Gulag (Russian: ГУЛАГ Template:Audio, an acronym for Главное Управление Исправительно— Трудовых Лагерей и колонии, "Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey i kolonii", "The Chief Directorate [or Administration] of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies") was the branch of the Soviet internal police and security service that operated the penal system of forced labour camps and associated detention and transit camps and prisons. While these camps housed criminals of all types, the Gulag system has become primarily known as a place for political prisoners and as a mechanism for repressing political opposition to the Soviet state. Though it imprisoned millions, the name became familiar in the West only with the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1973 The Gulag Archipelago, which likened the scattered camps to a chain of islands.



Some authors refer to all prisons and camps throughout Soviet history (1917–1991) as the Gulags. Also, the term's modern usage is often notably unrelated to the USSR: for example, in such expressions as "North Korea's gulag (,2763,1136483,00.html)", or even "America's Private Gulag (". Note that the original Russian acronym, never in plural, described not a single camp, but the government institution in charge of the entire camp system.

The term "corrective labor camp" was suggested for official use by the politburo session of July 27, 1929, as a replacement of the term concentration camp, commonly used until that time.

A colloquial name for a Soviet Gulag inmate was "zeka", "zek". In Russian, "inmate", "incarcerated" is "заключённый", zaklyuchonny, usually abbreviated to 'з/к' in paperwork, pronounced as 'зэка' (zeh-KA), gradually transformed into 'зэк' and to 'зек'. The word is still in colloquial use, irrelevant to labour camps. 'з/к' initially was an acronym standing for "заключенный каналостроитель", "zaklyuchonny kanalostroitel'" (incarcerated canal-builder), originating to the Volga-Don Canal slave workforce members. Later the term was backronymed to mean just "zaklyuchonny".


In addition to the most common category of camps that practiced hard physical labour and prisons of various sorts, other forms also existed.

  • A unique form of Gulag camps called sharashka (шарашка, the goofing-off place) were in fact secret research laboratories, where the arrested and convicted scientists, some of them prominent, were anonymously developing new technologies, and also conducting basic research.
  • Psikhushka (психушка, the nut house), the forced medical treatment in psychiatric imprisonment was used, in lieu of camps, to isolate and break down political prisoners. This practice became much more common after the official dismantling of the Gulag system. See Vladimir Bukovsky, Pyotr Grigorenko.
  • Special camps or zones for children (Gulag jargon: "малолетки", maloletki, underaged), for disabled (in Spassk), and for mothers ("мамки", mamki) with babies. These categories were considered as not producing any useful outcome and often subjected to more abuse.
  • Camps for "wifes of traitors of Motherland" (there was a special category of repressed: "Traitor of Motherland Family Member" (ЧСИР, член семьи изменника Родины)).
  • Under the supervision of Lavrenty Beria who headed both NKVD and the Soviet Atom bomb program until his demise in 1953, thousands of zeks were used to mine uranium ore and prepare test facilities on Novaya Zemlya, Vaygach Island, Semipalatinsk, among other sites. Reports even state that Gulag prisoners were used in early nuclear tests (the first was conducted in Semipalatinsk in 1949) in decontaminating radioactive areas and nuclear submarines.


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Soviet poster of the 1920s: The GPU strikes on the head the counter-revolutionary saboteur

From 1918 camp-type detention facilities were set up, as a reformed extension of earlier labour camps (katorgas), operated in Siberia as a part of penal system in Imperial Russia. The two main types were "Vechecka Special-purpose Camps" ("особые лагеря ВЧК") and forced labor camps (лагеря принудительных работ). They were installed for various categories of people deemed dangerous for the state: for common criminals, for prisoners of the Russian Civil War, for officials accused of corruption, sabotage and embezzlement, various political enemies and dissidents, as well as former aristocrats, businessmen and large land owners.

The legal base and the guidance for the creation of the system of "corrective labor camps" (Russian: "исправительно-трудовые лагеря", "Ispravitel'no-trudovye lagerya"), the backbone of what is commonly referred to as the "Gulag," was a secret decree of Sovnarkom of July 11 1929 about the utilization of penal labor (see its wikisource reference), that duplicated the corresponding appendix to the minutes of Politburo meeting of June 27, 1929.

