14 Stomach-Churning Facts About Being Held Prisoner In The Soviet Gulags

What are Soviet Gulags? What happened in Gulags? And what did they accomplish? The word ‘Gulag’ is actually an acronym of it’s official bureaucratic name, Glavnoe Upravlenie Ispravitel’no-trudovykh LAGerei. When translated from Russian it means, The Main Administration Of Corrective Labor Camps.

The gut wrenching system of forced labor camps was first established following the Russian Civil War. By the 1950s, the Gulags would stretch across the entirety of the Soviet Union’s territory. It was one of the darkest periods of twentieth century history. While it did begin to slowly recede after Stalin’s death, it left an impact that still lingers to this day.

Women Had To Take On “Camp Husbands” To Survive

Cruelty in the Gulag knew no religious, age, or gender lines. In fact, women had it worse than male inmates in many ways.

Many women were arrested as ‘daughters of enemies of the state’. Upon arrest, interrogation, and deportation, mothers were separated from their children and families. Once they arrived at their destined prison camp, they were subjected to the same hard labor as men. For lots of female Gulag prisoners, taking on a “Gulag husband” for protection or exchanging sexual favors for better treatment with prison guards were some of the most basic rules of survival.

Aside from the dangers of exposure to the harsh elements, women faced the threat of being assaulted by the camp guards and male prisoners (though they were kept separately), and safe methods of birth control were nonexistent.

Miraculously, women were able to build friendships and even romance while in the Gulag, and significant accounts of personal experiences have survived.

Prisoners Were Worked To Death All The Time

The vast majority of Gulag inmates were not skilled laborers. Over 18 million prisoners entered the Gulag, so a wide, diverse range of professions was represented, which meant that people with formerly niche or white-collar occupations suddenly found themselves doing back-breaking manual labor. Many were innocent of any crime and were simply the result of random arrests to fill the slave-labor needs demanded by Stalin and his inner circle.

Doctors, educators, factory workers, craftspeople, farmers, soldiers, students, artists, and writers were arrested and sent to penal colonies constantly, but the prison population and size of the Gulag system expanded and increased greatly in four distinct periodsCamps required labor based on their location, so, for example, camps in forests had prisoners fell trees, while camps near tin or other alloy deposits forced inmates to mine for metals.

While working, prisoners were not given safety clothing or heavy equipment to complete their tasks. Often they only had their winter clothing and primitive hand tools to dig or build complex projects in the freezing Siberian elements. It’s no wonder, then, that people dying from exhaustion and the elements happened all the time.

Arrests and Deportations To The Camps Occurred Everywhere, All The Time

The long journey that led to incarceration in a Gulag prison camp began with arrests almost anywhere and for reasons that ranged from the offensive to the outright absurd.

Descriptions from camp survivors tell tales of being picked up by the NKVD security police with no notice, no equivalent to Miranda rights, no rights to an attorney or a trial, and no warrants. This could occur at a sports match, at a restaurant, on the street, at work, or even at home in the middle of the night. The police agents would give someone only a few minutes to gather a few personal possessions. Men, women, and children would then be escorted out to a waiting police van, similar to an armored truck, and locked inside with others. These trucks were called black ravens as they would spirit the accused away to interrogation in the dead of the night.

After interrogation, a person might’ve spent a night in a prison cell or been immediately locked in a cattle car on a train with others for days while traveling to a Gulag camp. Conditions on the trains were cruel. In the summer, the heat was sweltering, while in the winter, the cold was unbearable. Only a hole in the floor served as a toilet, and the sole food given was salted fish. Many died from dehydration or froze to death. To make room, their bodies were thrown from the cattle car and left on the side of the railway tracks. And that was just the ride to the Gulag.

Inmates Killed One Another Over Food And Shoes

Soviet society – and Stalin himself – considered Gulag prisoners, regardless of background or lack of guilt, as cogs in the great machine of socialist advancement towards communism. Known as ‘zeks’, a Russian slang term for prisoners, the inmates were considered valueless and treated a such.

While interned, prisoners were issued rations that included rudimentary clothing, the occasional eating utensil, and scant amounts of low-protein food. This, combined with the long hours of labor, caused inmates to be simultaneously starved and worked to death along with suffering from disease and exposure.

