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A Short Intro To Some of the Worst Places on Earth…

I am a highschool student in Southern California, and my topic of discussion is centered on the gulags, or slave labor camps, in the former USSR. Gulags are still in use today, mainly in North Korea, as a symbol of terror and social deterrent implemented by the government to keep the civilian population in check. Millions of people were sent to these hell holes and other “re-education” camps throughout the USSR, with many serving multiple years in the system under the constant oppression of the environment and camp guards. These camps were in their height in the Stalinist period of the USSR (1927-1953), where people of many nationalities and social classes were arrested by the regime. Unless they were executed, these prisoners were then sent to work camps in the coldest regions of the USSR, usually in Siberia.

For the sake of comparison, I will compare the admittance and death rate in these camps to other similar events in history. However, I will not compare the personal stories of prisoners in gulags to those that were in, for example, the former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot’s concentration camps or the Third Reich’s horrifying Holocaust. The “who suffered more” argument is too controversial and may incite conflict, for a large portion of people from every situation have endured much more than any human being can. This subject has hard facts and eyewitness details, but I will include my personal opinion on the more pitiful accounts and the daily life of gulag prisoners. Each post will usually revolve around a notable event which rose the gulag admittance records and describing the individual hardships and conflicts the prisoners had with each other, themselves, or the camp staff. A few pictures will be included when necessary, although they are graphic and will disturb some readers.

 

Do Svidaniya, Comrades.

 

 

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Beyond the Gulag: Chinese Laogai (Pt. 3)

The Laogai camps were infested with many types of pests. Bed bugs were so numerous that at night they sometimes moved in swarms. This behavior earned them the Laogai nickname of tanks or “tanke”. They sucked the blood of the prisoners, leaving little red welts all over their bodies. These welts itched, and severe cases led to inmates scratching their skin raw, leading to dangerous infections. Another common pest was lice; some prisoners were known to eat them to supplement their meager diet. No insecticide or pesticides were used in the camps. The prisoner Zhang Xianliang wrote that “the parasites on a single inmate’s underpants would be as numerous as the words on the front page of a newspaper”. He noted fleas would be so numerous that they would “turn his quilt purplish black with their droppings”. Roundworms were also a common threat to the prisoners’ health, especially in laogai farms, where human excrement was used as fertilizer.

Along with a poor diet came many diet-related diseases: beriberi, edema, and scurvy were the most common, due to lack of vitamins. Other health problems caused by the lack of healthy food included severe diarrhea or constipation from the lack of oil and fiber. These two were often left untreated and, added to the continuous strain of 12 hours of manual labor, weakened the immune system. Eventually, death followed many of these conditions. Two diseases rampant among the populations of these camps were tuberculosis and hepatitis. Highly contagious, these were also often left untreated until it was too late. Each morning, the cadre of the camp decided who was sick enough to stay in the barracks and miss the day of work. Many prisoners were forced to work when they were ill. Mental illness used to be very common during the Mao era, when prisoners had to spend 2 hours each evening being indoctrinated. The brainwashing that occurred over the amount of time people were imprisoned could be so intense that they were driven to insanity and, in many cases, suicide.

Forced labor defined Laogai prison camps. The following is a description of an average day in the prison camp Tuanhe Farm by Harry Wu. He spent 19 years in a Laogai prison camp like this one:

“Prisoners are roused from bed at 5:30 a.m., and at 6:00 a.m. the zhiban from the kitchen wheels in a cart with tubs of corn gruel and cornbread … at 7:00 a.m. the company public security cadre (captain) comes in, gathers all the prisoners together, and authorizes any sick prisoners to remain in the barracks. Once at the worksite, the captain delegates production responsibilities … At lunchtime the zhiban arrives pulling a handcart with a large tub of vegetable soup, two hunks of cornbread for each prisoner, and a large tube of drinking water … after about 30 minutes, work is resumed until the company chief announces quitting time in the evening. Generally the prisoners return to the barracks at about 6:30 p.m. Upon return it is once again a dinner of cornbread, corn gruel, and vegetable soup. At 7:30 p.m., the 2-hour study period begins… At 9:30 p.m., no matter what the weather, all prisoners gather together outside the barracks for roll call and a speech from the captain. At around 10:00 p.m., everyone goes to bed. During the night no lights are allowed and no one is allowed to move about. One must remain in one’s assigned sleeping place and wait until 5:30 a.m. the next morning before getting up, when the whole cycle begins again.”

