The Soviet labor camp system, later run under the “Gulag” administrative system -- short for “Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovykh LAGerei,” or Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps – was a key feature of Russian life between the 1930s and the 1950s. However, the roots of the camp system lay in the 1920s, when the first camps were opened and the policy of forced labor developed.
Development of Labor Camps
The development of labor camps followed quickly after the Russian Revolution in 1917. As early as November 1917, the new Bolshevik regime identified “enemies” of the revolution and subjected them to forced labor as punishment. In June 1918, Leon Trotsky suggested sending members of the urban bourgeoisie to remote camps, and less than two months later the first camps were established. The Soviets converted World War I prisoner of war camps to house a new category of inmate.
During the 1920s, people could be sent to labor camps for a variety of reasons. Between 1918 and 1921, the Bolsheviks targeted anyone who disagreed with the revolution, but between 1920 and 1922 civil war broke out in parts of Russia. The late 1920s and early 1930s witnessed a surge in the labor camp population as Joseph Stalin attempted to reform Russia’s agricultural sector through collectivization.
One of the first major labor camps was that at Solovetsky. At a converted monastery in the Russian Arctic, the Bolsheviks held inmates perceived to represent a threat to the revolutionary regime, such as lawyers, academics and religious leaders. Solovetsky was a “Camp of Special Assignment” and was the first specifically created by the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka. By 1930, Solovetsky was one of nine labor camps dispersed across the Soviet Union, holding an estimated 300,000 inmates.
Life in the labor camps was very difficult for the inmates. Prisoners had to perform hard physical labor in appalling conditions, and were often mistreated by the camp guards. A 1925 government report on Solovetsky revealed apparently random executions and prisoners being forced to stand naked outside or swim rivers in midwinter. That year, an estimated one-quarter of the Solovetsky inmates died. Conditions worsened from 1928 when the Cheka implemented a “work for food” policy which demanded that prisoners complete a set amount of work to “earn” their meager food rations.
- Center for History and New Media, George Mason University: Gulag, Introduction, Stalin’s Gulag
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Gulag
- Global Museum on Communism: Gulag Timeline
- Global Museum on Communism: Window on Eurasia
- Economic and Social Research Council: Mapping the Gulag, The distribution of camps in USSR, 1929-1930
Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.