Fights broke out over food, and some prisoners became hoarders of basic items. Tobacco, food, sewing needles, and even shoes and sweaters were traded within a strict and lethal inmate hierarchy. Protection was bought, gambling occurred, debts were paid, and people murdered over simple sundries. Within the camp administration, food was used as both an incentive to work harder and as a weapon.

The Gulag Was A Slave Labor Front

During interrogation, anyone who was arrested was often given bogus reasons for their arrest. These absurd reasons included the usual list of treasonous acts like spying, economic sabotage, anti-revolutionary activity, or – after the 1930s – being sympathetic to enemies of the state such as the Kulaks. While these were some of the reasons given, they masked the true reason that many people were arrested: their economic value.

After Joseph Stalin initiated his five-year plan to rapidly modernize the Soviet Union, the government needed laborers to work on huge construction and industrial projects. It also quickly realized that there was a lack of knowledgeable and skilled specialists. So a steady stream of arrests and the deportation of hundreds, then thousands, of people year after year fed the Gulag, which then, with the aid of its slave labor, built Stalinist Russia.

Gulag camp guards had control over every aspect of a prisoner’s existence. If a guard was in a good mood or bad mood, that could determine how much a prisoner ate, what clothes they could wear, and where they slept.

Canals Were Built Over The Dead Bodies Of Prisoners

The shadow of the Gulag can be felt today by tourists traveling on ferries down the Moscow-Volga and Baltic-White Sea Canals. For, underneath their tranquil facades lays a heartbreaking example of how Gulag prisoners were really treated.

Adding to the frenzied collectivization of Russia, Stalin formulated plans for direct shipping and the navy, which require two canals be built, running north to south. To accomplish this feat, huge amounts of labor were required over a short time period.

From 1931 to 1933, thousands of prisoners were brought to the construction areas and dug, mostly by hand, a 30-mile long addition to the White Sea-Baltic canal, losing around an estimate 12,000 lives in the process. The actual figure is likely higher. A few years later, from 1933 until 1937, the same project began for the Moscow-Volga Canal on the Volga River. This canal was 80 miles long with eight locks, and it was just as dangerous to excavate. In the Baltic White-Sea building project, workers who were killed on the job were disposed of by being dumped into a mass grave and buried in the soil of the canal before it was flooded over.

Children and Infants Were Incarcerated In the Camps

During the Russian Civil War, around 800,000 soldiers and approximately eight million civilians perished from war and famine.

As a result, it is believed that following the Civil War in the ‘20s and ’30s, there were around seven million homeless children and youths throughout the Soviet Union who had lost parents during the War. Many were forced to resort to crime to survive and were picked up and sent to the Gulag as a result.

And it wasn’t just already existing children that were brought to the Gulag – some were born there too. Women who gave birth in the Gulag were kept with their children until the child was two. Poor sanitary conditions, lack of nutrition, neglect, and nonexistent basic necessities were all things new mothers had to face with their infants. As a result, many newborns died early on, and the lack of food caused many children to be physically and mentally underdeveloped for life.

Criminal Gangs Ruled The Gulag

While many in the Gulag were totally innocent, bandits, thieves, murderers, and other traditional criminals could also be found inside. Like basically every other imprisonment situation that has ever happened, these real, hardened criminals became camp elites who wielded power through terror over their non-lawbreaking fellow inmates. Criminals were often known by clan-specific tattoos that were related to Russian Orthodoxy and culture. Tattoos had meanings that were Gulag specific and differed from era to era.

While in the camps, gangs controlled essentially every aspect of social life. Communication, protection, who did hard labor, intimacy, who slept and lived where, food rationing, and punishment were all things left up to the Gulag gangs.

And gang punishment for an infraction was often violent and unforgiving. In fact, fear of retribution from a gang member was greater than retribution from guards. If a prisoner broke a rule or code of conduct, the offender could expect to be subjected to beatings, knifings, bludgeoning, deprivation of food, intimidation, sexual assault, more hard labor than usual, clothing and food fines, and even murder.

Camp Living Conditions Provided Almost No Basic Needs

Daily life in the camps was reflective of the seasons and geographic locations where they were located. For example, camps north of the arctic circle were bleak most of the time while camps close to the Chinese border were a bit more tolerable (weather-wise, that is).