Quota filling was a big part of the inmates’ lives in Laogai camps. Undershooting or overshooting the target productivity governs their quality of life. Not making the number may result in solitary confinement or loss of food privileges. Generally, food rations are cut by 10–20% if a worker fails to meet the standard. Some prisoners excel and are able to do more than what is required of them. They sometimes receive extra or better quality food. It has been argued that this extra food is not worth the extra calories burned to be more productive, so many prisoners choose to do the minimum with minimum effort, thereby saving as much energy as possible.

Investigators from the Laogai Research Foundation have confirmed sites where prisoners mine asbestos and other toxic chemicals with no protective gear, work with batteries and battery acid with no protection for their hands, tan hides while standing naked in vats filled 3-feet deep with chemicals used for the softening of animal skins, and work in improperly run mining facilities where explosions and other accidents are a common occurrence.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/downloads/gulag-curriculum.pdf

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulag

https://www.cecc.gov/

https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/nov/14/china-labor-camps-on-trial/

http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/55/322.html

 

Beyond the Gulag: Chinese Laogai (pt. 2)

Unlike Laojiao inmates, Laogai criminals are issued clothing. Depending on the locale and its economic situation, the quality of clothing can vary significantly. Some prisoners may receive black or grey while others wear dark red or blue. Also depending on location, the clothing is available in different thicknesses. Commonly stamped on the uniforms are the Chinese characters for fan and lao gai meaning “criminal” and “reform through labor,” respectively. Also issued to the prisoners are a pair of shoes made of rubber or plastic. These minimums do not meet the needs of the prisoners, who must purchase underclothes, socks, hats, and jackets with their meager monthly earnings of 2.5–3 yuan (US$0.37–US$0.44 as of April 11, 2009). Jackets were rare in the Mao era and were commonly made from patches of old blankets rather than from original cloth. Washing clothes was also rare, but clothing supplies in prisons have improved since the mid-Deng-Jiang Era.

Food distribution has varied much through time, similar to its variation across the “over 1,155 documented laogai” camps. One camp near Beijing distributes between 13.5 and 22.5 kg of food per person per month. This is about average. The food consists of sorghum and corn, which are ground into flour and made into bread or gruel. The prisoners of the Beijing camp also receive 3 ounces of cooking oil per month. Every 2 weeks, the prisoners receive “a special meal of pork broth soup and white-flour steamed buns”. Important Chinese holidays, such as New Year’s, National Day, and the Spring Festival, are celebrated with meat dumplings, an exception in an otherwise meatless diet.

Food is distributed by one person per squad, which consists of about 10 people. This prisoner, called the zhiban or “duty prisoner,” delivers the food to the rest of his group in large bowls on a cart. This often involves pushing the cart a great distance to the place where the others are working. Each day prisoners receive gruel, bread, and a watery vegetable soup made from the cheapest vegetables available. Some camps have reported two meals a day, while others allow three. Food is rationed according to rank and productive output, which is believed to provide motivation to work.

During the Mao era, food in prisons was very scarce, not only because of a nationwide famine during the Great Leap Forward (1959–1962), but also because of the harsher rules. Since little food was available, prisoners would scavenge anything they came across while working. Cases were documented of prisoners eating “field mice, crickets, locusts, toads, grapevine worms, grasshoppers, insect larvae and eggs, and poisonous snakes”. Also, many inmates would steal produce from the fields they worked on, smuggling vegetables back to their barracks. In Jiabiangou, Gansu, around 2,500 out of 3,000 prisoners died of starvation between 1960 and 1962, with some survivors resorting to cannibalism.

