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History of the Soviet Union's Gulag

Updated on August 11, 2014

The horrifying look at the concentration camps that few know even exisited

Throughout history leaders of many countries have created concentration camps for various reasons. Some countries do so in times of war to house POWs and those thought to be of danger to the country, including Japan, England and yes the United States during WWII (and arguably possibly Guantanamo Bay). Some countries use them as a way to rid a country of an unwanted minority, the most obvious being Nazi Germany trying to remove the homosexuals, blacks, gypsies and the Jews. Yet there is no other country that built as extensive network of concentration camps for so long in history as the Soviet Union. For over 60 years, millions of Russians and foreigners were sent to these camps (hereafter referred to as Gulags) for 'rehabilitation'. The scope and scale of the atrocities in these camps is astonishing leading only to the astonishment of how little is known about them.

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Slave Labor or Population Genocide

The origins of the Gulag began in the earliest days of Joseph Stalin's rule over the Soviet Union. He was drawn to the thought of the gulags for the potential they had over moving his enemy's away from him, to be able to provide free labor, and as a way to populate remote areas of the Soviet Union. One can almost understand his child like glee at such a seemingly easy solution to so many problems. Stalin began by leading a country that was rich on raw materials and labor but incredibly desolate in terms of heavy industry. Here was an opportunity to take a tremendous amount of 'free' labor and build an industry to take advantage of these raw materials. Seemingly overnight gulags sprung up near coal mines, logging regions and even along new rail lines that were being constructed. Technical experts like geologists and engineers were suddenly arrested for political crimes just when there expertise was needed most in an industrial gulag. Unbelievable quotas (or norms as they were called) were allocated to each worker which dictated how much food they would receive at the end of the day. One can see how a worker who has a bad day could quickly be condemned to death as they receive less food for poor performance, not be able to perform the next day due to hunger pains, which only exasperate the problem when they received less food each successive day. Soon this worker would literally be starved to death trying to get back to top performance. Thankfully to the camp leaders, of all the resources they needed to run a camp, labor was the one never in short supply.

Why was the forced labor used in the Soviet Union so different than the work that prisoners are forced to do in virtually any prison around the world. In the United States, prisoners work on cleaning roads, manufacturing license plates and dozens of other professions, however the difference is one of intent. In most prisons the intent of the prisoners working is to occupy their time in a productive trade for what else would they do for 12 hours a day? In the Soviet Union these prisoners were counted on to contribute a significant portion to the GDP and economy of the country. Without these prisons many industries would have simply collapsed. So strong was this necessity that these camps were designed to pay for themselves and ideally even make a profit. So tantalizing was the concept of unlimited labor that Stalin began vast projects on the scale of the Panama Canal with forced labor. Sadly those vast projects when built were done so for all the wrong reasons and in most cases have fallen into disrepair having never been used. Clearly the goal of rehabilitation took back seat to economic gain to Stalin.

But of course economics was never the sole reason for gulags. Being able to stamp out any form of hostility or disagreement toward the government was equally as mesmerizing to Stalin. Using the secret police, even a joke about the government or Stalin could land those lips in prison for a sentence of no less than 10 years (depending on the needs of that camp, it could be extended forever). It didn't take long for the culture of an entire country to be transformed into willful obedience and quiet acceptance of everything the government said. Anyone thought to be spying or publishing counter to the government's official party line would be whisked to a camp in the distant reaches of the country (usually in Siberia or the far northern regions) rarely to be heard from again. Most prisoners (especially the political prisoners) were not allowed to receive or send letters, packages or even personal visits. In essence they were cut off from normal society. Throw in an internal ad campaign that referred to these prisoners as enemies of the state and the source for all that is bad in the country and not only would the prisoner be shunned, but their very family still at home would pay an equal steep price usually losing their job or places for their children in school. It is of no surprise how fast an entire country could be brought into submission. Could a dictator ask for anything better than complete and unquestioning obedience by an entire population (minus the 3-4 million prisoners in the gulags at any given time)?

"In our camps, you were expected not only to be a slave laborer, but to sing and smile while you worked as well. They didn't just want to oppress us: they wanted us to thank them for it."

This is not ancient history....

But then the final benefit of the Gulag system for Stalin comes to light, taking natives from some of the most attractive parts of the Soviet Union and using them to populate some of the most remote and inhospitable parts of the country. With so much of the Soviet Union in regions with extremely cold climates where there will be weeks or months where the sun is never seen and the thermometer could easily stay well below negative 20 degrees, it is of no surprise that the majority of the population is clustered near major cities in the south. Stalin saw the ability to do a type of rural revitalization by exiling entire ethnic groups like Chechens and Poles away from their native lands to places he felt should be populated. Most of these exiles died in a few short years without tools or other supplies to sustain them in these desolate regions. In essence, Stalin exerted a type of racial genocide by forced exile. Some of these people were able to relocate after his death; most would never get that chance.

