In the period 1930-55, a directorate ran the Soviet Union’s prison camps. The Gulag Directorate. Today, the prison camps are often referred to as Gulag camps. These camps were important in the Soviet economy in some areas. Ordinary criminal, opposition, ethnic groups and after the war also Germans were placed in the camps. The prisoners were exploited for slave labor in Siberia, in arms production, in agriculture, in factories. The Soviet economy was largely built by the work of the concentration camps. Over 1.7 million lost their lives in the camps.
The purpose of the Gulag camps
The purpose of the camps was not pure death camps as we saw Germany created during World War II. The goal was to run improvement institutions. The prisoners were to be educated and re-intrigued in society as good Soviet citizens.
Conditions in the tenants varied greatly. Some camps, especially those furthest from Moscow, were appalling. Extremely hard work that varied greatly in content and length from camp to camp, combined with poor and far too little food and in some zones such as Siberia, a climate that was very harsh.
The number who lost their lives in the camps also varies with time. During the period when there was famine as a result of a misguided or willful policy on the Ukrainian (mainly) peasantry, mortality increased as a result of partly food shortages and partly reprisals directed at Ukrainians. We also see a sharp increase in the number of deaths during the great terror of 1937-38. Finally, we see another sharp increase in the number of deaths during World War II.
Ordinary laws were not applicable in the Gulag camps. Other laws that included everything from punitive methods to how long a working day lasted were up to each camp. Why the individual was in the camps was also crucial fro the treatment. An opposition member had a very tough stay in the camps.
As so often, it was especially tough for the women. Some women were allowed to keep their children in the camps, but the food of one person was also to keep the children. An already small meal made it impossible for many women. Buying a guard, as the women themselves said, was not uncommon. Buying a guard meant giving sex in exchange for some food.
For many women, however, it was not possible to take their children to a Gulag camp. The children were then sent away and later adopted. The women never saw the children again. When World War II ended, between 250,000 and 350,000 women and men were deported from the eastern areas of Germany. Many of these were women, many of them under the age of 18. They had done nothing wrong but be Germans. A kind of war booty that was to help build the Soviet Union. For 4 years they were in Stalin’s concentration camps. It is estimated that half of the women died.
In 1962, the book “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was published in the Soviet Union. The book was written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The book was one that told about life in the Gulag camps. Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself had been sentenced to 8 years in prison and worked during those years in one of the Gulag camps. He was convicted of criticism of Stalin.
Between 1974 and 1976 he published the three-volume work ” GULag-arkipelet “. A work he wrote after being banished from the Soviet Union. In 1970 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” struck a sensation when it was released in 1962. His writing has contributed to the Soviet prison camps becoming known in the Soviet Union and far beyond the country’s borders.
The Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was also in the Gulag camp. He was one of the more than 1.7 million who died in the camps. Feel free to read my blog about Raoul Wallenberg .
Gulag clay also in Putin’s Russia
In today’s Russia, we see something strongly reminiscent of the re-launch of the concentration camps. When Alexei Navalny was sentenced last winter to 3.5 years in prison, he was sent to the Pokrov labor camp, east of Moscow. This camp is one of the labor camps that many consider reminiscent of the Gulag camps.
The parallels between the Gulag camps of the past and the Russian labor camps of today are striking. Stalin banished troublesome opponents to their camps to be re-intrigued. If the political prisoners did not survive their stay, there was no crisis for Stalin. No one looked at him in the cards at that time. For Putin’s Russia, the thinking is that when he is in a prison camp, he poses no danger.