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date: 19 July 2019


The Oxford Companion to World War II
Akashi YojiAkashi Yoji, Norman DaviesNorman Davies, Robert ServiceRobert Service


Russian acronym for Main Administration of Camps', a branch of the NKVD dedicated to the running of Soviet slave labour camps. By extension, the term is also used to describe the network of camps over which the GUlag presided.

Together with ordinary gaols and zones of administrative exile, the camps constituted the core of the Soviet system of repression. The inmates, both men and women, would usually have passed a brief period of arrest and interrogation before being sentenced in absentia to a fixed period of 8, 10, 12, or 25 year's hard labour. They could expect their sentence to include a further period of ‘free exile’ outside the camp. The vast majority did not live to see the end of their sentences. Many succumbed during the initial journey in penal convoys, which took them in sealed cattle wagons or river barges to the most distant and inhospitable regions of the country. The average life expectancy within the camps was one winter. For all practical purposes, to be sent to the GUlag was equivalent to a death sentence.

The first camps had been set up shortly after the October Revolution of 1917 and were used in the civil war from 1918 to 1920. In the late 1920s Stalin expanded their staff, their powers, and functions with the inception of forced-rate industrialization and forcible agriculture collectivization. The system came into its own with the so-called Great Terror, with the most intensive spate of incarceration occurring from 1936 to 1938. But the camp system of mass slave labour was maintained thereafter, and the arrest of innocent Soviet citizens continued to be a widespread practice. During the campaign of ‘dekulakization’, as also in the later stages of the Great Terror, the Soviet security services had frequently resorted to mass shootings as they did in the Katyń forest. But the relative decline of the Terror after 1939, together with the increased demand for labour, restored the GUlag's primacy.

Information about the GUlag began to be brought to the West during the late 1920s by some of the few who had managed to escape. In 1930 the US Treasury Department imposed an embargo on Soviet pulpwood and matches, largely on the basis of evidence that slave labour had been used in their manufacture. In the UK the Anti-Slavery Society launched an enquiry which concluded that prisoners were being used as forced labour in the lumber camps and there were grim accounts of their working conditions. These stories were reinforced by the Poles of Anders' Army when they left the USSR in 1942. They were the largest group of people to come to the West with first-hand evidence of the GUlag, and they brought with them NKVD documents relating to the Poles' imprisonment in the camps and their subsequent release—evidence which had never been seen in the West before.

The start of the Second World War in September 1939 gave Stalin his chance to occupy Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, eastern Poland, and eastern Romania, where vast numbers of arrests took place. The terror machinery set up already in the USSR was geographically redeployed by the NKVD troops under the leadership of Beria.

Soviet repressive policy had a brutal underlying rationale. Many of the victims belonged to the military, political, professional, and cultural élites, especially in the newly-occupied areas. Stalin intended to remove all real and potential influences which obstructed the imposition of a Stalinist political structure and ideology.

Conditions in the GUlag were inhuman. Prisoners were forced to toil on a starvation diet and under extreme, climatic rigours. Non-fulfilment of demanding norms was punished by the reduction of rations, and minor breaches of discipline by beatings and shootings. The Soviet novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, himself an inmate of the GUlag system, calculated that the death rate from malnutrition, disease, and exhaustion during the war years reached 1% per day. It was not unusual for those few prisoners who served their term to be refused release on the grounds that they were a fortiori the most useful workers.

Most camp prisoners underwent a worsening of their conditions after Germany's invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941 (see BARBAROSSA). Hitler's occupation of Ukraine and parts of the Volga region created difficulties of food supplies: and the GUlag population was compelled to bear the collective brunt of the crisis. Even the planned ration for prisoners, below the minimum for subsistence as it was, was not fully delivered. The death rate in camps doubled in 1941 and quintupled in 1942 over the previous period.

Forced labour was directed to vital national projects: the construction of railways, factories, and flats in climatically harsh areas; the mining of gold and coal; the felling of forests. Without slave labourers, Stalin's industrial economy would have fallen well short of its goal. But even Stalin and Beria had to recognize wartime priorities. It is reckoned that up to a million prisoners received early release from captivity during the German–Soviet war. In some cases, high-ranking officers re-entered the Red Army with their previous ranks restored. Otherwise they were enlisted into units carrying out the most dangerous offensive duties. The decline in the number of camp inmates was reversed from the beginning of 1944 when victory was all but certain and captured enemy soldiers and repatriated Soviet prisoners-of-war entered the GUlag.

GUlag system showing approximate boundaries of camp administrative divisions, 1941Click to view larger

48. GUlag system showing approximate boundaries of camp administrative divisions, 1941

The largest camp complexes were located near to mineral resources in the most northerly latitudes. One, in the district of Vorkuta, consisted of some thirty compounds scattered round the frozen coalfield of northern Russia. ‘In Vorkuta’, the historian Robert Conquest has written of the area (The Great Terror, London, 1968, p. 334), ‘it is below zero Centigrade for two-thirds of the year, and for more than 100 days the Khanovey, or “wind of winds”, blows across the tundra…few would be alive after a year or two’. Another in the gold-mining district of Kolyma in north-east Siberia covered an area similar to that of the UK. (Its victims outnumbered those of Auschwitz.) A major collecting centre was sited at Magadan on the Pacific coast. In between them existed what Solzhenitsyn called an ‘archipelago’ of hundreds of lesser transit camps, project centres, and feeder stations.