But now comes the saddest part of this history. Gulags that started when Stalin first took power stayed in existence in multiple forms until the late 1980s. Only during the rule of Gorbachev did these camps begin to be closed in mass, and yet even today details of what happened inside or who was imprisoned still remains locked in confidential archives. Almost all we know of the largest sustained concentration camp system in history that killed millions is that which was snuck out of camps or has been published by the few prisoners that have been released and written books, the most famous of which came from Solzhenitsyn who wrote several books including the Gulag Archipelago. Alas no official records have been released allowing a population to understand what happened and hopefully prevent it from happening again. Even more unfortunate is the fact that history is already repeating itself for Russia who during the days of Stalin committed terrible atrocities to the Chechen nation, only to be repeated by Vladimir Putin in the 21st century. Sadly, without exposing more of what happened it is all too easy to allow the course of history to repeat itself.

Do you feel Russia should open the archives on Gulag's history

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Favorite Quotes

"I don't need your work, I need your suffering" -- One of the bosses to prisoner Susanna Pechora

"She's already served her time. Does the law really permit you to punish a person twice for the same offense" The procurator looked at me in amazement. "Of course not, but what's the law got to do with it?" -- An exchange between a soon to be prisoner (again) and the secret police officer in charge of arresting her.

"Man is a creature that can get used to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him" -- Fyodor Dostoevsky

"In our camps, you were expected not only to be a slave laborer, but to sing and smile while you worked as well. They didn't just want to oppress us: they wanted us to thank them for it."

"Could we not think of some other form of reward for their work -- medals, or such like? We are acting incorrectly, we are disturbing the work of the camp. Freeing these people may be necessary, but from the point of view of the national economy, it is a mistake... we will free the best people, and leave the worst" -- Stalin talking about how to reward the best prisoners who fulfill their quotas

What we can take away from this book

While there are certain obvious items we should learn from these atrocities I feel there is a more subtle one that should be addressed. There is a parable I love that goes something like this:

"When they took the blacks, I stood by and did nothing because I was not black

When they took the gays, I stood by and did nothing because I was not gay

When they took the gypsies, I stood by and did nothing because I was not a gypsy

When they came for me no one stood up for me since no one was left"

I think what we need to remember is when we see or hear of things that are happening that are violations of human rights, or just feel wrong it is our obligation to stand up and say something. When we don't stand up for our fellow citizens (regardless of the country) then selfishly who will ever stand-up for us, but more importantly how can we hold our head up as moral people? There will always be terrible people who come to power, but as we stay vigilant and outspoken (in law abiding ways!) then we can try to protect all of our friends, family and neighbors.

See some extremely powerful videos and pictures from the gulag system

My thoughts on this book

Anne Applebaum's Gulag, a History is a riveting story of not only the history of the Soviet Union's concentration camp but a deep look at what life in the camps might have looked like. Using various sources including oral histories from survivors she paints a tapestry of life in and outside of the camps. This book will expose some of what it might have felt like to live in the Soviet Union under constant fear of arrest or once arrested locked in a battle to just survive.

Be forewarned that several chapters can be difficult to read, specifically those on sexual abuse of prisoners and the ways prisoners attempted suicide. I found myself multiple times having to take a break as you can not help but visualize some of the terrible atrocities and the feeling of desperation that many of these prisoners must have felt. It is vivid and it is strong. Do not let these cautions keep you from picking up this book; it is an amazing story that Anne does a phenomenal job in telling in an easy and riveting way.

Learn more about Gulag

Tell others what you think of the Soviet Union's Gulags

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    • PlethoraReader profile image

      Matthew 3 years ago from Silicon Valley

      @WriterJanis2: We can certainly hope!

    • PlethoraReader profile image

      Matthew 3 years ago from Silicon Valley

      @vaslittlecrow: Thanks for sharing. The only way we can compete against this type of actions is to never let it be forgotten.

    • profile image

      vaslittlecrow 4 years ago

      Really great article, and I too would love a bibliography. It's fascinating to hear about the gulag system that influenced every facet of prison life in Russia. Sadly, even to this day.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      You have such wonderful information here. Hopefully others will learn from past mistakes,

    • greenmind profile image

      GreenMind 5 years ago from USA

      Great, beautifully written (but not really a book review, right?). Very authoritative. Is there a bib or list of sources somewhere?

      Also more images and even a youtube clip of Stalin would make a powerful statement.

      Great lens.