The Russian Gulag always seems to come across to people as just one, big, nasty prison. But that is very far from reality. In actuality, the Gulag is (or was) an organization. The Russian roughly translates to “Main Camp Administration”. What does camp administration have to do with this organization?
Well the Gulag had a gigantic network of prisons, and forced, hard labour camps. And the conditions in both these camps, and prisons were absolutely appalling. There was rampant starvation, brutally cold Winters, prisoner uprisings, massive purges…again: absolutely appalling.
And there was no brief time frame where these camps were used. Russia had long been a declining nation, full of peasants, and poverty. The easiest way authorities could think to get back on the right track? Prison labour of course. Economically this might have been a little bit of a lifeline for Russia…but on a human rights violation scale..well they tipped the scale so far that it toppled over.
At first glance, one might be inclined to look at this skeletal group of men, and say that they are Jewish, and from one of the concentration camps. But that would be false. These maybe slightly less starved men are from one of many Gulag prisons. Why were they likely slightly less starved than their Jewish counterparts? Well, the goal was never to necessarily kill all prisoners within the Gulag. The goal was to spend virtually nothing on them, and put them to work. If they were dangerously close to dying of starvation, the authorities would often release them from the prisons, or labour camps, to fend for themselves. After all, they were spending enough resources on thin broth. Why spend more money on disposing of bodies? And about that thin broth: prisoners were fed on a sliding scale. The more work you did, the slightly better you were fed. If you had several days of poor work…you’d like not end up making it.
14. Death Toll
Now this number is all over the place. And there are very clear reasons as to why that is. Russia has never been the most forthcoming country when it comes to their dealings with others. And they never truly cared to keep proper records (and if they did, they clearly made up stats for the public anyway). Nazi Germany, on the other hand, kept very precise records. Of course Russia hasn’t been conquered, and therefore books remain closed. The apparently declassified number from Russian authorities is 1,053,829 dead, in total. But given the number of death during slave labour, infrastructure projects. Not to mention those released from prison on the verge of death…and those who were part of the Great Purge…and attempts to cover up the magnitude of some mass graves: the death toll is almost without a doubt much higher than this oddly specific number.
13. John Birges
Having served with the Luftwaffe during World War II, Hungarian John Birges was captured in 1948, by the Russians. Sentenced to twenty five years of hard labour in Siberia, it was almost certain that he would not survive the duration. He managed to make it a full nine years, before he managed to construct a bomb to blow his way out of the Siberian Gulag. Escaping to the U.S., Birges gambled away all of his money (and much more), and was left with nothing. So he came up with a booming plan. He delivered one 1,000lbs of dynamite to the Harvey’s Resort, where he lost the money. He demanded 3 million dollars, or else he’d blow the place up. Well, the police tried to stop the explosive, by blowing up the trigger…which detonated the bomb, causing the damage above. No one was hurt, and Birges was caught. What happens in the Gulag, should stay in the Gulag: including arson.
12. Kengir Uprising
This is simultaneously one of the greatest, and more horrifying moments in Gulag history. Most Gulag prisons contained “political” prisoners of some sort. Essentially anyone the authorities saw a threat. Which could mean almost anyone. But often actual, hardened criminals would be thrown in to basically control the political prisoners, and stop uprisings. Well this failed at Kengir. Criminals, and political prisoners united. Over 5,000 prisoners drove the guards from the prison camp. And suddenly they built hydroelectric systems, held weddings, put on plays…they built a society. However, forty days later, the Red Army arrived with 1,700 troops, with tanks, and dogs. The government said only dozens were killed, but prisoners reported hundreds. Many committed suicide to avoid the harsh punishment they expected from the authorities.
11. Mass Graves
Now not all of the mass graves in Russia are to do with the Gulag. Fifteen sizeable graves have now been opened (the last as late as 2010). These graves are from all manner of horrors during Soviet reign. From Stalin’s Great Purge, to the dumping of prison camp corpses. Of course Russia’s greatest ally has always been the ability to deflect blame, so Nazi Germany was a perfect cover for much of the terror. But now we know of graves that range from 1,000 bodies, to a staggering 225,000 bodies. That is no small number, either way. But this was largely covered up, or not cared about, as Russia had never truly been a close friend of the Allies. And much of the time in which the Gulag camps and prisons were running, so to was the Cold War. So the Allies cared even less about what was happening to citizens in Russia.
10. So Many Camps!
If you think that the Third Reich really had an incredible number of death camps, setup for the extermination of whole peoples. Just imagine the number of labour camps Russia had setup for the building of infrastructure, and distancing of undesirables. Seriously take this moment to guess. There were over fifty Gulag camps, and prisons (though sometimes they were muddled with the over five hundred POW camps during the war)! Imagine fifty of these places, where people resorted to eating rats, and dogs (if they were lucky enough). Where people were just booted into the cold so they didn’t die within the walls of the camp. Where you had to endure hard labour, beatings, starvation, and disease. For years! There were enough people incarcerated in Russia, to warrant fifty such facilities. And for all of that, you’d think their infrastructure might have been doing better.
9. B*tch Wars
So it’s always been sort of a code among criminals that you never cooperate with the authorities. Those who do are often shunned in prison. Well it worked the same way in Russia apparently. Even when it came to defending the nation, as a whole. For a reduction in sentence at the Gulag, prisoners could join the Red Army, and fight on the front lines. The obvious intent here was to use the “scum of the Earth” as tank fodder. Helping make way for real soldiers (those who were left). If they managed to survive, and return to the Gulag, their reduced sentence counted for little. They were deemed b*tches, and were regularly attacked by the rest of the prison population. Even to the point of brick, and shovel beating. If they didn’t die from hard labour, or from fighting on the front…they died at the hands of their cellmates.
