13 Stomach-Churning Facts About Being Held Prisoner In The Soviet Gulags

What are Soviet Gulags? What happened in Gulags? And what did they accomplish? The word "Gulag" is actually an acronym of its official bureaucratic name, Glavnoe Upravlenie Ispravitel'no-trudovykh LAGerei. When translated from Russian, it roughly means "the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps."

The gut-wrenching system of forced labor camps was first established following the Russian Civil War. By the 1950s, the Gulags would stretch across the entirety of the Soviet Union's territory. It was arguably one of the darkest periods of 20th-century history. While the Gulag system slowly began to recede after Stalin's passing, it left an impact that still lingers to this day. 

Photo: Unknown. / http://www.rferl.org

  • Women Had To Take On 'Camp Husbands' To Survive

    Women Had To Take On 'Camp Husbands' To Survive
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Cruelty in the Gulag knew no religion, age, or gender. In fact, women had it worse than male inmates in many ways.

    Many women were arrested as "daughters of enemies of the state." Upon arrest, interrogation, and deportation, mothers were separated from their children and families. Once they arrived at their destined prison camp, they were subjected to the same hard labor as men. For lots of female Gulag prisoners, taking on a "Gulag husband" for protection or exchanging sexual favors for better treatment with prison guards were some of the most basic rules of survival.

    Aside from the dangers of exposure to the harsh elements, women often faced the threat of being assaulted by the camp guards and male prisoners (though they were kept separately), and safe methods of birth control were nonexistent. 

    Miraculously, women were able to build friendships and even romance while in the Gulag, and significant accounts of personal experiences have survived. 

  • Prisoners Were Worked To Death All The Time

    Prisoners Were Worked To Death All The Time
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The vast majority of Gulag inmates were not skilled laborers. Around 18 million prisoners entered the Gulag, so a wide, diverse range of professions was represented, which meant that people with formerly niche or white-collar occupations suddenly found themselves doing back-breaking manual labor. Many were innocent of any crime and were simply there as a result of random arrests to fill the slave-labor needs demanded by Stalin and his inner circle.

    Doctors, educators, factory workers, craftspeople, farmers, soldiers, students, artists, and writers were arrested and sent to penal colonies constantly, but the prison population and size of the Gulag system expanded and increased greatly in four distinct periodsCamps required labor based on their location, so, for example, camps in forests had prisoners fell trees, while camps near tin or other alloy deposits forced inmates to mine for metals. 

    While working, prisoners were not given safety clothing or heavy equipment to complete their tasks. Often they only had their winter clothing and primitive hand tools to dig or build complex projects in the freezing Siberian elements. It's no wonder, then, that people perished from exhaustion and the elements all the time.

  • Arrests and Deportations To The Camps Occurred Everywhere, All The Time

    Arrests and Deportations To The Camps Occurred Everywhere, All The Time
    Photo: Gerald Praschl / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The long journey that led to incarceration in a Gulag prison camp began with arrests almost anywhere and for reasons that ranged from the offensive to the outright absurd.

    Descriptions from camp survivors tell tales of being picked up by the NKVD secret police with no notice, no equivalent to the Miranda rights, no rights to an attorney or a trial, and no warrants. This could occur at a sports match, at a restaurant, on the street, at work, or even at home in the middle of the night. The police agents would give someone only a few minutes to gather a few personal possessions. Men, women, and children would then be escorted out to a waiting police van, similar to an armored truck, and locked inside with others. These trucks were called black ravens, as they would spirit the accused away to interrogation in the black of the night.

    After interrogation, a person might've spent a night in a prison cell or been immediately locked in a cattle car on a train with others for days while traveling to a Gulag camp. Conditions on the trains were cruel. In the summer, the heat was sweltering, while in the winter, the cold was unbearable. Only a hole in the floor served as a toilet, and the sole food given was salted fish. Many perished from dehydration or froze to death. To make room, their bodies were thrown from the cattle car and left on the side of the railway tracks. And that was just the ride to the Gulag.

  • Inmates Killed One Another Over Food And Shoes

    Inmates Killed One Another Over Food And Shoes
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Soviet society - and Stalin himself - considered Gulag prisoners, regardless of background or lack of guilt, as cogs in the great machine of socialist advancement towards communism. Known as "zeks," a Russian slang term for prisoners, the inmates were considered valueless and treated a such.

    While interned, prisoners were issued rations that included rudimentary clothing, the occasional eating utensil, and scant amounts of low-protein food. This, combined with the long hours of labor, caused inmates to be simultaneously starved and worked to death along with suffering from disease and exposure. 

    Fights broke out over food, and some prisoners became hoarders of basic items. Tobacco, food, sewing needles, and even shoes and sweaters were traded within a strict and lethal inmate hierarchy. Protection was bought, gambling occurred, debts were paid, and prisoners took each other's lives over simple sundries. Within the camp administration, food was used as both an incentive to work harder and as a weapon. 

  • The Gulag Was A Slave Labor Front

    The Gulag Was A Slave Labor Front
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During interrogation, anyone who was arrested was often given bogus reasons for their arrest. These absurd reasons included the usual list of treasonous acts like spying, economic sabotage, anti-revolutionary activity, or - after the 1930s - being sympathetic to enemies of the state such as the Kulaks. While these were some of the reasons given, they masked the true reason that many people were arrested: their economic value

    After Joseph Stalin initiated his five-year plan to rapidly modernize the Soviet Union, the government needed laborers to work on huge construction and industrial projects. It also quickly realized that there was a lack of knowledgeable and skilled specialists. So a steady stream of arrests and the deportation of hundreds, then thousands, of people year after year fed the Gulag, which then, with the aid of its slave labor, built Stalinist Russia. 

    Gulag camp guards had control over every aspect of a prisoner's existence. If a guard was in a good mood or bad mood, that could determine how much a prisoner ate, what clothes they could wear, and where they slept. 

  • Canals Were Built Over The Bodies Of Prisoners

    Canals Were Built Over The Bodies Of Prisoners
    Photo: Timin Ilya / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    The shadow of the Gulag can be felt today by tourists traveling on ferries down the Moscow-Volga and White Sea-Baltic Canals. Underneath their tranquil facades lies a heartbreaking example of how Gulag prisoners were really treated. 

    Adding to the frenzied collectivization of Russia, Stalin formulated plans for direct shipping and the navy, which required that two canals be built, running north to south. To accomplish this feat, huge amounts of labor were required over a short time period. 

    From 1931 to 1933, thousands of prisoners were brought to the construction areas. They dug, mostly by hand, a 30-mile long addition to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, losing around an estimated 12,000 lives in the process. The actual figure is likely higher. A few years later, from 1933 until 1937, the same project began for the Moscow-Volga Canal on the Volga River. This canal was 80 miles long with eight locks, and it was just as dangerous to excavate. In the White Sea-Baltic building project, workers who perished on the job were disposed of by being dumped into a mass grave and buried in the soil of the canal before it was flooded over.