The term gulag was used to describes a vast network of hundreds of forced labor camps and prisons that were established mostly in Siberia, the Arctic, the Far East and Central Asia. Gulag is the Russian acronym for “Glavny Upravlenie Lagerey” ("Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps”). It came to mean “camp” or more generally “the camps.” [Sources: David Renik, The New Yorker, April 11, 2003; Mike Edwards, National Geographic, March 1990; Jean Pierre Vaudon, National Geographic, March 1990]
Gulags served two primary purposes: 1) a means of dealing with unwanted people; and 2) they provided labor to build the industrial infrastructure of the state. The camps were not concentration camps intended for exterminations; they was established on economic grounds. Siberia was full of minerals and resources but few people wanted to work there voluntarily so prisoners were sent there to work and be punished. Most of the camps were set up for mining or timber extraction.
Convicts, political troublemakers and other people that rulers wanted out of the way had been sent to Siberia since the 17th century, not long after Russia extended its borders into the region. People sent to Siberia were not expected to come back and "surviving Siberia" has been part of the Russian psyche in both the tsarist and Communist eras.
The most notorious camps were in Siberia, the Arctic and the Far East but those were not the only place they were located. They were everywhere in the Soviet Union. There were some right in Moscow. Some of the first apartment blocks built in Russia’s cities were built by prisoners. Solzhenitsyn himself helped build gulag-labor buildings that still stand on Leninsku Prospekt in Moscow.
Books: Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2003) won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 2004. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who described gulag life in his books One Day in the Life of Ivan Desonvitch, Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward, spent time at a secret Moscow institute and a camp in Kazakhstan.
Labor Camps Under the Tsars
The writer Maxim Gorky called Siberia "a land of chains and ice." This was reference to the period under the Tsars. The Soviets period with its gulags, labor camps, and oppressed political prisoners was much worse. The first people sent to Siberia as a punishment were criminals sent in 1650. Their exile was both a form of punishment and a source of labor for to exploit the resources being discovered in Siberia and the infrastructure needed to exploit them. Under the tsars, criminals were followed by political dissidents. The system continued under the Communists when criminals were joined by victims of collectivization and purges, people turned in by their friends, and troublesome religious groups and nationalities.
Under the tsars exiles to Siberia were graded into four grades: 1) hard labor convicts (whose heads were shaved, wore heavy fetters and were branded with the mark of their crime and were often exiled for life); 2) penal colonists, who were given some freedom of moment and allowed to return after a period of time ; 3) non-criminal deportees; and 4) voluntary followers.
Before the Trans-Siberian railway, exiles walked to Siberia. Describing exiles in Siberia in 1893, C Wenyon wrote: "There were seldom less than 200 persons in a gang—women as well as men. They wore long coats of coarse earth-colored frieze and were chained together as they walked, A file of soldiers with fixed bayonets marched in either side...Without a word and with no sound but the confused tramp of feet, and the mournful clanking of chains, the procession winded its way eastward."
Prisoners who worked had their sentenced reduced based on the seriousness of their crime and the amount of time they worked. Hard labor convicts were able to work without chains. Non criminal exiles had two years of their sentence knocked of for every year they worked.
One of the earliest Russian revolutionary groups, later called the Decembrists, launched a day-long revolt on December, 14, 1825 with the goal of overthrowing tsar Nicholas I. Hastily launched after Alexander I's death, the revolt was put down by tsarist troops who first tried peaceful methods and then opened fire with artillery, leaving dozens of dead and wounded in St. Petersburg's Senate Square, where the revolt took place.
Many of the participants in the revolt were idealistic young aristocrats, who called for an end to the monarchy, freedom for serfs and the establishment of a constitutional government. Stirred by ideas of freedom and equality put forth by the American and French Revolutions, the rebels also included noblemen, military officers, philosophers and poets. The average age of the ones arrested was 26.
Nicholas I, who had been in power less than a month before the Decembrist rebellion took place, and hadn't even been crowned yet, had been regarded as a potential reformer. He responded to the revolt as a threat on his leadership, however, setting the scene for a repressive 30-year reign with the establishment of a censorship system and establishing the Third Section, a secret police force that was a forerunner of the KGB.
