The Gulag is the extensive network of prison camps used in the Soviet Union and other socialist societies to imprison people who opposed Marxism or failed to live up to Socialist principles. It is an acronym is derived from Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps, Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey i kolonii (Russian: Главное управление лагерей и мест заключения), spelled GuLag, Corrective labor is used for politically incorrect thought, word, or action. The term became well known by its use in the title of the compilation of personal historical accounts by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.
Camps were located in every part of the country—most notoriously in cold Siberia—and slave labor was used not only for mining and heavy industries but for producing every kind of consumer product such as furniture toys, and fur hats.
The camps were not designed for execution, but rather forced labor in a society not driven by the profit motive. The death rate was very high from exposure to the cold, over-work, disease and very poor food, government rations, clothing and medical care. Nearly 75 million prisoners passed through the gulags in their more than 60 years of operation. Some people were imprisoned for violating Soviet law, others simply to fill quotas for the demand for workers. The population of the Gulag peaked around 1939 (at the climax of the Stalinist purges) at 6 million, and again in the early 1950s at 7.5 million. Around 35 million Gulag prisoners died of over-work, ill-treatment, disease or starvation between 1931 and 1953.
Some estimates of Gulag population statistics are absurdly low due to their reliance on statistical reporting from the estimated 90% of the returnees who had collaborated in atrocities with Gulag slavemasters, and who had consequently later reported lower populations, seeking to diminish reprisals should their complicity become known.
Imprisonment and banishment
When a person was imprisoned, by law their families - wives, children, brothers, sisters and parents - had to go to court and divorce or disown the person, as it was an imprisonable offense itself to be related to an enemy of the people. Upon release, a prisoner had no family to go home to.
Under the Soviet system, a person was banished from the Moscow Center (Red Square) by a distance of kilometers. The farthest being 7000 kilometers, or the Kolyma River in far Eastern Siberia. 1500 to 3000 kilometers usually meant the salt mines of Kazakhstan. 3500 to 5000 kilometers usually was the logging camps of the River Lena in central Siberia.
The camps were filled mostly with dissidents and the unemployed from the large cities, such as Moscow and Leningrad. Dissidents were mainly political prisoners or religious protestors. Political prisoners were branded "enemies of the working class," or more commonly, "enemies of the people." The unemployed were branded "social parasites," similar the National Socialist category of "shiftless elements."
When a person served out their time behind barbed wire, the system of internal banishment remained in place. A released prisoner then usually had to settle down in the village or community neighboring the Gulag camp where the guards and their families lived, and find menial employment in some service sector industry supporting their former prison guard slave masters and their families.
- See also: Progressivism
In addition to the unemployed, most others fell into two groups: political prisoners and thieves. While dissenters were considered enemies of the revolution, under Marxist class warfare theory, thieves are considered victims of bourgeois society and the propertied class.
While the bourgeois are "class enemies" of the working class, and dissenters are "enemies of the people," thieves are considered "class allies" of socialism, the revolution, and the party. Hence a single thief was often deliberately placed within a group of political prisoners to sow mistrust, chaos, and division as a precaution against organized resistance.
The concept of a thief in a society without private property may be hard to fathom; those branded as thieves simply were sociopaths lacking the collectivist mindset and discipline enough to join the party.
The gulag vs. the slave plantation contrasted
Solzhenitsyn pointed out that the Soviet slave system was unlike the slavery in the American South, were slaves were allowed to marry and live in family units, although the threat of family separation certainly was used to enforce compliance with the system of forced labor; victims of the Marxist ideology were permanently separated from all extended family and lived in barracks under a prison regime, where even their toilet habits were strictly supervised and regulated.
American blacks ate well in the agricultural setting, raised chickens for meat, and had their own plots of land for fruits and vegetables; Marxist victims were fed a bowl of slop at the end of the work day, and the daily bread ration was often cut due to government corruption, bureaucratic mismanagement, or budgetary concerns.
Unlike Southern plantations, the practice of religion was forbidden.
Under Nikita Khrushchev nearly 4 million Gulag prisoners were released in 1953–57. Millions of these were German POWs (the leftist Soviet Union was not a signatory of the Geneva Convention agreeing to the humanitarian treatment and exchange of prisoners when World War II broke out). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who served as a Red Army Captain in the War Against Fascism, who defeated fascism, nonetheless remained imprisoned by the leftist regime for criticizing socialist management of the war, foreign policy, the economy, and social justice in private letters which had been intercepted by the government domestic surveillance system.
