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Gulag

GULAG

Stalinist labor camps.

The prison camp system of the Stalin era, whose acronym in Russian (GULaghereafter Gulag) stood for Glavnoye upravlenie lagerei, or Main Camp Administration, grew into an enormous network of camps lasting into the mid-1950s. Other penal institutions, including prisons, labor colonies, and special settlements, supplemented the labor camps to form a vast number of sites available to the Soviet government for the incarceration and exile of its enemies. While much larger than both its tsarist and Soviet antecedents in size and scope, Stalin's prison empire evolved along lines clearly established over centuries of Russian rule. But the gulag far outpaced all predecessor systems and became an infamous symbol of state repression in the twentieth century.

Although unprecedented in reach, the labyrinth of Stalinist camps had its roots in both the tsarist and early Soviet periods. The secret police under the tsars, ranging from the oprichniki at the time of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century to the Third Section and Okhranka of later years, established the broad historical outlines for Stalinist institutions. Imprisonment, involuntary servitude, and exile to Siberia formed a long and well-known experience meted out by these prerevolutionary organs of state security. Soon after the October Revolution, however, the new government under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin also issued key resolutions on incarceration, forced labor, and internal exile that explicitly set the stage for the gulag. The Temporary Instructions on Deprivation of Freedom (July 1918) and the Decree on Red Terror (September 1918) took aim at class enemies of the new regime to be sent to prison for various offenses. Other Bolshevik decrees from as early as January 1918 stipulated arrest and hard labor for political opponents of the new state as well as workers who had violated the labor code. The initial Soviet secret police agency, the Cheka (acronym for the Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counterrevolution and Sabotage), controlled many but not all of the camps, which would in time be reintegrated with other prison structures and grow to an immense scale.

Other than proportion, one of the critical differences between this embryonic camp system under Lenin and its successor under Stalin concerned the problem of jurisdiction. In Lenin's time, the Soviet government lacked a centralized administration for its prison organizations. The Cheka, People's Commissariat of the Interior, and People's Commissariat of Justice all oversaw various offshoots of the penal camp complex. In 1922 and 1923, the GPU (State Political Administration) and then the OGPU (Unified State Political Administration) replaced the Cheka as the main secret police organization and assumed command over many of the labor camps. The first and largest cluster of prison camps under its authority, the primary ones of which existed on the Solovetski Islands in the White Sea to the north of Petrograd (renamed Leningrad in 1924), became known at this time as SLON (Northern Camps of Special Designation). While Lenin left no blueprint for a future camp leviathan under Stalin, the infamous archipelago of Gulag sites that lasted until the time of Nikita Khrushchev clearly grew out of these early variants. In 1930, the gulag was officially established just as the parameters of the labor camp network began to expand greatly after Stalin's consolidation of power.

The tremendous growth in inmate numbers throughout the 1930s proved a defining feature of Stalinism, and certainly one that sets it apart from previous eras. Whereas prisoner counts of the Stalin era would rise into the millions, neither the tsars nor Soviet leaders before 1929 incarcerated

more than a few hundred thousand inmates. The collectivization of agriculture and the dekulakization campaign in the early 1930s began new trends in the Soviet Union, ushering in much higher rates of imprisonment. The Great Purges later in the decade again increased these statistics, particularly in the number of political prisoners sentenced to the Gulag. Other events, such as signing of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in August 1939, led to further waves of inmates, including Polish and Baltic citizens who joined their Soviet counterparts in remote camp zones across the USSR. By the 1940s, the Stalinist labor camps contained a multinational assortment of prisoners.

The troika, or three-person extrajudicial panel that could both try and sentence the accused even in absentia, became infamous in the late 1930s as a common mechanism for dispatching enemies of the state to widespread gulag regions. Comprising fourteen sections, Article 58 of the well-worn Soviet Criminal Code found extensive and arbitrary application throughout the Stalin era as the labor camps began to stretch to all corners of the nation. The organs of state security became preoccupied with the shipment of prisoners to penal sites across the country. One of the most legendary in the early 1930s involved construction of the BalticWhite Sea Canal. Other inmates labored under similarly hostile conditions on the Solovetski Islands, or at gulag sites in and around Vorkuta, Magadan, Pechora, and Karaganda.

Throughout its history, the gulag served both a punitive and economic function. From its very origins, Soviet prisons and camps had been repositories for enemies of the regime. Useful both for isolating and punishing real and imagined opponents, the labor camps in particular became a tool of repressive state policy. But while inefficient and substandard in many respects, the gulag fulfilled a vital economic role as well. Russia had long wrestled with the question of adequate labor in remote parts of the empire, which only compounded the intractable problems of a cash-poor economy nationwide. Although the roots of serfdom can in part be found in such conditions, Peter the Great in later years addressed numerous shortcomings with everincreasing levels of coercion that expanded the realm of forced labor to include large prisoner contingents and peasants ascribed to factories. Political exile and hard labor became synonymous with Siberia in particular, and provided a blueprint for the Stalin era.