Decembrists Executed and Sent to Siberia
Nicholas I saw the Decembrist uprising as a personal betrayal. Many of the participants were his close friends. After the leaders of the rebellion were hung, Nicholas said, "It is my duty to give a lesson to Russia" Nicholas I also led a campaign a against what he considered to be corrupting Western ideas. Ideas that aimed to give people more power and rights were suppressed.
Over 100 Decembrist men that were captured were sent to Siberian camps, where they survived with the help of their wives and lovers, who made the 4,000-mile, three-month journey to join them. These women, many of whom gave up lives of luxury for winters in peasant shacks in -40 degree temperatures, were credited with saving the lives of their men and they were referred to as "guardian angels."
In Siberia, the Decembrists attempted to establish an ideal society in the prisons with their own garden plots and schools that offered courses in chemistry, geology, literature, economics, military strategy and ten languages.
Lenin: the Source of Soviet Labor Camps
Many historians see Lenin as the evil genius who laid the "blueprint" for Stalin and Stalinism and was the source of the Soviet Union's tragedies and eventual demise. Some historians argue that Lenin would have killed just as many people as Stalin if he had been in power longer and had at his disposal the same technology as Stalin. Lenin biographer, Dmitri Volkogonov wrote, Lenin sowed "the seeds of the murderous collectivization...the appalling purges...and the postwar 'punishment' of entire nations." It was Lenin who was "the father of domestic Russian terrorism, merciless and totalitarian."
Lenin was the father of the gulags—Soviet forced labor camps and prisons—not Stalin. After the Bolsheviks came to power, camps known as knotslager, which had been built 1918 to house Czech soldiers who fought for the Bolshevik forces in Siberia, were used to incarcerate kulaks, wealthy farmers. The Resolution on Red Terror, issued in 1918, called fore the “safeguarding of the Soviet republic from class enemies by means of isolating them in concentration camps.” Categories of people deemed “enemies of the Revolution” were incarcerated and used as slave labor.
Construction of new camps began in 1919. By the end of 1920, there were 84 camps with around 50,000 people. By 1924, the year Lenin died, the number of camps had quadrupled. The Soviets tried to hide the camps but they were not concealed completely. Some foreign visitors to Russia in that period described them.
Lenin is also considered the architect of the Bolshevik tradition of exile in and imprisoning intellectual dissidents, and extinguishing thinkers and artists who opposed the regime. He started the first camps and used famine as political ploy to achieve his goals. Lenin disbanded the remnants of Russia's democracy, wiped out civil rights, attacked religion, and forged the Communist party into a totalitarian force.
Solovetskiye Island Gulags
Some of first gulags built under the Communists were established on the Solovetskiye Islands, or Solovki. Many of the elements that would characterize the gulags was first worked out here. The Solovetskiye Islands refers to a a string of small islands in the White Sea near the Arctic Circle between Arkhangelsk and Karelia. On the largest island is a high-walled, 15th century monastery that was transformed in 1923 into the headquarters of a series of Stalinist labor camps from which few survivors emerged. They islands are also spelled the Solovetsky Islands.
Isolated by storms and ice seven months of the year, the monastery was founded in the 1400s by two monks on an remote site to commune with God. Over the next hundred years they were joined by other monks who built a Kremlin, factories and smelters from boulders. Later, the monastery became an important center of Eastern Orthodox tradition. By the 17th century the fortress ran 50 saltworks, employed 600 workers and was home to 300 monks and was strong enough to repel attacks from the Swedes. In the mid 17th century it declared its independence from Russia and survived for eight years and was finally captured by the tsarist army and everyone inside was slaughtered.
The Solovetskiye Islands appealed to Stalin because it was virtually escape proof: the water was too cold to swim in the summer and the ice wasn't thick enough to walk on in the winter. The Russian historian Yuri Brodsky told the Washington Post, "it was the camp on which all future norms were designed: how much food to give, what kind of clothing, how to execute people and get rid of their bodies." Thousands of "class enemies"—aristocrats, artists, scientists, historians, lawyers, officers and writers—were sent there.
