Physical Slave Labor in the Gulags

“A new day, same old working schedule,” grunts a prisoner as your entire barracks marches to a massive shed, snow coming down gently in snowflakes. This would be postcard weather, if not for the sounds of chopping, shouted orders, and the blisters on your extremities. Once inside the shed, a prisoner acting as quartermaster gives each prisoner a crude axe that is practically dull and looks like it might break in half if swung too hard. Hefting the primitive tool, you feel a fleeting sense of escape until a guard armed with a submachine gun marches everyone to the work site, a dense patch of trees stretching for multiple kilometers. Taking out a bullhorn and a rusted alarm clock, the guard tells everyone to start working until the timer is up. Glancing at the guard’s cheap watch, you see that it is barely 6:00 A.M., and the timer is set to go off at 7:00 P.M. Sighing in despair, you begin hacking at a previously chopped tree stump, wearing your already tired muscles down even further.

“If you don’t slow down, you’re going to work yourself to death,” says the older prisoner as he carries an armful of felled timber to a supply dump. “Just be glad you’re not one of those poor bastards sent to Kolyma…”.


As the backbone of the USSR’s terrorism on its own citizens, the gulags required the millions of prisoners in their system to actually do something useful to the state before they were either killed or released. This amounted to slave labor, with appalling working conditions and (previously mentioned) inadequate rations. It is believed that the type of work a prisoner received ultimately decided whether they would live or die. Most sent to work in the timber or mining industries were considered dead men, considering the unrealistic quotas and the amount of labor required to cut out a chunk of coal, or a piece of timber.Those with easier jobs, known as “trustees”, worked in the barber shop, cafeteria, bathhouses, and other indoor locations away from the harsh elements of the outside workers. Trustees could actually control the other prisoners’ lives, deciding who would be on break and who would get more rations. Many trustees got into their position of power via bribes with camp administrators or sexual favors.  

Publicized USSR propaganda claimed that gulags were an essential cog in Russia’s economy, but the camps were not as successful as they were marketed to the world. An exception to this is the large amounts of gold mined in SIberia, but otherwise the actual laborers were either too sick, starving, or injured to provide a “profit” in natural resource production. A glaring example of this is the White Sea Canal project, in which 170,000 prisoners were forced to dig a 141-mile canal connecting the Baltic and White Seas in 20 months. Prisoners did finish the project, but 15% of the laborers died while working on the spot, not including those who died afterward from exhaustion or illness. Hailed as a huge success, even by the United States, the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal turned out to be “too narrow and too shallow”, presumably due to the outdated equipment issued to prisoners and the horrible time constraints.

One of the most feared camps in the gulag system was Kolyma, an extremely remote camp northeast of the USSR (now Siberia). A gold mining slave labor camp, Kolyma was rumored to be in a state of constant winter, and was only reachable during the few months when the waterways became “warm” enough to thaw. Now, a 2,250 km (1,258 mi) highway appropriately labeled the “Road of Bones” connects the Kolyma region to the rest of Siberia as an overland route. It was constructed by Kolyma prisoners, and those who died were buried right under the concrete road.

On the next post, I will discuss the lengths prisoners went to save their lives in the gulag system.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:



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