As an all-Union institution and a main administration with the OGPU, the Soviet Secret Police, the GULAG was officially established on April 25, 1930 as the "ULAG" by the OGPU order 130/63 in accordance with the Sovnarkom order 22 p. 248 dated April 7, 1930, and was renamed into GULAG in November.

In the early 1930s, a drastic tightening of Soviet penal policy caused a significant growth of the prison camp population. During the period of the Great Terror (1937-1938), mostly arbitrary mass arrests caused another upsurge in inmate numbers. During these years, hundreds of thousands of individuals were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms on the grounds of one of the multiple passages of the notorious Article 58 of the Criminal Codes of the Union republics, which sanctioned various forms of "counterrevolutionary activities."

The hypothesis that economic considerations were responsible for mass arrests during the period of Stalinism has been refuted on the grounds of former Soviet archives that have become accessible since the 1990s. Nevertheless, the development of the camp system followed economic lines. (To "corrective labor colonies" this applies to a much lesser extent, to special settlements almost not at all.) The growth of the camp system coincided with the peak of the Soviet industrialization campaign. Hence, most of the camps established to accommodate the masses of incoming prisoners were assigned distinct economic tasks. These included the exploitation of natural resources and the colonization of remote areas as well as the realization of enormous infrastructural facilities and industrial construction projects.

In 1931–32, Gulag had approximately 200,000 prisoners in the camps; in 1935 — approximately 800,000 in camps and 300,000 in colonies (annual averages), and in 1939 about 1.3 millions in camps and 350,000 in colonies. By contrast, the US prisoner labourer population (on chain gangs and in prisons) remained around a few hundred thousand prisoners.

During World War II, Gulag populations declined sharply, owing to mass releases of hundreds of thousands of prisoners who were conscripted and sent directly to the front lines (often into penal batalions, special military units thrown into the most dangerous battles, and majority of whom were killed during fighting), but mainly due to a steep rise in mortality in 1942–43. After WWII the number of inmates in prison camps and colonies rose again sharply and reached the number of approximately 2.5 million people by the early 1950s (about 1.7 millions of whom in camps). While some of these were deserters and war criminals, there were also repatriated Russians prisoners of war and "Eastern workers", were universally accused of treason and "cooperation with an enemy" (formally, they did work for Nazis). Large numbers of civilians from the Russian territories which came under foreign occupation, as well as from the territories annexed by the Soviet Union after the war were also sent there. It was not uncommon for the survivors of Nazi camps to be transported directly to the Soviet labour camps.

For years after WWII, a significant minority of the inmates were Balts and Ukrainians from lands newly incorporated into the USSR, as well as Finns, Poles, Romanians and other people from foreign countries "liberated" by the Red Army. POWs, in contrast, were kept in a separate camp system, which was managed by a separate main administration with the NKVD/MVD.

The state continued to maintain the camp system for a while after Stalin's death in March of 1953. The subsequent amnesty program was limited to those who had to serve at most 5 years, therefore mostly those convicted of common crimes were then freed. The releases of political prisoners started in 1954 and became widespread, and also coupled with mass rehabilitations, after Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism in his Secret Speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February, 1956. By the end of the 1950s, however, virtually all "corrective labor camps" were dissolved. Colonies, however, continued to exist.

Officially the GULAG was liquidated by the MVD order 20 of January 25, 1960.

The total documentable deaths in the system of corrective-labor camps and colonies from 1930 to 1956 amount to 1,606,748, including political and common prisoners; note that this does not include more than 800,000 executions of "counterrevolutionaries" during the period of the "Great Terror", since they were mostly conducted outside the camp system and were accounted for separately. From 1932 to 1940, at least 390,000 peasants died in places of labor settlements. The number of people who were prisoners at one point or the other is, of course, much larger, and one may assume that many of the survivors suffered permanent physical and psychological damage. Deaths at some camps are documented more thoroughly than those at others.