At first things weren't so bad. The prisoners were poorly feed and clothed but they were allowed to move freely on the island and even formed study groups, a theater troupe and a newspaper. By the late 1920s things had taken a turn for the worst. Thousands of prisoners arrived every days and they were stuffed into cells already crammed with people. A colony for children between 12 and 16 was set up; mass executions, where prisoners were shot in their underwear and buried in pits, were commonplace; people were tortured by having water poured on them in the freezing cold and handcuffed in swarms of mosquitos in the summer. Many prisoners were forced to sit on poles and if they fell of they were severely beaten,
The historian Dimitry Likhach told the Washington Post, the prisoners "were shot in the back of their heads. The executioners and others were often drunk, so they did not always manage to shoot people to death right away, but they threw them in the pit all the same. The soil-covered pit sometimes showed signs of movement, even on the day after the shooting." In 1939, the labor camp was shut down, because of fears it might be discovered because it was too close to Finland, and survivors were sent to other gulags. The monastery was turned in housing for soldiers, clinics and schools and frescoes. Icons were used for target practice. In 1962, the military moved out and it became a historical and nature center.
Gulags Under Stalin
Stalin expanded the gulag system. At its height the system contained 476 camp complexes, within which there were often dozens, sometimes hundreds of individual camps. From 1929, when Stalin consolidated his grip on power, until 1953 when he died, 18 million people passed through the camp system. Six million more were exiled to isolated, police villages in Siberia or Kazakhstan or to special settlements known as spetposelki.
The gulags were central to Stalin’s ambition to industrialize the Soviet Union. Gulag labor built roads, railroads, dams and factories. They worked in coal mines, set pipelines, developed oil fields. They fished for salmon, made missiles, clear timbered, slaughtered livestock and made toys. Stalin had hoped the gulags would turn a profit but they ultimately drained more than contributed to the Soviet economy. After Stalin’s death the number of people sent to the camps was great reduced but they continued to exist right up until Gorbachev.
Some of the most notorious camps were in Magadan, Karaganda and Kolyma in the Russian Far East and a group of camps spread along the Ob River every five miles or so between Nadym and Salekhard in Siberia. These camps were known as the "Gulag Archipelago" the title of an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn book. The system was huge. The Kolyma area alone is six times the size of France. There were hundreds of camps. Many were in places where no one had previously lived. The Komi region cities of Ukhta, Syktyvkar, Pechora, Vorkuta, and Inta all began as camp centers.
Magadan was a port and the capital of Kolyma. In Magadan there were camps just for women. They panned for gold. In other places there special “children’s labor colonies” for troublesome children. More than three million people died here between 1931 when they were inaugurated and Stalin’s death in 1953.
Gulags in Siberia and the Far East
Perm-36 (60 miles east of Perm) was one of the last labor camp to be closed (1990). Among the famous Soviet dissidents to be imprisoned there were Anatoly Shranasky, Vladimir Bukosky and Yuri Orlov. Perm 36 has been transformed into a memorial like Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Visitors can visit guard towers, rooms where beatings and torture wore carried out and shizos, nine-foot-cube, wire-covered punishment cells.
Many gulags were located n the Way of Bones, a road in the Russian Arctic running parallel to the Kalmar River from Magaden to Siemchan. Magadan (1,300 miles north of Vladivostok on the Sea of Okhotsk) was one of the main centers of the gulag system. After gold was discovered in the Kolyma region in 1932, prisoners were shipped in to build the infrastructure and then work the mines. The first year thousands died working in cold swampy conditions on starvation rations.
Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, died before the camps were finally closed at the end of the 1950s. According to one estimate a fifth of the 20 million people who died in Stalin's gulag camps died in the Kolyma-Magadan region. The Kolyma-Magadan region was home to several camp complexes, each associated with a different mine or construction project. At only time there were about a half million prisoners in the area. Many died before they even got there in the suffocating cattle car journey thousands of miles across Russia and Siberia. One ship carrying prisoners to the region got trapped in the ice and its arrival was delayed by nine months. All 3,000 prisoners died. Many were frozen to death and entombed in ice after hoses were turned on them during a revolt.
Magadan was the gateway for the camps. The prisoners arrived exhausted and half starved and were then marched to the camps that were up to 150 miles away. Many died during the trek. At the camps the prisoners were put to work digging for gold and fed 700 calories a day, much of it in the form of cabbage soup. Those who failed to meet the high quotas had their rations cut. It is estimated that one man died for every kilogram of gold mined. Relatively few survivor stories emerged from Magaden-Kolmya because so few survived.
