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The Gulag is the extensive network of prison camps used in the Soviet Union to imprison Joseph Stalin's political enemies, real or imagined.

The name derives from an acronym for the Chief Directorate of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies, Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey i kolonii, and became well known by its use in the title of the novel 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 the death rate was very high from exposure, cold, disease and very poor food, clothing and medical care. Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the gulags in their more than 60 years of operation. The population of the Gulag peaked in 1939 (at the climax of the Stalinist purges) at 1.65 million, and again in the early 1950s at 2.5 million. Around 1 million Gulag prisoners died of ill-treatment, disease or starvation between 1931 and 1953.


Under Nikita Khrushchev over 2 million Gulag prisoners were released in 1953-57. These victims of the Stalinist terror encountered physical, psychological, social, and political problems upon their return to Soviet 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. The process of rehabilitation was slowed by the victims' disorientation on return and their fear of further repression. A greater problem was the government's denial of its history rather than admitting to Stalinist-era mistakes. Even after Khrushchev's 1956 secret speech to the 20th Party Congress, the state was slow to acknowledge that many former 'enemies of the people' were in fact innocent victims.[1]

Further reading

See also


  1. 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