GULAG phenomenon: genesis, manifestation, lessons. IPN debate

One of the darkest pages in the contemporary history of Moldovan society were the Stalinist and not only Stalinist repression applied by the former Soviet regime. Why this phenomenon called “GULAG phenomenon” appeared and amplified, how it manifested itself and what should be done to prevent such phenomena from happening again were among the issues discussed by the invitees of IPN’s public debate “The GULAG phenomenon: genesis, manifestation, lessons”.

The permanent expert of IPN’s project Igor Boțan said that the GULAG is the Russian acronym for the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps – a body within the NKVD of the USSR, later the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR and the Ministry of Justice of the USSR, which managed the places of confinement between 1930 and 1959. After 1959, the name was changed to the Main Administration of Penitentiaries, while from 1968 – the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps. In 1987, it was turned into the Main Division for Correctional Affairs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR.

The GULAG was the successor to concentration camps, founded on the initiative of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in 1918. Officially, concentration camps were created in Soviet Russia by decree of the Council of People’s Commissars led Lenin. The decree was called “On Red Terror” and was signed on September 5, 1918.The decree stated that “the existing situation requires securing the back of the Soviet republic from class enemies by isolating them in concentration camps”. This government act was published in “Izvestiya”, which was the press organ of the Central Executive Committee, on September 10, 1918, when the Red Terror was in full swing, explained the expert.

According to him, on April 15, 1919, by the decree of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union, the concentration camps were renamed forced labor camps. The decree was signed by Mikhail Kalinin. “This is how the system of forced detention of persons, both criminals and political prisoners, appeared in the USSR. These were often sent to camps on the basis of slanderous denunciations. In the context of the ongoing civil war, the Bolsheviks, first of all, needed special places to isolate their so-called class enemies. And this was taken from the experience that the Bolshevik leaders themselves lived during the tsarist period,” noted Igor Boțan.

He also said that the GULAG was an important part of capital investment in capital construction. In some industries, the importance of the GULAG was greater, including coal, metals, ores, such as gold and uranium, diamonds, cobalt, etc. For example, 100% of gold mining went to GULAG inmates, and in the case of tin – about 70%, nickel – 33%, etc. “The GULAG was also a dimension of the Soviet economy. That is, despite the nice statements about freedom, about citizens’ rights, slavery was institutionalized in the Soviet Union, which was also mentioned in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s monumental masterpiece “The Gulag Archipelago,” said the expert.

Lidia Pădureac, PhD in history, vice-rector of “Alecu Russo” Balti State University, said that as far as the GULAG system is concerned, it includes, along with the network of camps, forced labor colonies made up of people deported from the whole Soviet Union, including the Moldovan SSR. The first correctional labor camps, as they were called, appeared as early as 1918. But the network of these camps grew over time. And for each stage there are certain features.

“If we refer to what happened in the Soviet Union, this so-called correctional work was actually an enormous contribution to the economic development of the Soviet Union. Until 1928, this network of concentration camps remained at the scale as which it was created in 1918. But why exactly in 1929 did things begin to change? It was the first five-year period that set some grandiose goals in the economic sector. And then, starting with 1929, this network of camps, of the GULAG, began to ramify so thar we see that, by law, the state practically allowed all prisoners who had stayed for more than three years in detention to be distributed to concentration camps as labor. In fact, the state was creating slaves, slaves of the state, Soviet slaves,” explained the doctor of history.

According to her, things also changed between 1936 and 1938. It goes to the “Great Terror”, when practically one million people in the Soviet Union suffered. Most of them, 85%, were shot. “But then there were three actions – the person was either arrested, or deported, or shot. Taking into account the fact that a large part of those who were arrested during the Great Terror were killed, another part was transferred to concentration camps, to CULAG, we understand that the Soviet state began to exploit the labor of these people to a greater extent, not to mention the fact that life in these camps was exhausting,” said Lidia Pădureac.

She noted that there was another restart of this concentration camp system after World War II ended and a large number of people from across the Soviet Union ended up in concentration camps again. Over one and a half million people who were accused of collaboration with fascist forces or of nationalism were again taken to these camps. “So, we can see these three crucial stages in the evolution of the GULAG and we talk about the fact that the number of concentration camps had constantly increased. Practically, we are talking about 156 camps, but also annexes or branches of these camps, which were over 600 labor colonies,” stated Lidia Pădureac.

The head of the Museum of Victims of Deportations and Political Repressions, a branch of the National Museum of History, Ludmila Cojocaru, PhD in history, associate professor, said that in recent years specialists have been talking insistently about a universe of terror that engulfed the entire Soviet Union, but also Eastern Europe. There are figures that are still in the works and they speak about the horrors and proportions of this regime of terror established in the first months of the Bolshevik rule, especially until 1953.

According to the doctor of history, figures show that about 18 million people between 1934 and 1953 passed through the GULAG system, concentration camps, colonies, juvenile colonies, women’s colonies, prisons, etc. On March 1, 1940, there were more than 1.6 million people in the system.

Ludmila Cojocaru stated that the speed gathered by the GULAG as a system of repression and extermination, through maximum exploitation of energy, human resources and forces in the period before World War II is known. The war fought on the territory of the USSR in 1941-1945 followed. At that time there were 53 camps, 425 colonies, plus 50 juvenile colonies. In that period, during the war, 3% of the production and economy inside the USSR came from the institutions of the GULAG.

“We have a figure of about 18 million, plus 7 million people who were deported. In total, we have a figure of 25 million people. It is about 15% of the population. It’s a frightening, terrifying figure. There have been systematic demands and efforts to learn how those abominable proportions and tragedies, crimes against humanity came about? And how those things repeat today in Russia?” said Ludmila Cojocaru.

The public debate entitled “The GULAG phenomenon: genesis, manifestation, lessons” was the 28th installment of IPN’s project “Impact of the Past on Confidence and Peace Building Processes” which is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation of Germany.

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