The evidence of the camps has almost completely been erased. Modern Magaden remains a mining center with about 150,000 people. Most the people that live there are miners or are involved in fishing. There isn't much to see other than Stalinist building, discarded tanks and fighters, a regional museum and a geology and mineral museum. Trips can be organized to the wilderness and sea.
An estimated 25 million people passed through the gulags in the later 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. When Stalin died in 1953 there were still 12 million prisoners in Soviet Labor camps.
An estimated 12 to 20 million people died in gulags under Stalin's rule. The life expectancy of prisoners in many camps was about 2 years and 90 percent didn't survive. The prisoners died from a variety reason: dehydration, tuberculous, typhus, frostbite, exposure, planned famine. Some were worked to death. Some had their heads crushed with crowbars. Suicides were common and prisoners were often so weak they feared that even a mild cold could do them in.
Others were executed, mostly by a pistol shot to the back of the head. At Solovetsky, prisoners were killed by throwing them down long sets of outdoor stairs. At other places prisoners were asphyxiated with exhaust fumes. There were mass executions. At one camp 30 prisoners were shot a day just to frighten the rest of the prisoners.
Describing the cleansing of “superfluous persons” in October 1928, Dmitry Likahchev told Time and the New Yorker, "The graves had been dug a day before the shooting. The guards had only one bullet for each prisoner, and since they were drunk, they didn't shoot very well. many were buried alive, just a thin layer of earth over them. In the morning, the earth in the pit was still moving.”
Varlam Shalamove, who spent 17 years in the camps, wrote in a short story in Kolyma Tales: “I believed a person could consider himself a human being as long as he felt totally prepared to kill himself...It was this awareness that provided the will to live. I checked myself—frequently—and I felt I had the strength to die, and thus remained alive.’
Prisoners in the Gulags
People were sent to Siberian labor camps for number of reasons. Some were ordinary criminals. Some were dissidents. Others were innocent people branded as “enemies of the people” for arbitrary reasons. Many were devout Communists who sincerely shout "Long Live Stalin" moments before they were executed.
The gulag population grew from 30,000 in 1928 to eight million at the height of the Stalin purges in 1938. In the early years many of the prisoners were farmers who resisted collectivization. Later dissidents and victims of the purges appeared. In World War II many were POWs and perceived collaborators. After the war many were soldiers from Eastern Europe and the Red Army who fought in Germany or repatriated Russians who has escaped the Soviet Union after the war and returned when after the war was over.
Solzhenitsyn estimated that only 10 percent of Stalin's victims were party or state officials. The remainder were primarily ordinary citizens—peasants, workers, intellectuals. Some were imprisoned for failing to die in German concentration camps. The gulag population in 1942 was 1,1777,043. Of these at least 352,560 died in captivity.
Crimes of Gulag Inmates
Many gulag victims were sent to the camps for minor crimes. Police were sent to the camps for not taking harsh enough measures to break up bar room brawls. Likahchev received a five year sentence without a trial for doing a satirical speech on the elimination of old style Russian spelling by the Bolsheviks. "I didn't even know exactly what the charges were.” he said.
One woman who spent most of life in and around the camps said she was first place there because she was deemed a “speculator.’ Her crime: she sold a dress for food. One man in a camp was sentenced to ten years for "praising capitalism" after saying American boots are better than Soviet boots. Aanother received the same sentence for buying a French topcoat on a trip abroad. Peasants were thrown in he gulags for stealing potatoes. Many of those sent to gulags were completely innocent.
After World War II the camps were filled with Russian soldiers whose only crime was the fact they were taken prisoner by the Germans. Other accused of "cosmopolitanism" and having too friendly views towards the West included any Russian who left during the war. Dissidents and victims of purges also continued to be sent to the camps after the war.
Many Poles were sent to Siberia. When Miroslaw Hentosz, a Polish saboteur who was arrested for blowing five train cars used for transporting prisoners, was told his sentence had been reduced from death to 20 years in prison he said would rather have been shot. Hentosz was sent to work at a coal mine where he said "people would swell up and die" and the diet was so lacking in vitamin he lost all his teeth. "I pulled them out with my fingers, he told Newsweek.
Transportation to the Gulags
Those that ended up in the Gulag archipelago were transported standing up in rail cars on journeys to the Far East that sometimes lasted for weeks. In Vladivostok and other port cities they were loaded onto ships for the final leg of the journey through the Sea of Okhotsk to Magaden, Describing the hold of ship that took him to White island, Likahchev said, "many people suffocated downstairs, many had diarrhea with blood. It was so crammed down there."
