Gulags: The Numbers and the Boring Bits

About 14 million people were imprisoned in the gulag labor camps from 1929 to 1953 (the estimates for the period 1918–1929 are difficult to calculate). A further 6–7 million were deported and exiled to remote areas of the USSR, and 4–5 million passed through labor colonies, plus 3.5 million who were already in, or who had been sent to, labor settlements. According to some estimates, the total population of the camps varied from 510,307 in 1934 to 1,727,970 in 1953. Other estimates state that at the beginning of 1953 the total number of prisoners in prison camps was more than 2.4 million of which more than 465,000 were political prisoners. The institutional analysis of the Soviet concentration system is complicated by the formal distinction between the gulag system and GUPVI. GUPVI was the Main Administration for Affairs of Prisoners of War and Internees, a department of NKVD (later MVD) in charge of handling of foreign civilian internees and POWs in the Soviet Union during and in the aftermath of World War II (1939–1953). In many ways the GUPVI system was similar to the gulag camps. Its major function was the organization of foreign forced labor in the Soviet Union. The top management of GUPVI came from the gulag system. The major noted distinction from gulag was the absence of convicted criminals in the GUPVI camps. Otherwise the conditions in both camp systems were similar: hard labor, poor nutrition and living conditions, and high mortality rate.

For the Soviet political prisoners, like Solzhenitsyn, all foreign civilian detainees and foreign POWs were imprisoned in the gulag; the surviving foreign civilians and POWs considered themselves prisoners in the gulag. According with the estimates, in total, during the whole period of the existence of GUPVI there were over 500 POW camps (within the Soviet Union and abroad), which imprisoned over 4,000,000 POWs. About half of the political prisoners in the gulag camps were imprisoned without trial; official data suggest that there were over 2.6 million sentences to imprisonment on cases investigated by the secret police throughout 1921–53. The gulag system was reduced in size following Stalin’s death in 1953, in a period known as the Khrushchev Thaw (we already know this from past blog posts). In 1960 the MVD ceased to function as the Soviet-wide administration of the camps in favor of individual republic MVD branches. The centralized detention facilities temporarily ceased functioning.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

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