The Gulag Archipelago is the history of the Russian concentration camps that served as the backbone for the rise of the Soviet economy in the pre-Cold War years. According to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag is actually an acronym, which stands for Glavnoe Upavlenie Lagerei or Main Camp Administration. Although the meaning of Gulag has been expanded over the course of the twentieth century to encompass the broad activities that took place at these concentration camps and the extent of forced labor that existed in the system, Gulag is meant to symbolize the harsh realities of the more than 470 camps that were created between the years of 1918 and 1953. Despite the fact that the camps were in existence unit the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Solzheinitsyn notes that is has not been until recently that the history of the camps that their impact on the growth of the Soviet Union has come to light.
Examining the brief history of the concentration camps that Solzhenitsyn provides in the opening of the text, it becomes clear that at their peak, the camps interned more than 2 million prisoners. Although Solzheinitsyn suspects that the camps processed more than 18 million individual throughout their course of operation, the Russian government was willing to allow prisoners to be released upon completing their sentences. The problem however, was that arrests were often made based on the political rather than criminal actions of the individual. Thus, almost anyone in the communist state could face internment for even the slightest infraction.
In addition to the fact that the camps were filled with political prisoners, Solzheinitsyn also notes that these camps also served a host of purposes such as:
- Processing Coal
- Producing Manufactured Goods
- Timber Production
The overall might of the soviet camps at their height contributed more than one-third of the nation's economy. This slave labor, served as the impetus to help Stalin and other Russian leaders expedite the industrialization of the country. Thus, it is difficult to know if prisoners were captured because of their political beliefs or because the government simply needed more free labor to sustain its economy and push toward modernization.
Although the Soviet system of prison camps was not the same as what was discovered after the Holocaust, Applebaum notes that just because the system was primarily economic did not mean that the system was humane. What this clearly suggests about the prison camp system that existed in Russia during first half of the twentieth century is that it was not much different from the system that existed in Germany. Although Russians did not have to fear death from the gas chamber, the did live in constant fear that their lives would not be spared at the hands of the prison guards.
In general, Solzheinitsyn's text is intended to shed light on a subject that has long been a part of Russian history, but not well elucidated in the context of world history. Solzheinitsyn notes that even though the investigation yielded a plethora of information about the camps, there is still a considerable amount of information that is not known. With this in mind, it is clear that Solzheinitsyn's text is meant to provide readers with a general overview of the history of Russian prison camps, while also serving as a springboard for more investigation into the topic. Clearly, if readers are to know what occurred at these camps, government records about these institutions need to be released. Even though Solzheinitsyn has been able to secure statements from some government officials in charge of the system at the time, the government has not been openly willing to discuss the realities of its labor camps. Perhaps the government fears retaliation from those who survived. Unfortunately, however, information form these sources would provide key information for investigation.
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