Describing the beginning of her boat trip to Magadan, Yevgenia Ginzburg wrote in Journey to the Whirlwind, “When I saw this half-naked, tattooed apelike horde invade the hold, I thought that it had been decided that we were to be killed off by mad women. The fetid air reverberated to their shrieks, their ferocious obscenities, their wild laughter and their caterwauling...Within five minutes we had a thorough introduction to the law of the jungle.”
The ships often got stuck in ice flows, sometimes for weeks. Thousand died when that happened. Bodies were tossed overboard onto the ice floes where they remained until the ice melted.
Hentosz spent 26 days in a cattle car during his journey to a Siberian camp. The prisoners were given salted herring, black bread and small rations of water. Many of died of thirst and were thrown on wagons.
Life in the Gulags
Gulag prisoners were known as zeks and many of them referred to the gulags as the zone. There were codes and special expressions used by the prisoners and the people who ran the camps. Among the administrators pregnant women were known as “books”; women with children were “receipts”; exiles were “rubbish”; men were “accounts”, and prisoners under investigation were “envelopes.” “Tufta” was a term used by prisoners to describe the act of pretending to work and “mastyrka” described the act of slacking off. Many Russian swear words and expressions originated in the camps.
Prisoners often slept four men to a pallet. Communication was achieved using an “alphabet” tapped on the walls of the cells. Prisoners kept up their spirits by singing songs loudly. Periodically guards threw in a scraps of bread or delivered a slop bucket with gruel. Many had tattoos. There were separate designs for rapists, murderers and political prisoners. Clothes were mended with buttons made from bits of chewed bread and sewing needles made from fish bones.
Prisoners were technically allowed to write one letter home a month but sadistic guards sometimes took away the letters before they were finished. One prisoner made a puppet for his daughter. The camp guards smashed to pieces, claiming it could have contained a secret message.
Prisoners in Siberia had to endure clouds of mosquitos and blood-sucking midges in the summer and -40°F temperature in paper thin clothes in the winter (if temperatures dropped below -50°they were allowed to stay inside). One survivor at a Siberia camp recalled” “the mosquitos crawled to our sleeves, under our trousers. One’s face would blow up from the bites. At the work site, we were brought lunch and it happened that as you as you were eating your soup, the mosquitos would fill up the bowl like buckwheat porridge. They filled up your eyes, your nose and throat, and taste of them was sweet, like blood. “
On a gulag in Moscow, The dissident Natan Sharansky told the New Yorker, “the cells in Lefortovo were some of the worst...You take a cup of hot water and put in spots all over your body to warm up in the cold. There is a tiny stool in the middle of the cell, and you can only sit for a few minutes a time...They threatened me...They talked about putting me to death, where they read me testimony of foreign corespondents that supposedly betrayed me.”
Food in the Gulags
There was a system that prisoners were fed based on their work output. Under this system the weak died of hunger and exposure and the strong help to build the industrial infrastructure of the state.
Food served in the camps included watery buckwheat gruel, spoiled cabbage, potatoes, black bread and weak tea. Sometimes the gruels and meals were fortified with pieces of pig fat, herring heads or fish and animal lungs. One prisoner told Newsweek, "You felt hungry all the time. The average daily intake was around 800 grams of bread, 20 of fat, 120 of cereal, 75 of fish and 27 of sugar—the equivalent of a sandwich and a bowl of soup. Rations were often cut.
Grass soup was one of the main foods in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Relatives were sometimes allowed to take food to prisoners but packages were searched for things like tools and razor blades which could be used in suicide attempts and escapes. Tea, coffee and chocolate were confiscated as stimulants which could trigger a rebellion.
Gulag Work Projects
The White Sea Baltic Canal (between the desolate town of Belomorsk and lake Onega) is a 130-mile-long waterway built through thick forests and swamps between the Baltic Sea and White Sea during the Stalin era between 1930 and 1933. The work was done mainly by gulag labor equipped with little more than shovels, pick axes and wheelbarrows. Over 200,000 people died, many from hunger and cold. Many were buried on banks of the canal.
