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GULAG Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps

GULAG is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei (Main Administration for Camps), or Glavnoe Upravlenie Ispravitelno Trudovykh Lagerei (State Administration of Penal Labor Camps, or Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps), the bureaucratic entity responsible for running the country's penal camps. From 1929 until 1954 these camps were under the control of the secret police, known as the OGPU (1922-1934), the NKVD (1934-1946) and the MVD (1946-1954).

Russian historians have identified and described 476 camp complexes that existed in different years in the territory of the USSR. The maximum concentration of prisoners in prison was observed in the summer of 1950, when more than 2.8 million people were kept in camps, colonies and prisons. During the entire existence of the Gulag, about 20 million people passed through camps, colonies and prisons, of which 5 million were convicted for political reasons. After Stalin's death in 1953, the number of camps fell sharply, and there began a period of mass liberation and rehabilitation.

In the 17th century, exiled criminals participated in the settlement of Siberia and the Far East. In the early years of the Bolshevik government, prisoners were kept within the city, but then they decided to return to the practice proven by centuries and send them as far as possible. This was done, firstly, in the interest of accelerating the pace of industrialization, and secondly, with the aim of hiding political enemies as far as possible from the eyes of Soviet citizens and, importantly, international observers.

In the early 1920s the European North of Russia became the site of a concentration of political opponents of the Bolshevik regime. The above mentioned security officer Kedrov became the creator of the first northern camps - Kholmogorsky, Pertominsky and Solovetsky. There, at the end of the Civil War, prisoners of the White Guards and Cossacks, anarchists and socialists were held and more often massively executed.

Since the early 1920sthe question of the internal colonization of the country was repeatedly discussed by the party elite. A curious document of the epoch is the secret note of the deputy chairman of the Supreme Economic Council, Pyatakov, to his head Dzerzhinsky dated November 10, 1925, where the author names four prospective economic areas: the area of the Yenisei estuary between the Arctic Circle and the 70th parallel of northern latitude, where the Kureysky graphite deposit is located and slightly to the north famous Norilsk deposit of polymetallic ores, Sakhalin, Kyrgyz steppe and Nerchinsky district.

By that time, Dzerzhinsky not only served as head of the OGPU, but also was chairman of the Supreme Council of National Economy. Formally, in this position he had to be engaged in the development of the Soviet economy, but his main task was always the struggle against counter-revolution.

While the camp system had precursors in both the Tsarist and early Soviet period, the Gulag was created as a vast complex of repression by the Soviet dictator, Iosif Stalin (r. 1929-1953). The Soviet system of forced labor camps was first established in 1919 under the Cheka, but it was not until the early 1930s that the camp population reached significant numbers. By 1934 the Gulag, then under the Cheka's successor organization the NKVD, had several million inmates. The camp population grew from 179,000 in 1929 to 2,468,524 in 1953 (reaching its height in 1950 with 2,525,146 inmates). Perhaps 18 million persons in total were incarcerated in the Gulag in this period.

Beginning from its inception as one political prison, the former Solovetsky monastery, the Gulag grew to encompass dozens of major camp complexes with thousands of individual camps and millions of inmates. Camps were located mainly in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North.

The inmates or "zeks" of the Gulag consisted of common criminals, political prisoners and simple citizens caught up in the government's various "waves" of repression. Prisoners included murderers, thieves, and other common criminals -- along with political and religious dissenters. Despite large numbers of political incarcerations by the secret police in this period (for instance, over 1.5 million were sent to the Gulag in the 1930s for "counter revolution"), the vast majority of inmates were incarcerated under non-political criteria (such as the draconian laws concerning "labor desertion" and "theft of socialist property"). Some of the "crimes" that landed one in the Gulag included unexcused absences from work, petty theft, conveying an anti-government joke or being a prisoner of war.

Conditions in the camps were extremely harsh. Prisoners received inadequate food rations and insufficient clothing, which made it difficult to endure the severe weather and the long working hours; sometimes the inmates were physically abused by camp guards. As a result, the death rate from exhaustion and disease in the camps was high. While numbers are sketchy, of the much larger number of gulag inmates plus exiled "special settlers" and labor colonists (often youth detention facilities) that totaled 26 million in these years, perhaps 1.5 million perished. It is important to remember, however, that in most years more people were amnestied from the Gulag than died in it. Excepting the brutal war years, the most common experience of the Gulag was surviving it.

