Gariwo: the gardens of the Righteous

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the Soviet lagers

GULag is the acronym, introduced in 1930, for Gosudarstvennyj Upravlenje Lagerej, the central administration for collective labour camps.  When civil war broke out in 1918, the Soviets created a broad network of concentration camps for the political opponents of the newly established Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In 1919 they created the forced labour section. 

It was the very Soviet constitution that provided forced labour as a means to repay one's debts to society. Besides the economic and punishment purposes, some lagers had the one to carry out the physical elimination of deportees. Nonetheless, general conditions in which prisoners were forced to work made starvation natural. Scattered in the least hospitable places of the USSR, from the Solovki islands to the Siberian mining area called the Kolyma, Soviet lagers were  384. Other than the proper lagers, the Soviets created also the "special settlement areas" for the colonization and exploitation of the least hospitable areas of the USSR. The GULag system characterized the whole Leninist and Stalinist periods and underwent some reform only after Stalin death, in 1953. In 1956 there were 37 left. The closure of the whole Archipelago would take place in 1987, with Gorbacev. 


We owe writer A. Solzenicyn the expression “GULag Archipelago”, title of a colossal and fundamental work published in 1971. The numbers of extermination are still very circumstantial. It is estimated that 15-20 million people have experienced the GULag system, but no more than 3 million at the same time. The monthly rate of mortality went beyond 10% in some lagers; in Kolyma, with temperatures below minus 50-60° C, it reached up to 30%

Research centre “Memorial”, which committed to keeping the memory of this persecution and its modalities, has been carrying out a thorough survey by collecting archival material and survivors' pieces of testimony. This research is still far from being completed. The blame for this lager system, which deployed terror and imprisoned people of all social classes, is to be put both on Lenin, who started it, and on Stalin, that with the start of the 5-year plans broadened and improved the forced labour system. Blame has to be put also on the powerful secret police, the NKVD, the whole judicial system of the Soviet Union and the bureaucrats who were in charge of running the system. The latter include Lavrentji Beria, one of the fiercest collaborators of Stalin, who at the end of the Thirties organized also a secret laboratory to experiment the effect of chemical poisons on the inmates. Lenin wrote in a letter of 1922: ”Tribunals shall not eliminate terror (…) The principle of terror needs be rooted and legalized without ambiguity nor embellishments". Stalin would follow the same guideline. The revolutionary courts first, and then the so called trojkas, triumvirates of political composition, would have the task to hand deport both petty criminals and counterrevolutionaries to the lagers. For these latter there was an article of the Penal Code, article 58, which was purposedly meant to crack down on them. The Soviet regime considered petty criminals as "socially close", people who had gone astray and could be redeemed. On the contrary the people condemned under article 58 were considered as "socially estranged", unrecoverable criminals for whom the lager was the final destination. The ideology inspiring Soviet power is Marxism-Leninism, which aimed at creating a new society, above all eliminating those social groups who were considered as class enemies. The regime set up in the USSR presents the features of a truly totalitarian system, with power put in the hands of a party that identifies itself with the States and acts on the basis of a ruling ideology, which sets the goal to be attained. 

Society was completely controlled by mass media and the ubiquitous secret police. The cheapest and most effective way to keep the grip over the population and crack down on dissent was terror, which unleashed in subsequent waves hitting all elements of Soviet society in a totally arbitrary way. This is the phenomenon of the objective enemy, i.e. an enemy which is not defined by his hostility towards rulers, but by an arbitrary choice made in order to keep the grip on the whole society. First to enter the GULag were the natural enemies of the Soviet state, i.e. the class enemies: Russian nobles, enterpreneurs, landowners, the Orthodox clergy and, in general, all groups which were considered as privileged. Afterwards the purges concerned all sectors of the Soviet society, including the war prisoners who had survived Nazi lagers and the specialists of various sectors, who were necessary for the production in the lagers. Particularly worth mentioning are the hostages, chosen among the better-off people in order to blackmail relatives and friends. Inside the camps men and women worked at inhumane paces, controlled by an inner hyerarchy of foremen picked among the petty criminals. The construction of dams, channels, roads, new urban settlements, mining and wood were among the activities most often carried out by forced labourers. The often extreme climatic conditions, the continuous risk of starving, arbitrary shootings, exhausting work paces aimed at achieving impossible production goals, the steady psychological violence carried out to annihilate the individual will were the constant characteristics of Soviet GULags.

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