The Gulag: Creation and Administration

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During the Stalin Era, from the 1930s to the 1950s, the Soviet Union established and operated corrective labor camps for criminals and political prisoners. The system was known as the Soviet Gulag labor camps. The term GULAG is a Russian acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitelno-trudovykh LAGerei which translates to The Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps.' Concentration camps were present in the Soviet Union as early as 1917. They were created to curb the Soviet revolution that had taken hold then. When Stalin took over, he had a vision of turning the U.S.S.R into a modern industrial power. The only way he could do this was through a massive labor force that would not need to be paid. The concentration camps, therefore, evolved under his administration into labor camps.

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The first corrective labor camps after the revolutions of 1917 were established in 1918 in Solovki. The following year they were legalized by a decree "On creation of the forced-labor camps" on April 15th. The camps were first administered by the State Political Directorate, then later by The Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs- a law enforcement agency. The last institution to manage them was the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Purpose of the Gulag

The human resource provided by the camps was used in the construction of roads and railways, mining and harvesting timber. The camps were stationed throughout the Soviet Union with the largest ones situated in remote locations with extreme geographical and climatic conditions. Prisoners were mostly engaged in unskilled, manual tasks.

Challenges Prisoners Faced in the System

The living and working conditions in the camps were so pathetic that the mortality rate was so high. Many working prisoners died of hard labor, extreme cold, starvation and illnesses resulting from poor sanitation. New prisoners quickly replaced the deceased. A huge bunch of prisoner was first hurled up into the Gulag between 1929 and 1932. These years were recognized as the years of the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Stalins administration needed to boost its agricultural produce to be able to feed its expansive Union. A total of 10 million people were sent to the camps from 1934 to 1947 at the height of World War two to generate the capital, and industrial might needed to engage in war.

The Gulag consisted of hundreds of camps with each holding an average of 2,000 to 10,000 prisoners. The Gulag consisted of many hundreds of camps, with the average camp holding 2,00010,000 prisoners. The authorities and correctional officers threatened prisoners with starvation and execution. Prisoners, therefore, worked tirelessly to keep alive. They used to work for long hours, in the harsh climate and with inadequate food. These extreme conditions caused the deaths of at least 10 percent of the Gulags total prison population annually. Historian scholars estimate the total death toll in the Gulag from 1918 to 1956 to range from 15 to 30 million.

Historical and Political Ramifications of the System

In two decades of Stalin era, about 18 million prisoners had passed through the Gulag. The common prisoners under the system were thieves, robbers, rapists and murderers. However, most of the people incarcerated were families and friends of deserters and suspected informants of the Soviet Union who were only guilty by association. Historically, the Gulag is recognized as a tool for political repression in the Soviet Union.

Visual image analyses of the Soviet Gulag labor camps.


Where the prisoner worked inside the camps was determined by the sentence he or she had been given and the camps administrators. Many jobs were ranging from tough ones to the very brutal where workers almost certainly died of exhaustion. Outdoor jobs were the hardest because they exposed them to dangerous environments and the scorching heat of the sun or chilling cold. These were preserved for the highly valued prisoners who were closely monitored. Examples of outdoor jobs were cutting trees, mining, and manual construction. Prisoners were given the most basic tools to work with such as short hand-hammers with metal heads and sledge-hammers made of wood.


Prisoners working with basic hand-held tools

The picture above was taken at an outdoor work station in the Gulag. It depicts breaking stone with common hand-held tools; - metal head hammers. Most of them look exhausted with slumping body postures while some sit down as they work because they assumable are weak enough to stand on their feet.

There were privileged people within the camps that had better jobs such as working in the cafeteria, bathrooms and shops. They were trustees of prison authorities who were used to control the lives of other prisoners. Guards alone couldnt do this because they were fewer in number and had to go back to their resting quarters in the night. The trustees mostly got their jobs through bribes.

Prisoners working at the White Sea Canal; a designated dangerous zone

The amount of work done in the camps was measured through the norm- a quota work that a prisoner was expected to accomplish each day. The norms set were very high even for a healthy person. For instance, only one person was supposed to dig 10 square meters of land, removing the frozen top layer of moss, roots of plants and stumps. Activities such as shoveling snow and cutting trees also had different quantities, timing and extent of land a prisoner had to

Cover to fulfill a norm. Prisoners were frequently forced to cheat to account for the norm or bribe their supervisors with food and sexual favors.


