views updated May 23 2018




An acronym for the Soviet bureaucratic institution, Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitelnotrudovykh LAGerei (Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps), tasked with oversight of the Soviet forced-labor concentration camp and internal exile system, the term gulag has come to represent the entire Soviet penal system. Often understood incorrectly as a system only for political prisoners, the gulag served more generally, holding millions of people convicted of various political and nonpolitical crimes in a myriad of different types of prisons, concentration camps, and internal exile.


Gulag prisons primarily served as the place of detention for those under investigation. Prisons such as the Lubyanka, Butyrka, and Lefortovo along with countless lesser-known prisons in the regional cities of the Soviet Union were notorious as places of torturous interrogation and a rude introduction for the newly arrested to gulag life. Only a small portion of gulag inmates, usually those deemed too dangerous or too famous to be placed in regular forced-labor camps, actually served their sentences in prisons.

The gulag included a great variety of forced-labor concentration camps. This was the primary place of detention for nearly all who had been individually convicted of an alleged crime. Many prisoners lived in a camp zone surrounded by a fence or barbed wire, overlooked by manned watchtowers, and containing a number of overcrowded, poorly heated barracks. During nonworking hours, the prisoners were usually relatively free to move about the camp zone. Others lived in especially strict regime camps with locked barracks, barred windows, and heavily restricted and guarded movements within the camp zone. Not all forced-labor camp prisoners, however, lived in the typical camp zone. For many, a camp meant a relatively unguarded existence on the Kazakh steppe or in the frozen Siberian countryside. In whatever locale, life in a gulag camp was extremely harsh. Prisoners were poorly fed. Violence was endemic in the gulag. The largest Soviet concentration camps were located in the geographic extremes of the Soviet Union from the arctic north to the Siberian east to the Central Asian south, though camps existed in virtually every part of the Soviet Union. Some of the most famous gulag camp locales—Kolyma, Vorkuta, Norilsk, Solovki, and Karaganda—struck fear into prisoners much like the more famous place-names of the Nazi camp system.

The system of internal exile was used mostly for large groups of people condemned not for particular "crimes" but for membership in a suspect group sometimes defined by class—such as the so-called kulaks (rich peasants) deported during the early 1930s drive to collectivize agriculture—and sometimes including entire nationalities, such as the Soviet Germans, Chechens, and others deported en masse before and during the war. Exile typically required that a person live within a fixed region deep in Siberia or Central Asia. Exiles had a portion of their pay garnisheed in favor of the state and had to report periodically to the local secret police; leaving the region of exile without permission was treated as escape and subject to very stiff penalties. Otherwise, they lived remarkably similarly to other Soviet citizens.

The gulag was a mass, social institution. Before the opening of the archives in the late 1980s, historians speculated that the gulag's population was in the tens of millions. It is now known with a degree of accuracy that the total population of prisons, camps, and exile reached a maximum of some 5.2 million people in the early 1950s just before Joseph Stalin's death. With the exception of World War II, the gulag population grew almost without interruption throughout the Stalin era. Throughout its history, some 18 million people passed through the prisons and camps of the gulag, and perhaps another 6 or 7 million were subject to internal exile. An unknown number, well into the millions, died in gulag camps and in places of exile. At the same time, in one of the most important revelations of gulag archival studies, no less than 20 percent of the camp population was released every year from 1934 to 1953, with the number released in a given year never less than 150,000 and frequently topping 500,000. Though these gulag demographic figures are smaller than once thought, they still bespeak a massive institution that touched all parts of Soviet society.

Additionally, much more has been learned about the makeup of the prisoner population since the archives have opened. The near exclusive reliance on memoirs from political prisoners once gave the impression that they were the dominant gulag demographic. Political prisoners—a group not limited to real opponents of the Soviet regime but also including many caught up in the paranoid arms of the secret police—typically comprised no more than one-quarter of the gulag population. Many gulag prisoners were similar to detained criminals in any country. The gulag held the Soviet Union's robbers, rapists, murderers, and thieves. Nevertheless, the largest group was composed of the victims of arbitrary and draconian legal campaigns under which petty theft or unexcused absences from work were punished by many years in concentration camps. These "crimes" would likely have gone unpunished in most countries, but these prisoners made up the majority of the gulag population.