Nutrition in the camps was a big problem, especially during the early 1950s through the 1960s, in the early years of the PRC (People’s Republic of China). Before the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) took control, hunger was rarely used to control prisoners. Early leaders of the CCP realized the power of withholding food from rebellious prisoners and, until recently, this practice was very common. Since the early 1990s, some camps in the coastal regions of Eastern China have improved the quality and amount of food.

The living quarters, commonly referred to as barracks in most Laogai literature, were relatively primitive. Most had floors made of cement or wood, but some were of only straw and/or earth. The latrine was a bucket, and no furniture was provided. The prisoners slept on the floor in a space 30 cm wide, with 10 people per room. New prisoners were forced to sleep nearest to the latrine while more senior ones slept near the opposite wall.

Baths and showers were very rare and often not mentioned at all in memoirs. The only form of washing was the use of a water basin, which was only slightly less rare. This was ineffective because the entire squad used the same water. Basic essentials, such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, toilet paper, soap, and towels were not provided; prisoners had to spend their wages to acquire them. Prisoners were known to have spread manure, both human and animal, and been required to eat immediately without being able to wash their hands.

The sleeping quarters were surrounded on all sides by a wall. This wall is about 20 feet high and topped with electrical fencing. There were also sentry towers on each corner. Outside this wall was 40 feet of empty space, followed by another wall, similar to the first but larger.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/downloads/gulag-curriculum.pdf

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulag

https://www.cecc.gov/

https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/nov/14/china-labor-camps-on-trial/

http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/55/322.html

 

Beyond the Gulag: Chinese Laogai (Pt.1)

During the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese prisons, similar to organized factories, contained large numbers of people who were considered too critical of the government or “counter-revolutionary”. However, many people arrested for political or religious reasons were released in the late 1970s at the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms.

In the 21st century, critics have said that Chinese prisons produce products for sale in foreign countries, with the profits going to the PRC government. Products include everything from green tea to industrial engines to coal dug from mines. According to James D. Seymour and Richard Anderson, the products made in laogai camps comprise an insignificant amount of mainland China’s export output and gross domestic product. They argue that the use of prison labor for manufacturing is not in itself a violation of human rights, and that most prisoners in Chinese prisons are serving time for what are generally regarded as crimes in the West. The West’s criticism of the laogai is based not only on the export of products made by forced labor, but also on the claims of detainees being held for political or religious violations, such as leadership of unregistered Chinese House Churches. While the laogai has attracted widespread criticism for the poor conditions in the prisons, Seymour and Anderson claim that reports are exaggerated, stating that “even at its worst, the laogai is not, as some have claimed, “the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet gulag”.

Structural changes following the downfall of socialism have reduced tax revenue to local governments, increasing pressure for local governments to supplement their income from elsewhere. At the same time, prisoners usually do not make a good workforce. The products manufactured by prison labor in China are of extremely low quality and have become unsalable on the open market in competition with products made by non-imprisoned paid labor.

Harry Wu has written books, including Troublemaker and Laogai, that describe the system from the 1960s to the 1990s. Wu spent 19 years, from 1960 to 1979, as a prisoner in these camps, for having criticized the government while he was a young college student. After almost starving to death in the camps, he eventually moved to the United States as a visiting scholar in 1985.

In 2008, the Laogai Research Foundation, a human rights NGO located in Washington, DC, estimated that approximately 1,045 laogai facilities were operating in China, and contained an estimated 500,000 to 2 million detainees.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/downloads/gulag-curriculum.pdf

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulag

https://www.cecc.gov/

https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/nov/14/china-labor-camps-on-trial/

http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/55/322.html

 

Beyond the Gulag: Vietnamese Reeducation Camps (pt.2)

 

The authorities sought to maintain strict control over the thoughts of the prisoners, and forbade prisoners from keeping and reading books or magazines of the former government, reminiscing in conversation about “imperialism and the puppet south,” singing old patriotic and love songs from the former government, discussing political questions (outside authorized discussions), harboring “reactionary” thoughts or possessing “superstitious” beliefs.

