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The Gulag (from the Russian Главное Управление Лагерей, "Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey", "The Chief Directorate of Corrective Labor Camps") was a government agency that administered some of the forced labor camps in the Soviet Union. Although the word Gulag originally referred to this particular government agency, in part due to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago, in English and many other languages the word now refers to the whole Soviet system of prison-based, unfree labor. The Gulag system was the stage of some of the worst atrocities and crimes ever committed by a country towards its own citizens.


Imperial Russia had earlier used some labor camps (katorgas) as a part of the penal system. However, Solzhenitsyn described the enormous deterioration of living conditions for inmates and the gigantic increase in the number of people sent to labor camps in the Communist era. Also, unlike Imperial Russia, not just convicted individuals, but entire categories of people considered to be (potential) enemies were sent to the Communist labor camps.

Camps were quickly overflown with the "enemies of the people", a conveniently fluid designation under Bolsheviks' totalitarian regime. Remote monasteries in particular were frequently reused as sites for new camps. One such name, Solovki, turned synonym for torture after 1918. New camps were constructed throughout the Soviet sphere of influence, including facilities in Moscow and Leningrad.

The Gulag is commonly seen as one of the atrocities during Stalin's regime. Less well-known are the labor camps and slave labor system during Lenin's regime. "Lenin's secret police, the Cheka, pioneered the development of the modern slave labor (or "concentration") camp. Inmates were generally frankly treated as government-owned slaves, and used for the most demanding work - such as digging arctic canals - while receiving pitifully small rations. As Pipes explains, "Soviet concentration camps, as instituted in 1919, were meant to be a place of confinement for all kinds of undesirables, whether sentenced by courts or by administrative organs. Liable to confinement in them were not only individuals but also 'categories of individuals' - that is, entire classes: Dzerzhinskii at one point proposed that special concentration camps be erected for the 'bourgeoisie.' Living in forced isolation, the inmates formed a pool of slave labor on which Soviet administrative and economic institutions could draw at no cost." (The Russian Revolution) The number of people in these camps according to Pipes was about 50,000 prisoners in 1920 and 70,000 in 1923; many of these did not survive the inhuman conditions. The inmates might be bourgeoisie, or peasants, or members of other socialist factors such as the Mensheviks or the Social Revolutionaries, or members of ethnicities thought to be hostile to the Bolsheviks, such as the Don Cossacks. The death rates in these camps appear to have been in the extreme hardship range of 10-30%. While the number thus killed was only a small percentage of the total exterminated under Lenin's regime, it laid the foundation for Stalin's slave labor empire."[1]

Officially the Gulag agency was established on 25 April 1930 as the "ULAG", and was renamed into "GULAG" in November, and terminated on 25 January 1960. Large numbers of prisoners began to be released in the mid-1950's, after Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and his regime. However, some forced labor colonies for political and criminal prisoners continued to exist.

A different agency, which also was involved in forced labor camps, was the GUPVI, which during and after WWII administrated foreign forced labor, including both foreign POWs and enslaved foreign civilians.

The tragedy caused by the Gulag system 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) such as Vladimir Vysotsky, Alexander Galich and Alexander Gorodnitsky, none of whom incidentally ever served time in the camps, describe life inside the Gulag. Chilling memoirs of Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov, Eugenia Ginzburg, among other books became a symbol of defiance in the Soviet totalitarian society.

Number of deaths

As regarding many other large scale mass killings, the number of deaths is disputed. Some independent estimates are as low as 1.6 million deaths for the whole period from 1929 to 1953, while other estimates go beyond 10 million.

Locations and functions

The majority of Gulag camps were positioned in extremely remote areas of north-eastern Siberia and in the south-eastern parts of the Soviet Union, mainly in the steppes of Kazakhstan. These are vast and uninhabited regions with no roads or sources of food, but rich in minerals and other natural resources, such as timber. However, camps were also spread throughout the entire Soviet Union, including the European parts of Russia, Belarus, and the 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.

In order to mine, process and ship resources, the inmates were forced to work in inhuman conditions. In spite of the brutal climate, they were almost never adequately clothed, fed, or given medical treatment, nor were they given any means to combat the lack of vitamins that led to nutritional diseases such as scurvy. In some camps, the fatality rate during the first months was as high as 80%. Many megalomaniac projects of the Soviet rapid industrialization of the late 1930s, war-time and post-war periods were built by this slave labor.

A unique form of Gulag camps called sharashka (шарашка) were in fact secret research laboratories, where anonymous scientists were developing new technologies, and also conducting basic research.

POWs in the Gulag

Soviet POWs captured by Germany and who later returned to the Soviet Union, in many cases involuntarily and forcibly deported there by the Western Allies after the war, were often killed/deported to the Gulag system, since they were seen as traitors for not having fought to the death and as possible collaborators. Several thousand Russians committed suicide rather than return to the Soviet Union. According to one source, "of the approximately 2,500,000 Russians repatriated by the Western Allies, some 300,000 were executed by the NKVD soon after their delivery to Soviet authorities. With a few exceptions, the rest were condemned to the lingering doom of 10 to 25 year sentences in labor camps, from which ordeal few survived. Elliott also points out that the USSR never released 1.5 to 2 million German POWs, 200,000 to 300,000 Japanese POWs, and did not repatriate those few ex-Axis soldiers who did manage to survive the rigors of GULAG until 1956."[2][3]

Jews and the Gulag

The Gulag agency was headed by Jews from its beginning in 1930 until near the end of the Great Purge in 1938. The Jewish Naftaly Frenkel created brutal Gulag policies in order to increase work efficiency, such as by linking a prisoner's food ration to how much the prisoner produced and by the systematic killing of the weak and unproductive (which all prisoners tended to become after some time in the camps, requiring a constant large inflow of fresh prisoners). Jews could also be prisoners, but it has been argued that they often had relatively good conditions due to ethnic networking and help from Jewish camp authorities.[4][5][6]

External links


  1. Museum of Communism FAQ: What were the most important human rights violations committed under Lenin's rule?
  2. Stalin's War: Victims and Accomplices
  3. Stalin's War Against His Own Troops
  4. Kevin MacDonald: Translation of Solzhenitsyn's "In the Camps of GULag" — Chapter 20 of "200 Years Together"
  5. Stalin’s Willing Executioners, Jews As a Hostile Elite in the USSR
  6. The Gulag: Communism's Penal Colonies Revisited
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