Fortunately, human memory is arranged in such a way that everything tragic and burning eventually disappears. The pain eases up and goes away. Because a person cannot continue to live with a feeling of unhealed sharp mental trauma. This is probably why people who went through the GULAG, often do not want to remember their life in the camps. Unfortunately, we are currently going through such a historical period of time when this subject, related to human freedom, humiliation, dignity, and mental and emotional destruction, has all become especially relevant.

Our project «GULAG. Witnesses” is an attempt to make a film based on the book by Anna Artemyeva and Elena Racheva titled “58th. Unseized». In this book, about Stalin’s concentration camps, Russian ex-prisoners and Russian ex-prison guards met for the first time under the same roof.

Their stories are presented in our show by famous actors. Together with them, we decided to go through the path that almost everyone who was placed into the GULAG went through: arrest, interrogation, transfer between camps and life in the camp. And then, those who got lucky, had their freedom.

And it also turned out that even now, in the calm and prosperous Canada, there are people for whom the words GULAG, «camp», «exile», «convict» still cause burning pain of loss, a feeling of injustice and fear. They didn’t only carry all of this throughout their lives in their memory, but also during immigration. They carefully made sure to keep faded photographs, letters, certificates of rehabilitation, and anything that was somehow connected with the memory of their long-gone loved ones and to one of the most tragic times in the history of Russia.

Terror was a constant part of the Soviet regime from the very beginning of its establishment. The Bolsheviks, who came to power in Russia in October 1917, began to use mass terror as a way to destroy their ideological and political opponents.

At the request of Lenin, nobles, merchants, priests, representatives of other classes and groups that were considered as «counter-revolutionaries» began to be placed in “conce camps” not far from large cities. The definition of «conce camp», is the combination of words «concentration camps» and appeared in documents signed by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin, not Stalin, signed a decree establishing Europe’s first concentration camp for dissidents in Solovki back in 1918. Stalin was the father of the GULAG, but Lenin was the grandfather.

Telegram to the Penza Provincial Executive Committee: “Received your telegram. It is necessary to organize a reinforced security of selectively reliable people, to carry out merciless mass terror against the kulaks, priests and White Guards; Lock up the skeptics in the concentration camp outside the city. Launch the expedition. Telegraph when all is completed.
Chief Sovnarkom Lenin.

The abbreviation «GULAG» appears in official records in 1930. In fact, from this moment on began its formation which will reach its climax in the second half of the 1940s — early 1950s. In 1956, the main management of Camps will be renamed to the Main Directorate of corrective labor colonies, and in 1960 it will be liquidated.

After Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book «The GULAG Archipelago», the word GULAG was considered not only as a network of places of detention and forced labor that once covered the Soviet Union, but also the entire Soviet punitive system. From night arrests and interrogations to hard labor in camps. From deportations and transportation in cattle wagons, mass executions and death from hunger and cold, to destroyed families and crippled lifes. During the 27 years of the existence of the GULAG, at least 20 million people passed through the camps, colonies and prisons. According to preliminary estimates, about 600 thousand people died in the camps from diseases and inhuman conditions. Executed for political reasons from 1934 to 1953, 786,098 people. The GULAG system consisted of hundreds of camps from the Arctic Circle to Kazakhstan and from the Western Frontiers to the Far East.

In 1929, it was decided to use forced labor to accelerate the industrialization of the country. The entire network of labor camps has completely come under the control of the state security department. The intensive growth of the camps occurred during the so-called period of mass repression in 1937–1938. The peak of the development of the GULAG fell in the post-war 50s. It was then that the Soviet camps began to play a prominent role in the country’s economy. They produced a third of all gold, a significant part of the timber, coal, uranium, nickel, peat and other minerals. In general, the range of economic activities of the GULAG was adequate to the economic activities of the entire USSR.

With the growth in the number of prisoners, the structure of the camps was also improved: corrective labor camps, penal camps, camps for criminals, political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps, and so on. During the years of the existence of the USSR, about 480 different camp complexes arose. They included thousands of separate camps, each of them containing from several hundred to several thousand prisoners. Slave labor was used at all the so-called «great construction sites» of socialism from the Dneproges to Magnitogorsk.

The Soviet archives keep many freezing soul documents from the history of the GULAG and repressions. The vast majority of the victims were innocent people. A significant percentage of the people in the GULAG were prisoners under so-called political conviction. Most of the prisoners who ended up in the GULAG on criminal charges were people who received long term convictions, for example, for picking several spikelets on a farm field. Another 6 million were sent into exile, deported to the Kazakh steppes or the Siberian taiga.

Deprived of many rights, these people could not leave their settlements and were also slaves of the GULAG. As a system of mass forced labor for millions of people, the camps ended with Stalin’s death.

His political heirs considered those camps as a demonstration of extreme backwardness and a very inefficient way of managing. However, the camps did not completely disappear. In the 1970s-80s, they contained democratic opponents of the regime, nationalists and dissidents of various directions. Today, half a century later, the system has begun its new round…

During the years of its existence, the GULAG has become a special country within the USSR. We can say that it was a different civilization. The GULAG developed special laws, traditions, morality; even its own slang that was sometimes replacing the usual Russian language. The GULAG created its own literature, its own heroes and villains, and left its stigma on everyone who passed through it.

It is no coincidence that the book by Anna Artemyeva and Elena Racheva “58th. Unseizable» contains the memories of not only prisoners, but also the camp staff. By reading their stories, we understand that both of them were victims of the regime. Of course, the difference between them was epic and we completely realize it. Crippled destinies, mutilated consciousness –this is the result that the GULAG left on people on both sides of the barbed wire. Russia, as a country, as a society, has paid a monstrous price for experimenting on itself.