The Impact of Soviet Labour Camps on Society: The Legacy of the Gulag

The Gulag played an important role throughout Soviet Russia and is a major point that is brought up when discussing the history of Russia from 1919 to 1960. To this date when one talks about Russia or its most infamous Soviet era leader Joseph Stalin, one recalls the Gulag even if one has only the basic knowledge about it. The system is renowned because through it, various individuals inflicted harm on millions of people. The Gulag was a part of the Soviet Russian System of governance and touched every person who lived in that era. Even today, in modern day Russia people recall the Gulag and its perpetrators with dread and horror. The Nazi concentration camp system and various other concentration camps that were similar mainly existed to exterminate their prisoners and had a brief lifespan. The Gulag however, lasted over decades and played a huge role in the industrialisation brought in by Stalin. It was a system that embedded itself in the penal system and the culture and society of the people in Russia and its effects can be seen to this day. 

It is a vital exponent of Russian history that cannot be ignored if one wants to understand the culture, society and politics of that nation. GULAG is the Russian acronym for The Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies of the Soviet Secret Police and has come to signify and represent the soviet slave labour in all forms and varieties as well as the repressive system and tyranny of the Stalin Era. The system was first established under Vladimir Lenin as an alternative to prison during the years immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution. Although it functioned from 1919 to 1960, the Gulag generally denoted the entire penal labour system in the USSR. It served as the Soviet Union’s main penal system for robbers, rapists, murderers, and thieves. Vast numbers of camps of all forms and varieties (labour camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps) were located mainly in the remote regions of Siberia and the Far North.

They made significant contributions to the Soviet economy in the Stalin period and served as a source of free labour for the great economic projects. 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 many remote regions.

In addition, the Gulag held political prisoners, a group including not only real opponents of the Soviet regime but also many innocents caught up in the paranoid clutches of the Soviet secret police. Most prisoners were the victims of arbitrary and severe legal campaigns under which petty theft, lateness, or unexcused absences from work were punished by many years in these concentration camps.

During their non-working hours, prisoners typically lived in a camp zone surrounded by a fence or barbed wire, overlooked by armed guards in watch towers. The zone contained a number of overcrowded, stinking, poorly-heated barracks. Life in a camp zone was brutal and violent. Prisoners competed for access to all of life’s necessities, and violence among the prisoners was commonplace. If they survived hunger, disease, the harsh elements, heavy labour, and their fellow prisoners, they might succumb to arbitrary violence at the hands of camp guards. All the while, prisoners were watched by informers—fellow prisoners always looking for some misstep to report to Gulag authorities.

Women suffered greatly in the Gulag. Male camp employees, guards, and even other male prisoners sometimes raped and abused women. Some female prisoners took on “camp husbands” for protection and companionship. Some were pregnant on arrival or became pregnant while in the Gulag. Occasionally, Gulag authorities released pregnant women and women with young children in special amnesties.

The Gulag was eventually dismantled during the era of President Gorbachev but the remnants of the system still survive today.

After such a thorough implementation of the Gulag, the system was bound to have an impact on the Russian society, the people’s way of thinking and the economy and the legal system. First of all, the Gulag’s method of arresting, interrogating and sentencing of people created a divide in the Russian penal and law code. There were now two categories of prisoners; the criminals and the political prisoners. This divide still exists today and is being used by the current government to arrest many activists and political rivals. Being labelled as a political prisoner allows the government to arrest and put on trial a person simply suspected of doing something against the state. “Innocent until proven guilty” does not apply here. 

The kulaks or rich peasants who were arrested during Stalin’s collectivization process were relocated to the northern regions which were previously uninhabited thus populating those areas and creating new communities for future generations. On the other hand these people were mostly forced to move to the northern regions which had extremely cold climates. However, these areas were rich in natural resources that the government wanted to exploit and so the kulaks formed a part of the batch of forced slaved labour used to dig out the minerals. A benefit of the relocation was that it allowed a building of infrastructure in order to support the transportation of people, supplies and tools that were required. Unfortunately, the supplies did not include warm clothing for the prisoners or technological machinery.

The supplies also did not include proper food and in fact the prisoners were told that they would be fed according to the amount of work they did. The utensils were not very helpful either and a person was lucky to even own one. Because of this cannibalism developed within the camps where the stronger prisoner would lure the weaker ones out and to a place that was excluded. There the stronger ones killed and ate their prey out of desperation and the instinct to survive. The people were also made to use very basic tools like hammers etc because Stalin being very suspicious of uprisings and conspiracies did not want them to have anything they could use against him. He was very suspicious of other members of the community that made up doctors and engineers etc because he always felt they were plotting to overthrow him (this eventually proved his undoing as his household failed to summon doctor out of fear when he was dying). 

Economically, the slave labour was obviously cheaper thus allowing Russian goods to be sold cheaply in the international market. The camps had come to play a central role in the Soviet economy. They helped bring about rapid industrialization and the introduction of the 5 Year Plan. Labor camp prisoners became an important resource for the construction of many industries, including the nation’s railways and roads, mining operations, and the timber industry. This distressed western businesses and hurt their interests as their goods were now in competition with Russia’s and were more expensive. However, mechanisation of the industry was delayed because it was cheaper and easier to throw more lives at a problem than to find innovative ways to do things. 

