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Gulag (from the Russian ГУЛАГ: Главное Управление Исправительно— Трудовых Лагерей, "Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey", "The Chief Directorate [or Administration] of Corrective Labour Camps") was the branch of the Soviet internal police and security service that operated the penal system of forced labour camps and associated detention and transit camps and prisons. While these camps housed criminals of all types, the Gulag system has become primarily known as a place for political prisoners and as a mechanism for repressing political opposition to the Soviet state. Though it imprisoned millions, the name became familiar in the West only with the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1973 The Gulag Archipelago, which likened the scattered camps to a chain of islands.



Some authors refer to all prisons and camps throughout Soviet history (1917–1991) as the Gulags. Also, the term's modern usage is often notably unrelated to the USSR: for example, in such expressions as "North Korea's gulag", or even "America's Private Gulag". Note that the original Russian abbreviation, never in plural, described not a single camp, but the government institution in charge of the entire camp system.

The term "corrective labor camp" was suggested for official use by the politburo session of July 27, 1929, as a replacement of the term concentration camp, commonly used until that time.

A colloquial name for a Soviet Gulag inmate was "zeka", "zek". In Russian, "inmate", "incarcerated" is "заключённый", zaklyuchonny, usually abbreviated to 'з/к' in paperwork, pronounced as 'зэка' (zeh-KA), gradually transformed into 'зэк' and to 'зек'. The word is still in colloquial use, irrelevant to labour camps. 'з/к' initially was an acronym standing for "заключенный каналостроитель", "zaklyuchonny kanalostroitel'" (incarcerated canal-builder), originating to the Volga-Don Canal slave workforce members. Later the term was backronymed to mean just "zaklyuchonny"


In addition to the most common category of camps that practiced hard physical labour and prisons of various sorts, other forms also existed.

  • A unique form of Gulag camps called sharashka (шарашка, the goofing-off place) were in fact secret research laboratories, where the arrested and convicted scientists, some of them prominent, were anonymously developing new technologies, and also conducting basic research.
  • Psikhushka (психушка, the nut house), the forced medical treatment in psychiatric imprisonment was used, in lieu of camps, to isolate and break down political prisoners. This practice became much more common after the official dismantling of the Gulag system. See Vladimir Bukovsky, Pyotr Grigorenko.
  • Special camps or zones for children (Gulag jargon: "малолетки", maloletki, underaged), for disabled (in Spassk ), and for mothers ("мамки", mamki) with babies. These categories were considered as not producing any useful outcome and often subjected to more abuse.
  • Camps for "wifes of traitors of Motherland" (there was a special category of repressed: "Traitor of Motherland Family Member" (ЧСИР, член семьи изменника Родины)).
  • Under the supervision of Lavrenty Beria who headed both NKVD and the Soviet Atom bomb program until his demise in 1953, thousands of zeks were used to mine uranium ore and prepare test facilities on Novaya Zemlya, Vaygach Island , Semipalatinsk, among other sites. Reports exist of using Gulag prisoners in early nuclear tests (the first was conducted in Semipalatinsk in 1949) in decontaminating radioactive areas and nuclear submarines.


Since 1918, camp-type detention facilities were set up, as a reformed extension of earlier labour camps (katorgas), operated in Siberia as a part of penal system in Imperial Russia. The two main types were "Vechecka Special-purpose Camps" (особые лагеря ВЧК) and forced labor camps (лагеря принудительных работ). They were installed for various categories of people deemed dangerous for the state: for common criminals, for prisoners of Russian Civil War, for officials accused of corruption, sabotage and embezzlement, various political enemies and dissidents, as well as former aristocrats, businessmen and large land owners.

The legal base and the guidance for the creation of the Gulag system was a secret decree of Sovnarkom of July 11 1929 about penal labor (see its wikisource reference), that duplicated the corresponding appendix to the minutes of Politburo meeting of June 27, 1929.

As an all-Union institution, the Gulag was officially established on April 25, 1930 as the "Ulag" by the OGPU order 130/63 in accordance with the Sovnarkom order 22 p. 248 dated April 7, 1930, and was renamed into Gulag in November. The Gulag grew quickly. Failed projects, bad harvests, accidents, poor production, and poor planning were routinely attributed to corruption and sabotage, and accused thieves and saboteurs on whom to put the blame were found en masse. At the same time the rapidly increasing need for natural resources and a booming industrialization program fueled a demand for cheap labour. Denunciations, quotas for arrest, summary executions, and secret police activity became widespread. The widest opportunities for an easy, in most cases automatic, conviction of any person of a crime were provided by the Article 58 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR. In 1931–32, Gulag had approximately 200,000 prisoners in the camps; in 1935 — approximately 1 million (including colonies), and after the Great Purge of 1937, nearly 2 million people. By contrast, the US prisoner labourer population (on chain gangs and in prisons) remained around a few hundred thousand prisoners.

