Gulag (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
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
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 1918920 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.
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 pressuresuch as rising official paranoia that the Soviet project was being undermined by the 'enemy within'eant 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
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.