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Prisoner labour at the construction of Belomorkanal, 1931—1933

Extreme production quotas, brutality, hunger and harsh elements were major reasons for Gulag's high fatality rate, which was as high as 80% during the first months in many camps.

Logging and mining were among the most common of activities, as well as the harshest. In a Gulag mine, one person's production quota might be as high as 29,000 pounds (13,000 kg) of ore per day. Failure to meet a quota resulted in a loss of vital rations, a cycle that usually had fatal consequences through a condition of being emaciated and devitalized, dubbed "dohodyaga" (доходяга).

Inmates were often forced to work in inhuman conditions. In spite of the brutal climate, they were almost never adequately clothed, fed, or given medical treatment, nor were they given any means to combat the lack of vitamins that led to nutritional diseases such as scurvy. The nutritional value of basic daily food ration varied around 1,200 calories (5,000 kilojoules), mainly from low-quality bread (distributed by weight and called "пайка", paika). According to the World Health Organization, the minimum requirement for a heavy labourer is in the range of 3,100–3,900 calories (13,000 to 16,300 kJ) daily.

Administrators routinely stole from the camp stockpiles for personal gain, as well as to curry favor with superiors. As a result, inmates were forced to work even harder to make up the difference. Administrators and trusties (inmates assigned to perform the duties servicing the camp itself, such as cooks, bakers or stockmen, dubbed "pridurki") skimmed off the medicines, clothing and the most nutritious foodstuffs.


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Vorkuta entrance circa early 1950s. The sign reads: "Labour in the USSR is a matter of honour, glory, pride and heroism". Compare with Arbeit macht frei or American dream.

In the early days of Gulag the locations for the camps were chosen primarily for the ease of isolation of prisoners. Remote monasteries in particular were frequently reused as sites for new camps. The site on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea is one of the earliest and also most noteworthy, taking root soon after the Revolution in 1918. The colloquial name for the islands, "Solovki", entered the vernacular as a synonym for the labour camp in general. It was being presented to the world as an example of the new Soviet way of "re-education of class enemies" and reintegrating them through labour into the Soviet society. Initially the inmates, the significant part being Russian intelligentsia, enjoyed relative freedom (within the natural confinement of the islands). Local newspapers and magazines were edited and even some scientific research was carried out (e.g., a local botanical garden was maintained, unfortunately lost completely). Eventually it turned into an ordinary Gulag camp; in fact some historians maintain that Solovki was a pilot camp of this type. See Solovki for more detail.

With the new emphasis on Gulag as the means of concentrating cheap labour, new camps were then constructed throughout the Soviet sphere of influence, wherever the economic task at hand dictated their existence (or was designed specifically to avail itself of them, such as Belomorkanal or Baikal Amur Mainline), including facilities in big cities — parts of the famous Moscow Metro and the Moscow State University new campus were built by forced labour. Many more projects during the rapid industrialization of the 1930s, war-time and post-war periods were fulfilled on the backs of convicts, and the activity of Gulag camps spanned a wide cross-section of Soviet industry.

The majority of Gulag camps were positioned in extremely remote areas of north-eastern Siberia (the best known clusters are Sevvostlag (The North-East Camps) along Kolyma river and Norillag near Norilsk) and in the south-eastern parts of the Soviet Union, mainly in the steppes of Kazakhstan (Luglag, Steplag, Peschanlag). These were vast and uninhabited regions with no roads (in fact, the construction of the roads themselves was assigned to the inmates of specialized railroad camps) or sources of food, but rich in minerals and other natural resources (such as timber). However, camps were generally spread throughout the entire Soviet Union, including the European parts of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. There were also several camps located outside of the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Mongolia, which were under the direct control of the Gulag.

Not all camps were fortified; in fact some in Siberia were marked only by posts. Escape was deterred by the harsh elements, as well as tracking dogs that were assigned to each camp. While during the 1920s and 1930s native tribes often aided escapees, many of the tribes were also victimized by escaped thieves. Tantalized by large rewards as well, they began aiding authorities in the capture of Gulag inmates. Camp guards were also given stern incentive to keep their inmates in line at all costs; if a prisoner escaped under a guard's watch, the guard would often be stripped of his uniform and become a Gulag inmate himself.

