After the Soviet victory in WWII, new strict regime camps for political prisoners were set up in the Gulag. The majority of political prisoners sent to these camps were from the newly occupied Soviet territories of the Baltic States and Western Ukraine, the Polish Home Army, German and Japanese POWs, and former Red Army soldiers. These prisoners brought with them not only strong national ties, but also networks and organizational skills – many, especially those from the Baltic States and Western Ukraine, were former partisans who had waged a brutal struggle against Soviet occupation.

The fact that political prisoners were segregated from criminal prisoners allowed the politicals to further develop their organized networks. The politicals no longer had to struggle against both the criminal prisoners and the camp administration, and could focus all their energies on the latter. An amnesty in 1945 released about 40% of the Gulag population – many of those released had been informers, which made it more difficult for Soviet authorities to fight subversion in the camps. In the first years after the War, the nationalist political prisoners, the vast majority of who were virulently anti-Soviet, began to gain the upper hand among the prisoners.

In 1947 new twenty-five year terms were introduced – since sitting out such a sentence was thought to be impossible, it had the effect of radicalizing the political prisoners even more. Uprisings in camps became more frequent. Stalin died in March 1953. There was a sense in the camps that change would come. Change did come, but not as expected. The Beria Amnesty of 1953 freed more than one million prisoners, but politicals were largely left out of this amnesty. Angered by the fact that the amnesty had not affected them, and saddled with twenty-five year terms they had little hope of surviving, the political prisoners rose up in revolt against the Gulag system.

Two of the largest revolts were at Norilsk (June-August 1953) and Kengir (May-June 1954). Both uprisings started as strikes in response to unfair treatment of prisoners. Prisoners at the camps refused to go to work, and expelled the administration from the camps. In both cases, the prisoners demanded similar things – review of their cases, lower work hours, higher rations and punishment for guards who abused prisoners.

What is extraordinary about the uprisings is the level of organization of the prisoners. The day that the administrations were forced out of the camps, Strike Committees were elected. While Red Army veterans led these Committees, they were in reality controlled by the nationalist organizations in the camps, which were responsible for security and controlled a majority of the members of the Strike Committees.

In a sense, the uprisings in the Gulag were doomed to failure before they began. Prisoners, even thousands of well-organized prisoners, armed with knives were no match for Soviet tanks and machine guns. The uprisings of 1952-4 were ruthlessly put down, with the prisoners suffering heavy casualties. Many of those who survived, particularly among the leadership of the revolts, received additional sentences or were sent to the worst camps. In another sense, however, the uprisings in the Gulag represented a terrible defeat for the Soviet authorities. Despite their best efforts, political prisoners had managed to organize themselves into a real threat to Soviet power. These uprisings stand as a testament to the fact that brutal tyranny will be resisted equally fiercely. If the Gulag succeeded in breaking many people, it also failed in breaking many others.