GULAG in the People's Lives and Nation's History
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The Soviet regime’s first forced-labor camps, the forerunners of the GULAG, operated in the RSFSR from 1918 to 1923. They were aimed at isolating and eliminating the class enemies of the Soviet government.
Description
First camps of the Soviet regime
First camps of the Soviet regime

Moscow’s first concentration camps began appearing in the fall of 1918 – famous places of worship, such as the Rozhdestvensky, Ivanovsky, Pokrovsky, Novospassky and Andronikovsky monasteries – were converted into places of mass imprisonment.

There were seven concentration camps in Moscow in total – 3063 people were interned at these locations by November 12, 1919.

Prison terms varied heavily – one could be serving anything from 1 – 3 months to a life sentence. Confinement was also described using the following phrases: "until corrected", "until the end of the civil war", "term not specified".

Solovetsky Special Camp, colloquially known as Solovki, was in operation from 1923 to 1933. The camp served as a testing ground for various “security” measures, the maintenance of large masses of prisoners, the use of forced labor, and other forms of repression which later became the basis for the entirety of the Soviet camp system.
Description
Solovetsky Special Camp
Solovetsky Special Camp
Solovki, located on a group of remote islands in the White Sea, functioned as an independent state. Prisoners provided its internal infrastructure, as well as its industry and agriculture. The camp had its own money, mail, telegraph, airfield, and railway service.

In the prison’s first seven years of existence, the number of inmates, many of whom were detained on “political” charges, grew from 3000 to 60000. Gradually, the entire “Solovetsky Archipelago”, as well as several locations on the mainland, became occupied by camp facilities.

The Solovetsky Camp (Solovetsky Lager’ Osobogo Naznachenia, or SLON – the acronym is a play on the Russian word for elephant) was closed in 1933, and its was property transferred to BelBaltLag – the White Sea – Baltic Canal Camp. The island was then occupied by BelBaltLag detention cells (also known as “penal isolators”), which were reformed into the Solovetsky “Special” Prison, or STON (an acronym that reads “moan” in Russian) in 1937. The prison was closed in 1939.
The use of forced labor by prisoners was one of the defining features of the GULAG.
Description
Forced Labor
Forced Labor
All prisoners in the so-called “corrective” labor camps were subject to forced labor, which in practice led to their severe exploitation.

The White Sea-Baltic Canal (the BelBaltLag), which was built by prisoners from 1931 to 1933, is considered to be the forerunner of the camp economy. Construction of the 227-km canal and its complex system of nineteen locks was completed in record time – in less than two years. The unreasonably quick pace of work at the project’s initial stages, as well as the complete absence of housing, roads, machinery, and vehicles, cost many prisoners their lives.

Prisoners’ labor was actively employed in the Soviet economy throughout the GULAG years. The NKVD was involved in 20 sectors of the national economy, the largest of which were mining, smelting, timber and fuel production. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners labored in industrial and railroad works, as well as multiple other forms of capital construction. Inmates weren’t only responsible for the building of factories, canals, roads and dams. Entire cities – Norilsk, Magadan, Vorkuta, Salekhard, Komsomolsk, Nakhodka, Bratsk and many others were all built by prisoners.
More than one and a half million people were arrested during the mass repressions of 1937-1938 – a time now known as the Great Purge or Great Terror. Nearly 700,000 people were executed and more than 800,000 were sent to camps.
Description
The Great Terror
The Great Terror
Mass repressions for political, class and ideological reasons began in the USSR at the end of the 1920s and continued – with various degrees of intensity – until the end of the 1930s. They affected all social classes and groups – millions of citizens were subject to arrests, executions, imprisonment, exile, and other types of punishment.

Mass operations aimed at destroying so-called “anti-Soviet elements” and “counter-revolutionary national contingents” began in July 1937 and lasted until mid-November 1938. These operations were carefully planned and centrally implemented based on the decisions of the Politburo, under the direct supervision of Joseph Stalin. The party leadership’s main goal was to eliminate potential internal opposition, also known as the “fifth column”, in the face of the growing threat of war. The majority of convicts were executed for this very reason. The NKVD’s mass repressions of 1937-1938 became colloquially known as “Yezhovshchina” (literally, “the times of Yezhov” or “doings of Yezhov”), after Nikolai Yezhov – the People's Commissar for Internal Affairs (the head of the NKVD).
The majority of camps were located in remote, sparsely populated Soviet regions. Procuring the simplest of household goods was incredibly difficult – prisoners crafted their own utensils and relied on makeshift spoons, bowls, flasks and pots.  
Description
The Camps
The Camps
A network of camp-type detention facilities – later entitled "correctional labor camps" (Russian: Ispravitel’no-trudovye Lagerya, or ITL) – began forming all over the USSR in 1929-30 (ИТЛ). People sentenced to least three years of imprisonment, as well as those convicted out of court, were relocated here. The system was administered by the OGPU (Unified State Political Administration), whose Main Department of Correctional Labor Camps (the GULAG) was set up in 1930(ГУЛАГ).

Over the years, the GULAG was administered by various entities – the OGPU, NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), and the Soviet Ministry of Justice. The formal title of the main Department changed depending on its underlying structural divisions. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who survived eight years of GULAG incarceration, gave the term its international repute following the publication of The Gulag Archipelago. At present, the GULAG is known all over the world – these five letters have become an ominous symbol of life on the edge of death, a synonym for lawlessness, hard labor and human injustice.

More than two million people died from starvation or illness during the years of the GULAG (1930-1956).
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Mortality
Mortality
Hard forced labor, high workload quotas, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate nutrition were all causes of the camps’ high mortality rate.