It has been acknowledged by Hanoi that violence has in fact been directed against the prisoners, although it maintains that these are isolated cases and not indicative of general camp policy. Former prisoners, on the other hand, report frequent beatings for minor infractions, such as missing work because of illness. Violations of rules led to various forms of punishment, including being tied up in contorted positions, shackled in conex boxes or dark cells, forced to work extra hours or receiving reduced food rations. Many prisoners were beaten, some to death, or subjected to very harsh forms of punishment due to the cruelty of certain camp officials and guards. Some were executed, especially for attempting to escape. It was also forbidden to be impolite to the cadres of the camp, and this rule was sometimes abused to the point where the slightest indication of a lack of deference to the cadres had been interpreted as rudeness and was therefore harshly punished.

As of 1980, official regulations stated that prisoners in the camps could be visited by their immediate family once every three months. Family visits were important not only because of the personal need for prisoners and their loved ones to have contact with each other but also because the families could bring food to their relatives in some of the camps. It has been reported that the prisoners in these camps would not have survived without such food. The duration of the visits was not long, reported by former prisoners to last from 15 to 30 minutes. Moreover, family visits would be suspended for prisoners who broke the rules, and it has also been said that only families who had proven their loyalty to the government were allowed visiting privileges.

Most former prisoners who were interviewed have been in between three and five different reeducation camps. It is believed that the movement of prisoners from one camp to another was intended to prevent both the inmates and their relatives from knowing a specific camp’s real location. That way, escapes from prison could be prevented, and prisoners’ relatives could be prevented from visiting them.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/downloads/gulag-curriculum.pdf

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulag

http://www.moosburg.org/info/stalag/indeng.html

http://www.moosburg.org/info/stalag/komm.html

https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~sdenney/Vietnam-Reeducation-Camps-1982

http://www.southeastasianarchaeology.com/2012/03/01/excavations-of-burial-sites-at-vietnamese-re-education-camps-by-the-returning-casualty/

 

Beyond the Gulag: Vietnamese Reeducation Camps (pt. 1)

During the early phase of reeducation, lasting from a few weeks to a few months, inmates were subjected to intensive political indoctrination. Subjects’ studies included the exploitation by American imperialism of workers in other countries, the glory of labor, the inevitable victory of Vietnam, led by the Communist Party, over the U.S., and the generosity of the new government toward the “rebels” (those who fought on the other side during the war). Another feature emphasized during the early stage of reeducation, but continued throughout one’s imprisonment, was the confession of one’s alleged misdeeds in the past. All prisoners in the camps were required to write confessions, no matter how trivial their alleged crimes might have been. Mail clerks, for example, were told that they were guilty of aiding the “puppet war machinery” through circulating the mail, while religious chaplains were found guilty of providing spiritual comfort and encouragement to enemy troops.

In the reeducation camps much emphasis was placed on “productive labor.” Such labor was described by SRV spokesman Hoang Son as “absolutely necessary” for reeducation because “under the former government, they (the prisoners) represented the upper strata of society and got rich under U.S. patronage. They could scorn the working people. Now the former social order has been turned upside down, and after they have finished their stay in camps they have to earn their living by their own labor and live in a society where work is held in honor.” Thus, in the eyes of the Vietnamese rulers, “productive labor” was a necessary aspect in the overturning of the social order. Yet in examining the conditions under which this labor took place, it seems that there was also an element of revenge.

The labor was mostly hard physical work, some of it very dangerous, such as mine field sweeping. No technical equipment was provided for this extremely risky work, and as a result, many prisoners were killed or wounded in mine field explosions. Other kinds of work included cutting trees, planting corn and root crops, clearing the jungle, digging wells, latrines and garbage pits, and constructing barracks within the camp and fences around it. The inmates were generally organized into platoons and work units, where they were forced to compete with each other for better records and work achievements. This often pushed inmates to exhaustion and nervousness with each person and group striving to surpass or at least fulfill the norms set by camp authorities, or they would be classified as ‘lazy’ and ordered to do ‘compensation work’ on Sundays. North Vietnamese children were brought in to routinely pester prisoners, teenage girls stomping on the bare feet of former army officers as they marched to work. Sometimes prisoners who missed their quota were shackled and placed in solitary confinement cells.