All camps, however, had hard labor, very little food, disease, a lack of basic amenities, and the constant threat of death in common. Barracks were often nothing more than wooden shacks, and the only clothing that was issued to prisoners were padded jackets and, if you were lucky, trousers, caps, and mittens. Food was bland and infrequent, and, because of the lack of nutrition, diseases and work accidents were common causes of injuries and death.

Families Of POWs Were Sent To The Gulag Too

After the devastating German invasion of the western Soviet Union in 1941, the Red Army was in a state of chaotic retreat, and Hitler’s forces seemed unstoppable. This was compounded by the fact that Stalin had killed off his best military officers in the pre-war “Great Purge,” ignored early warnings of the invasion, and forbade his forces to counterattack.

Once the Soviet government regained control of the situation, Stalin issued order #270 which stated that soldiers were prohibited from surrendering or retreating, and any soldier who did surrender to the Germans or retreat was to be shot as a traitor when captured. The worst clause, however, was that if any Red Army soldier was captured or retreated, the family of that soldier would be denied food and/or arrested and sent to the Gulag.

As a result of this frightening order, prisoners of war were stuck between a rock and a hard place – surrender to the Germans or stand and fight under Stalin.

Prisoners Were Sent To The WWII Battlefront To Atone For Their Crimes

During World War Two, Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov issued order #227, in which one particular clause transferred Gulag prisoners to special penal battalions in the Red Army to serve on the Eastern Front. The penal battalions, or shtrafbat, were assigned the most dangerous missions to “atone” for their crimes.

An example of this dangerous work was to cross a minefield to clear it of explosives by sacrificing yourself so that regular battalions could safely cross over afterward. Placed behind the penal battalions were blocking units, groups of soldiers whose orders were to shoot anyone retreating.

On some level, even Stalin must’ve understood the abject craziness of this dictum, seeing as he wouldn’t let it be put into print and had it disseminated solely by word of mouth instead.

Some Survivors Are Still Afraid To Discuss Their Imprisonment

On paper, the Gulag was a prison camp administration, but in practice, the arrests, reasons for incarceration, hard labor, separation from family, executions, and weather all grimly exceeded this simple, bureaucratic designation. They gave this system of “administration” its notorious legacy.

When Stalin died in 1953, the Gulag held more than three million prisoners. Within days of his death, millions of prisoners had been released, and the new premier, Nikita Sergeyevich Kruschev, began a process of de-Stalinization known as the “thaw.”

With Stalin gone, the reality that the camp system was immoral and economically useless led to a period of shrinkage and mass releases of prisoners, many of whom were rehabilitated. However, the trauma it inflicted on its inmates both physically and mentally, from 1918 until Stalin’s death, left scars on several generations of Russians. Some have survived to this day but are still extremely fearful of discussing their experiences.

If You Wanted To Escape, You Had To Go To Finland

Escape from the Gulag was no easy feat. Not only did you have to make it past guards and Gulag gangs, but you also had to trek through harsh climates to countries that wouldn’t extradite you. There were only two of those: Finland and China. However, a few notable individuals did escape. One story, about a Polish army officer who escaped and crossed the Himalayas to India on foot was made into a film, The Way Back. However, the veracity of this story is disputed.

A verifiable escape did occur in 1933 when Vladimir Tchernavin, his wife Tatiana, and their son Andrei managed to slip away out of Russia and take refuge in Finland. After brief incarceration at SLON, Tchernavin was transferred to Karelia near the Finnish border because of his fisheries knowledge. While there, Tchernavin met a local peasant who explained that the camp guards had “a beat of 15 kilometers and they patrol it in pairs. When two return two others start out. Mostly they lie around and listen to the radio. They don’t like to go in the woods. They’re afraid. It is said that there are escaped convicts there who will lie in wait for them and kill them.” With this useful insight, Tchernavin began contemplating escape.

In 1931, because of good behavior, Tchernavin’s wife and son were allowed to visit him. Immediately he and Tatiana put escape plans into motion using written code in letters to each other. Towards the end of the summer in 1933, the Tchernavin family were able to slip away from the Gulag camp guards during a visit. On foot and by a boat hidden prior to escape, they fled to Finland. According to Tchernavin they crossed rivers, forests, and mountains with few provisions, camping in the wilderness to avoid detection.

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