The Gulag: Lost Millions

Miriam Horn,
US News & World Report,
May 19, 1986

The system of forced-labor camps in which Anatoly Shcharansky was incarcerated is nearly as old as the Soviet Union itself. Established by Lenin in 1919, the gulags were used on a massive scale by Stalin. From 1936 to 1953 as many as 15 million people - peasants, dissidents, ethnic minorities - were swept into the camps, many to be literally worked to death. But not until Alexander Solzhenitsyn published
The Gulag Archipelago in 1974 did the West realize the extent and ruthlessness of the Soviet prison network. Today experts estimate that more than 2 million people are held in nearly 1,000 camps. Shcharansky believes this number is 5 million.

More than 10,000 may be imprisoned for “political crimes.” The most common political charge is “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” - a catchall covering any criticism, from public protest to private letters. Unauthorized religious activity might cost 10 years. One Ukrainian was sentenced to seven years for writing a ballad in the Ukrainian folk style. Another prisoner, punished for writing poetry, died after 12 hungry months in solitary.

Indeed, a horrendous toll can be exacted on mind and body by arduous work, extreme cold, near starvation, medical neglect, systematic beatings, threats of death, isolation and promises of release in return for confession.

If prisoners survive at all, they may have “a sense of bitterness that they carry away,” says Christopher Keys, a University of Illinois psychologist. “They lose all trust, all sense of what a real relationship means.”

The system has become even harsher in recent years for those who resist “re-education.” Article 188-1 of the Soviet Penal Code, introduced in 1983, allows extension of labor-camp sentences for such offenses as washing clothes or wearing a cap at the wrong time. A 1985 directive provides that prisoners on hunger strikes are to be thrown immediately into punishment cells.

Shcharansky was in the most severe of four types of labor camps for political prisoners. A still harsher fate may face those convicted of embezzlement, theft and violent crimes. Some 50,000 people in “nuclear gulags” - dubbed “extermination camps” by critics - mine uranium, build reactors and warheads and clean nuclear submarines. Given no protective clothing, most die of leukemia or radiation-induced illnesses.

For those who can't be broken, one other punishment remains. Troublemakers may be sent to psychiatric hospitals and given huge doses of mind-altering drugs that cause convulsions, raging temperatures, acute pain and such long-term effects as loss of vision and paralysis. Such a cure for rebellion rarely fails.