Written by Laura Davies
The Gulag was not one single prison. It was a network of camps that stretched across the Soviet Union. Some were heavily guarded with barbed wire and machine guns, others relied on nothing more than miles of bitter wilderness to prevent escape. All of them subjected their captives to malnutrition, back-breaking forced labour, assaults, and torture.
They weren’t technically concentration camps, as the point wasn’t just to kill those imprisoned. Each prisoner received a sentence and, if they could survive, would eventually be released. Unfortunately, the conditions of the Gulags made sure this was easier said than done, and around 1.6 million died in some of the cruelest ways imaginable.
Those lucky enough to make it to release were often the sole surviving members of their family and faced a life of restrictions. They were blocked from settling in large cities, forced to declare their prison terms to employers, and often carried the weight of labour-inflicted disabilities or incurable illnesses for the rest of their lives.
Establishment of the Camps
Although widely attributed to Stalin, it was actually Lenin who established the first of the Gulag camps. He was newly in power as the leader of the Soviet Union but feared the damage those with anti-communist ideologies could do to the still-fragile dictatorship. His solution was a residential “re-education” program which would use hard labour to break political dissidents and reforge them as loyal supporters.
The name Gulag originally described the government agency responsible for these re-education facilities as it comes from “Glávnoje upravlénije lageréj,” meaning “chief administration of the camps”. The sites themselves were just called “the camps” or “the zone” by the Russians and, more formally, “correctional labour camps”. However, as, pretty depressingly, forced labour camps aren’t unique to the Soviet Union, reporters preferred the more geographically specific Gulag. So, here we are today, all using the word incorrectly.
By the end of 1920, 84 camps had been constructed and filled with 50,000 political enemies, and when Lenin died, Stalin continued the work. He believed that forced labour camps could be more than just a tool for political oppression; they also held the key to the industrialisation of the USSR. With all the free labour, he intended to build roads, railways, canals, mines, oilfields, ironworks, steel mills, and even cities. He intended to use the camps, and those imprisoned, to open up the frozen wastes of the Siberian North and prove his greatness by constructing megaprojects previously thought impossible.
Unfortunately for all involved, Stalin’s ambitious projects would require a lot more than 50,000 unwilling prisoners to achieve. Especially as he didn’t want to provide them with any proper tools for fear they’d use them against the guards and escape. So, under his rule, the Gulag system exploded, or, as Gulag survivor and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, it metastasized. It was an aggressive cancer that spread to every corner of the empire.
Under Stalin’s rule, those 84 camps grew to 476 camp complexes, each containing tens or hundreds of smaller camps known as lagpunkts. By 1953, 18 million people had spent some time imprisoned in part of the Gulag. Now, 18 million is a lot of people, certainly a lot more than the number who were willing to come out vocally against him and make it through a fair and lengthy trial. So, where did Stalin get them all?
Well, he filled the Gulags with four main categories of people. Firstly, there were the criminals. Those fairly convicted of a crime for which they’d be punished by most countries, albeit by prison sentence rather than forced labour. This included murderers, rapists, thieves, etc.
Then there were the minor criminals, those who’d missed 3 days of work or stolen from a field to feed their starving families. This was by far the largest group in the Gulags, and they often served sentences of 8 to 10 years.
Next were the Kulaks, the prosperous farmers and peasants who refused to give up their farms as part of collectivisation.
Finally, there were the political prisoners, who made up around 25% of the Gulag population. This included opposing members of the communist party who were rounded up in Stalin’s purges and professionals from a wide range of backgrounds who had any tenuous link to anti-Stalinists. Doctors, students, writers, intellectuals, and scientists were all taken, sometimes from their beds in the middle of the night, sometimes from their offices or schools, and it wasn’t uncommon for agents to pick people up at cinemas or theatres. The message was that, if you didn’t fully support Stalin, you could be arrested at any time or place and you should live in fear.
The ‘crimes’ of these political prisoners were varied, but examples include: telling a joke about Stalin, writing comedy on a ballot paper when only one candidate was offered, smiling sympathetically at an anti-Soviet anecdote or owning something suspicious, like a radio. In one case, a cook was arrested for espionage just for applying for a job at the Japanese embassy. Families were torn apart. Sometimes, wives and children would be left to survive alone. In other cases, they were arrested too, for the crime of being related to a traitor.
Once arrested, victims had no rights and no trial. They were simply locked in a prison cell or immediately loaded onto a cattle car with hundreds of others and taken by train to whichever camp needed labour. In the summer, this meant enduring days of sweltering heat and, in the winter, bitter cold. Those who died, due to the appalling conditions, were thrown from the carriage and left to rot beside the track. Survivors, or “white coal,” as they were referred to by the guards, were unloaded and put to work.
