On April 15, 1919, the All-Russia Central Executive Committee issued a decree “On creation of the forced-labor camps,” and the Central Labor Camp Administration was started. This decree enforced two provisions: the establishment of the labor camp system as a separate institution, together with the legalization of forced labor. Thus, the foundation was laid for the Soviet concentration camp system, more popularly known as the GULAG.
The first camps were organized on the outskirts of every administrative center and contained no less than 300 people. Still retaining a lot milder conditions than the camps’ “enhanced” versions in the 1930s, breaking out was still considered a grave offence and was punished by doubling the convict’s sentence, while the second attempt was punishable by death.
On April 24, 1930 the system expanded and became the Department of Camps, while the actual term GULAG (Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerey – The Head Department of Camps) was first mentioned in 1931. From that moment onward, GULAG identified not only a particular detention center, but also referred to the era of Stalin Purges, which entailed cruel repressions, brutal prison camps, and powerful ideological propaganda.
On August 3, 1933, a Correctional Labor Code was approved, providing regulations on the functioning of the camps; for instance, two days of hard labor were equivalent to three days of a prisoner’s sentence. This practice was widely used as a motivation mechanism for convicts, particularly on the construction of the White sea-Baltic sea canal.
Eventually, the camp administration changed hands, falling under the jurisdiction of various government bodies, but the brutal core of the system stayed the same.
The gulag prison system constituted a large part of the country’s labor force: all of the major construction projects in the USSR were carried out using human resources from these facilities. In an address in 1938, Stalin even expressed a reluctance concerning early paroles.
“This way [by letting people out on parole], we are handicapping the entire camp system, and it’s not good. Of course, people do need their freedom, but it still thwarts economic growth…”
New camps were established in distant regions of the country, bringing an increased influx of convicts to the unexplored lands to boost the economy and exploit the regions’ natural resources. Gulag convicts completed construction of numerous industrial and transportation facilities, including three water canals, several hydroelectric power stations along the Volga River, iron-and-steel works in the Urals, the Soviet nuclear program sites and hundreds of miles of roads and railways. Several large cities, such as Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Vorkuta, Magadan, and Nakhodka owe their very existence to gulag labor.
In the years of the Great Terror, regardless of mass executions and natural deaths by starvation, the gulag population skyrocketed: in July of 1937, the camps housed over 788,000 people; by April, 1938 this number already exceeded two million. To fight the “camp shortage,” thirteen new camps were built, focusing on the lumber industry. These camps were very low-maintenance, and survived till the end of the gulag era.
image from www.gulag.ipvnews.org
When the records from the gulag were made available to the public, they provided shocking details about life in the camps. The convicts labored daily for 14 hours, while the temperatures sometimes plummeted to -90° F in Siberia; the convicts were provided no decent medical treatment and food supply. The daily ration of food – 700 grams of bread, 20 grams of meat, 650 grams of vegetables, 17 grams of sugar – never sufficed since the camp officials regularly helped themselves to the supplies. Not surprisingly, execution was not the usual cause of death for many of the gulag convicts, but rather physical breakdown and disease.
Among the gulag convicts, the so-called “political prisoners” constituted the special group. These were the people sentenced in most cases on trumped-up political charges - a common practice to fight dissidence in a totalitarian state. Such convicts, referred to as “enemies of the people,” were charged on the grounds of the infamous #58 clause of the Soviet Criminal Code (This clause warranted arrest on the grounds of conducting counter-revolutionary activity and opposition to the Soviet regime, which also served as justification for the mass terror).
Very often, the alleged crime was ridiculous, like reading banned literature or even hanging Stalin’s portrait in the wrong place. Nevertheless, the punishment for such ‘crimes’ could be fatal. At the camps, the political prisoners were treated as inferior to those who committed regular offences, like robbery or even murder, and were subjected to constant humiliation and scorn.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, followed by a mass amnesty, the number of convicts at the camps was reduced by half, and the construction of many facilities was suspended. For several years onward, the gulag system was slowly discontinued, until it was officially shut down in 1960.
Establishing the exact number of the gulag victims may never be accurately calculated due to a great discrepancy in the documentation. The People’s Commissariat of the Interior only kept track of those sentenced for the number 58 clause, while reliable data on other convicts simply doesn’t exist. The estimated number of individuals who passed through the gulag system amounts to about 25-30 million; with the number of the political prisoners varying from 3.8 to 9.8 million.
As for the victims of the gulag, the numbers vary from hundreds of thousands of people executed on the #58 clause, to millions of unrecorded deaths due to disease and starvation.