♦️The GULAG System
Lenin founded the GULAG (an acronym for, in English, Main Administration of Collective Labor Camps), the network of prisons and forced labor camps throughout the Soviet Union. But it was Stalin who employed them to their most hideous and at least semi-effective ends. The camps, like prisons throughout the world, were used to house criminals. The GULAG’s primary purpose, though, was to gain control of the population through fear — by imprisoning, torturing and killing undesirables, critics of Communism and anyone who defied Stalin — to drag the Soviet Union from its agrarian past into an industrialized society. More than 3.7 million Soviet citizens were forced into the camps, many in the most remote and barren areas of the country, between 1931-1953, according to one report. Almost 800,000 of them were shot.
From “The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements:”
The Gulag population reached its largest numbers in the early 1950s with roughly 2.5 million inmates; as many as 12 million to 14 million people overall passed in and out of its gates between 1934 and 1944 alone; and no less than 1.5 million people died in the Gulag between 1930 and 1956.
The GULAG at one time totaled nearly 500 camps. More people passed through the GULAG system, for a much longer time, than were imprisoned in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany in their entire existence.
“The purpose of the GULAG was not to kill people, It was designed to discipline society … It’s really about social control.”
♦️ Collectivisation, Dekulakization and Special Settlements
From about 1929 to 1932, in the name of furthering Communism and strengthening his hold on the state, Stalin seized the land and property of millions of peasant families and forced them off their property (with many landing in the GULAG).
These people — “kulaks” — were the richer of the peasant class and seen as a direct threat to Stalin’s rule. So they were dispossessed, many were murdered, and the others were exiled and forced to work in collective farms or in GULAGs in mining or construction, where millions more died.
Stalin, worried about subversive elements within Soviet borders, also ordered the forced resettlements of entire populations — people of specific nationalities living in the Soviet Union that were either deported or moved to remote areas of the country — into what some call “special settlements.”
With his “dekulakization” policy, Stalin effectively wiped out an entire class, badly damaging the agricultural sector of the economy, which contributed to millions more dying in the Great Famine. More on that chapter next.
♦️The Great Famine
According to “The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine,” around 14.5 million people died of starvation in the Great Famine of 1932-33, also known as Holodomor. Estimates of the number of dead vary widely, but it’s generally agreed that millions perished — Ukraine and Kazakhstan were especially hit hard. And unlike other famines where drought was the main cause, it was Stalin’s policies toward industrialization and away from small farm food production that contributed to this disaster.
In addition, Stalin used the food shortages strategically, making sure that certain areas were affected more than others. He baldly welcomed many of the deaths, especially when it came to enemies of the state, “kulaks,” and “idlers” (those who did not work on the collective farms). He quoted Lenin in saying that, “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” Many consider the Great Famine nothing short of a genocide and blame Stalin directly.
♦️ The Great Purge
In 1936, Stalin initiated “The Great Purge,” aiming to rid the Communist Party of some of his biggest detractors and rivals. Hundreds of thousands of people initially were arrested by Stalin’s NKVD (the secret police). Many were executed or sent to the GULAG. Of the 103 highest-ranking members of the Communist Party, 81 were executed.
Eventually, more than a third of the Communist Party died during The Great Purge, which had the effect of terrorizing the general population, too. Many people turned on friends and family members in an attempt to save themselves from the GULAG or sure death. In the end, not even the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov, was spared. He was executed in 1940.
But high-powered NKVD police like Yezhov didn’t just disappear from life, they also disappeared from photos. Stalin understood the historical value of photographs and how to use them for propaganda. Stalin went so far as to use photo retouchers to delete his enemies from photographs, including Yezhov, who was essentially removed from the historical record.
♦️ Order No. 227
Stalin’s brutality did not stop with civilians and enemies of the Communist Party. It extended to the very people that were fighting for him and the country. In 1942, as Germans pushed their way toward Stalingrad in the early days of World War II, Stalin issued one of his most well-known and cold-blooded edicts, Order No. 227. It declared that “panic-makers and cowards are to be liquidated on the spot.”
The order also called for penal battalions — lesser-offending soldiers were sent to the front lines — and “guards units” at the back of the line would keep cowards from retreating. It’s unclear how many Soviet soldiers died by the hands of their fellow soldiers under Stalin’s order.
♦️Punishing Prisoners of War
In another famous order, Stalin said that, “We have no prisoners of war, only traitors of the motherland!” From “Hitler’s War in the East, 1941-1945: A Critical Assessment”:
In contrast to prisoners of war from other Allied countries, Soviets who survived Hitler’s camps did not return to their homeland after the war as liberated heroes. Many underwent forced repatriation, while others succeeded in remaining in the West, including quite a few war criminals. Since Stalin distrusted members of the Red Army who had been captured, most Soviet prisoners of war passed straight from the German concentration camps to the camps of the “Gulag Archipelago” …
Millions of Soviet prisoners of war were interrogated on their return, about half were sent to the GULAG and many thousands were shot or otherwise died at the hands of their countrymen.
♦️ Giving a Pass to War Crimes
Though Stalin sent thousands of his own Soviet prisoners of war to their deaths, he turned a blind eye to how his soldiers performed on the battlefield. If they fought “admirably” — meaning if they won battles — Stalin did not bother himself with how they did it, or the fallout after. After hearing reports that Soviet soldiers raped women in Germany and elsewhere, he is reported to have said “what is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors?”
Stalin continued to run the Soviet Union with a clenched fist for most of his life. The GULAG, in fact, still held about 2.5 million inmates in 1953, the year he died. But the GULAG, and Stalinism, all unraveled after his death.
Today, despite murdering millions of his country’s citizens, Stalin is still considered by many communists to be one of the greatest leaders ever.