The living hell that communism birthed.

gulag prisoners
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What is hell? Where is it? More often than not you would have contemplated the concept of hell, but if you were in the Soviet Union during the Russian Revolution and on the wrong side (counter revolutionary forces) then surely you would have witnessed hell on earth. The hell I am talking about is the Soviet forced labor camps also known as GULAG which is the acronym for the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps. Most of these camps were located in Siberia. Long before the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the Tsar regime had used the vast area that stretches from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans as a place of exile and forced labor for dissidents, political prisoners, and ordinary criminals. The prisoners who were exiled lived in isolated villages, could hunt, read and write, and maintain correspondence with their friends. Political prisoners sent into exile were considered to be above the common criminal, people of ideology who were to be treated differently. When Lenin and Stalin (four years exile in Turukhansk) were ordered into exile by the Russian tsar, they traveled to their respective places of exile on their own with the help of government railway passes.

Having dedicated their lives for Marxist cause in Siberian exile under the tsar regime, the Bolsheviks knew the strengths and weaknesses of the prison and exile systems of the Russian Empire. When they came to power after overthrowing Nicholas-II, they soon introduced their own system of prisons and forced-labor camps .The exile like the one Bolsheviks had lived through under the tsars would enable their opponents to maintain and extend their opposition to Soviet power. Thus the new prison system that became the Gulag was designed to prevent and destroy any ability for enemies of the communist regime to continue their resistance. Under the brutal regime of Stalin, the Gulag was turned into a vast slave system to provide limitless human resources for building a Socialist state. To know the first hand experience of life in Gulag labor camps you do not need any time machine. The only thing you need to do is read One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent most of the time suffering the pain which the previous century had to offer. After studying mathematics and physics for ten years he was drafted into the Soviet Army at the beginning of World War II to defend his nation against Nazi aggression. On the front he was awarded the ‘Order of the Red Star’ on 8 July 1944 for destroying two German artillery batteries. In February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by SMERSH ( counter-intelligence agency of Soviet army ) for writing derogatory comments in private letters to a friend, Nikolai Vitkevich, about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he called “Khozyain” (‘the boss’), and “Balabos” (“master of the house”). Because of this, he was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 paragraph 10 of the Soviet criminal code. On 7th July 1945, he was sentenced by Special Council of the NKVD (Secret police of USSR) to an eight-year term in a labor camp. This was the normal sentence for most crimes under Article 58 at the time.

In the novel ‘One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes a day of one such victim of Stalin’s forced industrialization and intensification of totalitarian control in the camp. The protagonist Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is sentenced to ten years in a special Siberian labor camp. He is accused of being a spy after escaping from German occupied territory. Like Solzhenitsyn himself, Ivan Denisovich is also discharged dishonorably from the Army. It is estimated that about four million people died in the labor camps between 1927 and 1940, not by premeditated genocide but from disease, fatigue, and starvation, which Ivan Denisovich suffers in every one of his three thousand six hundred and fifty three days. Like Ivan, Solzhenitsyn worked as a foundry man and a bricklayer during his sentence, and was the member of the 104th squad. The living and working conditions in the camp were nearly intolerable. Mattresses did not have sheets, prisoners could eat only two hundred grams of bread per meal and guards forced prisoners to undress for body searches at temperatures of forty below zero. The labor camp also degraded its prisoners mentally and spiritually. By replacing prisoners’ names with some combinations of letters and numbers, the camp erased all traces of individuality. In the novel, the camp guards refer to Ivan as “Shcha-854.” Solzhenitsyn describes the prisoners’ state of helplessness by alternating between descriptions of bodily pain that causes suffering and emphasizing on the miniscule events that bring relief from it. For example, Ivan finds a hacksaw blade, gets a little tobacco, and uses his favorite spoon. All these moments in Ivan’s day deviate from the bleak narrative description of camp routine.

An important aspect of the Gulag labor camp that the novel describes is that many characters have been convicted of activities that are not of criminal nature. For example, Gopchik (inmate) took milk to Romanian freedom fighters hiding in the woods; Ivan was Prisoner of War but when he escaped, the Russians accused him of being a German spy; Tyurin (inmate) belonged to a rich peasant family (Kulak) and he was punished for it. Stalin vowed to eliminate the Kulak class from the Soviet Union after coming to power. The gravity of the crime is dwarfed by the punishment awarded by the Soviet regime. The prisoners’ back-breaking labor in subzero temperature for minor crimes would be deemed injustice by any sane person. In the camp too, inmates got punished in case they violated any rule. In fact, the situation is so grim that anyone could land in the hole without any wrongdoing. Ivan Denisovich is threatened with three days in the hole (worst punishment within camp) simply for being ill and Buynovsky received ten days in the hole for trying to keep warm with a flannel vest. Ivan Sukhov Denisovich is trapped in jail, a fate from which he cannot escape (return home).

After reading the novel you can just think about the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union on its own citizens. The very people who promised a socialist heaven created something worse than hell. In a totalitarian regime, ‘freedom of speech’ is the first thing to go. The free flow of information is suppressed and people’s mouths are stuffed with propaganda instead of food. This is what Socialism did in the USSR and continues to do today (best example is North Korea). It is for the courage of men like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that truth can’t be hidden for long. When Stalin died in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev became the head of state after a three year struggle with the Stalinist hard-liners in the government. In 1956, Khrushchev delivered a speech to a closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress, in which he condemned Stalin’s personality cult and the human rights abuses under his regime. As a result, thousands of prisoners in labor camps were exonerated and Solzhenitsyn was one of them. After returning from exile, Solzhenitsyn taught at a secondary school during the day and spent his nights secretly writing the horrors of Gulag. After Krushchev’s removal in 1964, the tide again turned in favor of hardliners and the Soviet regime became more oppressive. Publishing of Solzhenitsyn’s work quickly stopped but he continued writing secretly and completed one of his masterpieces ‘The Gulag Archipelago’.

From 1958 to 1967 Solzhenitsyn worked on The Gulag Archipelago. It is a three-volume, seven part work on the Soviet prison camp system. The magnum opus is based upon Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as well as the testimony of 256 former prisoners, and Solzhenitsyn’s own research into the history of the Russian penal system. It discusses the denigration of the Communist regime into a totalitarian state. He examines the role of Vladimir Lenin, gives a chilling account of interrogation procedures, discusses prison camp in which almost everyone was a spy, and the practice of internal exile. According to Solzhenitsyn, the prison camp administrators often took advantage of their positions and governed camp areas as if they were kings and the prisoners were to mindlessly obey them. The guards behaved as savages and exploited prisoners for their own purposes and benefit. Among the prisoners there was power hierarchy, some were more privileged than others. Prisoners were lured to become informers. Rape and prostitution were part of camp life. The children born and raised in the camps were treated the same as adults. The prisoners were worked to death, starved to death, beaten to death and shot for disobedience. There was violation of human rights at a large scale. The book became popular with in no time and sold over thirty million copies in thirty-five languages. 

In 1970, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature but he could not receive the prize personally in Stockholm at that time because he was afraid that he would not be let back into the Soviet Union. He received his prize in the 1974 ceremony only after he had been expelled from the Soviet Union.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he wrote that “…during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known.”May be the Soviet Union does not exist anymore but the ideology that was its soul continues to exist even today and thrives in universities. The Red flag has absorbed the blood of millions of innocent people around the world. So, next time whenever you see any Lenin Statue toppling, don’t be surprised. They have no place in civil society.

“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One should never forget this.


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Shalabh Tewari

music aficionado, avid quizzer, interested in geopolitics and strategic affairs, bibliophile
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