The gulag served several functions; it was simultaneously a detention system, a forced-labor system, and a penal system participating in a radically utopian drive to end criminality and build a "socialist" society. These various functions sometimes competed with and sometimes complemented one another.

First, the gulag was a system of detention focused on isolating those deemed unfit for and/or dangerous to Soviet society. Soviet leaders frequently spoke of the gulag system as a prophylactic measure aimed at protecting society from criminals, class enemies, and enemies of the people. Gulag officials were constantly focused on battling with prisoner escapes, as they sought to complete their detention function. Often, however, this role as detention system was undercut by another function of the gulag—its role as a system of forced labor. For example, prisoners at Karlag, an agricultural camp in central Kazakhstan, simply could not all be kept in a camp zone, because they were constantly moving with herds of grazing animals about the steppe lands. This made prevention of escape very difficult.

In the gulag, all able-bodied inmates were required to work, and this massive system was an active participant in the Soviet economy. Gulag inmates opened remote regions to mine gold, copper, and coal; to build cities, railroads, canals, and highways; to fell trees; and to operate vast agricultural enterprises. Many historians have understood the gulag primarily as a slave labor system with the Soviet economy built on the backs of prisoner labor. In this view, the gulag arose and expanded primarily as a result of Stalin's crash industrialization policies, which created a need for a labor force in the geographic extremes of the Soviet Union. Scholarship, however, has revealed the extreme inefficiency of gulag labor and the tremendous expense of operating the camp system. The gulag was quite simply a financial burden, not a financial boon for the Soviet state. Further, convinced that they were using essentially "free" labor, Soviet economic planners utilized gulag laborers on a variety of projects that ultimately proved to have little or no economic value. Many of these projects were closed down immediately after the death of Stalin, as even gulag administrators had come to realize their pointlessness.

While the gulag's employees strove constantly to make their system more economically productive, new evidence suggests that economic motivation was not the primary explanation for the growth of the gulag. Arrests occurred chaotically and inefficiently, not at the urging of camp administrators, but as a result of various politicized legal campaigns. Camp administrators did not clamor for more prisoners, but were typically caught unaware and unprepared for massive influxes of prisoners, and they struggled to find shelter, food, and even work for new prisoners. Furthermore, arrests were not limited to the healthy working population, but included women, children, the ill, and the elderly.

Gulag prisoners were never treated in an undifferentiated fashion, and this in part served the gulag's third major function. It was an active participant in the utopian drive to build a new "socialist" society and a new "Soviet man." The most salient feature of the gulag was an apparent paradox: forced labor, high death rates, and an oppressive atmosphere of violence, cold, and constant hunger coexisted with camp newspapers and cultural activities, a constant propaganda barrage of correction and reeducation, and the steady release of a significant portion of the prisoner population. The gulag was more complex than a simple system of industrialized death such as the Nazi camp system. If more than 150,000 gulag prisoners were released every year, the question of how Soviet authorities determined who would be released and how they prepared them for reentry into Soviet society simply must be addressed. At the same time, each year thousands and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of gulag prisoners died. Their fate must also be considered in order to understand the function of the camp system.

The gulag upon closer reflection comes to appear as a "last chance" for prisoners to remake themselves into fit Soviet citizens. The Bolsheviks were engaged in a radical project to build a utopian socialist society. In accord with their Manichaean worldview, they fully expected opposition to building that perfect society. Many whom they understood as their most implacable enemies, they merely executed, but many others were kept alive (at least temporarily) in the gulag. The Bolsheviks could not escape their fundamental belief in the malleability of the human soul, and they believed that labor was the key to "reforging" criminals. The very harshness of the gulag was seen as necessary to break down a criminal's resistance in order to rebuild that person into a proper Soviet citizen. If a prisoner refused correction, the brutality of the gulag would lead to inevitable death. The Bolsheviks were no humanitarians. If mistakes were to be made, it was better to kill too many than too few.

Many gulag practices were designed based on a categorization matrix that placed prisoners into a hierarchy according to their perceived "redeemability" and level of reeducation. Complex hierarchies of living and working conditions, differentiation of food rations, and practices of early release tied survival directly to reeducation. The gulag served as a crossroads, constantly redefining the line between those who could be reclaimed for Soviet society and those who were destined to die in the camps.


