The Gulag was a vast network of labor camps scattered across the length and breadth of the Soviet Union. The word "GULAG" is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration, the institution which ran the Soviet camps. But over time, the word has also come to signify the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labour camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that Alexander Solzhenitsyn once called “our meat grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the millions of unnecessary deaths.  

Prison camps existed in Russia even before the communists arrived. Tsars sent people accused of sedition (treason) to such camps forcing people in to labor brigades based out of Siberia. These camps took on their modern, more familiar, form almost immediately after the Russian Revolution. By the end of the summer of 1918, Lenin, the revolution’s leader, had already called for “mass terror” to put down his opponents, demanding that “unreliable elements” be locked up in concentration camps outside major towns.  A string of aristocrats, merchants, and other people defined as potential “enemies” were duly imprisoned. By 1921, there were already 84 camps in 43 provinces, mostly designed to “rehabilitate” these enemies of the revolution.


From 1929, the camps took on a new significance. In that year, Stalin decided to use forced labor both to speed up the Soviet Union’s industrialization, and to excavate the natural resources in the Soviet Union’s barely habitable far north.  On his instructions, the secret police took control of the Soviet prison system. Helped along by the mass arrests of 1937-38, the camps entered a period of rapid expansion. By the end of the 1930s, they could be found in every one of the Soviet Union’s twelve time zones.

Contrary to popular assumption, the Gulag did not cease growing in the 1930s, but rather continued to expand throughout the war and into the 1940s, reaching its apex in the early 1950s. By that time the camps had come to play a central role in the Soviet economy. Prisoners worked in almost every industry imaginable–logging, mining, construction, factory work, farming, the designing of airplanes and artillery–and lived, in effect, in a country within a country, almost as a separate civilization. The Gulag, which eventually came to include at least 476 camp systems–each of which in turn could contain hundreds of small camps–had its own laws, its own customs, its own morality, even its own slang. It spawned its own literature, its own villains, its own heroes, and it left its mark upon all who passed through it, whether as prisoners or guards. Years after being released, the Gulag’s inhabitants were often able to recognize former inmates on the street, simply from “the look in their eyes.”

Such encounters were frequent, for the camps had a large turnover. Although arrests were constant, so were releases. Prisoners were freed because they finished their sentences, because they were let into the Red Army, because they were invalids or women with small children, because they had been promoted from captive to guard. Although the total number of prisoners in the camps generally hovered around 2 million, this constant number means that the total number of Soviet citizens who had some experience of the camps is far higher. From 1929, when the Gulag began its major expansion, until 1953, when Stalin died, the best estimates indicate that some eighteen million people passed through this massive system. About another six million were sent into exile, deported to the Kazakh deserts or the Siberian forests. Legally obliged to remain in their exile villages, they too were forced laborers, even though they did not live behind barbed wire.

As a system of mass forced labour, the camps disappeared when Stalin died. Although he had believed all of his life that the Gulag was critical to Soviet economic growth, his political heirs knew well that the camps were, in fact, a source of economic backwardness and distorted investment. Within days of his death, Stalin’s successors began to dismantle them. Three major rebellions, along with a host of smaller but no less dangerous incidents, helped to accelerate the process.

Nevertheless, the camps did not disappear altogether. Instead, they evolved. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, a few of them were redesigned, and put to use as prisons for a new generation of democratic activists, anti-Soviet nationalists, and criminals. Thanks to the Soviet dissident network and the international human rights movement, news of these post-Stalinist camps appeared regularly in the West. Gradually, they came to play a role in Cold War diplomacy. Even in the 1980s, the American president, Ronald Reagan, and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, were still discussing the Soviet camps. Only in 1987 did Gorbachev–himself the grandson of Gulag prisoners–finally begin to dissolve them altogether.

Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until quite recently, not at all well known. There were some good reasons for this general ignorance: before the fall of the Soviet Union, archives were closed. Access to camp sites was forbidden. No television cameras ever filmed the Soviet camps or their victims, as they had done in Germany at the end of the Second World War. No images, in turn, meant that the subject, in our image-driven culture, didn’t really exist either.

Ideology twisted the ways in which we understood Soviet and East European history as well. In fact, in the 1920s, a great deal was known in the West about the bloodiness of Lenin’s revolution. Western socialists, many of whose brethren had been jailed by the Bolsheviks, protested loudly and strongly against the crime of the Russian revolution. In the 1930s, however, as Americans became more interested in learning how socialism could be applied here, the tone changed. Writers and journalists went off to the USSR, trying to learn lessons they could use at home. The New York Times employed a correspondent, Walter Duranty, who lauded the five-year plan and argued, against all evidence, that it was a massive success–and won a Pulitzer Prize for doing so. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, a part of the Western Left struggled to explain and sometimes to excuse the camps, and the terror which created them, precisely because they wanted to try some aspects of the Soviet experiment at home. In 1936, after millions of Soviet peasants had died of famine, and millions more were in camps or in exile, the British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb published a vast survey of the Soviet Union, which explained, among other things, how the “downtrodden Russian peasant is gradually acquiring a sense of political freedom.”

These sentiments reached their peak during the Second World War, when Stalin was our ally and we had other reasons to ignore the truth about his repressive regime. In 1944, the American vice-president, Henry Wallace, actually went to Kolyma, the most notorious camp, during a trip across the USSR. Imagining he was visiting some kind of industrial complex, he told his hosts that “Soviet Asia,” as he called it, reminded him of the Wild West: “The vast expanses of your country, her virgin forests, wide rivers and large lakes, all kinds of climate–from tropical to polar–her inexhaustible wealth, remind me of my homeland.” According to a report that the boss of Kolyma later wrote for Beria, then the head of the security services, Wallace did ask to see prisoners, but was kept away. He was not alone in refusing to see the truth about Stalin’s system: Roosevelt and Churchill had their photographs taken with Stalin, too.
All of that contributed to our firm conviction that the Second World War was a wholly just war, and even today few want that conviction shaken. We remember D-Day, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the children welcoming American GI s with cheers on the streets. We do not remember that the camps of Stalin, our ally, expanded just as the camps of Hitler, our enemy, were liberated. No one wants to think that we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another.

During the Cold War, it is true, our awareness of Soviet atrocities went up–but in the 1960s, they receded again. Even in the 1980s, there were still American academics who went on describing the advantages of East German health care or Polish peace initiatives. In the academic world, some Western historians downplayed the history of the camps, if not because they were actually pro-Soviet, then because they were opposed to America’s role in the Cold War. Right up to the very end, our views of the Soviet Union, and its repressive system, always had more to do with American politics and American ideological struggles than they did with the Soviet Union itself. Now, at the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, that has finally begun to change. The Soviet Union is well and truly gone. The opening of the Soviet archives has enabled historians to write dozens of new books and monographs on the Soviet camps. The end of the Cold War also means that some of the political taboos which once surrounded Soviet history are gone. Finally, Soviet history has become a neutral subject, not a highly politicized one–at least in the Anglophone world, and at least among historians.