These victims of left-wing state terror encountered physical, psychological, social, and political problems upon their reintegration into socialist society. A reciprocal adjustment had to be made by the Soviet system, and society as a whole, in order to reintroduce former prisoners to the 'Big Zone,' or life outside the camps. Most survivors however, were never allowed to return home or to their previous employment under the system of internal exile.
The process of rehabilitation was slowed by the victims' disorientation on release and their fear of further repression. A person needed "rehabilitation papers" to find a job or housing, although "gainful employment" was illegal because the profit motive subverted the Soviet system.
A greater problem was the government's denial of its history rather than admitting to leftist ideological flaws. Even after Khrushchev's 1956 secret speech to the 20th Party Congress condemning "Stalinist excesses," the state was slow to acknowledge that many former 'enemies of the people' were in fact innocent victims. The socialist economy, it was felt, couldn't exist without forced labor of those whom progressives disagreed with.
While there is a tendency to blame Stalin for Marxist "excesses" and "mistakes," the dangerous underpinnings of socialist ideology remain unchanged today.
The modern Chinese Communist Party system of gulags are called the Laogai, the Russian equivalent of Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn postulated the gulag system of corrective labor may have originated in China. The book Laogai: The Machinery of Repression in China, published in 2009, stated that as many as 3 to 5 million people were imprisoned in laogai or gulag camps.
China’s network of penal forced labor facilities, established in the early years of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government to hold both criminals and political dissidents, remains in operation today. U.S. law prohibits the importation of goods produced “wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor or/and forced labor or/and indentured labor under penal sanctions.” Artificial flowers, Christmas lights, shoes, garments, umbrellas as well as coal, cotton, electronics, fireworks, footwear, nails, and toys have been identified as produced in Chinese prison factories for export. There have been several instances of letters and notes from prisoners describing their confinement, working conditions and mistreatment discovered in products purchased by consumers outside China; at Christmas in 2019 a six year old girl in London, in a box of newly purchased Christmas cards, found one that had a message in English saying,
"We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu prison China Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organization."
Profitable prison companies help to fund the operations of both local and national government. Prison labor enterprises producing high-tech goods such as semiconductors and optical instruments are the most profitable, each earning an estimated annual revenue of tens of millions of dollars and paying taxes to the Chinese government. According to the 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report from the United States Department of State,
“[t]he [PRC] government reportedly profits from [the use of] forced labor. Many prisoners and detainees in ‘reeducation through labor’ facilities [are] required to work, often with no remuneration.”
Many prisons function as subcontractors for Chinese firms. The State Department has noted cases in which
“detainees were forced to work up to 18 hours a day without pay for private companies working in partnership with Chinese authorities” and “were beaten for failing to complete work quotas."
- Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2004) excerpt and text search, a standard history
- Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago (1973) excerpt and text search
- Werth, Nicolas et al. Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag (2007) excerpt and text search
- Atheism and slavery
- Concentration camp
- Killing fields
- Joseph Stalin
- Essay: KAL 007 Survivors and Gulags of Russia
- A lag or lage in Russian is the same word in German for "camp", as in konzentrationslager or concentration camp. The word, common to both languages, may have derived from Czarist times and the operation of punitive logging camps for criminal offenders and political dissidents. Vladimir Lenin (born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) for example, spent time in a notorious logging camp on the River Lena in Siberia, from which he adopted the name "Lenin" to identify as a proud veteran of the camps.
- The camps are depicted as a scattered collection of islands.
- Unemployment is illegal under "social parasite" laws in the collectivist system.
- In 1992, a Russian group memorializing the targets of the Soviet terror by use of demographic studies announced a determination that there were 63 million 'excess deaths' in the Soviet Union in its duration — 1917-1987.
- An internal passport system required individuals to carry papers showing restrictions, the number of kilometers a person was banned from the Moscow Center.
- Marx did not consider homeless vagabounds, the lumpen masses, as fit for the workers' revolution. Marx considered desperately impoverished people as tools of the "beougeoie," who would do anything for money, sell out revolutionary ideology, and not to be trusted.
- Some cities and place names on maps are entirely the creation of the Gulag system as it was a vital part of Soviet economic development. Population statistics on Cold War era National Geographic maps often reflect the size of the prison camp population, which typically was 90% of the figure shown in the map's population key.
- The former prisoners' housing often consisted of converted chicken coops or the basements of their former prison guard slave masters.
- Nanci Adler, "Life in the 'Big Zone': the Fate of Returnees in the Aftermath of Stalinist Repression," Europe-Asia Studies 1999 51(1): 5-19
- Laogai: The Machinery of Repression in China, 2009-10-01
- Tariff Act of 1930, 19 U.S. Code 19 § 1307.
- Cited in Prison Labor Exports from China and Implications for U.S. Policy, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report, July 9, 2014.