Prisoners of War and “de-Stalinization”

(1) GULAG Labor Camp

Last week, I discussed the return of soldiers back into the normalcy of everyday life in Russia. More specifically, the troubles they had to regain that normalcy that they lost by going into war. This week I was interested in exploring another avenue of people returning to society. That being prisoners of the Soviet Union throughout the war. The release of prisoners is one of the avenues that “destalinization” affected. During the war there was the Gulag which was a system of labor camps that ranged from about 1930 to 1955 ran by the Soviets. As you could imagine, the conditions were lackluster and they were forced to work up to 14 hours a day. At the end of the war many of the prisoners were able to go home. “The first post-Stalin action of this kind was the amnesty issued by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on March 27, 1953” (1). An amnesty was issued to most people. There were various stipulations to it such as “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” (1). Anyone who didn’t fit under this umbrella did not qualify for a release. In total, 1.5 million prisoners were released were released. While you can view this as a nice act done by the Soviets, they were simply following tradition. The tradition states “amnesties were granted upon the death of a tsar or after war” (1).

(3) A map of the GULAG labor camps.

As you can tell from the image above, camps were everywhere. I found the first picture I included to be very interesting. It depicts a camp near the village of Bezymianka which manufactured airplane parts during the war. I believe it shows a very real and all encompassing look into the operation they were running. From the clothing to the structures in the back round it gives us a great image of the GULAG. Similar to veterans, prisoners were never able to be fully integrated into society.  Everything around them in there day to day life was just a constant reminder of the injustice that occurred. ” Survivors had seen the worst that life could offer, instilling some with an unquenchable courage and need to speak forthrightly” (1). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a very influential reason that these injustices came to life through his writings. Many songs were written about these labor camps and in many ways labor camps made its way into popular culture. A language was even formed that “gave rebels a language of resistance that would guide them through the coming decades” known as blatnoi slang (1). Check out the video below for a great overview if you want to learn more!





(Youtube video)


8 thoughts on “Prisoners of War and “de-Stalinization””

  1. You are right in comparing the homecomings of both soldiers and GULAG prisoners. However, I feel that prisoners would have a different mindset when it came to returning home. Veterans fought for the Soviet Union and were protected and fed by the government, while newly released prisoners were imprisoned by the Soviet Union and lived under harsh conditions because of their government. This could be very confusing upon release, because now the prisoners would have to trust the government that imprisoned them.

    1. Good point. Of course returning POWs (soldiers), also ended up in the GULAG (because the regime suspected them of collaborating with the Germans — otherwise, how would they have survived Nazi brutality?)

  2. The GULAG is such an important topic. Your post works really well in combination with the one you wrote last week. Check back on the way the post-Stalin amnesties unfolded though. The initial pardons were relatively small — the big release of prisoners comes when “The Thaw” is more fully underway.
    Also thanks for alerting me to “Simple History”! For a two minute summary, this isn’t bad. I want to check out some of the other videos as well.

  3. Thank you for adding the video, that was a great (and quick!) overview! It’s really interesting to me how amnesties traditionally came after the death of a tsar or the end of the war, does this happen in other countries too?

    1. I was thinking about how in the US there’s a tradition of outgoing presidents and governors issuing criminal pardons — sometimes for political reasons, but often in an effort to rectify miscarriages of justice or to show mercy.

  4. That blatnoi slang is so fascinating, I will have to look up examples of it. The GULAG system is a great source of morbid curiosity. You can only imagine how miserable the conditions are at the two camps on the far right corner (on the map). It surprising that we associate GULAGs with Stalin when the practice continued through Gorbachev. Great post and good job connecting the theme of your last post in with this one.

  5. This seems like a huge move for de-stalinization but I never knew that this was simply a “death of a tsar” thing which explained these actions. I wonder how much the amnesty was meant to legitimize a lot of what Stalin did or simply just natural procedure. These little tidbits of details always matter.

  6. I really liked this post in the fact that you give great overviews of the gulags and their extent throughout the Soviet Union. I mentioned this in a different post, but it’s no surprise that De-Stalinization occurred due to the treatment that some of the individuals went through. Great post!

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