What Was The Purpose Of Russian Gulags History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
In the 1920’s, the Soviet ideology and social policy was quite different from the rest of the world. Communism was strongly enforced throughout Joseph Stalin’s rule, but such totalitarian ideas did nothing to accelerate the industrialization of the USSR. As well, many natural resources found in the country’s barely habitable northern regions were going to waste and the political leaders of the era felt it was time to make a change. As a result of communist policies, political and religious dissidents frequently caused problems for the Soviet government. This provided an opportunity to maintain the Soviet state by keeping citizens in a state of terror that began with the formation of Russian Gulags. Officially established on April 25th, 1930, a Gulag was an all union institution and main administration with the Soviet secret police. Gulag is actually a Russian acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps which was first developed by Vladimir Lenin. The gulags were a vast network of detention centres and forced labour prisons located within the former Soviet Union. Rather than admitting the severity of such camps, the USSR and other communist countries called such facilities “corrective” and “re-educational”. Article 58 of The Criminal Code of the Union Republics defined punishment for various forms of “counterrevolutionary activities”, and these secret concentration camp-type centres were often used to punish both political prisoners and common criminals. Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested and given long term prison sentences on the grounds of that notorious article. This great penal network functioned throughout Russia and ultimately included around 476 camp complexes located in the wastes of Siberia and the Soviet Far East that lasted well into the 1950’s.
The gulags served many purposes ranging from punitive and suppressive functions to economic and financial ones. From the start they were repositories for political enemies of the new communist regime used as a means of political coercion and punishment for anyone who held or expressed views opposing that of the government. For this reason the gulags became an infamous symbol of repression within the Soviet totalitarian state and its new attitude towards religion and tradition. A lot of the communist leaders in Russia gained their power through the elimination of the opposition (whether actual or merely perceived) using methods such as mass arrests of individuals who were then assigned to forced labour. Gulags were similar to prisons in the respect that criminals were often forced to serve their time in “corrective” camps rather than penitentiaries or jail. Both the government enemies and criminals were used as slave labourers who were of significant economic importance to the USSR. The prisoners of the gulags became enormous work forces who were assigned specific economic tasks to be completed across the state. They were vital for planning and implementing the communist plans for economic development, and so were forced to work in areas where manpower was in short supply. This often meant prisoners were forced to work in remote parts of the country where others refused to work. The Soviet economy was extremely poor during the early 1900’s and supplying wages for labourers was basically out of the question. Gulags became simple ways to accomplish massive economic tasks because the government did not have to pay the workers or provide acceptable living conditions in which to perform the labour, making them an obvious choice for economic development. Stalin believed that communist Russia was falling behind in comparison to the industrialized and capitalist Western nations, and began a Soviet industrialization campaign that coincided with the growth of the gulag camps. The prisoners were forced to work on major construction projects that would create an infrastructure nationwide, such as the development of railroads, canals, and highways. They were also made to exploit Russia’s natural resources in the far reaches of the country where inhospitable conditions deterred any one from attempting to access such resources. Stalin instructed that work should be fast and inexpensive, and the massive number of people being forced to work without pay became a central part of Soviet ideology and policy. If inmates died during the labour there were always more political dissenters that could be found and force to work, and as the communist leaders came to realize the value of forced labour, populations inside the gulags increased, thus increasing the amount of economic development that could be done. By the end of the 1930’s labour camps were situated in all twelve of the Soviet Union’s time zones, and after the World Wars the gulags continued to increase in size and numbers as more labour was needed and the amount of individuals continuing “anti-Soviet activity” rose. The gulags reached their height only in the early 1950’s. Some projects accomplished by the prisoners’ labour, such as the Baltic Sea Canal, have really served no economic or strategic purpose. This questions whether gulags were truly meant to industrialize Russia or merely punish and suppress those who disagreed with the communist regime. Then again, the use of gulag inmates was not purely political or economic; they also served as a means to colonize sparsely populated remote areas. For this reason the idea of “free settlement” was implemented into the camps. Since prisoners often served only a sentence and were not always confined to the gulag for life, prisoners who had good behaviour and had served most of their term could be released and made to settle in the general vicinity of the camp. They might have been given land with which to build a home and make a living off of.
It is important to note that Russian gulags differed from Nazi concentration camps in many respects. The purpose of the gulags was mainly economic and political, rather that striving for the elimination of supposedly inferior races like the concentration camps tried to achieve. Gulags imprisoned individuals who were against the new communist rule or committed crimes worthy of punishment (though perhaps not quite so severe), but Nazi’s trapped all types of people who they deemed to be worthless or unacceptable. This included women, children, Jews, gay individuals, Gypsies, communists, and anyone who might have been considered an opponent to Hitler. An important difference between gulags and concentration camps was that there was a slight possibility of being released from the gulag after serving your sentence. Prisoners of the Holocaust had no chance of return and the only way out was to attempt to escape and risk your life in the process. That is not to say that the Russian gulags were in any way more humane or less torturous than concentration camps – both resulted in the deaths of millions and shocked people across the globe, generating a major influence on human rights and views held worldwide.
Many people have often wondered why such a horrifying event in Russian history was never openly recognized or greatly publicized. The Soviet Union and other communist countries refused to acknowledge the existence of forced labour camps, and instead promoted the “new penitential policy of the Soviet State” using posters and banners in the gulags. They reinforced labour as a heroic and honourable contribution to the country; many of the gulag gates displayed the slogan, “Labour in the USSR is a matter of honour, glory, courage, and heroism”. Russian political leaders essentially ignored the reality of the forced labour camps, and because citizens were in a state or terror they made no attempts to publicize the atrocities for fear of it happening to them. Information about the gulags was available long before Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was published in 1974. Multiple eyewitness accounts, literature, memoirs, movies, songs, photos, and TV shows were published prior to World War II, yet hardly any post-Communism trials have taken place. One source explained the reason fir this, stating, “The gulag had already killed tens of thousands of its own most ardent killers. Again and again, yesterday’s judges were declared today’s criminals, so that Soviet society never had to own up to its millions of state-backed murders.”
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