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What is a Gulag?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A gulag is a forced labor camp; the term is derived from the Russian Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitel'no-Trudovykh Lagerey i koloniy, or “Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps,” an institution in the former Soviet Union. Today, the term “gulag” is sometimes jokingly used to describe any sort of grueling labor, but historical gulags were no laughing matter. The conditions in gulags were extremely harsh, and the camps were used as political tools to repress political dissidents and punish other “enemies of the state.”

The first gulags emerged in the 1920s, shortly after the Revolution in Russia. These labor camps were ostensibly designed to promote technological and industrial advancement in Russia by providing a source of cheap and readily available labor. However, they were also clearly intended to act as corrective tools for the Soviet government, with many citizens being terrified of the threat of the gulag for themselves or their family members. Propaganda posters, for example, featured gulags prominently, telling citizens exactly what their fates would be if they defied the government or engaged in “counter revolutionary” activity.

Many of these camps were located in isolated regions of Russia, sometimes very close to the Arctic Circle, where conditions were extremely harsh. Residents of the gulags were offered minimal sustenance, limited clothing, and very little in the way of entertainment, enrichment, or education. These camps were designed as functional penal camps, not necessary as facilities for personal improvement.

Some gulag labor undoubtedly did contribute to industrial advance in Russia, but many residents of the gulags noted that their work didn't seem to have any practical function. People might dig trenches one day, and fill them up the next, or build structures which were never used. While in the gulag, people had limited contact with the outside world, and they were subject to brutal punishments if they were outspoken about the government or conditions in the gulag.

In addition to being used to imprison native Russians, gulags were also used to house prisoners of war. The precise number of people who went through the gulags is not known, and death estimates vary from 10 million to 30 million, with some historians believing that the true number lies somewhere around 15-18 million. The last gulags were closed in the 1950s, but the specter of the gulag continued to be a part of Russian society, with gulags appearing in Russian literature and art which eventually introduced the concept of the labor camps to the outside world.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon330228 — On Apr 15, 2013

Indeed the Holocaust has overshadowed the Gulag. I am now working on an essay where I am going to compare concentration camps and gulags. It is really sad how millions of people have been treated in these places. What is sometimes even more sad is how people nowadays don't care to think about these things.

By anon271337 — On May 26, 2012

I had no clue. I came across this word and looked it up. How awful! I live in the USA.

By anon258580 — On Apr 02, 2012

A game such as Call of duty mw3 had an appearance of the gulag in a present state.

By Clairdelune — On Jun 10, 2011

What acts might send you to a gulag, especially during Stalin's era? Besides real crimes such as murder, rape, or robbery, people would be sent to labor camps for some very minor mistakes.

If you were late three times to work, you would be sentenced to three years in a gulag. If you innocently told a little joke about an official in the Communist Party, you might get 25 years.

One woman took three pounds from a state farm to feed her desperately hungry children. She was sent to a gulag for ten years. When she returned home, she couldn't find her children.

Such a sad story!

By gravois — On Jun 10, 2011

I think the useless labor practiced in the gulags is one of the most troubling aspects of their history. I saw a movie set in a gulag once and a prisoner had to move a gigantic pile of rocks from one corner of the yard to the other. Then he had to move them back.

It is one thing to keep a person prisoner. And it is another thing to engineer their death. But their is something particularly insidious about wasting their time in such a conspicuous way. I think it is designed to break their spirit and their body in the same stroke. Work is supposed to have purpose. When it has no purpose it is just a Sisyphean punishment.

By backdraft — On Jun 09, 2011

@misscoco - I have heard stories of the gulags myself and they never fail to be horrifying. There is a part of me that wishes this part of history were wider known. I think most people know what the word gulag means, but they don't associate it with the horrors of Stalin. The Holocaust has kind of overshadowed it as the defining tragedy of the 20th century. It is a sad story for sure, but it should be more widely known. This is not just a footnote but one the most brutal events of the recent past.

By Misscoco — On Jun 09, 2011

The system of gulag in the former Soviet Union was a horrible experience for some of the Russian people. I taught ESL classes to many Russian and Russian Republic immigrants. They told me about the camps. Some of their relatives returned and some did not.

Millions were killed or died from the extreme conditions they had to live in. A lot of the camps were in Siberia. They were punished harshly if they were out of line in any way. Food was scarce. Most of their time was spent doing useless work.

My students were very angry about the way their grandfathers and other relatives were treated.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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