Gulags : A Conveniently Forgotten Atrocity

Most people only know a little about the labor camps the Russians built. While the Holocaust is almost common knowledge, and it’s concentration camps are well known, Russian Gulags don’t get the remembrance they deserve. The Gulags were labor camps for criminals, political prisoners, and for more mundane offenses such as being late for work! The word “Gulag” was an acronym for the Russian words for “main camp administration” short for “Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Labor Settlements”. The earliest camps were made around 1918, but was formally recognized on April 25, 1930. It ran until January 13, 1960.  Living conditions were brutal,

“Living and working conditions in the camps varied significantly across time and place, depending, among other things, on the impact of broader events (World War II, countrywide famines and shortages, waves of terror, sudden influx or release of large numbers of prisoners). However, to one degree or another, the large majority of prisoners at most times faced meager food rations, inadequate clothing, overcrowding, poorly insulated housing, poor hygiene, and inadequate health care. Most prisoners were compelled to perform harsh physical labor. In most periods and economic branches, the degree of mechanization of work processes was significantly lower than in the civilian industry: tools were often primitive and machinery, if existent, short in supply. Officially established work hours were in most periods longer and days off were fewer than for civilian workers. Often official work time regulations were extended by local camp administrators.” (Wikipedia)

The living quarters were squalid, lie and disease was rampant. They were poorly heated as well. Some areas were so crowded, people fought to find a place to lay down and sleep. Camps set production quotas on work and food was conditional on them. Many prisoners starved because they couldn’t meet the quota. Some of the worst camps were in Siberia, where prisoners were working outside in -50 degrees Celsius. About 30% died each year. Escapees were shot, and the guard who was in charge would be stripped of his uniform and become a prisoner himself! The prisoners competed for everything and often lead to violent interactions.  Work hours were about 10 hours per day. Prisoners were supposed to have 1 day off, but guards often made them work on that day, going without a day off for months! Total death tolls from 1918-1956 range from 15-30 million!

In comparison, the Nazi concentration camps were have thought to have killed 11 million people in total, everyone, not just Jews. Gulags killed 4-19 million more people than the Holocaust! I believe that the reason Gulags are overlooked is because of political reasons. Nazi Germany was our enemy, and Russia was our Ally in WWII. Also, the Holocaust stands out because of the racial motivations and specifically setting to exterminate whole groups of people. Gulags weren’t necessarily there for genocide, more to punish and quell subversive populations. Today, at least, racism is a very hot topic and anything racist gets recognized more. The Holocaust is also known for it’s particularly sadistic methods of extermination as well. However, Gulags had similarities such as working people to death, starvation, and squalid living conditions. I think beside politics, Gulags and Concentration Camps bring up the dispute over how to quantify which is more evil, the motivators and methods, or the numbers? The Holocaust out ranks Gulags in terms of motivation and methods, but Gulags killed about double the number of victims. Overall, the Gulags under Soviet control are under-recognized and overall forgotten. The killings of around 20 million people should be remembered, if the killings of half that number are. All atrocities are equal in horror in the eyes of their victims.


More about Gulags   Gulag Exhibit


About History Is Interesting

I like ancient and medieval history!
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