38 Photos of Russia’s Harsh Gulags, Past and Present

Gulag, an acronym of ‘Glavnoye Upravleniye LAGerej,’ meaning ‘Main Camps’ Administration’ was a government agency created under Vladimir Lenin which reached its peak as a Soviet forced labor system during Joseph Stalin’s rule from the 1930s until the 1950s. The camps were home to a wide range of convicts and political prisoners. Inmates were sentenced, often without trial by the NKVD Troika Secret Police.

Gulags were located in isolated areas wherever the economic task at hand dictated their existence. The majority of them were located in northeastern Siberia and in the southeastern Soviet steppes of Kazakhstan.

The Solovki prison was the first corrective labor camp constructed after the Bolshevik Revolution, established in 1918. The conditions in Solovki and the numerous other Gulags were severe. Because the camp administrators too optimistic with their estimates of productivity, they were forced to work longer hours on lower food rations. The over-worked, under-fed prisoners would work even slower and would be given even longer hours with less food, in a disparaging cycle.

Andrei Vyshinsky, a procurator of the Soviet Union, wrote a memorandum to NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov in 1938 which stated: “Among the prisoners, there are some so ragged and lice-ridden that they pose a sanitary danger to the rest. These prisoners have deteriorated to the point of losing any resemblance to human beings. Lacking food, they collect orts [refuse] and, according to some prisoners, eat rats and dogs.”

Throughout the history of the Soviet Union, there were at least 476 separate camp administrations. The Russian researcher Galina Ivanova stated that “to date, Russian historians have discovered and described 476 camps that existed at different times on the territory of the USSR. It is well known that practically every one of them had several branches, many of which were quite large. In addition to the large numbers of camps, there were no less than 2,000 colonies. It would be virtually impossible to reflect the entire mass of Gulag facilities on a map that would also account for the various times of their existence.”

It is estimated that over 50 million people were sent through the Gulag system. Forced labor is still used as punishment today.

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. Wikimedia Commons
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. Wikimedia Commons
A gold mine that, during Stalin’s reign, was worked through prison labor. Magadan, USSR. August 20, 1978. Wikimedia Commons
A miner who died working in a forced labor camp is put to rest under the ground. Vaygach Island, USSR. 1931. Wikimedia Commons
Convicts sleep inside of a sod-covered house in a Siberian gulag. Siberia, USSR. Date unspecified. Library of Congress
Not every political prisoner was lucky enough to be sentenced to forced labor. Here, the bodies of thousand of Polish people lie dead in a mass grave. Katyn, Poland. April 30, 1943. Wikimedia Commons
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. Wikimedia Commons
Posters of Stalin and Marx gaze down at the prisoners inside of their sleeping quarters. USSR. Circa 1936-1937. New York Public Library
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. Wikimedia
Prisoners at work operating a machine inside of a gulag. USSR. Circa 1936-1937. New York Public Library
Prisoners digging clay for the brickyard. Solovki Island, USSR. Circa 1924-1925. Wikimedia Commons
Prisoners hammer away at the rocks in the White Sea–Baltic Canal. USSR. Circa 1930-1933. Wikimedia Commons
Prisoners in a Soviet gulag dig a ditch while a guard looks on. USSR. Circa 1936-1937. New York Public Library
Stalin comes out to inspect the progress on the Moscow Canal, which is being built by imprisoned workers. Moscow, USSR. April 22, 1937. Wikimedia Commons
The chiefs of the gulags. These men were responsible for forcing more than 100,000 prisoners to work. USSR. July 1932 Wikimedia Commons
The crude lodgings that host a group of prisoners in one of Stalin’s gulags. USSR. Circa 1936-1937. New York Public Library
The directors of the gulag camps gather together to celebrate their work. USSR. May 1, 1934. Wikimedia Commons
Two Lithuanian political prisoners get ready to go to work in a coal mine. Inta, USSR. 1955. Wikimedia Commons
Young boys in a gulag stare at the cameraman from their beds. Molotov, USSR. Date unspecified. David Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies