The term “GULAG” is an acronym for the Soviet bureaucratic institution, Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovykh LAGerei (Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps), that operated the Soviet system of forced labor camps in the Stalin era. Since the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1973, the term has come to represent the entire Soviet forced labor penal system. Concentration camps were created in the Soviet Union shortly after the 1917 revolution, but the system grew to tremendous proportions during the course of Stalin’s campaign to turn the Soviet Union into a modern industrial power and to collectivize agriculture in the early 1930s.
Gulag camps existed throughout the Soviet Union, but the largest camps lay in the most extreme geographical and climatic regions of the country from the Arctic north to the Siberian east and the Central Asian south. Prisoners were engaged in a variety of economic activities, but their work was typically unskilled, manual, and economically inefficient. The combination of endemic violence, extreme climate, hard labor, meager food rations and unsanitary conditions led to extremely high death rates in the camps.
While the Gulag was radically reduced in size following Stalin’s death in 1953, forced labor camps and political prisoners continued to exist in the Soviet Union right up to the Gorbachev era.