The Gulag – or GulAG – was the government agency that administered the Soviet system of penal labor camps. The Gulag camps, although they housed also petty criminals, were in fact the major instrument of political repression in the Soviet Union. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, likened the scattered camps to “a chain of islands”, hence the Gulag Archipelago, and described the Gulag as a system where people worked to death.
More than 14 million people passed through the Gulag from 1929 to 1953. Harsh treatment resulted in the death of more than a million of them. The total population of the camp system at any one moment varied between 500.000 and 1,5 million. The number of camps was roughly 500. Some of today’s major cities in Russia were originally camps.
A significant proportion of the camp population were political prisoners. Many of the inmates never had a trial. Some had a show trial. Although the camp system was dramatically scaled down in the 1960s, the USSR continued to imprison political opponents until the very end of the regime.
The Gulag, together with the purges, the terror famine and the deportation and exile to remote areas of the USSR of 6 to 7 million people, constitutes the major crime of Stalin’s totalitarian rule in the USSR.