The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag (Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps) Archipelago actually began not under Stalin but under Lenin's appointee, Feliks Dzherzhinsky, and the CHEKA in 1919. Although the CHEKA and the Gulag continued tsarist traditions, the Bolshevik/Communist version was more horrible, according to first-hand accounts by people like Eugenia Ginzburg, Aleksandr Solshenitsyn, and many others. The NKVD ran the Gulag during the Terror of the 1930s. Zeks (prisoners) as Solzhenitsyn named them "included murderers, thieves, and common criminals along with political and religious dissidents" (or alleged dissidents.) According to Gottfried, in 1937, there were "35 groups of camps in as many regions. Each group contained approximately 200 camps. Each camp housed roughly 1,200 inmates" (76-77).

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The Camps/Kolyma/Magadan < >
The Gulag--a Overview < >--Show/good summary

Lenin expanded the penal camp system but it was Stalin's Great Terror that sent hundreds, thousands, millions of Soviet citizens to labor camps in the Siberian outback or to work on his gigantic, showcase enterprises. One of these was the subway system that operated under the streets of Moscow. The subway system was built in the 1930s by convict labor. Lazar Kaganovich directed the project at first. Lavrentiy Beria, one of Stalin's more terrifying minions, worked to rationalize convict labor and make the camps cost efficient.

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Eugenia Ginzburg described the horror of the camps in her moving memoir, Journey into the Whirlwind. The most famous, complete, and graphic description of the camps can be found in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's three volume The Gulag Archipelago. His earlier One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich shocked Soviet readers when Khrushchev allowed its publication during the post-Stalinist "Thaw" of the early 1960s. Solzhenitsyn and American "Kremlinologist" Robert Conquest estimate that between seventeen and twenty million (possibly as many as forty million) Soviet citizens were "repressed" during the Great Terror. Although the Gulag did not comprise death camps, hundreds of thousands died of malnutrition, overwork, dreadful living conditions, and the like. "Life in a camp zone was brutal and violent. ....Prisoners survived hunger, disease, the harsh elements, heavy labor, and their fellow prisoners...."
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In the summer of 2006, the National Parks Service put on an exhibit at Ellis Island with text and graphics describing the Gulag in the Stalinist era. The information and graphics below come from the website that accompanied the exhibit, first on Ellis Island and then on its travels to different locations throughout the United States. The drawingsand sketches below were done from memory by Jacques Rossi, who spent nineteen years in various Soviet work camps. Arrested, like so many others in the 1930s, he survived to publish The Gulag Handbook in 1987 (when it was more or less safe to do so.) In his sketch below, Rossi laid out the barracks. A typical camp zone would be "surrounded by a fence of barbed wire, overlooked by armed guards in watch towers." The zeks lived in "overcrowded, stinking, poorly-heated barracks."
Stalin's Gulag drew in men and women from all walks of life, all political affiliations, all social milieux. Eugenia Ginzburg's Journey into the Whirlwind chronicles the Purge of loyal party members; she (and Solzhenitsyn) encountered all manner of people in the camps. The Gulag included those whose crime might be tardiness to work three times, telling a political joke, or petty theft; they served their terms along side murderers, rapists, political dissidents. Maria Tchebotareva, a peasant woman trying to feed her family during the terrible famine of 1932-1933, stole three pounds of rye from her collective farm; she was sentenced to 10 years, extended during the war; she was then required to live in internal exile near her camp in the Arctic Circle until Khrushchev's "Thaw" allowed her to return home and search for her children.
Rich peasants, the kulaks, were particularly vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment. De-kulakization and collectization produced not only the famine mentioned above (during which the Soviet Union exported grain,) but massive arrests, deportations, and finally virtual annihilation. The photograph (left) shows the arrest of one such peasant.

Not specifically created as death camps, the Gulag required that zeks work. Although most of the camps were located in the far North or remotest Siberia, the inmates played a major role in achieving some of Stalin's stunning economic ambitions, e.g. the Moscow-Volga and White Sea-Baltic Sea Canals and the Baikal-Amur Railroad (BAM.) Shukhov, the narrator of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and his crew worked every day. Below a secret photograph presents workers in one of the camps.

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Eugenia Ginzburg and her crew felled trees in Kolyma. Shown here are male convicts in a Kolyma mine. You can see by the way they are dressed how cold it was.

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Brutally long hours in bitter cold performing hard labor characterized the lives of men and women in the Gulag. Many zeks, like Maria Tchebotareva, found their sentences arbitrarily extended. In addition, most were forced to live in internal exile after completing their terms.

Some of the harshest camps lay in Kolyma in the Soviet Far East. Eugenia Ginzburg's sequel to Journey, Within the Whirlwind, describes the bone-chilling cold and the exhausting work of her camp experience.

In other words, Stalinist Gulag authorities were not squeamish about imprisoning women or forcing them to work at arduous tasks under dreadful, overcrowded living and working conditions.

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As you know from Journey into the Whirlwind, women did backbreaking labor in harsh conditions, for example in the Soviet Far East near Kolyma.

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They, like their male counterparts, were objectified and de-humanized, from the moment of their arrest,

as well as humiliated by body searches.
Jacques Rossi, like Shukhov in Solzhenitsyn's novel reflected, "The Gulag was transform human matter into a docile, exhausted, ill-smelling mass of individuals living only for themselves and thinking of nothing else but how to appease the constant torture of hunger, living in the instant...." Always to be dreaded was punishment, described by both Eugenia Ginzburg and Solzhenitsyn, sketched by Rossi in the graphic Ordinochka (solitary confinement cell.)
Many of the camps existed in areas of extraordinarily harsh climatic conditions, for example Perm in western Siberia and Kolyma in the Soviet Far East. Eugenia spent time in the latter. Rossi remembered, "There is nothing you can do to protect yourself against cold." (see left) Some, like the "goners" that Shukhov/Solzhenitsyn described could not/did not survive. (see right) Food rations, slim at best, depended on the amount of work done. A "goner" who could not fulfill his quota could literally starve to death.

Gulag: An Archipelago of Memory < >

When Stalin died in 1953, the nation mourned. His "cult of the personality" had successfully transformed him into a god-like figure. People went into paroxyms of grief and fear, even in the camps. To this day, he remains a controversial figure in the Russian and Georgian territories of the former Soviet Union--murderous tyrant or savior of the fatherland from its internal and external enemies?

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Stalin's inner circle, those lucky or conniving enough to survive the purges and the Great Terror, immediately engaged in a power struggle over leadership of the Party and the government. Molotov, Voroshilov, Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin, and Khrushchev jockeyed for position, with Khrushchev emerging from the pack as victor. But Nikita Khrushchev was no Stalin: his rivals were demoted rather than murdered (except for Beria who, according to one legend, was murdered in the Kremlin basements.) Khrushchev shocked the Central Committee of the CPSU when, in 1956 at the XX Party Congress, he delivered a secret speech revealing some of the horrific truths of the Stalinist era. He launched the brief "Thaw" that allowed the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY--apologies for absence of citation (what was I thinking?)!

Gottfried, Ted. The Stalinist Empire. Brookfield: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.

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