Early History behind the Soviet GULAG Concentration Camp

From 1918, camp-type detention facilities were set up, as a reformed analogy of the earlier system of penal labor (katorgas), operated in Siberia in Imperial Russia. The two main types were “Vechecka Special-purpose Camps” (особые лагеря ВЧК, osobiye lagerya VČK) and forced labor camps (лагеря принудительных работ, lagerya prinuditel’nikh rabot). They were installed for various categories of people deemed dangerous for the state: for common criminals, for prisoners of the Russian Civil War, for officials accused of corruption, sabotage and embezzlement, various political enemies and dissidents, as well as former aristocrats, businessmen and large land owners. These camps, however, were not on the same scale as those in the Stalin era. In 1928 there were 30,000 prisoners in camps, and the authorities were opposed to compelling them to work. In 1927 the official in charge of prison administration wrote that: “The exploitation of prison labour, the system of squeezing ‘golden sweat’ from them, the organisation of production in places of confinement, which while profitable from a commercial point of view is fundamentally lacking in corrective significance – these are entirely inadmissible in Soviet places of confinement.”

The legal base and the guidance for the creation of the system of “corrective labor camps” (Russian: исправительно-трудовые лагеря, Ispravitel’no-trudovye lagerya), the backbone of what is commonly referred to as the “Gulag”, was a secret decree of Sovnarkom of July 11, 1929 about the use of penal labor that duplicated the corresponding appendix to the minutes of Politburo meeting of June 27, 1929.

As an all-Union institution and a main administration with the OGPU (the Soviet secret police), the GULAG was officially established on April 25, 1930 as the “ULAG” by the OGPU order 130/63 in accordance with the Sovnarkom order 22 p. 248 dated April 7, 1930, and was renamed into GULAG in November.

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