A camp at Pelvozh near the Arctic Circle worked on a railroad they were told would stretch across the Arctic. Construction on the project stopped the day that Stalin died. In 1950, 5,700 prisoners were conscripted to build a secret railroad tunnel under the Tatar Strait from the Siberia mainland to Sakhalin Island. A 2225-foot-deep construction shaft was built. The project was canceled after Stalin’s death in 1953.
Some of the projects were preposterous. Rail lines were built through remotest forests and then abandoned. Dams were erected to try to change the course of rivers. Workers at one camp built a factory to extract vitamins from fir needles. Most died of malnourishment before the factory was completed.
Prisoners in the gulags were routinely sent into solitary confinement, exposed to bright lights and deprived of sleep. Guards played on these fears by subjecting prisoners to strip searches in the freezing cold, sometimes as often as five times a day
Punishments included beatings, torture and stints in shizo—a cold nine-foot-wide, wire-covered punishment cell that was entered through a hole only large enough for a an emaciated man or a small dog. At Solovetsky prisoners were forced to sit on a pole for 18 hours.
In an effort to secure forced confession prisoners were slashed with knives, burned with cigarettes, beaten savagely, and tortured with ice water. There were even reports of men being chained to a truck that moved at four mph. Either they kept up the pace or were dragged. One former prisoner told the New York Times, "I saw people suspended on iron hooks under their ribs. I saw German shepherd eating living human flesh.”
In Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum wrote: “An offender caught in the act of stealing bread would be tossed in the air by other prisoners and allowed to crash to the ground; this was repeated several times, damaging the kidneys. They would heave him out of the barracks like so much carrion.”
Self mutilation as also practiced. A human rights activist wrote that he witnessed people injecting themselves with dirty needles to induce infection and remain in the cold until they were frostbitten. He heard of one man who nailed his own testicle to a prison bench. A man who tried to seek asylum in Iran in the 1990s said that torture by freezing still existed although torture by hunger had ceased. Still concerned about suddenly being arrested, the man said he always carried a piece of bread in his pocket just in case.
Escape and Release from the Gulags
A Pole named Lt. Slavomor Rawicz, who had been captured by the Russians during the invasion of Poland by the Germans in 1939, managed to escape his Arctic Circle labor camp by climbing under a barbed wire fence and scaling a stockade. He managed to march southward through the heart of Siberia and across Mongolia and the Gobi Desert to Tibet. After crossing the Himalayas he made his way to freedom in India. Some escaping criminals took a political prisoner known as a "cow" with them during escape attempts to eat if food ran short.
People that were technically free remained at the camps because they had no place to go and did not have the documents to travel with. Many Stalin-era prisoners remained imprisoned until Stalin died. Alla B. Shister spent several years in labor camps. Her original name was Ella but the government even denied her that. "When I was released from a labor camp," she said, "The official wrote down my name as Alla. They said there is no such name as Ella in Russian. I insisted they change it. They said I'd have to stay for some time while they completed the new papers. I told them Allah was a fine name."
After the prisoners were released many had problems re-entering society. They found it difficult to get jobs and they were required to report to the police every week and stay home between 10:00pm and 6:00am. Those found work mainly doing menial jobs such as unloading trucks. Families of people sent to labor camps were denied access to higher education, good jobs and other privileges.
Mental Hospitals for Soviet-Era Dissidents
Many dissidents were sent to mental hospitals and institutionalized with the diagnosis vyalotekushchaya ("sluggish schizophrenia"), a term used describe the mental disorder of a person that seemed perfectly normal. The "disease" was treated with massive doses of powerful tranquilizers like Thoazine for "prophylactic" purposes.
In the Soviet era, the mental health profession was coopted for political purposes, namely to provide a reason to imprison political prisoners. Mental hospital were a place to incarcerate political prisoners and give them psychotropic drugs. They were given fake diagnoses and interrogated about their sanity with an outcome predetermined by the KGB.
Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The incarceration of free-thinking, healthy people in madhouses is spiritual murder.” Political prisoners, who were diagnosed with “slow-developing schizophrenia,” had symptoms that included “stubbornness and inflexibility of convictions” and “reformist delusions.” Among those sent to mental hospitals were dissidents who protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Sane dissidents were forced to share quarters with ravaging lunatics. Tortures to get sane inmates to admit they were ill included beatings, humiliations and injections with painful chemical that often caused the inmates to pass out. A favorite tactic was wrapping a patient in a 20 meter roll of wet bandages that cut off a person breathing and circulation as it dried. Documents show that people kept n punitive psychiatry hospitals died from overdoses of a blood-pressure drug.