In order to legitimize his use of the Gulag prisoners as slave labour, Stalin and his cohorts started labeling the prisoners as “enemies of the state” or “enemies of the revolution”. The terms were used in such a way that they dehumanized the prisoners, implying that those arrested were filth and less than human and so could be treated as slaves. Very soon laws came into effect that banned prisoners from using terms such as “comrade” for each other and they could not even address their captors as such. Where before the guards could compel them to work because the people were part of the state, now they were simply expected to obey blindly or face death or torture. Stalin and his officials felt that productivity could be increased if the stronger prisoners could be held back and not released. Therefore, when a prisoner completed his sentence he was likely to be found having done something offensive during his sentence and his punishment was extended to last another decade. This disrupted the idea of redemption amongst the prisoners who didn’t felt they would never gain their freedom.

This created a very violent environment amongst the prisoners and there was a buildup of a criminal culture. There were mass rapes of women and men and a particular culture of homosexual rape also developed within the prisons. The prisoners also played very high stakes games and gambled on things like their limbs or the lives of other inmates or even women. Some of the prisoners assisted the guards in torture and suppression of the others in the prisons. These people usually got promoted to the position of guards themselves later.  In an effort to survive, gangs formed which called themselves families or brotherhoods. Amongst these gangs and other inmates there was a particular culture of self mutilation and tattoos. The tattoos symbolised the oppression of the prisoners and their various crimes. This form of culture is still prevalent today in Russia. The members of these brotherhoods take particular pride in their crimes and the higher the number of crimes and prison sentences, the higher the number of tattoos covering one’s body symbolising the crime, the higher the status of the criminal within the brotherhood and other peers of similar standing.

Another major impact was amongst the people. Stalin’s era of tyranny created a culture of fear amongst the people where they were afraid of trusting their own family members for fear of being reported and then getting arrested for interrogation and transportation. This effect came into place especially during the Great Terror. This was a period during Stalin’s regime when a large number of his officials, party members, cohorts and rivals were arrested or killed or disappeared because they were suspected of activities against the state or against Stalin. People were arrested simply because they may have disagreed with an opinion. During this time a lot of literary figures were also arrested for writing texts that were against Stalin’s interests. Also, people who were related to others suspected of crime. Surprisingly, many foreigners or suspected foreigners were also arrested and this developed weariness amongst the people and they did not like associating or being connected to foreigners. This suspicious quality lasts to this day amongst those who have witnessed the terror of the Gulag.

The impact of the Gulag on today’s international society as well as the Russian society can be observed. One of the biggest imitators of the Gulag is North Korea and its concentration camps. It is known as “The Hidden Gulag”. They have two categories of these prisons. The first are long term prison facilities of which there is public knowledge and the second is political penal labour colonies the existence of which the government refuses to acknowledge. It is alleged that up to three generations of families have been imprisoned here and possibly only two or three individuals have ever escaped. Both these prisons are extremely brutal in their treatment of prisoners and the concept of human rights does not exist in there.

Within Russia an alarming number of people are still arrested as political prisoners due to the repressive legislation and lack of judicial reforms that are required to bring in a more just and modern system. Prominent writer, dissident, and former political prisoner Vladimir Bukovsky stated in an interview that the current regime of Vladimir Putin is trying to resurrect Soviet era regime. Even so, the current generation of Russians are more outspoken in their opinions and support of political and social activists is more tolerated than before. Even then arrests are still carried out which makes one wonder to what extent the people are indulged in voicing their opinions. 

The condition of the prisons and the treatment within is very similar to the Gulag and there have been testimonies towards this by Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova who gave an interview on Russian prison conditions stating that they still follow in the shadow of the Gulag. Instead of reforming the prisons, the State Duma has approved a prison reform bill that will give prison guards the authority to use new forceful sadistic measures against inmates in October 2015. The law would also mean that guards would not be held responsible if inmates suffered injuries as a result of “justifiable” violence, and should a prisoner die during such incidents, prison guards would have 24 hours before they would be obliged to notify police. However, the public are also to blame for this as insensitivity to the past explains the absence of judicial and prison reforms today. They want to forget that part of history and are unwilling to recall the trauma they faced.

Also, the tolerance of the Gulag by the West is acting as a deterrent towards preventing more camps of similar style. If they fail to take action and put the regime on trial and judged, preferably, by the statutes of the Nuremberg Trials, then when the time comes like in the case of North Korea, the world powers cannot interfere and condemn because they did not condemn the original labour camps.

Yasmin Arshad is a PIIA researcher. 


Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2015, from

Applebaum, A. (2003). Gulag: A history. New York: Doubleday.

Vladimir Bukovsky:. (2014, February 20). Retrieved November 17, 2015, from

Russian Parliament Approves ‘Sadistic’ Prison Reform Law At First Reading. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2015, from

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Filed under Criminal Justice, Discussion, Genocide, Human Rights, Russia, Women

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