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One of the most idiosyncratic horrors of Soviet Russia was the Gulag system, an extensive network of forced labor and concentration camps. Part of the rationale behind this system was that it could serve as slave labor in the drive for industrialization while also serving as a form of punishment. The name Gulag is in fact an acronym, approximating to “Main Administration of Camps” (in Russian: Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei) and operated by the Soviet Union’s Ministry of the Interior. The Gulag consisted of internment camps, forced labor camps, psychiatric hospital facilities, and special laboratories, and its prisoners were known as zeks. Such was the closed and secretive nature of the Soviet state that to this day, knowledge of the Gulag system comes mainly from Western studies, firsthand accounts by prisoners such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and some local studies after the fall of communism.

The most recognizable version of the Gulag, a term that was never pluralized in Russia itself, existed from the 1930s to 1950s, a period in which a huge network of camps and prisons was established across the vast Soviet federation. Prisoners were often used as forced labor, made to do physically arduous and soul-destroying tasks. Some workers helped to build large infrastructure projects, and indeed, the system was partly rationalized in terms of economics.

By the early 1960s, Gulags were synonymous with various forms of punishments, including house arrest, imprisonment in isolated places, or confinement to a mental hospital where a prisoner would be declared insane or diagnosed with a “political” form of psychosis. In its later years, the Gulags held a particular place in the public’s imagination, both within the USSR and in the outside world. They could mean exile, brutal punishment, or simply being banished to Siberia.

Though it’s often forgotten today, in many respects, the Gulags represented a continuation (albeit a more far-reaching version) of the kind of punishment meted out during the Russian Empire under the Romanov dynasty, which was overthrown in 1917. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the system in the context of the broader history of Russia and its empire, even as the system of repression, imprisonment, and punishment persisted for decades in the Soviet Union and has been primarily aligned with the rule of one leader: Josef Stalin.

The USSR collapsed in December 1991, and it can be argued that the labor camps were not only integral to the very existence of the Soviet Union, but also a damning indictment of the Soviets’ failed experiment in communist totalitarianism. The Gulags: The History and Legacy of the Notorious Soviet Labor Camps examines the rise of the labor camps, how they were institutionalized by Soviet leaders, and what life was like for the prisoners.

©2018 Charles River Editors (P)2019 Charles River Editors

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