Days and Lives takes you inside the brutal system of forced labor concentration camps and the internal exile institution called the Gulag. Soviet authorities found the Gulag to be a useful tool in neutralizing, and often physically destroying, all real or imagined opposition to the Communist Party's dictatorship beginning in 1917. Since it also served as the main Soviet penal system, political prisoners were imprisoned with violent criminals. In the Stalin era, some 18 million people passed through the prisons and camps of the Gulag, and perhaps another 6 or 7 million were sent into exile. More than one and a half million prisoners died in the Gulag at the hands of their government. Even those who survived struggled to rebuild their lives when they were finally released.
In this exhibit, one former Gulag prisoner will accompany you through themed sections. Each section explores one piece of this brutal institution by presenting individual experiences, photographs, documentary films, and historical context to describe life in the Gulag.
Prisoner: Gustav Herling
Gustav Herling, or Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski as he was known in his native Poland, was born in the city of Kielce in 1919 and attended the University of Warsaw. He was arrested by the NKVD in 1940 and was charged with attempting to cross the Soviet frontier. He was sentenced to five years in the Gulag, which he spent at camps in Kargopol, Yertsevo and Arkhangelsk where he unloaded trucks and cut timber. He was released early in 1942 when most Polish prisoners were amnestied. For the rest of the war, Herling served in a military unit comprised of men who had been released from the Gulag and POWs. After the war, Herling lived in various cities in Europe. He worked actively in the dissident movement and wrote anti-Communist materials. He died in Naples, Italy in 2000.