A member of Anders' Army, imprisoned at Kolyma, later reported that: ‘there were about 5,000 prisoners, 436 of them Poles. About seven to eleven men died daily from famine and exhaustion, from beatings at work and from frost, and when the frost reached minus 68 degrees centigrade, more died from so-called thermic shock. Of all the Poles, only 46 remained with me, the rest starved to death or died from exhaustion. In March 1941, a new prisoner arrived at the Komsomoles mine in Kolyma, a Russian and former chief of the local N.K.V.D in northern Kamchatka, Tchukotka Peninsula, where there are lead mines. In conversation with him I learned that in August 1940 a boat had arrived at Tchukotka carrying 3,000 Poles, mostly military and police personnel. All these Poles who arrived in Tchukotka were sent to the lead mine, and their working parties were purposely sent to the worst galleries. Poles working in these mines suffered from lead poisoning, and about 40 died daily. Before he left about 90 per cent of the Poles had died. In 1941 Georgians and Kazaks were received to replace the Poles. Up to the time of my departure from Kolyma, July 7th, 1942, no Poles had returned from Tchukotka.’ (Quoted in W. Anders, An Army in Exile, London, 1949, p. 73).

The scale of the GUlag's operation beggars belief. At the end of the Great Terror in March 1939, up to 10% of the Soviet population may have found themselves in the camps. The historian Robert Conquest has estimated one million deaths per annum during the war years that followed. By the time of Stalin's death in 1953 the total number of victims of the GUlag probably exceeded 20 million. Revised estimates based on Soviet records have been eagerly awaited since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Comparisons with German and Japanese practices are instructive. The Nazis disliked arresting Germans unless they were political opponents, Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, or mentally disturbed individuals. The Japanese repressed fellow Japanese only in cases of proven political or moral delinquency (see Tokkō). Stalin was the sole war leader who kept millions of fellow-citizens deprived of the means to life without giving any reasons for their repression.

At the end of the war in the Far East in August 1945 hundreds of thousands of Japanese were also interned in the GUlag. Within two weeks of the Red Army overrunning Manchukuo (see Japanese–Soviet campaigns), Japanese troops and civilians in Manchukuo, North Korea, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands were organized into 569 labour gangs, each about a thousand strong; and by late August 1945, 639,635 Japanese (including 575,000 soldiers belonging to the Kwantung Army) had been interned. The soldiers were put in about 2,000 prisoner-of-war camps located in eastern Siberia, Outer Mongolia, Central Asia, and the southern (Rostov) and western (Moscow) parts of the Soviet Union. The camps were built by the POW themselves, and 80% were in Siberia where the temperature dropped to 30–40 °C below zero in winter time. Lack of winter clothes, fuel, food, and medicine took a toll of more than 60,000 men, about 10% of the internees, in eleven years of internment. Many of them were buried without markers, their whereabouts unknown to this day.

Japanese POW were mobilized in forced labour of all sorts such as mining coal, cutting timber, constructing railways, roads, and buildings, and working as labourers in farms, factories, and wharves. The construction of the Bam railway (second Siberian railway) and the Ulgar railway (350 km. long, connecting the first and second Siberian railways) was so harsh that under every railway sleeper there lay the body of a Japanese soldier. It is no exaggeration that Japanese POW helped the USSR's post-war reconstruction.

Soviet administrators and some turncoat Japanese imposed a production quota, according to which food was rationed. Exerting themselves to achieve the quota, hundreds of POW died of exhaustion.

Soviet authorities brain-washed Japanese internees by organizing in each POW camp a ‘Friendship Association’. Prisoners were required to read propaganda material, which promoted class struggle and attacked the Japanese social class structure. Leaders of this brain-washing campaign were radicals who held real power in the POW camps, and they often served as informers betraying fellow POW who were unsympathetic to communist doctrine and uncooperative with Soviet officials. Those opposed to communism were held back from repatriation, which began in late December 1946. By 1950 just over 530,000 had been repatriated. This left some 3,000 Japanese still held in prisons. As a result of negotiations between International Red Cross representatives of both countries and of Stalin's death, repatriation resumed in December 1953. With the normalization of Japan–Soviet diplomatic relations in October 1956, the remaining 1,049 prisoners were repatriated in December.

The Japanese government and private organizations set up by former POW continued to press the Soviet government for details about the deaths of prisoners and the locations of some 780 burial grounds, information which was in part supplied by the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, when he visited Japan in April 1991. See also concentration camps.

Akashi Yoji/Norman Davies/Robert Service


Applebaum, A., Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (London, 2002).Find this resource:

Buca, E., Vorkuta (London, 1976).Find this resource:

Conquest, G. R. A., Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (London, 1987).Find this resource: