Gulags – “organized terror”

“No work, no food”

Camp operators called the camps “organized terror”. There was scant consideration for human rights. Inmates were simply exploited and worked to death in many cases. The steady influx of inmates meant that, in the eyes of the camp architects, prisoners were expendable. 

Soviet Union had more than 500 labor camps and penal colonies. They were first established in 1917 under Lenin.

In 1943, a new category of harsher camp was introduced, called “katorga” (hard labor). In these camps, the hardest work and the lowest rations were given to prisoners. Many times, prisoners were only given 300 g of bread a day for sustenance. 

One of the slogans in the camps was “No work, no food”. This was part of the Frenkel system (Naftaly Frenkel). In this system, Frenkel, a former camp inmate himself – he had been sent to the camp for stealing gold, prisoners’ food rations were tied to the amount of labor they performed. This system was responsible for the high death toll of the camps. 

Food rations not compatible with life in many cases


Prisoners’ daily bread ration. Courtesy of the Gulag Museum at Perm-36. Gulag History

Daily food ration: 400 to 800 grams of bread.
Daily calories: 1,200 to 1,300 calories.
Minimum calories for hard labor: 3,100 to 3,900 calories a day (World Health Organization).  The American Morgenthau Plan for occupied Germany rationed 1,300 calories a day for Germans.

Range of prisoners

  • kulaks (independent farmers)
  • political dissidents
  • common criminals
  • “economic” criminals
  • remnants of old elite
  • Communists who had fallen out of favor
  • ethnic minorities
  • homeless
  • “unpersons”
  • “hooligans”
  • people who had been tardy for work too often.

How cold did it get in the gulags?


Temperatures in the Vorkuta’s death camp could go as low as -40°F (this is equal to -40°C; -40° is where Fahrenheit and Celsius are exactly equal).

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Typical winter overcoat worn by most of the Soviet population in the 1930s through 1950s. The coat is very similar to the type provided to Gulag prisoners.

A well-known British travel writer, Colin Thubron, trekked across Siberia and visited several Gulag camps. Of his visit to the dread Vorkuta, Thubron writes:

Then we reached the shell of Mine 17. Here, in 1943, was the first of Vorkuta’s katorga death-camps. Within a year these compounds numbered thirteen out of Vorkuta’s thirty: their purpose was to kill their inmates. Through winters in which the temperature plunged to -40 F, and the purga blizzards howled, the katorzhane lived in lightly boarded tents sprinkled with sawdust, on a floor of mossy permafrost. They worked twelve hours a day, without respite, hauling coal-trucks, and within three weeks they were broken. A rare survivor described them turned to robots, their grey-yellow faces rimmed with ice and bleeding cold tears. They ate in silence, standing packed together, seeing no one. Some work-brigades flailed themselves on in a bid for extra food, but the effort was too much, the extra too little. Within a year 28,000 of them were dead … Then I came to a solitary brick building enclosing a range of cramped rooms. They were isolation cells. Solzhenitsyn wrote that after ten days’ incarceration, during which a prisoner might be deprived even of clothing, his constitution was wrecked, and after fifteen he was dead.

Institute for Historical Review

The majority of Gulag camps were positioned in extremely remote areas of northeastern Siberia (the best known clusters are Sevvostlag (The North-East Camps) along Kolyma river and Norillag near Norilsk) and in the southeastern parts of the Soviet Union, mainly in the steppes of Kazakhstan. (Wikipedia)

The infamous gulag complexes were those at Kolyma, Norilsk, and Vorkuta, all in arctic or subarctic regions. (Wikipedia)

The area along the Indigirka river was known as the Gulag inside the Gulag. In 1926, the Oimiakon village in this region registered the record low temperature of −71.2 °C (−96 °F). (Wikipedia)

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Indigirka River. The region registered the record low temperature of−71.2 °C (−96 °F). (Wikipedia)

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Siberian taiga* in the river valley near Verkhoyansk. The lowest temperature recorded there was −68°C (−90°F). (Wikipedia)

*Taiga (pronounced like “tiger”; from Turkic) also known as boreal forest or snow forest, is a biome characterized by coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches. The taiga is the world’s largest biome apart from the oceans.

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A typical camp building in a gulag

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These camp houses would be scattered around the gulag

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Inside one of these draughty shacks. The walls would not keep out the cold in winter. 


300g of bread

Combined with the extremely cold weather (sometimes arctic temperatures) and the poor food rations (rations could be as low as 300 grams of bread or 390 calories), the conditions in the Gulag camps were such that many prisoners succumbed to disease or starvation. The Gulag camp mortality rate was extremely high.

