The Gulags of the Soviet Union have been compared to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, but in reality they were worse. The Gulags were isolated prison camps peppered across Siberia. Death, torture, and disease raged within their walls, while endless work went on outside. Gulag personnel were cruel and unfeeling, using terrible punishment methods and playing senseless games that cost prisoners their lives. Political enemies of the Bolshevik party made up a significant portion of the prisoner population, with most sent to the infamous camp system Kolyma. Liberation was painfully slow, but by 1960, all of the Gulags were gone. The Gulags were called many things by the Soviet government, but when boiled down, they were essentially three things: Prison camps, labor camps, and extermination camps. Most prisoners were sent to a labor camp when their sentences were issued, but under certain conditions such as an illness that crippled a worker, work related accidents that cost limbs and organ function, or even bad behavior at work, convicts could be sent to prison camps or extermination camps. The Gulags were created to make use of convict labor to stimulate the Soviet economy and instill corrective behavior in those convicts. The economy of the Soviet Union greatly improved and the rapid industrialization and collectivization of the cities and countryside pushed the Soviets into the modern world. The Soviets were slower than most of the world in respect to industrialization due to World War I and the following October Revolution. However, with the money gained from the surplus of materials harvested by Gulag prisoners, the Soviets were able to push the Union into a period of rapid economic growth. The Gulag inmates mined coal, gold, and other minerals, farmed, cut down trees for lumber, and so forth. On paper, the Gulag was a great idea. In reality, despite its economical effectiveness, it was the cruelest thing a person could have done to another human being. Humans have a natural desire for money, especially those who have power. Gulag personnel fed convicts very little to save money on food and forced them to work long hours to make more money. Scores of prisoners died on a daily basis due to starvation and exhaustion alone. There were many Gulag camps, with more than 2,000 colonies branching off of the 476 discovered camps. There are likely many more that lie undiscovered and buried in the snow of the Siberian tundra today. The total number of prisoners that were in the Gulags is heavily disputed, but the most reliable number would be about twenty million. Gulag records are incomplete, however, so this estimate may be false. Most of these prisoners died horrible deaths. Although most of the convicts had committed actual crimes, far too many were convicted of counter-revolutionary activities, which in today’s society would generally be accepted as a form of free speech, excluding those that used violent methods to protest.
According to Gulag records, all of them were criminals. However, it is generally accepted that most Mensheviks were imprisoned due to “Counter-revolutionary activities,” and are not counted in the criminal count. Those charged with this crime thus have a section of their own. About one-third of all inmates were Mensheviks and imprisoned to be silenced. The other two-thirds were convicted of legitimate crimes. However, because the government was so corrupt, falsification of evidence ran rampant. With this in mind, a sizeable number of these convicts may have been innocent. The death toll of the convicts was staggering.
The beginning of Gulag life started at home. If a person was suspected of illegal activities, the local authorities were contacted. Soon, an investigator was sent to the suspect’s house to look for any incriminating evidence, usually in a book or pamphlet. The investigator’s job was to take this person to the Gulag, under specification of NKVD Order No. 00447. The purpose of the Order...
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