8. The White Sea Canal
Regarding the building of infrastructure, the White Sea Canal, which stretched 227km (141miles), was built entirely through slave labour. Or rather, during labour sentences, by prisoners. Which, in this case, is another way of saying slave labour. This massive canal was built in only twenty months, in the early thirties. There were no machines to aid in the production. There were only prisoners, and their axes, shovels, and barrows. Because this canal was built entirely by prisoners, this meant that engineers of the canal were also prisoners. So it was too shallow for big ships to even get through anyway. And it began to crumble well before it was even finished. The most depressing part of this? The low-ball estimate of the Gulag death count here was 25,000. Higher estimates go as far up as 100,000. What a waste of people, and products.
7. 101st Kilometre
So let’s say someone actually managed to get out of the Gulag; managed to serve their entire sentence. What then? They certainly weren’t released with money in their pockets. Or food in the bellies. And both of those things were even harder to find once released. Why? Because of what has been called the 101st kilometre. This is essentially (or at least was) a Russian law that basically did the same thing the Gulag worked to do as well. It kept what the authorities deemed undesirables, away from city centres. So even if a prisoner managed to survive their entire sentence, they would not be able to even get close to cities. They basically would be confined to the rural areas of Russia. These areas were already poor and starving as well, over most of the time the Gulag was running camps and prisons. So they may not have been death camps like Auschwitz, or Buchenwald, but they certainly didn’t care about life.
6. So Many Prisoners!
There are about fifteen different estimates regarding just how many people suffered through the Gulag over the years. And they range all over the place. Thankfully though, not even the Russian authorities put the estimate at anything lower than one million. The lowest estimate is 2.3 million people, for only December of 1937. And given that Russia said the number of deaths from the Gulag were over 1 million, it’s no small wonder that one month would be guessed to have more than twice as many as that. The highest estimate for number of people who have gone through the Gulag system (whether they survived or not), is 50 million! Now to be fair, that’s regarding everyone to have ever gone through the system. Either way, think of how many were killed in the Holocaust…then multiply that by many times, and that’s not how many died in the Gulag…but how many damn near did.
5. Alexander Dolgun
Alexander Dolgun is one hell of a man. He was actually born in the United States, so you might wonder what he has to do with the Gulag. Well, his father traveled with his family to work for Moscow Automotive Works, in Russia. He lived through the Great Purge, and began working at the U.S. Embassy at the outbreak of World War II. Of course, working so closely with Americans, the Russian authorities incarcerated Dolgun on suspicion of conspiracy. He was tortured (and so were his parents, which drove his mother insane). Then even after the authorities decided that he was no part of a conspiracy, he was sent to work in a copper mine! He was shown to be innocent, and then sent to a labour camp, after torture. He was finally freed after Stalin died (his parents also dead), moved back to the U.S., and died at the young age of 59.
4. Gruelling Winters
Ok, so there are television shows out there where people are given a certain amount of gear, and are left to fend for themselves in the cold, and bitter Winter. Now imagine such a show. But there’s no survival gear. There’s hardly any food. The clothing is incredible inadequate. And maybe there aren’t even any gloves for hands to do hard work. That’s what the people going through the Gulag prison had to endure every Winter season. Hell, if they were unfortunate enough to be in a prison or camp in Siberia, that’s essentially what they dealt with every day. Siberia’s average annual temperature is -5 degrees Celsius. Most people in the West get out their Canada Goose Arctic wear before it even hits zero degrees. Even just living would be so difficult with virtually nothing but a thin broth to keep warm. And then sweating in the cold as well…it’s no wonder the death toll rose among Gulag prisoners during the Winter.
3. The Great Purge
So basically, Stalin was a complete mental case. He was paranoid about absolutely everything. Because he wanted absolute power. He was so paranoid, that this photo is actually missing something. There was originally a man in this shot, who was “erased” from Russian history, while Stalin was in power. Stalin rounded up political prisoners, criminals, Soviet authorities…people from every walk of life. Then he either imprisoned, or killed all of them. He kept the killing going as well, but the Great Purge was a state run campaign of incarceration and death that affected the slums, and the state alike. Imagine how many people were easily killed from the Gulag. Then reread the entry on mass graves above. There is no wonder how, and why so many people were put through the Gulag system. It was a very effective tool that already existed to help Stalin consolidate his paranoid power.
2. The Gulag Archipelago
Thanks to brave, and surprisingly strong people like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, we have first hand accounts of just what happened in the Gulag system. His book trilogy The Gulag Archipelago recounts his experiences in the system, as well as the accounts of others (including Alexander Dolgun). And he was writing this in Russia! And the authorities, rather than throwing him back into the system, attempted to use intimidation, and torture to stop him. They tortured one of his typists until she gave up the location of one of his manuscripts. And she was so mortified, and guilt-ridden that she hung herself shortly thereafter. So encompassing was the Gulag system, and it’s knowledge of those who did manage to be released. But now, Solzhenitsyn’s trilogy is required reading in Russian schools…which is amazing, especially considering who their leader is.
1. Leon Theremin
So I had to end this article on a bittersweet note. Or many notes in this case. Leon Theremin, is the inventor of an early electronic instrument that bears his name. By the age of twenty four, he was performing concerts with his brilliant creation. He toured Europe and the U.S., it was so incredible. When he was forty two, he traveled back to the USSR because of money issues, and upcoming war. Almost upon arrival, he was arrested, imprisoned, then sent to work a gold mine. Eventually they realized how much of a genius he truly was, and they brought him to a facility to work on surveillance bugs that ended up being used on the U.S. He continued to work with the KGB until 1966, and then was able to finally continue to live his life. He died in 1993, at the extraordinary age of 97!