Gulag is the Russian acronym for Glavnoi upravlennia lagerei, or “Main Administration of Camps.” Under control of the first the Cheka, then the OGPU, then the NKVD and finally the MVD, Gulag refers to the vast network of labor camps and settlements that dotted the maps of the remotest regions of the Soviet Union. Gulag lasted for the entire existence of the USSR. The first camps were formed shortly after the Revolution in 1917 and ostensibly had as their goal the political re-education of anti-Soviet elements through labor. In reality, however, the camps were used not to re-educate but to destroy real or perceived enemies of the regime through backbreaking labor, starvation rations, severe climate and unbearable living conditions. Though camps were found in all regions of the USSR, the largest and most important were in the far North, where prisoners toiled in the extraction of minerals and other natural resources.

After Stalin consolidated his power Gulag staff and powers were increased, and forced labor became an integral part of the industrialization drive. The White Sea Canal, for example, was built in the early 1930s almost exclusively by Gulag labor. The Great Terror of 1936-38 saw the populations of the camps grow significantly. Most of those sent to the camps during this time for political crimes were innocent of any offences at all. As part of the system of repression, non-political, criminal offenders (known as ‘thieves’) were allowed by the regime to lord over the political prisoners. During the War, conditions in camps became even worse; there was a severe food shortage and work norms were increased in the camps in an effort to increase the productivity of the war economy. The result was an exponential rise in death rates.

After the War, the composition of the camps changed significantly, due to a massive influx of Baltic peoples, Ukrainians and German POWs. Those sent to camps after the War were for the most part, unlike the politicals of the 1930s, organized members of nationalist independence movements. Thus, while the politicals of the 1930s were dominated and bullied by the more organized thieves, the political prisoners of the second half of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s brought with them organized networks and effectively fought against domination by the thieves. After the War, then, thieves no longer dominated the political prisoners, and political prisoners organized and protected themselves along national lines. These new political prisoners were instrumental in organizing the prisoner uprisings of 1952-54.

After Stalin’s death and Lavrentiy Beria’s ouster, the size and power of Gulag was scaled back significantly. However, the camp system lasted well into the days of perestroika, and the last political prisoners were not released from the camps or exile until shortly before the collapse of the USSR.