Deaths from starvation and disease occurred frequently and bodies were often buried in graves on site which were later abandoned. The work was done in the hot tropical sun, by prisoners who were poorly nourished and received little or no medical care. The poor health, combined with hard work, mandatory confessions and political indoctrination, made life very difficult for prisoners in Vietnam, and contributed to a high death rate in the camps. Former prisoners describe the constant hunger that resulted from a lack of food while they were in the camps. The government deliberately kept the prisoners on low rations. The lack of food caused severe malnutrition for many prisoners and weakened their resistance to various diseases. Most common among the diseases were malaria, beriberi and dysentery. Tuberculosis was also widespread in some of the camps. Medical supplies were generally nonexistent in the camps and medical care was very inadequate, usually limited to a poorly trained medic and perhaps a few prisoners who had formerly been medical doctors. The result was a high death rate from diseases.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/downloads/gulag-curriculum.pdf

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulag

http://www.moosburg.org/info/stalag/indeng.html

http://www.moosburg.org/info/stalag/komm.html

https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~sdenney/Vietnam-Reeducation-Camps-1982

http://www.southeastasianarchaeology.com/2012/03/01/excavations-of-burial-sites-at-vietnamese-re-education-camps-by-the-returning-casualty/

 

Beyond the Gulag: Nazi Stalags

Stalags, according to the Geneva Convention and its predecessor, the Hague Convention, Section IV, Chapter 2, those camps were only for prisoners of war, not civilians. Stalags were operated in both World War I and World War II and intended to be used for non-commissioned personnel (Enlisted ranks in US Army, Other ranks in British Commonwealth forces). Officers were held in separate camps called Oflag. During World War II, the Luftwaffe (German air force) operated Stalag Luft in which flying personnel, both officers and non-commissioned officers were held. The Kriegsmarine (German navy) operated Marlag for Navy personnel and Milag for Merchant Navy personnel.

Civilians who were officially attached to military units, such as war correspondents, were provided the same treatment as military personnel by the Conventions.

The Third Geneva Convention, Section III, Article 49, permits non-commissioned personnel of lower ranks to be used for work in agriculture and industry, but not in any industry producing war material. Further articles of Section III detailed conditions under which they should work, be housed and paid. During World War II these latter provisions were consistently breached, in particular for Russian, Polish, and Yugoslav prisoners. According to the Nazi ideology, Slavic people were regarded as rassisch minderwertig (“racially inferior”).

Prisoners of various nationalities were generally separated from each other by barbed-wire fences subdividing each stalag into sections. Frequently prisoners speaking the same language, for example British Commonwealth soldiers, were permitted to intermingle.

At each stalag the German Army set up sub-camps called Arbeitskommando to hold prisoners in the vicinity of specific work locations, whether factories, coal-mines, quarries, farms or railroad maintenance. These sub-camps sometimes held more than 1,000 prisoners, separated by nationality. The sub-camps were administered by the parent stalag, which maintained personnel records, collected mail, International Red Cross packages and then delivered to the individual Arbeitskommando. Likewise any individuals that were injured in work, or became ill, were returned to the Lazarett (medical care facilities) at the parent stalag.

Stalag Luft III, a large prisoner of war camp near Sagan, Silesia, Germany (now Żagań, Poland), was the site of a spectacular escape attempt (later filmed as The Great Escape). On March 24, 1944, 76 Allied prisoners escaped through a 110 m (approx 360 feet) long tunnel. 73 were recaptured within two weeks. 50 of them were executed by order of Hitler in the Stalag Luft III murders.