One Hungarian who spent 55 years in captivity was placed in a gulag at the end of 1944 that was transformed to a mental hospital, where he remained until 2000. Patients released from mental hospital hospitals, even perfectly sane political dissidents in the Soviet era, were stripped of the right to get married, drive a car, buy a house, or travel abroad because they were declared insane by a state psychiatric hospital.
Scaling Down and Closure of the Gulags
After Stalin died considerably less people were sent to the gulags and fewer of them died. Many of the camps were torn down; those that remained standing were primarily located in places that were too difficult to reach.
Many gulags were closed down in the 1950s but the timber operations and gold and salt mines around which they were built survived. To work them Russians were attracted with wages three times higher than this in other places. Between 1953 and 1991, about 10,000 prisoners were sent to Siberian labor camps for political reason but thousands more were sent to mental hospitals.
In 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the release of "last 10" political prisoners a the camp near Perm. Among the last prisoners at Perm was one man sentenced to 15 years in 1978 for seeking asylum in Iran. Another was a man imprisoned for switching over to the mujahidin in Afghanistan. Another was sentenced to 13 years for planning to flee the Soviet Union in a crop duster.
In 1990 a team of French journalists headed by Jean-Pierre Vaudon visited one of the last Siberian Gulags. The only noise they heard was the sound of electric razors, prisoners reciting bible passages and the shutting of doors. Some prisoners they said passed out in front of their cameras and others hugged the walls.
The prisoners worked eight hours a day, six days a week for US$40 a month. Half was taken for board. If they refuse to work they were placed in a four-by-eight-foot cell with no blankets and only a wooden plank for a bed. Former dissident Natan Sharansky claims it was worse when he was a prisoner when they weren't even allowed to lay down.◘
In a 1995 survey only 34 percent of the high school students said they knew what a gulag was. One person guessed it was "the name of a ship." Perm-36, a labor camp in the Ural region near Perm, 700 miles eat of Moscow, has been transformed into a memorial like Buchenwald and Auschwitz.
Solzhenitsyn and the Gulags
The writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described gulag life in his books One Day in the Life of Ivan Desonvitch, Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward. After World War II, Solzhenitsyn went almost straight from the army to a labor camp. In February 1945, he was arrested at his battery command in East Prussia for calling Stalin a "gang leader" in a letter to a friend that was intercepted by the NKVD secret police.
In the 1940s and 50s, Solzhenitsyn spent eight years at a secret labor camp in what is now Kazakhstan and psychiatric institute in Moscow and spent three years in internal exile. Some of the buildings he participated in building as a a gulag laborer during four years to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow still stand on Leninsku Prospekt. He used his experiences to provide graphic descriptions of life in these camp in his books.
Solzhenitsyn's experiences as a prisoner were not as bad as they could have been. He was not tortured or viciously interrogated and he did not have to do hard labor in freezing weather in Siberia. After brief stints at a brick factory and clay pits, he alternated between periods of manual labor and scientific research assignments in which he had access to books and technical journals and worked with other intellectuals. He was allowed him occasional meetings with his wife.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was a description of one day in a Stalinist labor camp. It was a short book regarded as masterpiece for the immediacy of the language and the economy of the narrative. Grass soup was one of the main foods. The Gulag Archipelago is regarded as Solzhenitsyn's greatest work. Paul Gray of Time described it as the "most authoritative indictment of the Soviet system ever published, and it came from within the U.S.S.R." David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker, “It is impossible to name a book that had a greater affect on the political and moral consciousness of the late 20th century. Not only did Solzhenitsyn deliver the historical truth of the Gulag; he conveyed, as no else did, its demonic atmosphere and the psychology of both the prisoners and the guards.”
The Gulag Archipelago is massive book. It was published in the United States in three volumes by Harper & Row between 1974 and 1978. Tom Wolfe wrote that it revealed “for the first time the existence of this chain ("archipelago") of death mills...it was if the stake had been driven through the heart of Marxism. It was only a matter of time before the body and the tentacles rotted away."
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016