The Gulag is the extensive network of prison camps used in the Soviet Union to imprison people who opposed Marxism or failed to live up to Socialist principles.
The name derives from an acronym for the Chief Directorate of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies, Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey i kolonii (Russian: Главное управление лагерей и мест заключения), and became well known by its use in the title of the compilation of personal historical accounts by Alexander Solzhenitsyn 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.
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 "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 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.
- 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
- Joseph Stalin
- Essay: KAL 007 Survivors and Gulags of Russia
- 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