While we are all doubtless aware of the network of Gulags that ran through Siberia in the early years of the Soviet Union, how much do we really know about these Siberian prison camps? Why were they there and what was life like for the many prisoners that were deported here?
The literal meaning
The term Gulag has occasionally been applied to camps outside of the Soviet Union but its derivation is uniquely Russian. It is, in fact, an acronym for the Russian translation of the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies.
While prison camps existed in Siberia for many years, the Gulag is known chiefly as a twentieth century phenomenon and the first such camp was established by the Cheka in 1919.
Serving a purpose
While the Gulags were a harsh and unforgiving network of camps, there was a dual purpose to their existence. On the one hand, they were obviously used to detain prisoners who had been sent there for a wide variety of reasons but they were also used for the mining and excavating work that the Soviet Union was desperate for.
Siberia was a land rich in mineral deposits including gold and diamonds but the dangerous and relentless work involved in mining these minerals was part of the job for the Gulag’s detainees.
The Stalin years
The Gulags came to prominence during Stalin’s years in power when millions of Russian citizens were dispatched there for largely spurious reasons. Up until this point, the majority of detainees in the camps had been criminals, interspersed with a solid minority of political prisoners, but as Stalin increased the number of tasks for the NKVD, they came to rely more heavily on prison labour.
The unpredictable Soviet Leader ordered millions of deportees to the Gulags and among the common criminals, the numbers included religious and political dissenters and by the late 1930’s the numbers and sizes of the Gulags had grown tremendously.
By 1940, it is claimed that there were 53 separate Gulags along with another 423 labour colonies across the Soviet Union.
Life in the Gulag
Needless to say, life in the Gulag was extremely harsh and it was based around a regime of endless work for the millions of prisoners that were incarcerated there. Siberia as a whole was a vast, freezing wasteland at the time and the extreme temperatures only added to the hardship. Working shifts were typically at least 12 hours in length.
The remoteness of the individual Gulags was another reason why they were so unbearable to live in but this isolation wasn’t chosen by accident.
The futility of escape
If a prisoner did try to escape from a Gulag, the guards were perfectly at liberty to shoot them on the spot. Additionally, rewards were offered to locals who helped to recapture escaped inmates and that only added to the difficulties.
Above all, the remoteness of the Gulags made escape a pretty futile quest and even if the prisoner were to evade the guards and the local villagers, they could find themselves several hundreds of miles from civilisation and the likelihood is that they would starve or freeze to death in the wilderness.
These days, major cities in Russia have memorials to those that died in the Gulags and it is hoped that the lessons learned from this grim aspect of the country’s past will never be forgotten.