The gulag was thoroughly integrated into the fabric of the Soviet Union. Major historical events and turning points greatly affected the lives and fates of gulag inmates and exiles. In many respects, the gulag was born with 1917's October Revolution itself. As early as 1918, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and other Bolshevik leaders spoke of putting class enemies in "concentration camps." Yet the origins of the gulag must be sought not only in these first Soviet concentration camps founded as part of the Leninist regime's extraordinarily violent reaction to its enemies after October. The gulag's origins are also found in the more utopian ideals that viewed inmate labor as the key to teaching the prisoner that under socialism work would no longer be a hateful, exploitive activity. Thus, corrective labor long preceded the arrival of crash industrialization and was filled with ideological and political content.

The explosion of the gulag population coincided with Stalin's great "revolution from above." This was not, however, a product merely of the economic demands of industrialization and collectivization. It was part of the all-encompassing social and cultural transformations accompanying the "building of socialism." Soviet authorities attempted with great haste to cleanse their newly emerging society of the criminals, class enemies, and political opponents who seemed to contaminate the new world.

The 1920s and the early 1930s represented the acme of Soviet belief in the capacity to rehabilitate prisoners by means of corrective labor. Corrective labor camps not only were openly discussed but were also in fact a source of pride. In the early 1930s, paeans to the building of the White Sea–Baltic Canal proudly announced the use of convict labor in their construction in the volume Belomor, which was published not only in the Soviet Union but also in the United States in an English translation. The Bolsheviks claimed to be transforming humans as proudly as they were transforming nature.

As the 1930s progressed, optimism and openness about penal practices gave way to skepticism and secrecy. Prisoner transports were hidden as "special equipment." Prisoner correspondence was severely restricted. Released prisoners signed secrecy agreements forbidding them to talk about the camps. Nobody could enter regions such as Kolyma without special entrance permits. With the adoption of the Stalin Constitution in 1936, the Soviet Union was officially declared a socialist state of workers and peasants. The class enemy had officially been destroyed; socialism had been achieved. The continued existence of criminality was an embarrassment for a polity that explained such problems in terms of the social milieu. Capitalism could no longer offer a legitimate excuse for crime, and the Soviet penal system became notably less compromising toward enemies and lawbreakers. In 1937 and 1938 the "Great Terror" saw a massive number of executions in and outside of the gulag, as many of those who failed to prove their rehabilitation during the transition period were annihilated. Nonetheless, the drive to reeducate prisoners never disappeared in internal gulag discussions. Not all prisoners were killed, and releases continued.

Socialism achieved did not end the gulag, but it did shift its understanding of its own population. With the class enemy defeated, the categorization of Soviet enemies increasingly turned from the terms of class toward the terms of nation. The class enemy became the enemy of the people. Although the focus on class never entirely disappeared, the path was cleared for a major wave of ethno-national group deportations that would continue right through the war. The 1937 exile of the Far Eastern Soviet Koreans, though not the first ethnic deportation, did offer the first instance in which an entire undifferentiated national group was deported from a particular territory. The deportation of the Soviet Koreans provided an example for the coming wartime exile of entire nationalities, when among others every last Soviet German, Chechen, Ingush, and Crimean Tatar was subject to internal exile regardless of their geographical location, class position, military service, or even Communist Party membership.

The 1939 and 1940 annexations of western Ukraine, western Byelorussia, and the Baltic changed the face of the gulag. These "westerners" had never been exposed to socialism in power and carried with them the living memory of different systems of government and different penal institutions. Many Poles arrested after 1939 but released after the June 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union would be the first major informants to the West about the gulag system.

The years 1941 and 1942 saw the largest prisoner releases at any time in the Stalin era, when some one million inmates sentenced for relatively minor crimes were released into the Red Army. Many went on to earn orders and medals for their deeds during the war. Not all inmates, however, could join the Red Army, as political prisoners were left behind in the camps. Further, a very small subsection of political prisoners, the so-called especially dangerous state criminals, were subjected to a new type of severe isolation in the harshest climatic conditions performing the most dangerous labor in so-called katorga (a tsarist-era term for forced labor) camp subdivisions.