In some cases, teams of inmates were dropped to a new territory with a limited supply of resources and left to initiate a new camp or die. Sometimes it took a few attempts before the next wave of colonists could survive the elements.

The area along the Indigirka river was known as the Gulag inside the Gulag. The Oymyakon (Оймякон) village there registered the record low temperature of −71.2C (−96F).



The Gulag spanned nearly four decades of Soviet history and affected millions of individuals. Its cultural impact was enormous.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago was not the first literary work about labour camps. His previous book on the subject, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", about a typical day of the GULAG inmate, was originally published in the most prestigious Soviet monthly, "Novij Mir", "New World", in November of 1962, but was soon banned and withdrawn from all libraries. It was the first work to demonstrate the Gulag as an instrument of governmental repression against its own citizens on a massive scale.

The Gulag has become a major influence on contemporary Russian thinking, and an important part of modern Russian folklore. Many songs by the authors-performers known as the bards, most notably Vladimir Vysotsky and Alexander Galich, neither of whom ever served time in the camps, describe life inside the Gulag and glorified the life of "Zeks". Words and phrases which originated in the labor camps became part of the Russin/Soviet vernacular in the 60's and 70's.

The memoirs of Alexander Dolgun, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov and Yevgenia Ginzburg, among others, became a symbol of defiance in Soviet society. These writings, particularly those of Solzhenitsyn, harshly chastised the Soviet people for their tolerance and apathy regarding the Gulag, but at the same time provided a testament to the courage and resolve of those who were imprisoned.

Another cultural phenomenon in the USSR linked with the Gulag was the forced migration of many artists and other people of culture to Siberia. This resulted in a Renaissance of sorts in places like Magadan, where, for example, the quality of theatre production was comparable to that found in Moscow.


Soviet state documents show that among the goal of GULAG was colonization of sparsely populated remote areas. To this end, the notion of "free settlement" was introduced.

When a well-behaved person had served the majority of their term, they could be released for "free settlement" (вольное поселение, "volnoye poseleniye") outside the confinement of the camp. They were known as "free settlers" (вольнопоселенцы, "volnoposelentsy", not to be confused with the term ссыльнопоселенцы, "sslylnoposelentsy", "exile settlers"). In addition, for persons who served full term, but who were denied the free choice of place of residence, it was recommended to assign them for "free settlement" and give them land in the general vicinity of the place of confinement.

This implement was also inherited from the katorga system.

Life after term served

Persons who served a term in a camp or in a prison were restricted from taking a wide range of jobs. A concealment of a previous imprisonment was a triable offense. Persons who served terms as "politicals" were nuisances for "First Departments ("Pervyj Otdel", outlets of the secret police at all enterprises and institutions), because former "politicals" had to be monitored.

Many people released from camps were restricted from settling in larger cities.

After serving long terms, many people had lost their former job skills and social contacts. Therefore upon final release many of them voluntarily decided to become (or stay) "free settlers". This decision was also influenced by the knowledge of the restrictions for them everywhere else. When many of the previously released prisoners were re-seized during the wave of arrests that began in 1947, this happened much more often to those who had chosen to move back to their home town proximity rather than to those who remained near the camps as the free settlers.

Latest developments

Template:NPOV-section Anne Applebaum's monograph described the releases of political prisoners from the camps as late as 1987. In November 1991 the Russian parliament, the Supreme Soviet of RSFSR, passed the "Declaration of Rights and Freedoms of the Individual" which guaranteed theoretically, among other liberties, the right to disagree with the government.

In May 2005, Amnesty International, in its annual report on global human rights [1] (, declared the United States worldwide network of secret prisons along with the more visible facility at Guantanamo Bay (Camp X-Ray) to be "the gulag of our times"[2] ( The organization complains that suspects in the War on Terror are being held indefinitely without charges and without access to lawyers and family members. William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty's Washington branch, said that "in some cases, at least, we know they are being mistreated, abused, tortured and even killed."


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