Of all the Gulags these trains could end up at, one of the worst was Kolyma, the coldest inhabited place on Earth, and the journey there was brutal. Inaccessible over land, prisoners were transported by boat, in which mass rapes were so common that they’d earned their own nickname, the Kolyma tram. Led by a “conductor,” lines of men would take their turns with women until they were dead or unconscious. If they ran out of women, they’d assault the youngest and weakest of the men instead.
Those who survived the journey faced life in some of the worst Gulag camps. The climate should’ve made it completely uninhabitable, with average temperatures reaching -38oC in winter and pushing -70oC in extreme events. Survivor Jacques Rossi explained that anything below -50oC “made it hard to open your eyelids,” and “felt like a knife plunging into your lungs.” All the workers for protection were the rags they’d wrap around their faces, but their breath would still form ice and freeze on the tips of their noses.
The labour was also brutal, consisting of working in the gold mines or building a highway with nothing more than hand tools and wheelbarrows. Hundreds of thousands died during the road’s construction, from exhaustion, starvation, or being shot for not working hard enough. To drive the route now is to drive over a mass grave as the fallen were buried beneath the surface, earning it the nickname, “the road of bones.”
While the cold didn’t affect every camp, hunger did. Meals consisted of rotten cabbage soup, which could contain bonus pork fat, herring heads, animal lung, or fish bones, watery porridge with half a teaspoon of oil, and dry, black bread. Bread was so important to prisoners that it soon became all they cared about. Taking another man’s clothes or belongings would earn you a beating. Steal his bread and you’d be killed.
Each prisoner was fed according to how much work they’d done. For example, those felling timber in the forest would be judged according to the number of cubic meters collected. 600g of bread was provided for anyone meeting the quota and 400g for anyone who fell short. Tragically, 200g could be the difference between life and death, so, struggling to meet the, almost impossible quotas amounted to a death sentence.
Mothers had it particularly hard as they had to share their rations with their children, and many starved in the process. Babies born in the gulag often only lasted a few months as milk wasn’t provided and mothers struggled to feed them in a state of starvation and in between gruelling work schedules. If, by some miracle, they made it to their second birthday, they were separated from their mother and sent to an orphanage. Here, with no parent to split their rations, they rarely survived.
Those who witnessed it can’t express strongly enough how cruel death by starvation can be. Food was all they could think about. Scurvy and night blindness were common afflictions, and when it got really bad, many resorted to digging through waste for anything edible. For a few extra calories, those living in the forest collected mushrooms, berries, and nettles. Those in towns would catch and eat rats. However, it was never enough. Even on days when the soup was thick, it never matched the calories expended and the hunger remained as a crippling pain.
Starvation and hypothermia weren’t the only enemies in the Gulag. Beatings, murders, and sexual assaults were frequent and perpetrated by both the guards and prisoners.
If a prisoner escaped, it was the guards who’d be punished, either through lost wages or even being placed in the Gulag themselves. They were also fed extensive propaganda designed to convince them that the prisoners were the enemy and sub-human. Any cruelty dealt to them was both well deserved and a service to the motherland.
Common tortures included forcing men to sit on a wooden pole for 18 hours, solitary confinement, and binding prisoners before throwing them down large flights of stairs. In the northern regions, they also used mosquitoes, which would swarm in thick clouds to torment the inmates. Men would be stripped naked and made to stand in marshy areas without moving as the mosquitoes feasted on them. The men’s faces would swell, and they’d swarm in their mouths. One ex-prisoner recalled how the insects tasted sweet, like blood.
Interrogation was another important aspect of the guards’ work, as they were tasked with extracting both confessions and information from the political prisoners. By far, the most effective method they used was sleep deprivation. Prisoners would be allowed to sleep for only 1 hour a day, cell lights were kept on 24/7 and they would be taken to interrogation throughout the night. Even when they were allowed to sleep it was almost impossible due to the pained screams that rang throughout the camp. Delirious, and near mad, most would confess to anything after a week.
Although the guards were happy to dish out beatings, they favoured passive torture. Essentially, they placed the prisoners in situations that made just living intolerable. Cells would be crammed with as many as could fit, so close their bodies would be pressed against each other. Just the body heat would raise the temperature to between 40 and 45oC and each would develop eczema from being in constant contact with one another’s sweat.
Unsurprisingly, insufficient food, clothing, and space combined with prisoners from very different backgrounds led to widespread violence and frequent assaults. The camps broke into groups, criminals, kulaks, and politicals.
