GULAG (acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies, Russian: Гла́вноеуправле́ниеисправи́тельно-трудовы́хлагере́йиколо́ний, tr. Glavnoye upravleniye ispravityelno-trudovykh lagerey i koloniy) — subdivision of the NKDV (MVS), Ministry of Justice of the USSR, that was the administrative body over the system of corrective labor camps (VTT) in 1934-1960, the most important body of the system of political repressions in the USSR.
The first concentration camps
The Bolsheviks established concentration camps during the civil war within the policy of “Red terror”. A temporary instruction “On penalty of confinement and its execution order”, confirmed by the decision of the People’s Commissariat for Justice (NKU) of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, signed on July 23rd, 1918, initiated the establishment of the system of places of forced labor. On September 2nd, 1918, the All Ukrainian Central Executive Committee claimed: “The Soviet republic is turning into a military camp”, and on September 5th, 1918, the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic signed the degree “On the red terror”. According to it “class enemies” of the Soviet regime were isolated in concentration camps.
On legislative level enforcement of the new kind of imprisonment – concentration camps (camps of forced labor) – was consolidated with the decree of the All Ukrainian Central Executive Committee signed on April 15th, 1919, and the enactment of the All Ukrainian Central Executive Committeesigned on May 17th, 1919, “On camps of forced labor”.
Organization and administration of camps belonged to the competence of the All-Russian Emergency Commission.In the beginning of the 1920s there were 5 types of camps: camps of forced labor of special purpose, camps of general type, manufacturing camps, camps for prisoners of war, and distributors.But this classification was rather superficial.In 1920 according to the order of the Head of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Volodymyr Lenin, concentration camps for those arrested for “counterrevolutionary crimes” were set up.
After the proposal of the founder of the All-Russian Emergency Commission Felix Dzerzhynskyi, in May 1922 administration of all places of imprisonment was given to the competence of the assign of the All-Russian Emergency Commission the State Political Directorate, within which the Main administration of places of imprisonment was set up. The Administration of places of imprisonment was set up in the People’s Commissariat of internal affairs of Ukraine.
The first concentration camp for political prisoners, arrested and sentenced by the Soviet bodies of state security, was the Solovky special purpose camp.Other concentration camps appeared on Kola Peninsula, Karelia, Ukhta-Pechora (the Komi SSR), in the region of the Kolyma river (Siberia), Vaygach island (the Kara sea), Nerchinsk, Irkutsk, the Taymyr Peninsula and other places.
Foundation and structure of the GULAG
In the end of 1929 – beginning of the 1930s in the north of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and then on the whole territory of the USSR, the network of corrective labor camps was set up for the imprisoned of the Joint state political directorate. From April 1930 these camps were subordinated to the Main administration of places of imprisonmentof the USSR – GULAG.
At first the acronym GULAG was used only as a name of the camp system of the Main administration of places of imprisonment of the USSR. This institute was ruling over already existing camps: Solovky,Vishera, Northern, Kazakhstanian, Far-eastern, Siberian and Middleasian. From summer 1931 special settlements came under jurisdiction of the GULAG, from autumn the same year – buildings of imprisonment, isolators, corrective colonies, buildings of forced labor that were under jurisdiction of the People’s committees for Justice of the union republics also went under jurisdiction of the GULAG.
The NKVD and People’s Commissariat for Justice of the union republics also had their systems of camps. Through the liquidation of the Joint State Political Directorate (1934) and establishment of the all-Union NKVD merge of all camp systems took place under a single name GULAG of the NKVD of the USSR. Other places of imprisonment were also transferred under its jurisdiction. GULAG was responsible for keeping of the sentenced and isolation of “untrustworthy elements”, using manpower in camps, opening new camp complexes, etc.
To the structure of GULAG belonged political administration, department of human resources, department of protection and regime, department of logging, capital construction, agriculture, etc. In the end of the 1930s specialized main departments were set up – Dalstroy (Far North Construction Trust), Gushosdor (the main administration of highway roads) etc. Within the GULAG system there was the NKVD institute of law – camp collegiums (camp courts). Every camp had its own autonomous subdivisions of defense. Labor colonies for underaged, distributors for children, and transit prisons also went under jurisdiction of GULAG in autumn 1939. In the middle of the 1940s there were a few hundred camp complexes of the GULAG. According to the order of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR special camps with special camp teams (the 4th subdivision) were organized within GULAG in order to keep those who were sentenced for spying, terrorism, sabotage and other anti-state crimes.
