45 Incredible Photos Of Life Inside Soviet Gulag Prisons

The Gulag, “chief administration of the camps”) was the government agency in charge of the Soviet network of forced labor camps set up by order of Vladimir Lenin, reaching its peak during Joseph Stalin’s rule from the 1930s to the early 1950s. English-language speakers also use the word gulag to refer to all forced-labor camps that existed in the Soviet Union, including camps that existed in the post-Lenin era.

The Gulag is recognized as a major instrument of political repression in the Soviet Union. The camps housed a wide range of convicts, from petty criminals to political prisoners, large numbers of whom were convicted by simplified procedures, such as by NKVD troikas or by other instruments of extrajudicial punishment. In 1918–22, the agency was administered by Cheka, followed by the GPU (1922–23), OGPU (1923–34), later by the NKVD (1934–46), and in the final years by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). The Solovki prison camp, the first corrective labor camp constructed after the revolution, was established in 1918 and legalized by a decree, “On the creation of the forced-labor camps” on April 15, 1919.

The internment system grew rapidly, reaching a population of 100,000 in the 1920s. According to Nicolas Werth, the yearly mortality rate in the Soviet concentration camps strongly varied, reaching 5% (1933) and 20% (1942–1943) but dropping considerably in the post-war years (about 1 to 3% per year at the beginning of the 1950s). In 1956 the mortality rate dropped to 0.4%. The emergent consensus among scholars who utilize official archival data is that of the 18 million who were sent to the Gulag from 1930 to 1953, roughly 1.5 to 1.7 million perished there or as a result of their detention. However, some historians question the reliability of such data and instead rely heavily on literary sources that come to higher estimations. Archival researchers have found “no plan of destruction” of the gulag population and no statement of official intent to kill them, and prisoner releases vastly exceeded the number of deaths in the Gulag.[2] This can be partly attributed to the common practice of releasing prisoners who were either suffering from incurable diseases or near death.

Almost immediately following the death of Stalin, the Soviet establishment took steps in dismantling the Gulag system. A general amnesty was declared in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death, though it was limited to non-political prisoners and political prisoners sentenced to no more than five years. Shortly thereafter Nikita Khrushchev was elected as First Secretary, initiating the processes of de-Stalinization and the Khrushchev Thaw, triggering a mass release and rehabilitation of political prisoners. The Gulag system ended definitively six years later on 25 January 1960, when the remains of the administration were dissolved by Khrushchev. The legal practice of sentencing convicts to penal labor, though restrained, was not fully abolished and continues to this day, although to a far more limited capacity, in the Russian Federation.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who survived eight years of Gulag incarceration, gave the term its international repute with the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973. The author likened the scattered camps to “a chain of islands”, and as an eyewitness he described the Gulag as a system where people were worked to death. In March 1940, there were 53 Gulag camp directorates (colloquially referred to simply as “camps”) and 423 labor colonies in the Soviet Union. Many mining and industrial towns and cities in northern and eastern Russia and in Kazakhstan such as Karaganda, Norilsk, Vorkuta and Magadan, were originally blocks of camps built by prisoners and subsequently run by ex-prisoners.(Wikipedia)