Although going far beyond Petrine goals, Stalin employed similar methods in the twentieth century. Inmates offered a bottomless pool of workers to be sent to areas historically poor in labor supply. The most famous and important gulag zones, focused upon the procurement of lumber and minerals, were located in remote northern and eastern regions of the USSR far from population centers. Leaving aside the question of productivity and efficiency, both of which registered at exceedingly low levels in the camps, the Soviet state sought a fulfillment of industrialization targets in such areas through the widespread application of prison contingents. But the labor camps soon grew beyond this scope, and began to fill economic functions within a larger national framework. Some gulag sites in time even appeared in and around major cities and industries. The Soviet government expanded the use of inmates in numerous largescale construction projects, particularly involving railroad, canal, and highway plans. Eventually, the secret police concentrated inmate scientists in special prison laboratories known as sharashkas, where vital technical research proceeded under the punitive eye of the state.

While circumstances proved much better in such special design bureaus, most inmates throughout the gulag system both lived and worked under grueling conditions. Aside from enervating physical labor in extreme winter climates, prisoners suffered as well from poor living arrangements and minimal food rations. Hard labor in the mines and forests of Siberia was backbreaking and required a stamina that few inmates could maintain over long periods. Turning Marxism on its head, inmates also received caloric norms based upon a sliding scale of labor output that penalized low production levels even from the least healthy. Moreover, prisoners were subject to the whims of an unpredictable camp hierarchy that meted out harsh punishments for offenses, however minor. The threat of the isolator or lengthier terms of incarceration hung over every inmate and made the camp population dread the seemingly wanton authority of the camp bosses.

As a rule, conditions within the camps worsened over time up through the end of the 1930s and early 1940s. The brunt of this fell on the politicals, who as a result of the Great Purges had begun to arrive in the gulag in significant numbers by this time. Constituting the most dangerous element in the view of the Soviet government, political prisoners occupied the lowest rung in the camps. Moreover, prison bosses favored actual criminals convicted for far lesser economic crimes, and placed them in positions of authority within the informal camp structure. The result was an inverted universe in which normal societal mores were suspended and the rules of the criminal world came to the fore. For many inmates, such moral corrosion proved even more onerous than the physical hardships of camp life.

The gulag incarcerated several million inmates over the length of its existence. Archival records reveal that the numbers were not as high as those posited by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others in previous years, although exact counts remain elusive for several reasons. In terms of the gulag proper, the highest camp figures for any one time were to be found in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Even then, there were not much more than two million prisoners on average within the camps at any given moment. Additional totals from internal exile, special settlement, and labor colonies augmented this number. But statistics convey only a narrow viewpoint on the reality of the gulag, which proved to be one of the most repressive mechanisms in the history of the Soviet Union.

See also: beria, lavrenti pavlovich; prisons; purges, the great; state security, organs of; yezhov, nikolai ivanovich

bibliography

Applebaum, Anne. (2003). Gulag: A History. New York: Broadway Books.

Ginzburg, Evgeniia. (1967). Journey into the Whirlwind, tr. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Ivanovna, Galina Mikhailovna. (2000). Labor Camp Socialism: The Gulag in the Soviet Totalitarian System, ed. Donald J. Raleigh, tr. Carol Flath. Armonk, NY:M. E. Sharpe.

Khlevniuk, Oleg. (2003). History of the Gulag. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. (19741978). The Gulag Archipelago, 19181956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 3 vols. tr. Thomas P. Whitney and H. Willetts. New York: Harper and Row.

David J. Nordlander

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Gulag

Gulag, system of forced-labor prison camps in the USSR, from the Russian acronym [GULag] for the Main Directorate of Corrective Labor Camps, a department of the Soviet secret police (originally the Cheka; subsequently the GPU, OGPU, NKVD, MVD, and finally the KGB). The Gulag was first established under Vladimir Lenin during the early Bolshevik years (c.1920). The vast penal network, which ultimately included 476 camp complexes, functioned throughout Russia, many in the wastes of Siberia and the Soviet Far East. The system reached its peak after 1928 under Joseph Stalin, who used it to maintain the Soviet state by keeping its populace in a state of terror. Gulag deaths of both political prisoners and common criminals from overwork, starvation, and other forms of maltreatment are estimated to have been in the millions during Stalin's years in power.

Perhaps the best known of the Gulag camp complexes was Kolyma, an area in the Far East about six times the size of France that contained more than 100 camps. About three million are thought to have died there from its establishment in 1931 to 1953, the year of Stalin's death. The Gulag scheme was adapted into the infamous concentration camp system used during World War II, especially as Nazi death factories. The Soviet system was publicized in the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, particularly in his book The Gulag Archipelago (1973, tr. 1974). Millions were released from the Gulag under Nikita Khrushchev, and the system was finally abolished by Mikhail Gorbachev.

See A. Shifrin, The First Guidebook to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union (tr. 1980), A. Applebaum, Gulag: A History (2003) and Gulag Voices (2011) ; N. Adler, The Gulag Survivor (2004); F. V. Mochulsky, Gulag Boss (tr. 2010); A. Solzhenitsyn, ed., Voices from the Gulag (tr. 2010).

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gulag

gulag Network of detention centres and forced-labour prisons within the former Soviet Union. The term is an acronym in Russian for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps. Established in 1918, gulags were secret concentration camps used to silence political and religious dissenters.

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gulag

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Gulag

Gulag (ˈguːlæg) Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerei (Soviet prison and labour camp system)

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