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Gulag or Главное Управление Исправительно—Трудовых Лагерей и колоний, "Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey i kolonii", is the acronym for "The Chief Directorate [or Administration] of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies" of the NKVD or the secret police of the Soviet Union. Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, which means Main Camp Administration.

The NKVD operated an extensive system of forced labor camps used to isolate and punish millions of ordinary criminals and political individuals or groups opposed or suspected or merely accused of opposing the Soviet regime. Like the rest of the Soviet Union's prison system, the forced labor camp system was originally constructed with many of the same remote prisons and lower level personnel that had served the old Czarist katorga or ка́торга penal labor system.

Initially used to construct the Baltic-White Sewa Canal and the Moscow-Volga Canal in the mid-1930s, gulag labor was being used for most of Soviet Union's lumber, copper, gold and coal production by the late 1930s. Czarist katorga had been used primarily for silver, gold and lead mining. Road building was also a Soviet priority for gulag labor. Mortality through forced labor, the product of grueling work in extreme temperatures, with poor sheleter and nutrition, and industrial accidents, was high. Together with show trials, executions by the NKVD, famine and mass deportations, the many deaths and vast suffering in the gulag system were an integral part of the Stalinist Great Terror.

NKVD personnel were often subject to the same state terror that they had perfomed. When Nikolai Yezhov was replaced as NKVD chief by Lavrenti Beria in December 1938, for example, many of the prison wardens appointed by Yezhov were shot and replaced by Beria's appointees.


  • Roy Medvedev. 1989. Let History Judge. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231063512.
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