Freedom from the Gulags

This photo captures prisoners building living quarters for themselves; one of many jobs they were tasked to do.

After Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, a lot of changes would soon be occurring in the Soviet Union; one of them being the De-Stalination of the Gulags. On March 27, 1953, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued an amnesty to release prisoners that fall under the following: “persons sentenced for up to five years, those convicted of economic and military crimes regardless of their terms of imprisonment, women with children under 10 years of age or who were pregnant, juveniles up to age 18, men over 55 years of age and women over 50 years of age, and convicts suffering from incurable diseases.”

This was a huge step for the De-Stalination of the Soviet Union, because millions of people would be released from the Gulags; 1.5 million being released in the first 3 months of the amnesty. However, many released prisoners would never be integrated back into society, and the horrors of the Gulags would not be exposed until many years later.

Gulag was the acronym for the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps. At these camps prisoners were expected to work 14 hours per day and they experienced grueling physical work. Prisoners were only fed enough to keep them alive, but it was not enough to sustain them for the work they were doing. Many prisoners would die of hunger, cold, or from the injuries they would suffer throughout their time there.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

It seems as if the life of the prisoners were kept secret from the rest of the world and when released, prisoners were too scared to speak up. I believe both would be true, until Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stepped up. After fighting for the Soviet Union in WWII, Aleksandr was arrested for writing a letter that criticized Stalin. He then spent 8 years in a Gulag and 3 years in enforced exile. In 1956, Aleksandr was allowed to settle in Ryazan, located in central Russia. In 1962 Aleksandr released his short novel, Odin Den iz zhizni Ivan Denisovicha (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), which was about his experiences in the Gulag. This novel inspired many other writers to produce accounts of their imprisonment under Stalin’s regime and inform the world of the true horrors that lie within the Gulags.




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  1. Wow loving the hyperlinks!! Was the release of the prisoners solely based on the death of Stalin, or were there other factors involved? It’s crazy that they kept all of their lives a secret, although it would make sense given the conditions. Any thoughts on why they had such trouble fitting back into society?


  2. I also wrote about amnesty releasing the gulags, but I like how you wrote more about what life was like in the gulag camps. One of the further steps that Khrushchev made in “de-stalinizing” the Soviet Union was actually allowing Aleksandr to publish his books, showing a brief de-censorship during the time.


  3. I’m actually surprised that a book detailing the Gulags came out so quickly, especially from a firsthand account, let alone that it was published in the Soviet Union. Do you think this was allowed as a way to further enforce de-Stalinization, showing that this sort of punishment wouldn’t happen under Khrushchev’s rule?


  4. Imagine fighting as a Soviet during World War II, the horrors of fighting superior trained Germans, lacking advanced weapons, starving from lack of food, to come home, make a statement about the ills of the leader who sent you to war with so little, and then end up in the Gulag for 8 years. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn got quite the treatment from the communists. Nobody should be treated like that. I think cases like this really shaped how the West came to view communism as evil during the Cold War.


  5. What I find really amazing about Solzhenitsyn is that One Day in the Life was published in a prestigious literary journal. That means someone high up the food chain wanted the novel to be published and read. It’s an amazingly understated and powerful work. How do we make sense of Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of the system and the regime’s tolerance for such criticism?


  6. Moves like this seemed to be in line with Kruschev’s plans of tearing down the cult Stalin built. I never knew there was a book circulated around which could easily condemn Stalin and this would have been another action which coincided with actions I mentioned. The tone of the book would be interesting to know in regards to Stalin.


  7. No wonder the process of De-Stalinization occurred; simply looking at the conditions that the Soviet people were put through were extreme. Most of which were innocent! Overall, great post – keep up the good work.


  8. Your post was very interesting, I feel like history often glosses over the Gulags and the actual details of what happened there. I’m surprised these novels aren’t more well known and it took the death of Stalin to really make solid change happened for the people who were trapped in the Gulags.


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