The largest German World War II prisoner of war camp was Stalag VII-A at Moosburg, Germany. Over 130,000 Allied soldiers were imprisoned there. It was liberated by the U.S. 14th Armored Division following a short battle with SS soldiers of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division on 29 April 1945. Stalag III-C is notable for the escape of US paratrooper Joseph Beyrle, who subsequently joined a Soviet tank battalion commanded by Aleksandra Samusenko, which returned to liberate the camp

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/downloads/gulag-curriculum.pdf

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulag

http://www.moosburg.org/info/stalag/indeng.html

http://www.moosburg.org/info/stalag/komm.html

(I can partially read German so the last two sources required some translation)

 

Archived Documents Pertaining to the Gulag Pt. 2

The glasnost political reforms in the late 1980s and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR led to the release of a large amount of formerly classified archival documents, including new demographic and NKVD data. Analysis of the official GULAG statistics by Western scholars immediately demonstrated that, despite their inconsistency, they do not support previously published higher estimates. Importantly, the released documents made possible to clarify terminology used to describe different categories of forced labor population, because the use of the terms “forced labor”, “GULAG”, “camps” interchangeably by early researchers led to significant confusion and resulted in significant inconsistencies in the earlier estimates. Archival studies revealed several components of the NKVD penal system in the Stalinist USSR: prisons, labor camps, labor colonies, as well as various “settlements” (exile) and of non-custodial forced labor.

Although most of them fit the definition of forced labor, only labor camps, and labor colonies were associated with punitive forced labor in detention. Forced labor camps (“GULAG camps”) were hard regime camps, whose inmates were serving more than three-year terms. As a rule, they were situated in remote parts of the USSR, and labor conditions were extremely hard there. They formed a core of the GULAG system. The inmates of “corrective labor colonies” served shorter terms; these colonies were located in less remote parts of the USSR, and they were run by local NKVD administration. Preliminary analysis of the GULAG camps and colonies statistics (see the chart on the right) demonstrated that the population reached the maximum before the World War II, then dropped sharply, partially due to massive releases, partially due to wartime high mortality, and then was gradually increasing until the end of Stalin era, reaching the global maximum in 1953, when the combined population of GULAG camps and labor colonies amounted to 2,625,000.

The results of these archival studies convinced many scholars, including Robert Conquest or Stephen Wheatcroft to reconsider their earlier estimates of the size of the GULAG population, although the ‘high numbers’ of arrested and deaths are not radically different from earlier estimates. Although such scholars as Rosefielde or Vishnevsky point at several inconsistencies in archival data with Rosefielde pointing out the archival figure of 1,196,369 for the population of the Gulag and labor colonies combined on December 31, 1936 is less than half the 2.75 million labor camp population given to the Census Board by the NKVD for the 1937 census, it is generally believed that these data provide more reliable and detailed information that the indirect data and literary sources available for the scholars during the Cold War era. Although Conquest cited Beria’s report to the Politburo of the labor camp numbers at the end of 1938 stating there were almost 7 million prisoners in the labor camps, more than three times the archival figure for 1938 and an official report to Stalin by the Soviet minister of State Security in 1952 stating there were 12 million prisoners in the labor camps.

These data allowed scholars to conclude that during the period of 1928–53, about 14 million prisoners passed through the system of GULAG labor camps and 4-5 million passed through the labor colonies. Thus, these figures reflect the number of convicted persons, and do not take into account the fact that a significant part of Gulag inmates had been convicted more than one time, so the actual number of convicted is somewhat overstated by these statistics. From other hand, during some periods of Gulag history the official figures of GULAG population reflected the camps’ capacity, not the actual amount of inmates, so the actual figures were 15% higher in, e.g. 1946.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/downloads/gulag-curriculum.pdf

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulag

Archived Documents Pertaining to the Gulag Pt. 1

Statistical reports made by the Soviet secret police agencies between the 1930s and 1950s are kept in the State Archive of the Russian Federation formerly called Central State Archive of the October Revolution (CSAOR). These documents were highly classified and inaccessible. Amid the releasing of once-secret files and democratization in the late 1980s, Viktor Zemskov and other Russian researchers managed to gain access to the documents and published the highly classified statistical data collected by the secret police and related to the number of the Gulag prisoners, special settlers, etc. In 1995, Zemskov wrote that foreign scientists have begun to be admitted to the restricted-access collection of these documents in the State Archive of the Russian Federation since 1992. However, only one historian, namely Zemskov, was admitted to these archives, and later the archives were again “closed”, according to Leonid Lopatnikov.