Two new postwar prisoner contingents reshaped gulag society. First, the arrest of many thousands of Red Army veterans introduced a new and often prestigious element into camp society. Their firsthand experience with the standards of life outside Soviet borders combined with an assertiveness and sense of entitlement earned on the battlefield tended to render these postwar inmates less docile than their prewar predecessors. The second postwar contingent was even more assertive and combative. These prisoners from among the nationalist organizations and partisan armies of the western territories and the Baltic states brought to the gulag a strong sense of national identity, well-developed and explicitly anti-Soviet ideologies, and combat experience fighting Soviet power. Both Red Army veterans and the nationalist guerrillas played substantial leadership roles during the mass gulag strikes of the 1950s.

The late 1940s was the apogee of the gulag system, when the system became rigidified and the prisoner population reached historic maximums. In 1948 new "special camps" were created to hold a much-expanded group of so-called especially dangerous state criminals. For the first time, many political prisoners were largely isolated from the gulag's regular criminal population. Their isolation led to a new political consciousness that would be a strong contributing factor to the post-Stalin strikes. The postwar era also saw the application of permanent, lifelong exile to all those nationalities deported during the war and the permanent deportation of all those prisoners released from special camps.

Only Stalin's death in 1953 made the gulag's decline thinkable. Within three weeks of Stalin's death, the first major amnesty was declared, starting the gulag's population decline. The partial nature of the amnesty, especially its near total exclusion of political prisoners, touched off a wave of prisoner uprisings of a size and scope unprecedented in gulag history. Soon after the strikes, the gulag as the massive phenomenon containing millions of prisoners came to an end. Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 "secret speech" denouncing Stalin set in motion the final act of largely emptying the labor camps and the system of exile.

Forced-labor camps would continue to exist in the Soviet Union right up until the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, but they became much smaller and ever more focused on recidivists and serious criminals. Soviet dissidents made up an important but exceedingly small portion of the post-Stalin camp population. The last camp for political prisoners—located outside Perm, Russia—was closed in 1988 and was later turned into the Gulag Museum.

See alsoConcentration Camps; Forced Labor; Soviet Union.


Primary Sources

Gorky, Maxim, L. Auerbach, and S. G. Firin, eds. Belomor: An Account of the Construction of the New Canal between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea. Translated by Amabel Williams-Ellis. New York, 1935. Reprint, Westport, Conn., 1977. The original ideologically correct presentation of Soviet corrective labor.

Khlevniuk, Oleg V. The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror. Translated by Vadim A. Staklo with editorial assistance and commentary by David J. Nordlander. New Haven, Conn., 2004. A new English-language edition of documents from official Soviet archives.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. 3 vols. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. New York, 1991–1992. A combination primary source and secondary source. Still the best single study of the gulag.

Secondary Sources

Adler, Nanci. The Gulag Survivor: Beyond the Soviet System. New Brunswick, N.J., 2002.

Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York, 2003. A recent—Pulitzer Prize–winning—popular history of the gulag.

Bacon, Edwin. The Gulag at War: Stalin's Forced Labour System in the Light of the Archives. Basingstoke, U.K., 1994. The first limited book-length English-language study to use select official archival sources.

Barnes, Steven A. "Soviet Society Confined: The Gulag in the Karaganda Region of Kazakhstan, 1930s–1950s." Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 2003.

Courtois, Stéphane, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panne, et al. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Translated by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer. Cambridge, Mass., 1999.

Dallin, David J., and Boris I. Nicolaevsky. Forced Labor in Soviet Russia. New Haven, Conn., 1947. Reprint, New York, 1974. The first scholarly study of the gulag.

Getty, J. Arch, Gábor T. Rittersporn, and Viktor N. Zemskov. "Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence." American Historical Review 98, no. 4 (1993): 1017–1049. The new demographic information on the gulag that is only now changing conceptions of the institution.

Gregory, Paul R., and Valery Lazarev, eds. The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag. Stanford, Calif., 2003. Groundbreaking study of gulag economy.

Ivanova, Galina Mikhailovna. Labor Camp Socialism: The Gulag in the Soviet Totalitarian System. Translated by Carol Flath. Edited by Donald J. Raleigh. Armonk, N.Y., 2000.