The criminal gangs ruled the Gulags and often committed robberies, beatings, rapes, and murders of their fellow prisoners. Female criminals would strip women if they liked their clothes and leave them naked if they liked their underwear. The guards tolerated, and sometimes actively encouraged it, as it aligned with their own goals. To torture and control the “sub-human” politicals.
The main torture of the Gulags was, of course, the work. Stalin’s vision was to use the Gulags for industrialisation, and so prisoners were mostly put to work on large-scale construction, logging or mining projects.
However, without proper tools, the work was arduous and ineffective. Prisoners were made to fell trees with handsaws, dig the frozen ground with pickaxes, and move earth with their bare hands. While it makes sense not to arm your prisoners with chainsaws, this had a number of undesirable effects.
Firstly, the workers died of exhaustion and exposure frequently. Although no officials were particularly bothered about the human tragedy, it did mean they had to arrest more people, invent crimes for them and ship them to the Gulags. It also meant they had to deal with the bodies.
In some rare acts of kindness, prisoners were allowed to work overtime and bury the fallen, but often they were just left to rot and eventually be covered by whatever they were helping to build. Just like the Kolyma highway, both the Moscow Volga Canal and the White Sea-Baltic Canals have tens of thousands of bodies beneath them.
It was physically impossible to complete the work and meet the quotas without dying of exhaustion. So, those who survived were the ones who figured out ways to cheat the system. Loggers figured out they could sneak wood from previous days’ piles and freshen them by trimming the ends. This was called “freshening your sandwich” and could save you from felling four trees. Others turned to self-mutilation. Common tactics included injecting themselves with dirty needles, getting frostbite on purpose, or asking fellow prisoners to smash their wrists. One man even nailed his testicles to a bench.
Before being taken to the Gulag, Joseph Scholmer was a doctor. Whilst there, he started an illegal medical practice in the camp. However, rather than making people better, he found that most wanted him to make them ill. To do this, he injected petrol under their skin to create a festering ulcer, started nosebleeds with wire, and created infected sores by breaking the skin on their leg and rubbing in dirt.
Of course, shirking your work was only encouraged when it didn’t then fall to your fellow prisoners. One survivor, Thomas Sgovio, recalled how one of the men in his group would constantly engineer it so that he got the light end of the log. Eventually, his fellow workers grew sick of him, and when they were working one day, tossing the logs over a precipice, they shoved him down with them too. He was killed instantly.
The End of the Gulag
When Stalin died in 1953, it marked the beginning of the end for the Gulags. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, had always been against them, and millions of prisoners were released within just a few days of Stalin’s death.
The tragedy is that the damage done couldn’t be repaired with just freedom. Those released may have survived, but many lost spouses and children. They’d been raped, tortured or assaulted, and their bodies bore the scars and disabilities inflicted on them by malnutrition and back-breaking work. Many were exiled and had their documents marked, indicating they were in the Gulag, which subjected them to discrimination. The children who did survive lost their parents along with any hope of even learning their names, and many suffered impairments brought on by starvation in their early years.
The camps themselves were also an economic failure for the Soviet Union. Due to insufficient equipment, supplies, and food, the workers were slow and ineffective. The Kolyma highway is impassible during heavy rains and the White Sea canal wound up too narrow and shallow to be used by passenger ships or submarines.
Despite the staggering number of victims, the extent of the atrocities committed in the Gulag wasn’t fully understood until ex-prisoner Solzhenitsyn bravely published his book “The Gulag Archipelago” in 1973. It included the accounts of hundreds of survivors and the horrifying details of their ordeals. He’d actually finished it a few years earlier but kept the manuscript hidden. However, when he learned that the KGB interrogated his typist, confiscated her copy, and she was later found dead of asphyxiation, Solzhenitsyn had no choice but to release it, shedding international light on the camps.
Despite everything, however, in Putin’s Russia, Stalin’s reputation has been restored. He’s been credited with the victory in WWII, the Kremlin has declared any excessive demonization of him to be an attack on both the Soviet Union and Russia, and Putin has praised him as an effective manager and ordered the removal of his crimes from museums. In a 2019 survey, 70% of Russians even said they approved of Stalin’s role in history, and half of young Russians had never heard of his purges. In school textbooks, the Gulags are rarely even mentioned.
So, where does this leave the victims? Some remain in exile and are fighting to return to Russia; others are still too terrified to talk about what happened, and surviving children are being denied the compensation that was promised. Not one of the victims has ever seen anyone held responsible for the terrible crimes committed against them and their families.
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