The Gulag

Gulag or GULag is the acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies of the NKVD. It was officially created on April 25, 1930 and eventually dissolved on January 13, 1960.

The Soviet system of forced labour camps was first established in 1919 under the Cheka, but it was not until the early 1930s that the camp population reached significant numbers. By 1934 the Gulag, or Main Directorate for Corrective Labour Camps, then under the Cheka's successor organization the NKVD, had several million inmates. Prisoners included murderers, thieves, and other common criminals - along with political and religious dissenters.

The Gulag, whose camps were located mainly in remote regions of Siberia and the Arctic North, made significant contributions to the Soviet economy in the period of Joseph Stalin. Gulag prisoners constructed the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line, numerous hydroelectric stations, and strategic roads and industrial enterprises in remote regions. Gulag manpower was also used for much of the country's lumber industry and for the mining of coal, copper, gold and uranium ore.

Stalin constantly increased the number of projects assigned to the NKVD, which led to an increasing reliance on its labour. The Gulag also served as a source of workers for economic projects independent of the NKVD, which contracted its prisoners out to various economic enterprises, very similar to the Nazi German SS organisation which also contracted concentration camp inmates to work as slave laboures in German companies like Siemens, HASAG, Volkswagen, IG Farben and many others during the Second World War.

In the eyes of the Stalinist authorities, a prisoner had almost no value, an unknown number—but well into the millions—died in the Gulag camps. Those who died of hunger, cold, and hard labour were easily replaced by new prisoners. Many of today's major industrial cities of the Russian Arctic, such as Norilsk, Vorkuta, and Magadan, were originally slave labour camps built by Gulag prisoners and run by ex-prisoners who had managed to survive the brutal conditions often serving sentences of up to 25 years or more in hard-labour.


Gulag prisoners working in a quarryGulag prisoners working in a quarry


An original Gulag prisoner's padded winter jacketAn original Gulag prisoner's winter jacket.
© 2015 Stefan Mucha
The Gulag during World War II

17 days after the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 which marked the start of World War II in Europe, the Soviet Union invaded and annexed the eastern territories of Poland. In 1940 the Soviets went on to occupy Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bessarabia and Bukovina. According to some estimates, as many as 1.5 million Polish citizens and tens of thousands more inhabitants of the other annexed lands, regardless of their ethnic origin, were arrested and sent to the gulag camps of the arctic regions of Siberian USSR.

Approximately 300,000 Polish prisoners-of-war were also captured by the USSR during the 'Polish Defensive War' although a state of war was never officially declared by either Poland or the USSR. Almost all of the captured Polish officers and a large number of ordinary soldiers and other "enemies of the state" were then murdered by the NKVD or sent to Gulag. Such were the severely brutal conditions in the camps, of the 10,000–12,000 Poles sent to Kolyma during 1940–1941, mostly PoWs, only 583 men survived!

Polish children released by the SovietsPolish children released from Soviet campsFollowing the so-called Sikorski-Maisky Agreement between Soviet Union and Poland of August 1941 the Soviets agreed to the release of Poles held in work-camps and settlements across the USSR and under a so-called 'amnesty' they were to join the Polish Armed Forces in the East being formed under the command of General Władysław Anders. 

General Anders was to later to lead the newly formed Polish army out of the USSR into British controlled Persia (Iran, today). The Second Polish Corps or Anders' Army, as it was commonly known, went on to distinguish itself alongside the Western Allies in the Italian campaign in which Anders' men captured the German stronghold of Monte Cassino on 18 May 1944. The Second Polish Corps went on to liberate the city of Bologna in April 1945 bringing its distinguished campaign to a conclusion. In 1946-7 Anders' Army was transported from Italy to Great Britain for demobilistaion and out of 80,000 Polish fromer evacuees from the Soviet Union a mere 310 volunteered to return to Soviet-controlled Poland—the rest choosing to remain in Britain or emigrate to other countries willing to accept them, such as Canada, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.

German PoW Red Cross card sent from a GulagGerman PoW Red Cross card sent from
a Soviet Gulag to Germany in May 1949.
© 2015 Stefan Mucha
After Nazi Germany's defeat in May 1945, ten NKVD-run "special camps" subordinate to the Gulag were set up in the Soviet Occupation Zone of post-war Germany. These "special camps" were former Stalags, prisons, or Nazi concentration camps such as Sachsenhausen (special camp number 7) and Buchenwald (special camp number 2). According to German government estimates "65,000 people died in those Soviet-run camps or in transportation to them." According to German researchers, Sachsenhausen, where 12,500 Soviet era victims have been uncovered, should be seen as an integral part of the Gulag system.