Jakobson, Michael. Origins of the Gulag: The Soviet Prison Camp System, 1917–1934. Lexington, Ky., 1993.

Steven A. Barnes


views updated May 17 2018


Gulag is the generic term given to the system of forced labor camps that existed in the Soviet Union from the 1920s until the mid-1950s. These camps incarcerated millions of people and became an integral part of the Soviet economy's industrialization drive during the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. The Gulag formed a central element in the Stalinist system of terror.

The word Gulag is an acronym from the Russian phrase Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei (Main Administration of Camps). This was the name of the administrative structure established in 1931 to oversee the camp network of the Soviet secret police. The precise subordination and nomenclature of the camps' administrative authority changed a number of times throughout its existence. Technically, therefore, the term Gulag was only the official name of the Soviet Union's forced labor network for three years, until the first of these name changes occurred in 1934. Nonetheless, the acronym continued to be used as a generic term within the Soviet administration and beyond, eventually becoming widely known in the West through the title of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's celebrated three-volume work on the camp system, Gulag Archipelago.

Although the term forced labor was used in the Soviet Union, the more common official designation for the activity of the Gulag was "corrective labor." Understanding the nature of the Gulag requires an awareness of its distinct context. The Soviet Union was an ideologically based state, constructed in accordance with its interpretation of the central tenets of Marxism-Leninism. In terms of ideological justification, the Gulag camps were deemed superior to capitalist prison systems, with the ideological emphasis being on reeducating "criminals" through labor to become good citizens of the workers' state. In reality, labor far outweighed reeducation in the prisoners' experience.

The Gulag differed from straightforward conscripted slavery in that its victims were convicted of an offense and given a specific sentence. People did leave the Gulag at the end of their sentences, although many were re-sentenced on the completion of their initial term, and millions died before their release date was reached, either due to the harsh conditions of Gulag life or through execution. The Gulag camps were distinctly different also from Nazi concentration camps, in that they were not primarily places of extermination. Their primary purposes were economic and political rather than genocidal.


Almost immediately after the Russian revolution in October 1917, Lenin's communist regime began to imprison political opponents and, particularly once the civil war of 1918–1920 was under way, to execute individuals who were deemed to be "class enemies." Such repression of opponents was the norm throughout the 1920s as the communists tightened their grip on Soviet society and, following Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin gradually outmaneuvered his rivals for power and became the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union. To some extent the repressions of the post-revolutionary years can be seen as the forerunner of the Gulag system. They established the principle that Soviet law was subordinate to Soviet ideology. They also began on a small scale to use prisoners for economic purposes. Nonetheless, it was not until the industrialization drive from 1929 onward that the phenomenon of the Gulag came into being.

The forced labor camp identified within official Soviet documents as the forerunner of the Gulag was on the Solovetsky Islands, situated in the White Sea in the far northwest of Russia. The Soviet secret police took over a monastery on these islands and turned it into a brutal prison camp for political prisoners. By the mid-1920s the prisoners at the Solovetsky camp began to be used as conscripted labor. Although forced labor had existed in Soviet Russia since its earliest days, and had been a feature of Tsarist Russia before that, the difference at Solovetsky from around 1925 onward was that the economic purpose of labor gradually shifted from providing for the camp's needs, to contributing to the wider national economy. Prisoners of the Solovetsky camp began working in the forestry industry in Karelia. A Politburo decision of June 1929, titled "On the Use of the Labor of Convicted Criminals," paved the way for growth. By the turn of the decade, the example of the Solovetsky camp had been followed elsewhere in northern Russia, in Siberia, and in the Far East, with tens of thousands of prisoners being set to work in forestry, road construction, the chemical industry, and paper production.

Development of the Gulag

The rapid rate of the Gulag's development from 1929 onward was driven by the Soviet Union's push to industrialize. By the end of the 1920s, Stalin's position of power was unchallenged, and he used his authority to decree measures designed to create a strong industrial base in a country hitherto overwhelmingly rural. According to Stalin, the Soviet Union had ten years in which to either catch up with the industrialized capitalist world or, as he put it, be crushed. The creation of a network of forced labor camps fitted into this picture in a number of ways.

