Gulag – The Story episode 3

Gulag - The Story episode 3

Gulag – The Story episode 3: At the end of the 1950s, populations of the newly occupied territories of the East and intellectuals remained two categories particularly suspected of anti-Sovietism. Subjected to exhausting tasks like men, women, including many war widows condemned to heavy sentences for petty food pilfering, now represent a quarter of the zeks. Nearly 2 million detainees, many of them on the very edge of survival, are still crammed into the camps.


Little by little, these appalling living conditions cause the economic profitability of the Gulag to drop. On March 5, 1953, after Stalin’s death, a million releases were announced. In 1956, Khrushchev, exonerating himself from his responsibility, however undeniable, denounced the crimes of Stalinism, provoking an immense shock wave in the world.

A major political, historical, human and economic fact of the 20th century, the Gulag, the extremely punitive Soviet concentration camp system, remains largely unknown. With exceptional archives and testimonies, it unfolds, from 1917 to the end of the 1950s, the history of the Soviet concentration camp system which constituted the hidden heart of the empire. Ignored, then denied for decades, it shattered the lives of millions of deportees.

The secrecy established by the USSR, the blindness of the West, then the persistent denial of the Russian authorities have long hampered historical work. Thanks to the opening of the archives, written but also filmed, and to the extraordinary work of collecting testimonies accomplished by the Russian organization Memorial, this documentary series unfolds, for the first time in images, the Dantesque story of an “archipelago” largely forgotten and misunderstood.

The history of the Gulag is long, complex and in many ways out of the ordinary. From the Revolution of 1917 to Gorbachev, touching on the civil war, the Great Terror, World War II, the Cold War and the death of Stalin, this series describes the workings of the Gulag. How and why did the USSR create this system of forced-labour camps in which 20 million prisoners were exploited and worked to the bone? Through the exceptional fates of numerous protagonists, both executioners and victims, the history of the Gulag is deciphered with previously-unreleased documentary sources and the help of historians and Gulag experts, like Nicolas Werth, an internationally renowned scholar of Soviet history.


Gulag – The Story episode 3


The Gulag, was the government agency in charge of the Soviet network of forced labor camps set up by order of Vladimir Lenin, reaching its peak during Joseph Stalin’s rule from the 1930s to the early 1950s. English-language speakers also use the word gulag to refer to all forced-labor camps that existed in the Soviet Union, including camps that existed in the post-Lenin era.

The Gulag is recognized as a major instrument of political repression in the Soviet Union. The camps housed a wide range of convicts, from petty criminals to political prisoners, large numbers of whom were convicted by simplified procedures, such as by NKVD troikas or by other instruments of extrajudicial punishment. In 1918–22, the agency was administered by Cheka, followed by the GPU (1922–23), OGPU (1923–34), later by the NKVD (1934–46), and in the final years by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). The Solovki prison camp, the first corrective labor camp constructed after the revolution, was established in 1918 and legalized by a decree, “On the creation of the forced-labor camps”, on April 15, 1919.

The internment system grew rapidly, reaching a population of 100,000 in the 1920s. By the end of 1940, the population of GULAG camps amounted to 1.5 million. The emergent consensus among scholars is that, of the 14 million prisoners who passed through Gulag camps and the 4 million who passed through Gulag colonies from 1930 to 1953, roughly 1.5 to 1.7 million perished there or died soon after their release. Some journalists and writers question the reliability of such data and instead rely heavily on memoir sources that come to higher estimations. Archival researchers have found “no plan of destruction” of the gulag population and no statement of official intent to kill them, and prisoner releases vastly exceeded the number of deaths in the Gulag. This can be partly attributed to the common practice of releasing prisoners who were either suffering from incurable diseases or near death.

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