During the Great Patriotic War, prisoners’ circumstances were extremely difficult. The increase of work quotas and the reduction of daily meal allowances led to a sharp increase in prisoner mortality. In 1942-1943, mortality in GULAG grew more than fivefold in comparison to 1940. Camp deaths peaked in 1942, when more than 30,000 people perished in the GULAG every month. Over 1 million people perished in Stalin’s camps during the war years.
Many labor camps had “kindergartens” for children under the ages of 2-4. Some were born in the camps, while others were taken there along with their detained mothers.
Description
Children in the GULAG
Children in the GULAG
According to the law, a convicted mother of a child under the age of 1 ½ years could leave the baby with her relatives or take him with her to camp. If women didn’t have any relatives that were ready to take care of the baby, they often took their children with themselves.

The survival of these children depended on many factors, such as the camp’s geographical location and climate, its distance from the family’s place of residence and, consequently, the duration of transportation, and, finally, the general attitude of the camp’s staff, educators and nurses. The last aspect often played a key role in children's lives. Poor care led to frequent outbreaks of diseases – the mortality rate in GULAG “kindergartens” varied from 10% to 50%. When children turned 4 years old, they were either sent to their relatives or to an orphanage, where they had to continue to fight for their lives.
Katorga labor, characterized by a longer workday and severe working conditions, was a severe category of penal labor in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The measure was reintroduced during the Great Patriotic War, leading to the creation of katorga departments for traitors. By the end of 1944, there were 5 katorga camps in the GULAG system with a population of around 6000 convicts.
Description
Katorga Labor
Katorga Labor
On April 19, 1943, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet published a decree titled "On the Types of Punishment for Traitors and High Treason and on the introduction of Katorga Labor for Such Persons”. Keeping in mind the context of the war, it would be correct to assume that this decree addressed real criminals, including those involved in the invading army’s atrocities. However, analyses of the prisoners' population have revealed that this assumption is false. At the beginning of 1951, little over 10% of inmates (52 000 of 582 000) were actually Nazi allies and collaborators.

After the war, katorga labor was applied to people that attempted to flee from exile. This was carried out in accordance with the November 26, 1948 Supreme Soviet decree “On criminal responsibility for escapes from places of compulsory and permanent settlement of persons evicted to remote areas of the Soviet Union during the Patriotic War.”

The decree expounded: “In order to reinforce the mode of settlement for Chechens, Karachays, Ingush, Balkars, Kalmyks, Germans, Crimean Tatars and others dispossessed by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union during the Patriotic War, as well as due to the fact that the terms and duration of their relocation have not been defined, it will be established that the relocation of these persons to remote areas of the Soviet Union has been carried out forever, without the right of return to former places of residence.

Perpetrators will be subject to criminal responsibility for the unauthorized departure (escape) from places of compulsory settlement. 20 years of katorga labor will be administered as punishment for this crime.”

The history of forced migrations – deportations of large masses of people, even entire nations – is an inherent part of the history of the GULAG and Soviet political repression. The number of forced migrants in the USSR totaled over 6 million people.
Description
Special Settlers
Special Settlers
Special settlers’ labor was actively used in various sectors of the Soviet economy during the GULAG years, most often where there the work was difficult and poorly paid. Special settlers and their families could be relocated from one district to another at any moment, with no consideration for their livelihoods or hard-earned property. Little to no concern was paid to deportees’ living conditions.
With the death of Stalin on 5 March 1953, mass political repression in the USSR came to an end. The complicated process of returning and rehabilitating the victims of Stalin’s terror began.
Description
Rehabilitation
Rehabilitation
Following the Decree on Amnesty, published on 27 March 1953, millions of prisoners were released from camps and labor colonies. Political prisoners, however, constituted only a fraction of these numbers. From 1953 to 1955, more than 300 camps and camp offices were shut down, nearly 1700 colonies were liquidated, and more than 250,000 camp workers were released.

The release of political prisoners began in 1954 and was mostly complete by the end of 1956. As they returned from the GULAG, former inmates began facing a large number of issues – they needed rest and medical treatment, employment, housing and pensions. Along with the joys of freedom, many endured a feeling of rejection and inferiority, mostly because they lost not only the best years of their lives, but also their friends and family. The attainment of freedom was not always accompanied by full judicial rehabilitation. It took thousands of GULAG prisoners many years, sometimes decades, to clear their names, obtain justice and restore their rights. Many are still trying to do so to this day.

The permanent exhibition entitled GULAG in Human Fates and History of the Country is aimed to depict the history of GULAG as a single process with the inherent logic. In particular, the exhibition narrates a story starting from the foundation of a huge industrial corporation of forced labor economics to the liquidation of the system after Stalin’s death.

The exhibition determines Solovetsky Special Camp (Solovki) as a prototype of forced labor system, construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal (Belomorkanal) as the first usage of mass forced labor on the level of governmental practice. Moreover, it shows how the NKVD exponentially spread all over the country.

The showrooms are devoted to the forced-labor system, life and death in camps, everyday life of prisoners and strategies of survival. In addition, the Museum exhibition illuminates issues implicitly related to the GULAG, for instance, Great Terror and forced deportations.

On the permanent exhibition, one showroom is dedicated to the fates of children whose parents were executed or exiled to camps. Most of the children found themselves under high pressure from both their supervisors and age-mates.

As a part of the exhibition, the interactive map of the GULAG provides a view on the geography of the GULAG. This map enables the visitor to trace the development of the whole system and each camp in time and space. While VR-technologies show the insides of preserved camp infrastructure.

The exhibition approaches the GULAG history through the human dimension. In contrast to the official narrative of history, presented through archival documents, evidence and statistics, here the exhibition focuses on the personal lives of people endured repressions. The interactive multimedia format enables a visitor to face GULAG survivors, to hear prisoners’ voices.