Alongside the industrialization policy, the Communist Party sought the collectivization of agriculture. In line with the state's ideological stance, peasants were forced into collective farms. At the same time, kulaks (so-called rich peasants) were labeled class enemies and removed from their land. From 1931 onward, millions of such kulaks became available to the secret police to work in forced labor.

A key element of industrialization was the opening-up of vast areas of the country, whose natural resources had hitherto remained unexploited. These regions were often remote, uninhabited, undeveloped, climatically inhospitable, and lacking in infrastructure. Forced laborers seemed like the ideal solution: They had no choice about where they would work; they were not paid wages; they formed a mobile workforce; and the conditions in which they lived and worked were considered relatively unimportant.

Stalin saw forced labor as a means of building a number of prestigious projects, such as the White Sea Canal or the Moscow underground. In the case of the former, he deemed it a positive propaganda move to publicize the way in which the Soviet state allegedly rehabilitated its criminals through allowing them to contribute to the well-being of the workers' state. In later years, such propaganda was replaced by secrecy and silence, as the extent of the Gulag increased.

Backed by this correlation of forces, the Gulag system grew rapidly throughout the 1930s. Furthermore, the existence of a cohort of forced laborers was written into the Soviet Union's economic plans. Given that failure to meet the targets of the plan would often result in severe punishment for those deemed responsible, a continuing supply of forced laborers was required.

Number of Victims

The number of victims of the Gulag was for many years the subject of, at times, acrimonious historical debate. During the Cold War years, estimates by Western scholars appeared to some extent politicized, with those on the anti-Soviet right coming up with estimates significantly higher than those on the less anti-Soviet left. The difficulty was, of course, that no data were available from the Soviet Union, and so a diverse range of methods for estimating the number of forced laborers at different periods was employed. To generalize, the higher figures came from those using estimates based on the personal experiences of, for example, former prisoners or former employees of the Soviet state. The lower figures came from methodologies that sought to use official Soviet economic and demographic data in order to calculate the proportion of the population in the forced labor system. Serious estimates for the number of Gulag prisoners in the year 1941 ranged from just over three million to fifteen million.

At the end of the Soviet era (from 1989 onward) Russian, and later Western, scholars began to gain access to the archives of the Soviet secret police, where detailed records of the population of the forced labor camps were kept. It is unlikely that these figures were falsified to any great extent, as were the figures used by the authorities for setting targets in the Five Year Plans for the Soviet economy.

Interpretation of these statistics from the Soviet archives was complicated by the fact that a number of different forms of forced labor existed in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era. Under the control of the Soviet secret police there were the "normal" forced labor camps to which the word Gulag usually refers. In addition there were what the Soviet authorities termed "forced labor colonies." The principal difference between colonies and camps was that inmates in the former were serving sentences of less than three years. Otherwise the experience of prisoners in camps and colonies was little different. As well as camps and colonies, millions of Soviet citizens were placed in "labor settlements" where they were forced to work on state-designated tasks. Although the regimen in such settlements was usually less stringent than that in the camps and colonies, some of them were fenced off, and all were overseen by the Soviet authorities. Labor settlements had a higher proportion of women and children in them than did the camps and colonies.

Camps, colonies, and settlements were the main categories which could be deemed forced labor in Stalin's Soviet Union. Besides these, however, there were prisons and, during and after World War II, "verification and filtration camps" for returning Soviet prisoners of war.

From the archival data available it is now possible to fairly firmly establish the population of the Gulag's forced labor camps and colonies from 1930 to 1953. These data show that the quarter-million mark was reached in 1932, there were over half a million prisoners in 1934, and over a million by 1936. The two-million figure was surpassed briefly in 1941, before the demands and hardships of war saw the camps and colonies population decline to below one and a half million. In the postwar years, it rapidly rose again and reached its all-time peak of over two and a half million between 1950 and 1953. To these figures can be added well over a million people in "labor settlements" in the prewar years, and a further two and a half million in such settlements from 1950 to 1953.

The remaining key question is, how many individual prisoners suffered in the Gulag during the Stalin era? This figure is less easy to determine, not only because the annual totals from which the figures above are taken fail to account for prisoner movement within each year, but also because those totals include some of the same prisoners from one year to the next. To avoid such double-counting, it would be necessary to know the number of new prisoners entering the Gulag each year, and complete data are not available. The most credible estimate, based on the archival, is that approximately eighteen million people were at some point imprisoned in a Gulag labor camp or colony between 1934 and 1952. This figure, however, does not count the millions in forced labor settlements or the other forms of incarceration noted above.

