Gulag – Russian Concentration Camps

Gulag, acronym of Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagerey, (Russian: “Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps”), system of Soviet labour camps and accompanying detention and transit camps and prisons that from the 1920s to the mid-1950s housed the political prisoners and criminals of the Soviet Union. At its height, the Gulag imprisoned millions of people. The name Gulag had been largely unknown in the West until the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956 (1973), whose title likens the labour camps scattered through the Soviet Union to an island chain.

A system of forced-labour camps was first inaugurated by a Soviet decree of April 15, 1919, and underwent a series of administrative and organizational changes in the 1920s, ending with the founding of the Gulag in 1930 under the control of the secret police, OGPU (later, the NKVD and the KGB). The Gulag had a total inmate population of about 100,000 in the late 1920s, when it underwent an enormous expansion coinciding with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. By 1936 the Gulag held a total of 5,000,000 prisoners, a number that was probably equaled or exceeded every subsequent year until Stalin died in 1953. Besides rich or resistant peasants arrested during collectivization, persons sent to the Gulag included purged Communist Party members and military officers, German and other Axis prisoners of war (during World War II), members of ethnic groups suspected of disloyalty, Soviet soldiers and other citizens who had been taken prisoner or used as slave labourers by the Germans during the war, suspected saboteurs and traitors, dissident intellectuals, ordinary criminals, and many utterly innocent people who were hapless victims of Stalin’s purges.

Inmates filled the Gulag in three major waves: in 1929–32, the years of the collectivization of Soviet agriculture; in 1936–38, at the height of Stalin’s purges; and in the years immediately following World War II. Solzhenitsyn claimed that between 1928 and 1953 “some forty to fifty million people served long sentences in the Archipelago.” Figures supposedly compiled by the Gulag administration itself (and released by Soviet historians in 1989) show that a total of 10 million people were sent to the camps in the period from 1934 to 1947. The true figures remain unknown.

At its height the Gulag consisted of many hundreds of camps, with the average camp holding 2,000–10,000 prisoners. Most of these camps were “corrective labour colonies” in which prisoners felled timber, laboured on general construction projects (such as the building of canals and railroads), or worked in mines. Most prisoners laboured under the threat of starvation or execution if they refused. It is estimated that the combination of very long working hours, harsh climatic and other working conditions, inadequate food, and summary executions killed tens of thousands of prisoners each year. Western scholarly estimates of the total number of deaths in the Gulag in the period from 1918 to 1956 ranged from 1.2 to 1.7 million.

The Gulag started to shrink soon after Stalin’s death; hundreds of thousands of prisoners were amnestied from 1953 to 1957, by which time the camp system had returned to its proportions of the early 1920s. Indeed, the Gulag was officially disbanded; its activities were absorbed by various economic ministries, and the remaining camps were grouped in 1955 under a new body, GUITK (Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Kolony, or “Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Colonies”).

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, (born Dec. 11, 1918, Kislovodsk, Russia—died Aug. 3, 2008, Troitse-Lykovo, near Moscow), Russian novelist and historian, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.

Solzhenitsyn was born into a family of Cossack intellectuals and brought up primarily by his mother (his father was killed in an accident before his birth). He attended the University of Rostov-na-Donu, graduating in mathematics, and took correspondence courses in literature at Moscow State University. He fought in World War II, achieving the rank of captain of artillery; in 1945, however, he was arrested for writing a letter in which he criticized Joseph Stalin and spent eight years in prisons and labour camps, after which he spent three more years in enforced exile. Rehabilitated in 1956, he was allowed to settle in Ryazan, in central Russia, where he became a mathematics teacher and began to write.

Encouraged by the loosening of government restraints on cultural life that was a hallmark of the de-Stalinizing policies of the early 1960s, Solzhenitsyn submitted his short novel Odin den iz zhizni Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) to the leading Soviet literary periodical Novy Mir (“New World”). The novel quickly appeared in that journal’s pages and met with immediate popularity, Solzhenitsyn becoming an instant celebrity. Ivan Denisovich, based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences, described a typical day in the life of an inmate of a forced-labour camp during the Stalin era. The impression made on the public by the book’s simple, direct language and by the obvious authority with which it treated the daily struggles and material hardships of camp life was magnified by its being one of the first Soviet literary works of the post-Stalin era to directly describe such a life. The book produced a political sensation both abroad and in the Soviet Union, where it inspired a number of other writers to produce accounts of their imprisonment under Stalin’s regime.

Solzhenitsyn’s period of official favour proved to be short-lived, however. Ideological strictures on cultural activity in the Soviet Union tightened with Nikita Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964, and Solzhenitsyn met first with increasing criticism and then with overt harassment from the authorities when he emerged as an eloquent opponent of repressive government policies. After the publication of a collection of his short stories in 1963, he was denied further official publication of his work, and he resorted to circulating them in the form of samizdat (“self-published”) literature—i.e., as illegal literature circulated clandestinely—as well as publishing them abroad.

