Soviet Gulags

In the 19th century the Russian government deported around 1.2 million prisoners to Siberia. Most of the revolutionary leaders in Russia spent time in Siberia. This included Lenin , Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin.

After the Russian Revolution the labour camps in Siberia were closed down. These were later reopened by Joseph Stalin and opponents of his regime were sent to what became known as Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagere (Gulag).

Probably the worst of the labour camps was at Kolyma. Located in north-eastern Siberia, temperatures drop to -90 degrees during the winter. About 30 per cent of the prisoners in Kolyma died each year.

People sent to the Gulags included peasants who were accused of "individualistic tendencies" and opposed the establishment of collective farms. Large numbers of Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kirghiz, Mordovians and Caucasians fell into this category.

The theory of Socialist Realism was adopted by the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. Approved by Joseph Stalin, Nickolai Bukharin, Maxim Gorky and Andrey Zhdanov, Socialist Realism demanded that all art must depict some aspect of man's struggle toward socialist progress for a better life. It stressed the need for the creative artist to serve the proletariat by being realistic, optimistic and heroic. The doctrine considered all forms of experimentalism as degenerate and pessimistic.

Experimental and non-conformist writers such as Yevgeni Zamyatin, Isaac Babel, Boris Pilnyak, Nickolai Tikhonov, Mikhail Slonimski, Vsevolod Ivanov, Victor Serge, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Yesenin, Konstantin Fedin, Victor Shklovsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko and Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered under this policy. Zamyatin and Serge managed to leave the country, whereas Mayakovsky and Yesenin committed suicide. Writers who refused to change, such as Babel and Pilnyak, were executed or died in labour camps.

Joseph Stalin was particularly suspicious of people who lived abroad or had relatives abroad. This included foreign communists who had fled to the Soviet Union to avoid persecution from their own governments. In 1937 Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD Secret Police, arranged for large numbers of these communists to be arrested and deported to Siberia. A high percentage of these foreign communists were Jews from Germany, Austria and Hungary.

Large numbers of people living along the western frontier of the Soviet Union and Chinese and Koreans who lived along the eastern border were deported to Gulags in the interior just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Others were sent to labour camps because of their religious beliefs. This included Catholics, Baptists and members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

During the Second World War people sent to Soviet labour camps included collaboration with the enemy under the occupation, prisoners of war, and men and women taken from Nazi Germany.

It is estimated that around 50 million perished in Soviet gulags between 1930 and 1950.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973)

Following an operation, I am lying in the surgical ward of a camp hospital. I cannot move. I am hot and feverish, but nonetheless my thoughts do not dissolve into delirium, and I am grateful to Dr. Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld, who is sitting beside my cot and talking to me all evening. The light has been turned out, so it will not hurt my eyes. There is no one else in the ward.

Fervently he tells me the long story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. I am astonished at the conviction of the new convert, at the ardor of his words.

We know each other very slightly, and he was not the one responsible for my treatment, but there was simply no one here with whom he could share his feelings. He was a gentle and well-mannered person. I could see nothing bad in him, nor did I know anything bad about him. However, I was on guard because Kornfeld had now been living for two months inside the hospital barracks, without going outside. He had shut himself up in here, at his place of work, and avoided moving around camp at all.

This meant that he was afraid of having his throat cut. In our camp it had recently become fashionable to cut the throats of stool pigeons. This has an effect. But who could guarantee that only stoolies were getting their throats cut? One prisoner had had his throat cut in a clear case of settling a sordid grudge. Therefore the self-imprisonment of Kornfeld in the hospital did not necessarily prove that he was a stool pigeon.

It is already late. The whole hospital is asleep. Kornfeld is finishing his story:

"And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow."

I cannot see his face. Through the window come only the scattered reflections of the lights of the perimeter outside. The door from the corridor gleams in a yellow electrical glow. But there is such mystical knowledge in his voice that I shudder.

Those were the last words of Boris Kornfeld. Noiselessly he went into one of the nearby wards and there lay down to sleep. Everyone slept. There was no one with whom he could speak. I went off to sleep myself.

I was wakened in the morning by running about and tramping in the corridor; the orderlies were carrying Kornfeld's body to the operating room. He had been dealt eight blows on the skull with a plasterer's mallet while he slept. He died on the operating table, without regaining consciousness.

(2) In 1924 Boris Pilnyak wrote an article explaining why, despite receiving government funds, he could not write Communist Party propaganda.

I am against a writer having to live "willingly not seeing," or, simply, lying. And a lie results when some sort of statistical proportion is not observed. I am not a communist, and for that reason I do not agree that I should have to write in a communist manner. To the degree that the communists are with Russia, I am with them. I admit that the fate of the communist party is less interesting to me than the fate of Russia. The Communist Party to me is only a link in the history of Russia.

(3) Yevgeni Zamyatin, letter to Joseph Stalin (1931)

No creative activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution that increases in intensity from year to year. In each of my published works these critics have inevitably discovered some diabolical intent. Regardless of the content of a given work, the very fact of my signature has become a sufficient reason for declaring the work criminal. Of course, any falsification is permissible in fighting the devil. I beg to be permitted to go abroad with my wife with the right to return as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas in literature without cringing before little men, as soon as there is at least partial change in the prevailing view concerning the role of the literary artist.

(4) When Osip Mandelstam was being investigated by the Secret Police he went to see the short-story writer, Isaac Babel, who was still a member of the Union of Soviet Writers. The meeting was later recorded by Mandelstam's wife, Nadezhda Khazina.

The next person we consulted was Babel. We told him our troubles, and during the whole of our long conversation he listened with remarkable intentness. Everything about Babel gave an impression of all-consuming curiosity - the way he held his head, his mouth and chin, and particularly his eyes. It is not often that one sees such undisguised curiously in the eyes of a grown-up. I had the feeling that Babel's main driving force was the unbridled curiously with which he scrutinized life and people.

With his usual ability to size things up, he was quick to decide on the best course for us. "Go out to Kalinin," he said, "Nikolai Erdman is there - his old woman just love him." This was Babel's cryptic way of saying that all Erdman's female admirers would never have allowed him to settle in a bad place. He also thought we might be able to get some help from them - in finding a room there, for instance. Babel volunteered to get the money for our fare the next day.

(5) Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973)

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

(6) Nikita Khrushchev was critical of Stalin's cultural policies implemented by Andrey Zhdanov.

I think Stalin's cultural policies, especially the cultural policies imposed on Leningrad through Zhdanov, were cruel and senseless. You can't regulate the development of literature, art, and culture with a stick, or by barking orders. You can't lay down a furrow and then harness all your artists to make sure they don't deviate from the straight and narrow. If you try to control your artists too tightly, there will be no clashing of opinions, consequently no criticism, and consequently no truth. There will be just a gloomy stereotype, boring and useless.