While considering the issue of reliability of the primary data provided by corrective labor institutions, it is necessary to take into account the following two circumstances. On the one hand, their administration was not interested to understate the number of prisoners in its reports, because it would have automatically led to a decrease in the food supply plan for camps, prisons, and corrective labor colonies. The decrement in food would have been accompanied by an increase in mortality that would have led to wrecking of the vast production program of the Gulag. On the other hand, overstatement of data of the number of prisoners also did not comply with departmental interests, because it was fraught with the same (i.e., impossible) increase in production tasks set by planning bodies. In those days, people were highly responsible for non-fulfilment of plan. It seems that a resultant of these objective departmental interests was a sufficient degree of reliability of the reports.
Between 1990 and 1992, the first precise statistical data on the Gulag based on the Gulag archives were published by Viktor Zemskov. These had been generally accepted by leading Western scholars, despite the fact that a number of inconsistencies were found in this statistics. It is also necessary to note that not all the conclusions drawn by Zemskov based on his data have been generally accepted. Thus, Sergei Maksudov alleged that although literary sources, for example the books of Lev Razgon or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, did not envisage the total number of the camps very well and markedly exaggerated their size, on the other hand, Viktor Zemskov, who published many documents by the NKVD and KGB, was far from understanding of the Gulag essence and the nature of socio-political processes in the country. He added that without distinguishing the degree of accuracy and reliability of certain figures, without making a critical analysis of sources, without comparing new data with already known information, Zemskov absolutizes the published materials by presenting them as the ultimate truth. As a result, Maksudov charges that Zemskov attempts to make generalized statements with reference to a particular document, as a rule, do not hold water.

Overall Conditions

Living and working conditions in the camps varied significantly across time and place, depending, among other things, on the impact of broader events (World War II, countrywide famines and shortages, waves of terror, sudden influx or release of large numbers of prisoners). However, to one degree or another, the large majority of prisoners at most times faced meager food rations, inadequate clothing, overcrowding, poorly insulated housing, poor hygiene, and inadequate health care. Most prisoners were compelled to perform harsh physical labor. In most periods and economic branches, the degree of mechanization of work processes was significantly lower than in the civilian industry: tools were often primitive and machinery, if existent, short in supply. Officially established work hours were in most periods longer and days off were fewer than for civilian workers. Often official work time regulations were extended by local camp administrators.

Andrei Vyshinsky, procurator of the Soviet Union, wrote a memorandum to NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov in 1938 which stated:

“Among the prisoners there are some so ragged and lice ridden that they pose a sanitary danger to the rest. These prisoners have deteriorated to the point of losing any resemblance to human beings. Lacking food . . . they collect trash and, according to some prisoners, eat rats and dogs.”

In general, the central administrative bodies showed a discernible interest in maintaining the labor force of prisoners in a condition allowing the fulfillment of construction and production plans handed down from above. Besides a wide array of punishments for prisoners refusing to work (which, in practice, were sometimes applied to prisoners that were too weak to meet production quota), they instituted a number of positive incentives intended to boost productivity. These included monetary bonuses (since the early 1930s) and wage payments (from 1950 onwards), cuts of individual sentences, general early-release schemes for norm fulfillment and over fulfillment (until 1939, again in selected camps from 1946 onwards), preferential treatment, and privileges for the most productive workers (“shock workers” or Stakhanovites in Soviet parlance).

