First concentration camps began appearing in Moscow in the fall of 1918. Famous places of worship, such as Rozhdestvensky, Ivanovsky, Pokrovsky, Novospassky, and Andronikovsky monasteries, were ravaged and then quickly converted into places of mass imprisonment.
There were seven concentration camps in Moscow in total with 3,063 people held there by 12 November 1919.
Prison terms varied heavily – one could be serving anything from 1 – 3 months to a life sentence. In some cases, terms were described as follows: "until corrected", "until the end of the civil war", "a term not specified".
The Solovetsky Special Designation Camp (abbreviated as SLON which is a pun on the Russian word for elephant) located on a group of remote islands in the White Sea functioned as an independent state. Prisoners maintained its internal infrastructure as well as its industry and agriculture. The camp had its own money, postal service, telegraph, airfield, and railway service.
In the first seven years of the camp’s existence, the number of inmates many of whom were detained on “political” charges grew from 3,000 to 60,000. Gradually, the entire Solovetsky Archipelago, as well as some locations on the mainland, became occupied by individual camp facilities, divisions, and other SLON’s units.
The Solovetsky Camp was closed in 1933, and its property was transferred to the Belomoro-Baltiysky Corrective-Labor Camp (Belbaltlag). Later Belbaltlag’s solitary confinement cells (also known as “penal isolators”) were located on the island. And from 1937 to 1939 the Solovetsky Special Designation Prison (or STON, an acronym that reads “moan” in Russian) was located there.
All prisoners of corrective-labor camps were subject to forced labor which in practice led to their severe exploitation.
The White Sea-Baltic Canal which had been built by prisoners from 1931 to 1933 is considered to be the forerunner of the camp economy. The construction of the 227-km canal and its complex system of nineteen sluices 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 years of the GULAG’s existence. The NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) 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 were engaged in industrial production as well as railroad and capital construction. Camp prisoners were responsible not only for building factories, canals, roads, and dams but entire cities such as Norilsk, Magadan, Vorkuta, Salekhard, Komsomolsk, Nakhodka, Bratsk and many others.
The mass repression 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, execution by shooting, imprisonment, exile, and other types of punishment.
Mass operations aimed at destroying so-called “anti-Soviet elements” and “counterrevolutionary national contingents” began in July 1937 and lasted until mid-November 1938. They involved a considerable part of the country’s population and became known as the Great Terror. 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 the 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 were popularly known as “Yezhovshchina” (literally, “the times of Yezhov” or “doings of Yezhov”) after N.I. Yezhov, the People's Commissar of Internal Affairs (the head of the NKVD).
A network of camps that were later formally named "corrective-labor camps" (Russian abbreviation ITL) had begun forming all over the USSR in 1929-1930. People sentenced to no less than three years of imprisonment as well as those convicted on out-of-court basis were sent to new places of incarceration. The camps were administered by the OGPU (Joint State Political Administration), and its Chief Administration of Corrective-Labor Camps and Colonies (the GULAG) was established in 1930.
Over the years, the GULAG was administered by various entities – the OGPU, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), and the Ministry of Justice. The formal title of the Chief Administration changed depending on its structural subdivisions. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was the one who introduced this abbreviation into scientific use, and it became an international term following the publication of his famous work The Gulag Archipelago. At present, the word “GULAG” is known all over the world – these five letters have become an ominous symbol of life on the verge of death, a symbol of lawlessness, hard labor, and the absence of human rights.
Hard forced labor, high workload quotas, unsanitary conditions, and inadequate nutrition caused a high mortality rate in Stalin’s camps.During the Great Patriotic War, camp prisoners lived in extremely difficult conditions. The increase of work quotas and the reduction of daily meal allowances led to a sharp increase in prisoner mortality. In 1942-1943, the mortality rate in the GULAG grew more than fivefold in comparison to 1940. It peaked in 1942 when more than 30,000 people perished in the GULAG monthly. Over 1 million people perished in Stalin’s camps during the war years.
According to the law, a convicted mother of a child under the age of 1.5 years could leave the baby with her relatives or take him/her to a prison or a camp. If a woman didn’t have any relatives that were ready to take care of the baby, she usually chose to take her child with her. Many corrective-labor camps established “infant orphanages” for children born in camps or brought by their convicted mothers.
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 in an “infant orphanage”. The latter factor often played a key role in children's lives. Poor care led to frequent outbreaks of diseases and the high mortality rate which varied in different years from 10% to 50%. When children turned 4 years old, they were either sent to their relatives or an orphanage where they also had to fight for the right to life.
On 19 April 1943, the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR published a decree On the Types of Punishment for Traitors and High Treason and the Introduction of the 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 GULAG’s prison population have revealed that this assumption is not totally correct. At the beginning of 1951, little over 10% of prisoners (52,000 out of 582,000) were actual collaborators of Nazi invaders.
After the war, katorga labor was applied to people that attempted to flee from exile. This was carried out in accordance with the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of 26 November 1948 On criminal liability of persons evicted to remote areas of the Soviet Union during the Patriotic War for escaping from places of compulsory and permanent settlement.
The decree expounded, “In order to reinforce the mode of settlement for Chechens, Karachays, Ingush, Balkars, Kalmyks, Germans, Crimean Tatars and others evicted by the Supreme Body of the Soviet Union during the Patriotic War as well as due to the fact that during the relocation the duration of their eviction has not been defined, it shall be stated that the relocation of the aforementioned persons to remote areas of the Soviet Union is deemed permanent, without the right to return to former places of residence. Perpetrators will be subject to criminal liability for the unauthorized departure (escape) from places of the compulsory settlement. This crime shall be punished with 20 years of katorga labor.”
The forced labor of special settlers was actively used in various sectors of the camp economy throughout all years of the GULAG’s existence. Families of special settlers 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 living conditions special settlers had to live. Their labor was used in all sectors of the national economy, but most often where difficult and poorly paid work had to be done.
With the death of Stalin on 5 March 1953, the mass political repression in the USSR came to an end. That’s when the complicated process of returning and rehabilitating victims of Stalin’s terror began.
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 administrations were shut down, nearly 1,700 colonies were closed, and more than 250,000 camp staff members were fired.
The release of political prisoners began in 1954 and was mostly complete by the end of 1956. Upon returning from the GULAG, former inmates faced a large number of issues. They needed rest, 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 the GULAG prisoners many years to clear their names, obtain justice and restore their rights. This process continues to this day.