Economic Role

As well as disputes over the number of prisoners, academics have also disagreed on whether the primary motivation behind the creation and continuation of the Gulag was economic or political. This is to some extent a misleading question, as the economic and the political overlapped. A role for forced labor in opening up previously unexploited areas and participating in public projects was deemed useful by the Soviet state, at the same time as political pressures—such as rising official paranoia that the Soviet project was being undermined by the 'enemy within'—meant that the isolation of millions of perceived "enemies of the people" could be seen to both protect the state and serve as an example to others.

Nonetheless, it is a fact that in Five Year Plans, the Soviet Ministry of the Interior was given production targets that relied on the continuation and expansion of the forced labor network. Given the potential penalties for failing to meet these targets, and given the relatively high death rates in the Gulag, it is clear that there were plan targets to be met that were based on a growing number of prisoners, and, therefore, those prisoners would have to be found. There was clearly, then, an economic motivation for finding sufficient "enemies of the people" to keep Gulag production in line with targets.

Prisoners in the Gulag worked in a variety of industries, and they were in demand across the economy, particularly during the labor shortages of the war years. In the early 1940s the Ministry of the Interior set up a number of forced labor administrations, organized by industry. These included administrations for industrial construction, mining, and the metallurgical industry, railway construction, the timber industry, and road construction.

Leaving aside for now all discussion of morality, arguments in favor of the economic benefits of forced labor in the Soviet Union during the Stalin years are simplistic. They portray the Gulag population as a mobile, cheap workforce easily replenished and able to develop inhospitable areas that were rich in natural resources. In fact, the economic benefits of using forced labor over free labor are difficult to identify. The Gulag certainly was not cheap to maintain, requiring an entire infrastructure of its own. The conflict between seeing the population of the Gulag on the one hand as prisoners to be punished and on the other hand as a valuable workforce was never reconciled, leading to unmotivated workers, weakened by poor living conditions and diet, and susceptible to a high death-rate.

In addition, it could be argued that the availability of such an easily identifiable workforce with no rights of its own led the authorities, and indeed Stalin personally, to indulge in projects with little intrinsic economic use. The much-publicized but economically useless White Sea Canal is but the best-known example of such a project, and many other long-disused railways and roads, not to mention now dead or dying industrial settlements, also testify to this tendency.

Life in the Gulag

The Gulag lasted in its mass form for more than two decades, and it was spread over the biggest state in the world. It is difficult therefore to generalize about living conditions, because they differed from camp to camp and year to year. Nonetheless, elements of the Gulag experience repeat themselves in the memoirs of its survivors.

Prisoners in the Gulag were dehumanized within the system. On arrest, or upon arrival at the camp, they were stripped of their clothes and made to wear standard prison garb. Their heads were shaved and they were given prisoner numbers. Contact with the outside world was denied to them, and their free relatives were denied information about the prisoners. A spouse or child would often not hear of a loved one again, and be left to wonder whether he had lived or died.

Rations in the camps were poor and were distributed according to the work performed by each inmate. Four categories of prisoner existed, based on fitness for work: the fitter the prisoner, the higher the rations. Workers were often organized into teams, so that collective responsibility for the ration given discouraged the inefficient worker.

Among the Gulag's prisoner population there was a division between "criminals" and "politicals." The distinction is not easy to make statistically, given that the harsh labor laws introduced during the industrialization drive made such things as lateness for work a criminal offense. Nonetheless, memoir materials, which were nearly always written by the politicals, tell of the brutality visited upon them by the criminals as well as by the guards.

Women usually made up under 10 percent of the Gulag population, though this rose to about 25 percent during World War II.