During World War II, Gulag populations declined sharply, owing to mass "releases" of hundreds of thousands of prisoners who were conscripted and sent directly to the front lines, but mainly due to a steep rise in mortality in 1942–43. After WWII the number of inmates in prison camps and colonies rose again sharply and reached the number of approximately 2.5 million people by the early 1950s. While some of these were deserters and war criminals, there were also repatriated Russian prisoners of war and "Eastern workers", were universally accused of treason and "cooperation with an enemy" (formally, they did work for Nazis). Large numbers of civilians from the Russian territories which came under foreign occupation, as well as from the territories annexed by the Soviet Union after the war were also sent there. It was not uncommon for the survivors of Nazi camps to be transported directly to the Soviet labour camps.

For years after WWII, a significant minority of the inmates were Germans, Finns, Poles, Romanians and other POWs and persons from the foreign countries "liberated" by the Red Army.

The state continued to maintain Gulag for a while after Stalin's death in March of 1953. The subsequent amnesty program was limited to those who had to serve at most 5 years, therefore mostly those convicted of common crimes were then freed. The releases of political prisoners started in 1954 and became widespread, and also coupled with mass rehabilitations, after Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism in his Secret Speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February, 1956.

Officially Gulag was terminated by the MVD order 20 of January 25, 1960, as the MVD itself was officially eliminated by the order 44-16 of Presidium of Supreme Council of the USSR, to reemerge as the KGB.

The total documentable deaths in the corrective-labour system from 1934 to 1953 amount to 1,054,000, including political and common prisoners; note that this does not include nearly 800,000 executions of "counterrevolutionaries", as they were generally conducted outside the camp system. From 1932 to 1940, at least 390,000 peasants died in places of labor settlements; this figure may overlap with the above, but, on the other hand, it does not include deaths outside the 1932-1940 period, or deaths among non-peasant internal exiles. The number of people who were prisoners at one point or the other is, of course, much larger, and one may assume that many of the survivors suffered permanent physical and psychological damage. Deaths at some camps are documented more thoroughly than those at others; note also that access to some data in historical archives is becoming more restricted again.


Extreme production quotas, brutality, hunger and harsh elements were major reasons for Gulag's high fatality rate, which was as high as 80% during the first months in many camps.

Logging and mining were among the most common of activities, as well as the harshest. In a Gulag mine, one person's production quota might be as high as 29,000 pounds (13,000 kg) of ore per day. Failure to meet a quota resulted in a loss of vital rations, a cycle that usually had fatal consequences through a condition of being emaciated and devitalized, dubbed "dohodyaga" (доходяга).

Inmates were often forced to work in inhuman conditions. In spite of the brutal climate, they were almost never adequately clothed, fed, or given medical treatment, nor were they given any means to combat the lack of vitamins that led to nutritional diseases such as scurvy. The nutritional value of basic daily food ration varied around 1,200 calories (5,000 kilojoules), mainly from low-quality bread (distributed by weight and called "пайка", paika). According to the World Health Organization, the minimum requirement for a heavy labourer is in the range of 3,100–3,900 calories (13,000 to 16,300 kJ) daily.

Administrators routinely stole from the camp stockpiles for personal gain, as well as to curry favor with superiors. As a result, inmates were forced to work even harder to make up the difference. Administrators and trusties (inmates assigned to perform the duties servicing the camp itself, such as cooks, bakers or stockmen, dubbed "pridurki") skimmed off the medicines, clothing and the most nutritious foodstuffs.


In the early days of Gulag the locations for the camps were chosen primarily for the ease of isolation of prisoners. Remote monasteries in particular were frequently reused as sites for new camps. The site on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea is one of the earliest and also most noteworthy, taking root soon after the Revolution in 1918. The colloquial name for the islands, "Solovki", entered the vernacular as a synonym for the labour camp in general. It was being presented to the world as an example of the new Soviet way of "re-education of class enemies" and reintegrating them through labour into the Soviet society. Initially the inmates, the significant part being Russian intelligentsia, enjoyed relative freedom (within the natural confinement of the islands). Local newspapers and magazines were edited and even some scientific research was carried out (e.g., a local botanical garden was maintained, unfortunately lost completely). Eventually it turned into an ordinary Gulag camp; in fact some historians maintain that Solovki was a pilot camp of this type. See Solovki for more detail.