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Prisoners with severe malnutrition in a camp hospital, most were expected to die. (Photo: Daily Mail)

How much bread you got depended on how much timber you had cut the day before, a tally that really could be the difference between life and death. Those who met 100 per cent of the punishing targets — a physical impossibility for most men — earned 900g of bread (about 2lb), while those returning only 50 per cent of their targets got 300g.

Made from rye which had not been thoroughly cleaned, this black bread was the source of Gulag life and carefully hoarded throughout the day. A little with the breakfast soup; a few bites during the short dinner break at midday; more with the soup in the evening to stave off the inevitable pangs of hunger after 12 hours of cutting and stacking logs.

Daily Mail

The following is from: Institute for Historical Review

Workings of the Gulag

Dan Michaels

Organizationally the Gulag was subordinated to the secret police entity of the day (successively, Cheka, GPU, OGPU, NKVD, MVD, and KGB, from the last of which emanate many of the leaders of today’s Russian Federation). The founder of the Soviet secret police, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, expressed the guiding principle of the Cheka in 1918: “We represent in ourselves organized terror — this must be said very clearly.” All subsequent Soviet governments have rigorously observed that principle. In one consequence of that rigor, conditions in the camps of Communist Russia were typically far more brutal than those of the dreaded Siberian exile under the Tsars.

If France had one notorious penal colony — Devil’s Island — the Soviet Union had hundreds. Of several thousand work camps of various types, more than five hundred were officially ITL (for “ispravitel’no-trudovoy lager”), corrective labor camps and penal colonies. The first of these was established in 1917; eventually the ITL camps extended across the breadth of the USSR, from the severe arctic conditions of the far north to the scorched plains of Central Asia. Or, as Solzhenitsyn put it: “from the Cold Pole at Oy-Myakon to the copper mines of Dzhezkazgan.”

Since the camp system was essential to the Soviet economy, the inmates were put to work in every aspect of hard labor — in railroad construction, road building, canal building, forestry, mining, agriculture, construction sites, etc., under conditions that were usually inhuman and unhealthy, and oftentimes deadly. Women, though housed in separate barracks, often shared the same work camps as the men — and worked side by side with them at the same labor. There were special camps for children, for mothers with babies, and other exceptional cases. Psychiatric wards (psikhbol’nitsy) “treated” other intractable “enemies of the people.”

In 1943, with the “Great Patriotic War” raging, the Communists introduced an even severer category of labor camp, the “katorga” (hard labor camp), within the ITL system. Prisoners assigned to a katorga were assigned the hardest work and received the lowest rations and the least medical attention. (The word “katorga” stems from in Tsarist times, when hard labor, along with “ssylka,” or Siberian exile, were standard, though much milder, punishments.)

As was the practice in the Soviet civilian sector in general, and long predating the German use of similar slogans in their concentration camps, the importance and joys of work were proclaimed and extolled by countless slogans posted in the camps: “Work is a matter of honor, fame, courage, and heroism”; “Shock work is the fastest way to freedom”; or, more ominously, “No work, no food.”

The basic daily food ration (the “payka”) ranged from 400 to 800 grams of bread, which accounted for more than half the prisoner’s daily calories (1200-1300). This amount varied, depending on whether the prisoner was a shock worker or a Stakhanovite, an invalid, in isolation, etc. The most productive workers received a food bonus of fish, potatoes, porridge, or vegetables to supplement his bread. (Coincidentally, the American Morgenthau Plan for occupied Germany called for the allotment of about the same number of calories [1300] a day per German.) The UN World Health Organization sets the minimum requirements for heavy labor at from 3100-3900 calories per day.

The inmate population reflected a cross-section of the USSR: Christian and Muslim clergymen, “kulaks” (or independent farmers), political dissidents, common criminals, “economic criminals,” the remnants of the old elite, Communists who had fallen from favor, ethnic minorities, the homeless, “unpersons,” “hooligans,” and persons who had been, once too often, tardy at work.

Within the camps of the Gulag, inmate society came to be broken down into categories that depended on the prisoner’s particular crime. Most political prisoners or counterrevolutionaries were referred to as “58ers” for having violated Article 58 of the criminal code; common criminals were called “urki” or “blatnyaki”; less violent criminals accused of violating some aspect of the civil code were categorized as “bytoviki”; individuals accused of undermining Soviet economic laws were referred to as subversives or pests — “vrediteli” in Russian; trustees or “pridurki” in the camps, those most likely to survive their imprisonment, acted as camp service personnel. All inmates were referred to as “zeki,” the acronym for the Russian word for prisoner.

More from: Institute for Historical Review


This entry was posted in Anti-gentilism, Anti-goyism, Bolshevism, Communism, gallery, Gulag, Holocaust, USSR. Bookmark the permalink.

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