The picture above was taken at the White Sea Canal where prisoners often worked splitting logs and mashing up timber. It depicts the hammering pins into the logs; - an activity which is known as opening up the logs. They used whatever tools they had coupled with a little creativity to get the job done.

Many people fell sick, and many others got injured during work, and so doctors were only allowed to admit a particular number of individuals a day in the hospitals. Patients were exempted from work as a rule and therefore the hospitals were the only place that offered relief from work. Prisoners were often inclined to self-harm so that they could evade work. They self-mutilated by hacking their fingers and reopened wounds to prevent prompt healing. Some of them ingested kerosene or soap to cause stomach ailments and injected turpentine or petroleum into their skin to create boils.


Camps did not provide dishes, and prisoners ate food from small pots. Spoons were considered a luxury and most prisoners had to eat with their hands and drink soup out of pots. The utensils were always small and clumpy; they were hardly washed, so food and rust are accumulated on their surfaces. The amount of food prisoners received was commensurate to the norm they had fulfilled on that particular day. If a prisoner did only half the amount of work they were expected to, they only received half the amount of food.

Prisoners' Eating Utensils

Perceptions and identities of prison inmates

From the visual images of work and food utensils inmates used in the Gulags, it is observable that prisoners were from decent backgrounds wearing heavy clothing. Most of them were middle-aged men.

Architecture of the Labor Camps

It was impossible to escape the camps given the weak nature the prisoners almost always found themselves, the open architecture of the camps and the intense monitoring by correctional officers.

Prisoners dwelling cabins

The picture above shows the dwelling places of prisoners inside the Gulag. They were mostly cabins made of logs surrounded by scattered trees in the woods of remote locations.

Surrounding fencing of the Gulag

The picture above depicts the fencing around the Gulag. Low lying watch towers guarded the camps with stationed guards. They were surrounded by double slanting barbed wired fences held in place by poles that crisscrossed each other making x-shapes.

How the Gulag relates to the Mass Incarceration of male African-Americans Today

The 2013 census conducted in the United States estimated that 18,508,925 people were black males. Out of this, 526,000 were in federal prisons and 219,660 in local jails. In a broad perspective, about 745,000 black males were behind bars in that same year, accounting for 40% of their population. The Gulag in the Soviet Union hosted for a specific group of people in the society especially criminals and political prisoners who were poor and had no means to seek justice for themselves. The criminal justice system in the United States today is following the same line as the Gulag because it incarcerates a large group of people who live in the ghettos. Most of these people happen to be black males who belong to crime gangs. 4

India, a country with a population of 1.2 billion compared to United States 330 million only has an estimate of 380,000 prisoners. There are more African American males locked up in the U.S than the combined prison populations of India, Germany, Canada, England, Argentina, Japan, Lebanon, Finland and Israel.

Source: International Centre for Prison Studies and Bureau of Justice National Prisoner Statistics

Prison situation in the United States

In 2008 more than 1 out of 100 adults in the U.S were in prison. By then the U.S had 24.7% of the worlds 9.8 million inmates. The mandatory sentencing mainly caused this situation during the War on Drugs. Many of these prisoners were from the black community were drug peddling and drug trade had taken hold. This was the beginning of the rise of the population of black inmates in the United States. 5

The main similarity between the Soviet Gulag and the American Prison system is that a huge chunk of the poor and crime-ridden population ends up incarcerated. This fact points out to a broke Criminal Justice system that seems to target a section of the population even though it might not be deliberate. Countries through their legislatures could enact policies that hold the flat imprisonment rate. For instance, in the 1960s all through to the 1990s, German politicians decided to reduce their prison population. They implemented various crime fighting and crime deterrence strategies as an alternative method of dealing with the issue of mass incarceration.

The main difference between the Soviet Gulag and the American prison system is that, while in the Gulag, prisoners were used for human resource in the U.S prisoners are lock up to serve their complete terms with little hard work. Although the Gulag system was oppressive, the Soviet Unions economy improved because of the mass labor that was provided at no cost. A large number of convicts behind bars in America today only functions to eat into the economy. Well, abled men who do not work but have to be maintained contribute to the countrys general unproductivity.

Humanity, Compassion, and Justice

The gruesome history of the Gulag in the Soviet Union and the mass incarceration witnessed in prisons today signifies a failure of the human race in administering justice. We need to be more compassionate and humane when creating corrective strategies to deal with outlaws in the society. For instance, more crime deterring methods are required to stop the massive wave of criminals that head into the prisons every year. The living conditions of inmates also need to be improved tremendously so that there is goodwill on their part to change.


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