Young boys in a gulag stare at the cameraman from their beds. Molotov, USSR. Date unspecified.
A miner who died working in a forced labor camp is put to rest under the ground. Vaygach Island, USSR. 1931.
Polish families are deported to Siberia as part of the Soviet Union’s relocation plan.
Influential families in conquered states would often be forced into labor to help systematically destroy their culture.
Poland. 1941.
Not every political prisoner was lucky enough to pushed into forced labor. Here, the bodies of thousand of Polish people lie dead in a mass grave. Katyn, Russia. April 30, 1943.
The dead bodies of political prisoners, murdered by the secret police, lie inside of a prison camp. Tarnopil, Ukraine. July 10, 1941.
Convicts sleep inside of a sod-covered house in a Siberian gulag. Siberia, USSR. Date unspecified.
Posters of Stalin and Marx gaze down at the prisoners inside of their sleeping quarters. USSR. Circa 1936-1937.
Prisoners at work building the White Sea–Baltic Canal, one of the first major projects in the Soviet Union made entirely through slave labor.
12,000 people died while working amid the harsh conditions at the canal.
USSR. 1932.
The chiefs of the gulags. These men were responsible for forcing more than 100,000 prisoners to work. USSR. July 1932
Prisoners in a Soviet gulag dig a ditch while a guard looks on. USSR. Circa 1936-1937.
Stalin comes out to inspect the progress on the Moscow Canal, which is being built by imprisoned workers. Moscow, USSR. April 22, 1937.
A gold mine that, during Stalin’s reign, was worked through prison labor.
Magadan, USSR. August 20, 1978.
Philosopher Pavel Florensky after being arrested for “agitation against the Soviet system.”
Florensky was sentenced to ten years of labor in Stalin’s gulags. He would not serve the full ten years. three years after this picture was taken, he was dragged out into the woods and shot.
USSR. February 27, 1933.
The directors of the gulag camps gather together to celebrate their work.
USSR. May 1, 1934.
Two Lithuanian political prisoners get ready to go to work in a coal mine. Inta, USSR. 1955.
The crude lodgings that host a group of prisoners in one of Stalin’s gulags. USSR. Circa 1936-1937.
Prisoners at work operating a machine inside of a gulag. USSR. Circa 1936-1937.
Prisoners at work on the White Sea-Baltic Canal. USSR. Circa 1930-1933.
Prisoners hammer away at the rocks in the White Sea–Baltic Canal. USSR. Circa 1930-1933.
Yuriy Tyutyunnyk, a Ukranian General who fought against the Soviets in the Ukranian-Soviet War. Tyutyunnyk was allowed to live in Soviet Ukraine after the war — until 1929, when Soviet policies changed. He was arrested, taken to Moscow, imprisoned, and killed. USSR. 1929.
Prisoners transport lead-zinc ore. Vaygach Island, USSR. Circa 1931-1932.
Prisoners digging clay for the brickyard. Solovki Isalnd, USSR. Circa 1924-1925.
Officials look over their laborers, at work on the Moscow Canal. Moscow, USSR. September 3, 1935.
A “penal insulator” inside of a gulag. Vorkuta, USSR. 1945.
Stalin and his men inspect the work on the Moscow-Volga Canal. Moscow, USSR. Circa 1932-1937.
Gulag prisoners forced to work on a mine overseen by the USSR’s secret police. Vaygach Island, USSR. 1933.
Prisoners at work in a gulag pause for a moment’s rest. USSR. Circa 1936-1937.
A guard shakes hands with a prisoner, at work cutting down lumber. USSR. Circa 1936-1937.
Guards walk through a gulag during an inspection. USSR. Circa 1936-1937.
The prison photo and papers of Jacques Rossi, a political prisoner arrested for his connections to revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, hang on the wall of a gulag. Norillag, USSR.
Men at work on the Koylma Highway.
The route would come to be known as the “Road of Bones” because the skeletons of the men who died building it were used in its foundation. USSR. Circa 1932-1940.
Colonel Stepan Garanin, at one time the chief of the Kolyma Force Labor Camps, prepares for his new life as a prisoner. USSR. Circa 1937-1938.
A miner who died working in a forced labour camp was surrounded by prisoners as he was buried on Vaygach Island.
Two Lithuanian political prisoners get ready to go to work in a coal mine in Inta, USSR. The Inta labour camp existed from 1941 to 1948, and prisoners were mainly engaged in the mining of local coal deposits. The number of inmates at the camp reached 20,585 at its highest size. In 1948, the camp was shut down and reorganized into a special camp for political prisoners
Stalin and his men are pictured examining the Moscow-Volga Canal, built by prisoners in 1932.
Guards walk through a gulag during an inspection in 1936. As of March 1940, there were 53 Golag camps and 432 labour colonies across the USSR. Today’s major cities in the Russian Arctic were originally camps build by prisoners and run by former prisoners
Convicted men sleep inside of a sod-covered house in a Siberian gulag, Siberia, at an unknown date. Prisoners lived in squalid conditions, and many people died of starvation or exhaustion from working too many hours and not receiving enough food from the prison staff
The prisoners weren’t just for adults, however. Pictured above, young boys look at a camera from their bunk beds at a camp in Molotov, USSR
Prisoners at work in a gulag pause for a moment’s rest in 1936. By the time the last Soviet gulag closed its gates, millions had died. Some worked themselves to death, some had starved, and others were simply dragged out into the woods and shot.
Hunger, physical punishment and sexual harrasment – and that’s only the beginning of the suffering for women in the Gulag.
Prisoners work at Belbaltlag, a Gulag camp for building the White Sea-Baltic Sea, 1932
Manacled and with barely enough clothing to keep them warm, prisoners had to work in Siberian temperatures. Toture, or death, was common for anyone who didn’t comply.
Prisoners with severe malnutrition in a camp hospital, most were expected to die. How much bread they got depended on how much timber they had cut the day before – a tally that could be the difference between life and death
Prisoners building a copper factory in Norilisk in 1949. Few survived the brutal conditions.
Women and children work at a gulag in 1932. Prison nurseries did exist, but malnutrition, restrictive breast-feeding schedules and astonishing cruelty often resulted in the child suffering an early death

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