Gulag prisoners when released were often restricted to residency "in the zone" (the camp complex) and were forced to continue working as "free laborers" on much the same work they did as prisoners. The great camp complexes of Karaganda, Kolyma, Norilsk acted as mechanisms of forced colonization to open the Soviet Union's frozen north and empty steppes.

The Gulag made significant contributions to the Soviet economy in the period of Joseph Stalin. The forced labor of elite scientists in the so-called sharashkas or prison laboratories produced technological innovations, especially weaponry. Sergei Korolev, the father of the Soviet space program. was probably the most famous of the sharashka scientists. Korolev was arrested in 1938 by the Soviet security services and subsequently spent six years in various Gulag camps. On the evening of 21 October 1937, four agents of the NKVD (the KGB's precursor) entered the offices of Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev and arrested him. Tupolev, the principal figure in the early development of Soviet aviation and a leading aircraft designer, was led away to immediate imprisonment. Tupolev found himself locked away with hundreds of other aviation specialists and ordered to carry on his aircraft-design work. Tupolev and his design team were imprisoned, along with the Petlyakov and Myasischev design teams, in the buildings Tupolev had worked in prior to his arrest. Then, in 1943, they were released as abruptly as they had been arrested.

The Gulag evolved into an economic empire as much as a network of forced-labor prisons (at its height, one in every fifty Soviet workers was a zek). Zeks were used as nearly dehumanized slave labor and toiled on such large scale projects as canal and railroad construction, gold mining, logging, the Soviet atomic project and myriad other tasks. Gulag prisoners constructed the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line, numerous hydroelectric stations, and strategic roads and industrial enterprises in remote regions. GULAG manpower was also used for much of the country's lumbering and for the mining of coal, copper, and gold.

While the Gulag was never profitable, despite the official claim of 1931 that the system was profitable, it dominated whole sectors of the Soviet Union's economy, especially mining and logging. Stalin constantly increased the number of projects assigned to the NKVD, which led to an increasing reliance on its labor. The Gulag also served as a source of workers for economic projects independent of the NKVD, which contracted its prisoners out to various economic enterprises.

The Gulag's zeks never accepted their enslavement and conducted active and passive resistance. In the Gulag's early years many inmates escaped (in 1933 45,755 escaped, of which only 28,370 were recaptured). Later years saw large-scale revolts, such as the Kingir, Norilsk and Ust-usa which had to be suppressed with tanks and military aircraft. The zeks most effective means of resistance, however, was work slow-downs and tukhta, or falsification of output.

The inefficiency of the Gulag and the resistance of its inmates convinced Stalin's successors to scale it back dramatically following the dictator's death. After Stalin died in 1953, the Gulag population was reduced significantly, and conditions for inmates somewhat improved. Already in March of 1953 more than a million zeks were released and in 1956 more than 500,000 former inmates "rehabilitated," or pardoned of all political crimes.

While forced labor and political persecution continued until the end of the Soviet Union, the camps never again approached the ubiquity and size they possessed under Stalin. Following Khrushchev's "Thaw" period (1956-1964), forced labor was again used to punish political dissent, usually under the laws against "anti-Soviet propaganda" (from 1968-1986 2,468 were sentenced to hard labor under this law). All political prisoners were pardoned and released by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 (288 in total). Forced labor camps continued to exist, although on a small scale, into the Gorbachev period, and the government even opened some camps to scrutiny by journalists and human rights activists. With the advance of democratization, political prisoners and prisoners of conscience all but disappeared from the camps.

In the 1970s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn revealed the abuses of Soviet Gulag prison camps. The first copies of Solzhenitsyn's 1974 The Gulag Archipelago his Russian audience saw were unbound and hand-typed - blurry, mimeographed text with dog-eared paper. Clandestine books and writings by Russian authors were known as "samizdat," meaning "self-published," as opposed to "tamizdat" which was forbidden literature smuggled in from overseas. Along with Solzhenitsyn, some of today's Russian classics such as Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov began life as samizdat.

The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn's attempt to compile a literary-historical record of the vast system of prisons and labor camps that came into being shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917 and that underwent an enormous expansion during the rule of Stalin from 1924 to 1953. Various sections of the three volumes describe the arrest, interrogation, conviction, transportation, and imprisonment of the Gulag's victims by Soviet authorities over four decades. The work mingles historical exposition and Solzhenitsyn's own autobiographical accounts with the voluminous personal testimony of other inmates that he collected and committed to memory during his imprisonment. Upon publication of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn was immediately attacked in the Soviet press. Despite the intense interest in his fate that was shown in the West, he was arrested and charged with treason on February 12, 1974, and was exiled from the Soviet Union the following day.

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