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.
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