The Horrible Life of People In Soviet Gulags


The Soviet Gulag, infamous slave labor camps
that persisted for three decades and killed hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens. Years after the fall of the Soviet Union and
the lifting of the iron curtain, details on the Soviet gulag can still be hard to come
across, and survivors even rarer. Most prisoners were worked to death or so
malnourished or crippled by their experience that their lifespans was cut tragically short
even after release. Hello and welcome to another episode of The
Infographics Show, today we’re taking a look at what life inside the Soviet gulag was like. First established in 1919, the Gulag was created
by Vladimir Lenin as a prison camp for common criminals and wealthy peasants known as kulaks. Because collectivization basically eliminated
the prosperity of many kulaks by forcing them to give up their private farms and pool them
together into public farms, they revolted or protested against it, earning themselves
a swift arrest and imprisonment for a few years of hard labor. Lenin showed restraint in his use of the Gulag
as a punishment tool however, reserving it only for the worst offenders and criminals. Yet after Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise
to power, one of the first things Stalin did was to dramatically increase the population
of the gulags and oversee a rapid expansion of more labor camps. Anyone deemed an enemy of the state could
be sent to a gulag, often with absolutely no trial. During Stalin’s great purges where he rid
the government of opposing members of the Communist party, the gulag was the destination
of choice for former military officers and government officials who were deemed disloyal-
that is if they avoided a simple bullet to the back of the head. As the purges continued and grew in scope,
Stalin began rounding up doctors, writers, intellectuals, students, artists and scientists-
anyone who could oppose Stalin publicly and whip up public support could not be tolerated. Yet it wasn’t just the accused who were targeted
for imprisonment, as anyone with direct ties to the accused could also be rounded up and
thrown into a gulag. During the German invasion in World War II,
Stalin issued an order that any Red Army soldier who retreated from battle would be sent to
the gulag- and for any soldier who surrendered to the Germans, their entire family would
be sent in their place. Soviet soldiers thus had a simple choice to
make: die under the German onslaught, or condemn their families to a decade or more of hard
labor and likely death. But what was life actually like inside the
Soviet gulag? For starters each camp housed a population
of both men and women prisoners, often with the two intermingling and living together. This placed women at severe risk, as rapes
from both the guards and other prisoners were common place. Women would often be forced to find a ‘gulag
husband’, a man whom would protect them in exchange for sexual favors. If not, they would often be forced to perform
those favors for the prison guards in exchange for some level of protection. Guards could coerce women to do what they
wanted with the promises of better food, clothing or perhaps shelter- or simply do what they
pleased with the female prisoners as they would face absolutely no repercussions for
assaulting someone seen as an enemy of the state. Children too were at risk, as they were often
thrown into prison camps along with the adult population, and could also face the risk of
being preyed upon by both other prisoners and guards alike. Prisoners received little in the way of clothing,
a fact which would prove fatal for many during the harsh Soviet winters. Perhaps two or three times a year a prisoner
might be able to receive a small clothing allowance, although for the most part prisoners
simply took clothing from those who died. Others might craft their own- as in any prison,
a cottage industry of sorts sprung up ran by individuals with talents ranging from sewing
to tattooing. Each person received two daily meals, although
these were just short of starvation diets. A family of three for example might receive
a daily allowance of 140 grams of bread- hardly enough for a single individual. Add on to that the fact that these prisoners
were then expected to engage in hard labor, and the low food rations were a near-certain
death sentence. Prisoners would often try to catch their own
food in the form of what little wildlife they might encounter, mostly rats and other rodents,
though eating insects when available was not out of the question. Boredom would certainly not have been a problem
for prisoners in a gulag camp. Not one to let any amount of human misery
go to waste, Stalin saw the gulags as an excellent source of free labor- just the thing to modernize
a Russia that was far behind its modern competitors. Stalin immediately put the gulag prisoners
to work on everything from collective farms, to iron and copper mines, and felling trees
to provide timber for the growing engine of the Soviet industrial revolution. Some of the Soviet Union’s greatest engineering
achievements were all thanks to slave labor, with the Moscow-Volga Canal, the White Sea-
Baltic Canal, and the Kolyma Highway all built atop a pile of thousands of dead gulag prisoners. In a very real sense, the Soviet Union was
literally built on a pile of corpses. Prisoners would face 14 hour workdays, seven
days a week, all year round. While the harsh winters would force other
industry to shut down, gulag prisoners would toil in extremely cold weather, often without
adequate clothing. Frostbite and hypothermia were common, as
were missing toes, fingers, ears, and even noses thanks to the cold. The prisoners were also given very simple
and crude tools to work with, and absolutely no safety equipment. 200,000 prisoners would dig the 128 kilometers
(80 miles) of the Moscow-Volga canal with nothing more than pickaxes and shovels, sometimes
even just their bare hands. The frozen ground would be difficult to break,
and the harsh conditions killed many- yet in Soviet Russia there were few problems that
couldn’t be overcome by simply throwing enough slave laborers at it. The work would be so brutal that some prisoners
would mutilate themselves to get out of it, going so far as to stick their arms in a wood
stove to severely burn themselves. Back home in the gulag, living conditions
were appealing. There was little heating, and the prison facilities
were often roughly constructed longhouses that were poorly insulated from the bitter
cold. Overcrowding plagued the camps, with prisoners
forced to sleep anywhere they could find a place to lay down amidst dozens of their fellow
prisoners. Gangs ran the gulags, preying on the weak
and stealing or coercing food and other supplies from weaker prisoners. Most prisoners however were not imprisoned
for life, but served sentences of varying lengths. Family members of suspected traitors for example
would receive a minimum sentence of five to eight years, and prisoners who made it to
the end of their sentence were permitted to leave. If they worked extremely hard and surpassed
their work quotas consistently, some prisoners even qualified for early release. Yet prison sentences could be extended without
warning, prompting many prisoners nearing the end of their sentence to commit suicide
out of depression. With an average 10% of the total population
dying each year however, making it to the end of your sentence was extremely unlikely. Immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953,
millions of prisoners were released. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, was
a staunch critic of the camps and most of the late dictator’s policies, and very quickly
reversed as many as possible. Yet the gulags didn’t go away completely,
they were after all a fantastic source of free labor for a Soviet Union with a weak
economy, but Khrushchev did away with the arbitrary sentencing of most dissidents and
political adversaries. Instead the gulags were restructured as prisons
for normal criminals, democratic activists, and anti-Soviet nationalists. Not a perfect change, but a far cry from the
days of Stalin. The gulags would go on to last until 1987,
when Mikhail Gorbachev, grandson of gulag victims, began the process of completely eliminating
them from the Soviet countryside. Though the world knew of the Soviet gulags
for decades, very little factual information about them was ever obtained during the Cold
War thanks to very strict censorship. State archives detailing the length and breadth
of the gulag system were also sealed before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, taking
years before official information on this brutal system of forced labor would come to
light. Yet despite the appearance of economically
benefiting the Soviet Union through free labor, experts believe that the camps did not make
a significant contribution to the Soviet economy, as without adequate food and supplies gulag
prisoners were simply unequipped to provide productive results. How would you have survived a Soviet gulag? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video
called Could Russia Invade Europe?! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t
forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!

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