April 7, 1930. Stalin, 1st secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, publishes a decree on the organization of a new institution of correctional labor camps called the Glavnoye Oupravlenie Laguereï (Main Directorate of the camps) or GOULAG (acronym). The management of the Gulag was immediately entrusted to the GPU (then to the NKVD), a measure which attests to its eminently repressive character. The Stalinist Gulag is the heir (to stick to the Soviet period) of the camps set up by the Bolsheviks during the Civil War.
The 1920s saw this system of internment and work camps for political opponents endure, but on a smaller scale. In 1923 there were about 25,000 prisoners in the various Soviet camps. The establishment of the Stalinist system will soon lead to a very significant increase in the number of prisoners, as political repression intensifies. With the dekulakization and the purges of the 1930s, the detainees will number in the hundreds of thousands.
A sinister archipelago
It goes without saying that the living conditions of the latter were at best difficult and at worst quite atrocious. The ‘zek’ are subjected to a very demanding physical labor regime while insufficiently fed and housed in buildings unsuited to the harsh climate of the Urals or Siberia. The exploitation of the mines of the Kolyma, or the works of the canal of the White Sea constitute exemplary cases of the hell which the Gulag experience represented for many.
The Stalinist Gulag would last until 1958, although later Soviet leaders (notably Brezhnev) continued to deport some political opponents. However, the extent of the phenomenon could not be seriously investigated until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.