With the new emphasis on Gulag as the means of concentrating cheap labour, new camps were then constructed throughout the Soviet sphere of influence, wherever the economic task at hand dictated their existence (or was designed specifically to avail itself of them, such as Belomorkanal or Baikal Amur Mainline), including facilities in big cities — parts of the famous Moscow Metro and the Moscow State University new campus were built by forced labour. Many more projects during the rapid industrialization of the 1930s, war-time and post-war periods were fulfilled on the backs of convicts, and the activity of Gulag camps spanned a wide cross-section of Soviet industry.

The majority of Gulag camps were positioned in extremely remote areas of north-eastern Siberia (the best known clusters are Sevvostlag (The North-East Camps) along Kolyma river and Norillag near Norilsk) and in the south-eastern parts of the Soviet Union, mainly in the steppes of Kazakhstan (Luglag, Steplag, Peschanlag). These were vast and uninhabited regions with no roads (in fact, the construction of the roads themselves was assigned to the inmates of specialized railroad camps) or sources of food, but rich in minerals and other natural resources (such as timber). However, camps were generally spread throughout the entire Soviet Union, including the European parts of Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. There were also several camps located outside of the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Mongolia, which were under the direct control of the Gulag.

Not all camps were fortified; in fact some in Siberia were marked only by posts. Escape was deterred by the harsh elements, as well as tracking dogs that were assigned to each camp. While during the 1920s and 1930s native tribes often aided escapees, many of the tribes were also victimized by escaped thieves. Tantalized by large rewards as well, they began aiding authorities in the capture of Gulag inmates. Camp guards were also given stern incentive to keep their inmates in line at all costs; if a prisoner escaped under a guard's watch, the guard would often be stripped of his uniform and become a Gulag inmate himself.

In some cases, teams of inmates were dropped to a new territory with a limited supply of resources and left to initiate a new camp or die. Sometimes it took a few attempts before the next wave of colonists could survive the elements.

The area along the Indigirka river was known as the Gulag inside the Gulag. The Oymyakon (Оймякон) village there registered the record low temperature of −71.2C (−96F).



The Gulag spanned nearly four decades of Soviet history and affected millions of individuals. Its cultural impact was enormous.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago was not the first literary work about labour camps. But it was the first to demonstrate the Gulag as an instrument of governmental repression against its own citizens on a massive scale.

The Gulag has become a major influence on contemporary Russian thinking, and an important part of modern Russian folklore. Many songs by the authors-performers known as the bards, most notably Alexander Galich and Vladimir Vysotsky, neither of whom ever served time in the camps, describe life inside the Gulag.

The memoirs of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov and Yevgenia Ginzburg, among others, became a symbol of defiance in Soviet society. These writings, particularly those of Solzhenitsyn, harshly chastised the Soviet people for their tolerance and apathy regarding the Gulag, but at the same time provided a testament to the courage and resolve of those who were imprisoned.

Another cultural phenomenon in the USSR linked with the Gulag was the forced migration of many artists and other people of culture to Siberia. This resulted in a Renaissance of sorts in places like Magadan, where, for example, the quality of theatre production was comparable to that found in Moscow.


Soviet state documents show that among the goal of GULAG was colonization of sparsely populated remote areas. To this end, the notion of "free settlement" was introduced.

When the most part of the term was served a well-behaved person could be released for "free settlement" (вольное поселение, "volnoye poseleniye") outside the confinement of the camp. They were known as "free settlers" (вольнопоселенцы, "volnoposelentsy", not to be confused with the term ссыльнопоселенцы, "sslylnoposelentsy", "exile settlers"). In addition, for persons who served full term, but who were denied the free choice of place of residence, it was recommended to assign them for "free settlement" and give them land in the general vicinity of the place of confinement.

This implement was also inherited from the katorga system.

Life after term served

Persons who served a term in a camp or in a prison were restricted from taking a wide range of jobs. A concealment of a previous imprisonment was a triable offense. Persons served as "politicals" were of nuisance for "First Departments ("Pervyj Otdel", outlets of the secret police at all enterprises and institutions), because former "politicals" had to be monitored.

Many released from camps were restricted from settling in larger cities.

After serving long terms, many people had lost their former job skills and social contacts. Therefore upon final release many of them voluntarily decided to become (or stay) "free settlers" as well. This decision was also influenced by the knowledge about the restrictions for them everywhere else. When a lot of the formerly released prisoners were re-seized during the wave of arrests that began in 1947, this happened much more often to those who had chosen to move back to their home town proximity rather than those who remained around the camps as the free settlers.

Latest developments

Anne Applebaum's monograph (see below) describes the releases of political prisoners from the camps as late as 1987. In November 1991 the new Russian parliament, the State Duma, passed the "Declaration of Rights and Freedoms of the Individual" which guaranteed theoretically, among other liberties, the right to disagree with the government.


Related articles



  • Decree about labor camps of 1919, in Russian
  • A decree about penal labor, 1929, in Russian

External links

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