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. 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)