The Soviet system of forced labor camps was first
established in 1919 under the Cheka, but it was not until the
early 1930s that the camp population reached significant numbers.
By 1934 the GULAG, or Main Directorate for Corrective Labor
Camps, then under the Cheka's successor organization the NKVD,
had several million inmates. Prisoners included murderers,
thieves, and other common criminals--along with political and
religious dissenters. The GULAG, whose camps were located mainly
in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North, made significant
contributions to the Soviet economy in the period of Joseph
Stalin. GULAG prisoners constructed the White Sea-Baltic Canal,
the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line,
numerous hydroelectric stations, and strategic roads and
industrial enterprises in remote regions. GULAG manpower was
also used for much of the country's lumbering and for the mining
of coal, copper, and gold.
Stalin constantly increased the number of projects assigned
to the NKVD, which led to an increasing reliance on its labor.
The GULAG also served as a source of workers for economic
projects independent of the NKVD, which contracted its prisoners
out to various economic enterprises.
Conditions in the camps were extremely harsh. Prisoners
received inadequate food rations and insufficient clothing, which
made it difficult to endure the severe weather and the long
working hours; sometimes the inmates were physically abused by
camp guards. As a result, the death rate from exhaustion and
disease in the camps was high. After Stalin died in 1953, the
GULAG population was reduced significantly, and conditions for
inmates somewhat improved. Forced labor camps continued to
exist, although on a small scale, into the Gorbachev period, and
the government even opened some camps to scrutiny by journalists
and human rights activists. With the advance of democratization,
political prisoners and prisoners of conscience all but
disappeared from the camps.