Terror and the Gulag

During the late 1930s, the Soviet Union suffered what has become known as the Great Terror, during which a significant proportion of the Soviet elite (Communist Party officials, military officers, industrial managers, and even the secret police) were purged by the regime. Some of these found themselves in the Gulag; many were summarily executed. Although the Gulag was a tool of the Stalinist terror, the two phenomena were not identical. At the lowest estimates, more than 750,000 victims of the Terror were executed without ever becoming part of the Gulag, although some estimates put this figure much higher. What is not in doubt is that, if the number of victims of the Stalinist repression who died in the Gulag is included, then somewhere between 3.5 and 7 million victims were killed by the Soviet regime. Such figures do not include the victims of the famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, nor the millions who died in World War II.

Periods in Gulag History

It is apparent that clear periods in the Gulag's history can be identified, such as the origins of the Gulag, the industrialization drive, and the Great Terror. Following on from these, other periods had particular features. From 1939 until the middle of 1941, the population of the camps grew rapidly. The Soviet Union's pact with Nazi Germany had given it control over new territories in East Europe, particularly in Poland, and the Soviet authorities there were only too ready to identify new class enemies to send eastward into the Gulag.

The outbreak of war in June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, saw a rapid decrease in the number of prisoners, as most able-bodied men were called up for the front. During the war, conditions in the Gulag worsened to the point that death rates of 25 percent were occurring by 1942. The percentage of women in the camps increased, and the efforts of the workers, as of the country as a whole, were concentrated on the needs of war, particularly weapons production. What is perhaps remarkable is that the population of the Gulag stayed as high as it did during the war years, a period in which more Soviet citizens were incarcerated by their own state than were imprisoned by the enemy.

When the war ended, the Gulag population again rose rapidly, reaching its all-time peak in the early 1950s. Many returning Soviet prisoners of war were incarcerated in the camps, their capture by the Germans being taken as unwarranted surrender.

In the early 1950s the atmosphere in some of the camps began to change, and sporadic camp uprisings occurred. This small-scale shift gained momentum with the death of Stalin in March 1953. Within a few months of Stalin's death an amnesty was announced, though it was mainly the criminals, as opposed to the politicals, who benefited from this. Nonetheless, the will to change was apparent by now in the highest echelons of the Communist Party, and over the next few years the Gulag as an instrument of mass incarceration and forced labor was gradually wound down. Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" in 1956, in which he went some way toward acknowledging the horrors of the Stalin years, gave the camp closures their final impetus.

Portraying the Gulag

The best-known chronicler of the Gulag's horrors is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a former Gulag prisoner. In 1962 his short novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, appeared in a leading Soviet literary journal. Of course, all journals in the Soviet Union were controlled by the state. Nonetheless, 1962 was the height of the relative cultural thaw of the Khrushchev era, and so Ivan Denisovich was published. It caused a sensation, being the first work to deal directly and realistically with the taboo subject of life in the camps. By the time Solzhenitsyn's three-volume account of the horrors of the Gulag, Gulag Archipelago, was sent to the West and published in 1973, the hard line of the Brezhnev regime meant that Solzhenitsyn himself was about to be exiled from the Soviet Union. It was not until 1989 that his work once more became openly available in Russia.

SEE ALSO Ukraine (Famine); Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


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

Bacon, Edwin (1995). The Gulag at War: Stalin's Forced Labour System in the Light of the Archives. New York: NYU Press.

Gregory, Paul, and Valery Lazarev, eds. (2003). The Economics of Forced Labor: the Soviet Gulag. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institute Press.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1971). A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1973). The Gulag Archipelago. New York: Harper & Row.

Edwin Bacon


views updated May 23 2018


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


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


views updated Jun 27 2018

Gulag a system of labour camps maintained in the Soviet Union from 1930 to 1955 in which many people died. Besides ordinary criminals, inmates included dissident intellectuals, political opponents, and members of ethnic minorities; the word became widely known in the west in the 1960s and 1970s with the translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's works, notably The Gulag Archipelago.

The word is Russian, from G(lavnoe) u(pravlenie ispravitel′no-trudovykh) lag(ereĭ) ‘Chief Administration for Corrective Labour Camps’.


views updated May 29 2018

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.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Gulag ★★½ 1985

An American sportscaster is wrongly sentenced to ten years of hard labor in a Soviet prison, and plans his escape from the cruel guards. Good suspense. 130m/C VHS . GB David Keith, Malcolm McDowell, David Suchet, Warren Clarke, John McEnery; D: Roger Young; M: Elmer Bernstein. TV


views updated May 11 2018

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