Gulag (from the Russian Главное Управление Лагерей, "Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerey", "The Chief Administration of Collective Labor Camps") was the branch of the Soviet secret police (the NKVD and later on the KGB) that dealt with concentration camps. Made famous by Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago, the Gulag system was the stage of perhaps the worst atrocities and crimes ever committed by a country towards its own citizens.
The Gulag was a natural extension of earlier concentration camps operated in Siberia by the Imperial Russian government under the Czars, who commonly deported political activists, intellectuals, and criminals to remote forced labor camps. The Gulag as such was first established in the late 1920s, and some parts of it exist up until the present day. However, the Gulag is most widely associated with the late 1930s when, fed by Stalin's Great Purges, it incarcerated more than 30 million people. Robert Conquest estimated that in 1931-32, there were approximately 2 million prisoners in the camps, in 1933-35 5 million, and in 1935-36 6 million.1 During World War II, the camp population may have been as much as 10-12 million, or 5% of the total population. The evidence supporting these statistics is disputed.
The Communist leadership continued to sponsor Gulag after Stalin's death, and it is estimated that a total of 7 million people have been killed by this system.
The majority of Gulag camps have been positioned in extremely remote areas of north-eastern (Siberia) and in the south-eastern parts of Russia (mainly in Kazakhstan). These are vast and uninhabited regions with no roads or sources of food, but rich in minerals and other natural resources (like timber). However, camps were also spread throughout the entire Soviet Union, including in the European parts of Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. There were also several camps located outside of the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Mongolia, which were under the direct control of the Gulag.
In order to mine, process and ship resources, inmates were forced to work in inhuman conditions. In spite of the fearsome climate, they were never adequately clothed, fed, or given medical treatment, nor were they given any means to combat the lack of vitamins that led to scurvy. In some camps, the fatality rate during the first months was as high as 80%.
A unique form of Gulag camps called sharashka (шаражка) were in fact secret research institutes, where anonymous scientists were developing new technologies, and also conducting basic research. The results of this research were usually published under the names of prominent Soviet scientists, and the real authors have been forgotten. However, during World War II, and in the late 1950s, several brilliant prision-scientists and engineers were freed from the Gulags and became famous.
The tragedy caused by the Gulag system became a major influence on contemporary Russian thinking. Many songs by people such as Vladimir Vysotsky[?], Alexander Galich[?] and Alexander Gorodnitsky[?] (neither of whom ever served time in the Gulag camps) deal with life inside the Gulag and became an important part of modern Russian folklore, while Solzhenitsyn's books became a symbol of defiance in the Soviet totalitarian society.
1Robert Conquest: The Great Terror, 1968