The Stalinist Gulag, a network of forced labor camps that at its height had an inmate population of between 2.5 and 3 million, came into being in 1929. Before that year there were few prison labor camps, and they were considered a progressive alternative to prison; they held at most 30,000 common criminals. In 1929, the secret police took control of the labor camps and immediately began to build an economic empire based on forced labor. Some prison camps were logging operations, others ran mines, many built railroads, dug canals, or built factories and cities. The camps were assigned production targets, just like every economic enterprise in the Soviet Union.
To fulfill their economic goals, the camps needed prisoners, and the camp population grew rapidly. In 1929, many of the inmates of regular prisons were transferred to the camps. Beginning in 1930, several hundred thousand peasants arrived, arrested for resisting collectivization (all peasants were forced to give up their small holdings and join collective farms). Hundreds of thousands more went to the camps for telling political jokes or berating Stalin when drunk (“anti-Soviet agitation”), for taking potatoes or carrots from the collective farm fields or taking a tool from work (“theft of socialist property”), for mishandling factory machinery or being late for work three times (“sabotage”). While many landed in the camps for infractions, even more were guilty of nothing at all. Beginning in 1937, every secret police office was assigned an arrest quota, in order to ensure a larger supply of labor. The secret police simply fabricated cases. In all, between 1929 and Stalin’s death in 1953, a minimum of 18 million Soviet citizens spent time in the forced labor camps.
The Gulag camps were supposed to be economically self-supporting and also profitable. Camp commandants provided, in principle, just enough food and clothing to keep prisoners alive and working. In practice, there was never enough, and many prisoners died from overwork and malnutrition. In most years, the camp death rate hovered around 5 percent. In particularly bad years the death rate was much higher: 15 percent in 1933, a year of widespread famine; 25 percent in 1942, the hungriest year of World War II. In 1937 and 1938, tens of thousands were simply executed.
Because millions of Soviet citizens returned home after spending time in the Gulag (terms of five years were common in the 1930s), and because other prisoners were allowed to correspond intermittently with their families, the existence of the forced labor camps was widely known. In the early 1930s, the Soviet press sometimes published reports about the camps, but always to stress that criminal inmates were being successfully rehabilitated through labor. Families of released prisoners knew at least something about the real conditions in the camps. Almost no one understood the scale of the Gulag—the huge number of people incarcerated—because that was kept secret. Nor could they know anything about arrest quotas, or about how arbitrary and random the arrests were. Most Soviet citizens at the time had no reason to suspect that almost everyone in the camps was an innocent victim.
Only after Stalin died, after the Soviet leadership under Khrushchev had released much of the prison camp population, after Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956 and allowed the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—only then and only briefly was the Gulag the subject of open discussion. When Khrushchev was removed from office in 1964, the new leaders once again imposed silence. Further discussion of the Gulag would wait until after Gorbachev took power in 1985. Solzhenitsyn’s own massive history of the Gulag, The Gulag Archipelago, was at last published in Russia in 1989.
Today, both Russian and Western historians offer detailed histories of the Gulag. While there has never been any doubt about the injustice and misery that the Gulag inflicted on millions of innocent people, historians have also concluded that while Stalin intended the Gulag to play a key role in industrializing the Soviet Union, and while the Gulag did produce a great deal—by the early 1950s, one-third of the country’s gold, most of its timber, much of its coal and a vast array of other goods—as a whole the camp system was an economic disaster. Camp output almost never compensated for the cost of running the Gulag system, most of the felled trees rotted and never reached lumber mills, many of the railroad lines and canals the prison laborers built were useless, most of the construction was hopelessly shoddy. Eighteen million people were set to forced labor, for no economic gain. That was one of the reasons why Stalin’s successors largely shut down the Gulag.