The following years were marked by the foreign publication of several ambitious novels that secured Solzhenitsyn’s international literary reputation. V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle) was indirectly based on his years spent working in a prison research institute as a mathematician. The book traces the varying responses of scientists at work on research for the secret police as they must decide whether to cooperate with the authorities and thus remain within the research prison or to refuse their services and be thrust back into the brutal conditions of the labour camps. Rakovy korpus (1968; Cancer Ward) was based on Solzhenitsyn’s hospitalization and successful treatment for terminally diagnosed cancer during his forced exile in Kazakhstan during the mid-1950s. The main character, like Solzhenitsyn himself, was a recently released inmate of the camps.

In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he declined to go to Stockholm to receive the prize for fear he would not be readmitted to the Soviet Union by the government upon his return. His next novel to be published outside the Soviet Union was Avgust 1914 (1971; August 1914), a historical novel treating Germany’s crushing victory over Russia in their initial military engagement of World War I, the Battle of Tannenburg. The novel centred on several characters in the doomed 1st Army of the Russian general A.V. Samsonov and indirectly explored the weaknesses of the tsarist regime that eventually led to its downfall by revolution in 1917.

In December 1973 the first parts of Arkhipelag Gulag (The Gulag Archipelago) were published in Paris after a copy of the manuscript had been seized in the Soviet Union by the KGB. (Gulag is an acronym formed from the official Soviet designation of its system of prisons and labour camps.) The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn’s attempt to compile a literary-historical record of the vast system of prisons and labour camps that came into being shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia (1917) and that underwent an enormous expansion during the rule of Stalin (1924–53). Various sections of the work describe the arrest, interrogation, conviction, transportation, and imprisonment of the Gulag’s victims as practiced 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 Feb. 12, 1974. Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union on the following day, and in December he took possession of his Nobel Prize.

In 1975 a documentary novel, Lenin v Tsyurikhe: glavy (Lenin in Zurich: Chapters), appeared, as did Bodalsya telyonok s dubom (The Oak and the Calf), an autobiographical account of literary life in the Soviet Union. The second and third volumes of The Gulag Archipelago were published in 1974–75. Solzhenitsyn traveled to the United States, where he eventually settled on a secluded estate in Cavendish, Vt. The brief The Mortal Danger (1980), translated from an essay Solzhenitsyn wrote for the journal Foreign Affairs, analyzes what he perceived to be the perils of American misconceptions about Russia. In 1983 an extensively expanded and revised version of August 1914 appeared in Russian as the first part of a projected series, Krasnoe koleso (The Red Wheel); other volumes (or uzly [“knots”]) in the series were Oktyabr 1916 (“October 1916”), Mart 1917 (“March 1917”), and Aprel 1917 (“April 1917”).

In presenting alternatives to the Soviet regime, Solzhenitsyn tended to reject Western emphases on democracy and individual freedom and instead favoured the formation of a benevolent authoritarian regime that would draw upon the resources of Russia’s traditional Christian values. The introduction of glasnost (“openness”) in the late 1980s brought renewed access to Solzhenitsyn’s work in the Soviet Union. In 1989 the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir published the first officially approved excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship was officially restored in 1990.

Solzhenitsyn ended his exile and returned to Russia in 1994. He subsequently made several public appearances and even met privately with Russian Pres. Boris Yeltsin. In 1997 Solzhenitsyn established an annual prize for writers contributing to the Russian literary tradition. Installments of his autobiography, Ugodilo zernyshko promezh dvukh zhernovov: ocherki izgnaniia (“The Little Grain Managed to Land Between Two Millstones: Sketches of Exile”), were published from 1998 to 2003, and his history of Russian Jews, Dvesti let vmeste, 1795–1995 (“Two Hundred Years Together”), was published in 2001–02. In 2007 Solzhenitsyn was awarded Russia’s prestigious State Prize for his contribution to humanitarian causes.

The Gulag Archipelago, history and memoir of life in the Soviet Union’s prison camp system by Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, first published in Paris as Arkhipelag GULag in three volumes (1973–75). The word Gulag is a Russian acronym for the Soviet government agency that supervised the vast network of labour camps. Solzhenitsyn used the word archipelago as a metaphor for the camps, which were scattered through the sea of civil society like a chain of islands extending “from the Bering Strait almost to the Bosporus.”

The Gulag Archipelago is an exhaustive and compelling account based on Solzhenitsyn’s own eight years in Soviet prison camps, on other prisoners’ stories committed to his photographic memory while in detention, and on letters and historical sources. The work represents the author’s attempt to compile a literary and historical record of the Soviet regime’s comprehensive but deeply irrational use of terror against its own population. A testimonial to Stalinist atrocities, The Gulag Archipelago devastated readers outside the Soviet Union with its descriptions of the brutality of the Soviet regime. The book gave new impetus to critics of the Soviet system and caused many sympathizers to question their position.

The first two volumes describe the arrest, conviction, transport, and imprisonment of the Gulag’s victims from 1918 to 1956. Solzhenitsyn alternates dispassionate historical exposition with harrowing personal accounts from prison life. The third volume documents attempted escapes and subversions from within the system.

After the first volume was published in Paris in 1973, the official Soviet press virulently denounced Solzhenitsyn, who was arrested and exiled from the country in February 1974. He dedicated the book “to all those who did not live to tell it” and donated the proceeds from its sale to the Russian Social Fund for Persecuted Persons and Their Families.

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