was just over 200,000 Eastern Europeans who had proved to be agitators, political activists or engaged in espionage or terrorism.
7. Millions died of starvation in the Gulag
As fighting on the Eastern Front became progressively more intense, Russia began to suffer. The German invasion caused widespread famine, and those in the Gulags suffered the effects of the limited food supply severely. In the winter of 1941 alone, around a quarter of the camps’ population perished from starvation.
The situation was worsened by the fact that prisoners and inmates were required to work harder than ever before as the wartime economy relied on their labour, but with ever diminishing rations.
8. The Gulag population shot back up after World War Two
Once the war was over in 1945, the numbers sent to the Gulag began to grow again at a relatively rapid pace. The tightening of legislation on property-related offences in 1947 saw thousands rounded up and convicted.
Some newly released Soviet prisoners of war were also sent to the Gulag: they were viewed as traitors by many. However, there is a degree of confusion surrounding the sources on this, and many of those who were originally thought to have been sent to the Gulag were in fact sent to ‘filtration’ camps.
9. 1953 was the beginning of a period of amnesty
Stalin died in March 1953, and whilst there certainly wasn’t a thaw, there was an increasing period of amnesty for political prisoners from 1954 onwards. Further fuelled by Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956, the population of the Gulag began to drop as mass rehabilitations were undertaken and Stalin’s legacy was dismantled.
10. The Gulag system was officially closed in 1960
On 25 January 1960, the Gulag was officially closed: by this point, over 18 million people had passed through the system. Political prisoners and forced labour colonies were still operational, but under different jurisdiction.
Many have argued that the Russian penal system today is not so different from the intimidation, forced labour, starvation rations and inmate on inmate policing that happened in the Gulag.