Living and working conditions in the camps varied significantly across time and place, depending, among other things, on the impact of broader events (World War II, countrywide famines and shortages, waves of terror, sudden influx or release of large numbers of prisoners). However, to one degree or another, the large majority of prisoners at most times faced meagre food rations, inadequate clothing, overcrowding, poorly insulated housing; poor hygiene, and insufficient or inadequate health care. The overwhelming majority of prisoners were compelled to perform harsh physical labor. In most periods and economic branches, the degree of mechanization of work processes was significantly lower than in the civilian industry: tools were often primitive and machinery, if existent, short in supply. Officially established work hours were in most periods longer and days off were fewer than for civilian workers. Often official work time regulations were extended by local camp administrators.
In general, the central administrative bodies showed a discernible interest in maintaining the labor force of prisoners in a condition allowing the fulfillment of construction and production plans handed down from above. Besides a wide array of punishments for prisoners refusing to work (which, in practice, were sometimes applied to prisoners that were too enfeebled to meet production quota), they instituted a number of positive incentives intended to boost productivity. These included monetary bonuses (since the early 1930s) and wage payments (from 1950 onwards), cuts of sentences on an individual basis, general early release schemes for norm fulfillment and overfulfillment (until 1939, again in selected camps from 1946 onwards), preferential treatment and privileges for the most productive workers (shock workers or Stakhanovites in Soviet parlance).
A distinctive incentive scheme that included both coercive and motivational elements and was applied universally in all camps consisted in standardized “nourishment scales”: the size of the inmates’ ration depended on the percentage of the work quota delivered. Naftaly Frenkel is credited for the introduction of this policy. While it was effective in compelling many prisoners to make serious work efforts, for many a prisoner it had the adverse effect, accelerating the exhaustion and sometimes causing the death of persons unable to fulfill high production quota.
Immediately after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 the conditions in camps worsened drastically: quotas were increased, rations cut, and medical supplies came close to none, all of which led to a sharp increase in mortality. The situation slowly improved in the final period and after the end of the war.
Considering the overall conditions and their influence on inmates, it is important to distinguish three major strata of Gulag inmates:
– People used to physical labor: “kulaks”, osadniks, “ukazniks” (people sentenced for violation of various ukases, such as Law of Spikelets, decree about work discipline, etc.), occasional violators of criminal law
– People unused to physical labour sentenced for various political and religious reasons.
Mortality in GULAG camps in 1934-40 was 4-6 times higher than average in Russia. The estimated total number of those who died in imprisonment in 1930-1953 is 1.76 million, about half of which occurred between 1941-1943 following the German invasion