After the death of J.Stalin and in connection with the merge of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of State Security into one administration (Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR) GULAG was passed on to the Ministry for Justice. From February 1954 it found itself once again in the system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR.
Data concerning the number of GULAG prisoners for a long time remained a state secret that explains different thoughts concerning the final count. In 1933-1934 peasants who were victims of forced collectivization comprised the majority of the sentenced. A big flow of the sentenced falls on the period of repressions in 1934-1937, when their number reached a few million.
Opponents of the Bolshevik regime, participants of national liberation movement, representatives of non-Bolshevik political parties, NGOs, intelligentsia were sentenced in concentration camps. A majority of the imprisoned were sentenced according to the Article 48 of the Criminal Codex of the USSR for “counterrevolutionary activity” and corresponding articles of the Criminal Codex of neighboring republics.
In the beginning of 1953 under jurisdiction of GULAG of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR were 146 corrective labor camps, 867 corrective labor colonies and 52 transit prisons with the general number of prisoners comprising 2 237 961 people, and also 10 special purpose camps with 210 thousand prisoners.
Altogether during 1920-1953 through the system of corrective labor camps went about 10 million people, including 3,4-3,7 million people who were sentenced for “counterrevolutionary crimes”.
In the end of the 1920s work of prisoners was beginning to be used in construction of big industrial objects. From the second half of the 1930s internal regime in camps was stricter. Visiting of prisoners by their family members was prohibited, as well as funerals outside GULAG, defense of camps was amplified, salary was cancelled, that was 25 % from the pay of a worker in state industry, and number of hours in summer work day was increased. Work when it was minus 50 degrees C was considered to be acceptable.
Towards the end of the Second World War and when it ended new categories of the imprisoned appeared in GULAG: vlasovtsi – participants of national liberation movements, former Soviet prisoners of war and other “hostile elements” from Ukraine, the Baltic States, Poland, Eastern Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary. They were accused of “anti-Soviet” expressions, complaints about the regime etc. In 1946-1948 and in 1950 conditions were especially poor for prisoners of GULAG. Prisoners were physically exhausted after the war. But nevertheless they were forced to meet standards that were set in the Soviet camps. When a prisoner fell short of the standard he/she was given less food, which often led to starvation. According to the order of the GULAG administration to destroy 5% of prisoners, massive execution by fire squad took place in all camps in 1950. Due to the increase of the mortality rate and the need of the USSR for manpower, the government demanded exploitation of prisoners with bigger output and therefore improved their diet and living conditions. From 1950 those who met the standard had approximately the following diet: bread – 0,8kg, fats – 20g, peeled grains – 120g, meat – 30g or fish – 75g, sugar – 27g. Only bread was given personally to every prisoner. Other products were used for cooking hot meals (twice a day: in the morning and in the evening). Those who were guilty of something received only 200g of bread. Prisoners woke up at 4 o’clock in the morning and went to bed at 10 o’clock in the evening. Work day lasted 10-12 hours, not including time for getting to and from work. Top performers received salary - from 10 rubles and more, as well as wild tobacco. With this money (10-20 rubles per month, which was about 20 times less than an average salary of a free citizen of the USSR) a prisoner could buy additional products in camp kiosk.
Prison riot. GULAG liquidation
From the middle of the 1940s and to the middle of the 1950s about 50 riots took place within the GULAG system. The most important of them were riots in the Ekibastuz camp (Kazakhstan, January 1952), Norilsk (May-August 1953), Vorkuta (May 26 – August 4, 1953), the Kengir camp near Zheskazgan (Kazakhstan, May 16 – June 25, 1954). Exhausted from wearisome work in conditions of constant close watch people still managed to challenge Soviet terror machine.
Struggle of prisoners in the end of the 1940s – in the 1st half of the 1950s caused the crisis of the system of labor camps. Strikes and riots served as an impulse to gradual liquidation of the GULAG system.
GULAG was officially cancelled with the decree of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR, signed on January 15th, 1960.