A distinctive incentive scheme that included both coercive and motivational elements and was applied universally in all camps consisted in standardized “nourishment scales”: the size of the inmates’ ration depended on the percentage of the work quota delivered. Naftaly Frenkel is credited for the introduction of this policy. While it was effective in compelling many prisoners to work harder, for many a prisoner it had the adverse effect, accelerating the exhaustion and sometimes causing the death of persons unable to fulfill high production quota.

Immediately after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 the conditions in camps worsened dramatically: quotas were increased, rations cut, and medical supplies came close to none, all of which led to a sharp increase in mortality. The situation slowly improved in the final period and after the end of the war.

Considering the overall conditions and their influence on inmates, it is important to distinguish three major categories of Gulag inmates:

  • “Kulaks”, osadniks, “ukazniks” (people sentenced for violation of various commands by the state), occasional violators of criminal law
  • Dedicated criminals: “thieves in law”
  • People sentenced for various political and religious reasons.

Mortality in Gulag camps in 1934–40 was 4–6 times higher than average in the Soviet Union. The estimated total number of those who died in imprisonment in 1930–53 is at least 1.76 million, about half of which occurred between 1941–43 following the German invasion. If prisoner deaths from labor colonies and special settlements are included, the death toll rises to 2,749,163, although the historian who compiled this estimate (J. Otto Pohl) stresses that it is incomplete, and doesn’t cover all prisoner categories for every year.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/downloads/gulag-curriculum.pdf

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulag

 

Geographical Locations of Gulags

In the early days of Gulag, the locations for the camps were chosen primarily for the isolated conditions involved. Remote monasteries in particular were frequently reused as sites for new camps. The site on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea is one of the earliest and also most noteworthy, taking root soon after the Revolution in 1918.The common name for the islands, “Solovki”, entered the vernacular as a synonym for the labor camp in general. It was presented to the world as an example of the new Soviet method for “re-education of class enemies” and reintegrating them through labor into Soviet society. Initially the inmates, largely Russian intellectuals, enjoyed relative freedom (within the natural confinement of the islands). Local newspapers and magazines were published and even some scientific research was carried out (e.g., a local botanical garden was maintained but unfortunately later lost completely). Eventually Solovki turned into an ordinary Gulag camp; in fact some historians maintain that it was a pilot camp of this type. In 1929 Maxim Gorky visited the camp and published an apology for it. The report of Gorky’s trip to Solovki was included in the cycle of impressions titled “Po Soiuzu Sovetov,” Part V, subtitled “Solovki.” In the report, Gorky wrote that “camps such as ‘Solovki’ were absolutely necessary.”

With the new emphasis on gulag as the means of concentrating cheap labor, new camps were then constructed throughout the Soviet sphere of influence, wherever the economic task at hand dictated their existence (or was designed specifically to avail itself of them, such as the White Sea-Baltic Canal or the Baikal Amur Mainline), including facilities in big cities — parts of the famous Moscow Metro and the Moscow State University new campus were built by forced labor. Many more projects during the rapid industrialization of the 1930s, war-time and post-war periods were fulfilled on the backs of convicts. The activity of gulag camps spanned a wide cross-section of Soviet industry. Gorky organized in 1933 a trip of 120 writers and artists to the White Sea–Baltic Canal, 36 of them wrote a propaganda book about the construction published in 1934 and destroyed in 1937.
The majority of gulag camps were positioned in extremely remote areas of northeastern Siberia, the best known clusters are Sevvostlag (The North-East Camps) and in the southeastern parts of the Soviet Union, mainly in the steppes of Kazakhstan. A very precise map was made by the Memorial Foundation. These were vast and sparsely inhabited regions with no roads (in fact, the construction of the roads themselves was assigned to the inmates of specialized railroad camps) or sources of food, but rich in minerals and other natural resources (such as timber). However, camps were generally spread throughout the entire Soviet Union, including the European parts of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. There were several camps outside the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Mongolia, which were under the direct control of the gulag administration.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/downloads/gulag-curriculum.pdf

http://gulaghistory.org/nps/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulag