“I propose to leave concentration camps for the use of labor of the arrested, for masters, for whoever lives without work, for those who cannot work without being forced, for irresponsible attitude towards work, for negligence and for being late in Soviet institutions.
It is proposed to create camps as a school of labor.”

Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet state security agencies.

From the very beginning of the existence of the USSR, «camps as a school of labor» became a system of deliberate physical exploitation of people. During Stalin’s era, the GULAG became a major factor in the Soviet economy. Unpaid and enforced labor camp was the most important and necessary element for the development of more than 10% of all-Union capital investments. The NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), and then the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministry of Internal Affairs), started to occupy leading positions in construction, mining of gold, silver, platinum, tin, nickel and coal.

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The need to create nuclear weapons, made the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Gulag, key structures in uranium mining. The prisoners built roads and railways, worked at military, chemical and metallurgical factories, built airports, power plants, built sewer pipes and cut down trees in forests. Many cities of the USSR were built by them – Magadan, Ukhta, Nakhodka, Vorkuta, Dudinka, Inta, Volzhsky, Pechora, modern industrial giants – Severonickel, Amurstal, Norilsk, Metallurgical factories of Nizhny Tagil and others. This system functioned in the USSR as an absolutely slave system. Such a system had minimal incentives to preserve human capital, since the new labor was always guaranteed in camps.

PAVEL GALITSKY: The year 1938, in Kolyma, was the most difficult. In the mornings, the head guard came with a stick and commanded everyone: “outside without the last.» It means, whoever goes last was beaten to death with a stick on the head. The prisoners rushed to the doors, and the guards stood outside and had fun, watching those poor prisoners stepping on each other. Prisoners worked 16 hours a day. Returning to camp in the dark. Have a few sips of cold gruel (the bread was eaten in the morning) and fall down completely exhausted. Wake up at 6 am. Grab the meal carefully, not to drop a single crumb, dip it into boiling water, crush it and make tyurya.

Stuffed the stomach and back to work. I remember the former head of the Tashkent railway, sitting in the toilet: old, with a big nose and wearing glasses. He scrapes out pearl barley grains from his excrements (they do not digest) and eats.

Anatoly TSAREV: During the war, the entire Northern Flotilla, which was in Arkhangelsk and in Murmansk, was running on coal that was supplied from Vorkuta. There was one railway line. Of course, it was not possible to supply a large amount of coal with just one line, so they started to build a second one.

Anatoly TSAREV: Under every tenth railway sleeper was a grave, because the prisoners were building it in the open air. The weather condition was very poor, as this was Vorkuta. I would like to tell you a story that happened to me. I even have a document. I drove athletes to the North. One time when we were going back… The content of this document was “Due to snow drifts, there was no train traffic on the Gum-Slutskaya section, which is near Vorkuta, from May 11th to May 15th”. There were still snow drifts in May. The prisoners lived in those conditions.
Tanya TSAREVA: When I was in the seventh grade, they started to dig trenches to lay a pipeline: gas and water. There was nothing before that. They dug a trench and started laying down the pipelines, but first they pulled everything up as there were human bones. The boys picked up these skulls, inserted candles and scared the girls.

VARLAM SHALAMOV: What did I expect in 1938? Death. I thought I would lose my strength, I would fall, I would die. However, I still crawled, walked, worked, barely worked with a pick ax, rustled an almost empty shovel, carried a wheelbarrow on an endless conveyor of a gold production. I was very skilled using the wheelbarrow. Somehow, a wheelbarrow was easier for me than a pick ax or a shovel. It is an art to skillfully use a wheelbarrow. You have to use all your muscles. The rustling of these wheelbarrows on the central path while hauling it for two hundred meters. I compared some of those wheelbarrows, had arguments about them, and took away a tool from someone’s hands.

JOHANNA MUREIKENE: When you work with a pick ax, it is impossible to fully complete the job, so we received a small piece of bread. We dig a trench at night. At four in the morning they take the bread out of the ovens in the bakery, and the wind brings us its smell… We throw pick axes and breathe this smell. Mouth watering and growlings in the stomach… We inhale the smell and seem to have eaten…

VERNON CRESS: On both sides of the river, the bulldozer scraped off the plants and upper level of soil. Prisoners worked in the open gold-bearing sands. Some of them worked with a pick ax to chip the priming and packed it on the wheelbarrows, others rolled these wheelbarrows on the wooden path to the bunker, unloaded the priming and hurried back. They had to do 100 wheelbarrows per shift, per person. Whoever did not achieve it, could stay for another shift. However, not all were punished so severely, but beatings and a reduction in meals, which were already small, were inevitable consequences for the poor prisoners.

ANATOLY BAKANICHEV: I ended up in a team that was digging ditches in the tundra for laying pipes. The working day lasted twelve hours, there was no lunch, it was not allowed to make a fire to dry out the clothes. Later on, in some brigades they were allowed, but when it rained non stop, it was impossible to dry even near the fire. In the evening there was a terrible smell in the barracks. Everyone tried to dry their clothes by hanging them near the only stove in the barracks. There was not enough space for everyone, and in the morning, many went out to work in wet clothes. The worst days came in the second half of September. In the morning – snow with rain, and by noon – frost. Wet clothes were getting frozen on the body. I have already had an experience of wearing wet clothes, both in the army and in fascist captivity, but this was the first time when it froze on my body. We had to work until the end of the day. Sometimes, in the morning, wet clothes froze on our bodies like an ice shell. I knew that the best way to deal with ice clothes was to move, and I did not stop for a minute all day. In Norilsk, September, in fact, is already a winter month, but the prisoners were still dressed in summer clothes. Pea coats, quilted jackets and felt boots were given in December. Another problem was the absence of a bath. When we arrived at the camp barracks, we had a lot of lice. Due to constantly being in dirt and wet clothes, their number only increased.

ELENA-LIDIA POSNIK: In camp, I worked as a paramedic. I did the type of work that contractor doctors were not allowed. For example, workers set up an explosion, but did not have time to get out. When I came in, they were all dead and covered with soil. Also when the escort guard shot and killed two women, they called me. They were talking, and he commanded: “Shut up! Lie down! Then he shot and killed them. When I arrived, they were no longer breathing. The soldier was awarded a two-month vacation.

In Stalin’s labor camp system, people were used, exploited, and then thrown away as it is done with industrial waste. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in his book, the supreme law of the Archipelago was: “We need to take everything from the prisoner… and then we don’t need him!” Above the gates of many camps was a poster: “Labor in the USSR is a matter of honor, glory, valor and heroism. I. V. Stalin.

Карта ГУЛАГа