THE TERROR OF THE GULAGS
JOSEPH STALIN SO SOVIET UNION, 1922-1952 20 MILLION KILLED
It was conceived in order to transform human matter into a ddocile, exhausted, ill-smelling mmass of individuals living only for ththemselves and thinking of nothing elselse but how to appease the constant totorture of hunger… concerned with nonothing apart from evading kicks, cocold and ill-treatment.”
Jacques Rossi knows all too well ththe reality of life in a Gulag, describing jusjust some of its day-to-day horrors in his memoir, The Gulag Handbook. Ththe artist spent 19 years in one of Jojoseph Stalin’s labour camps, after susuffering at the hands of the Soviet dicdictator’s infamous ‘purges’, largescscale operations that saw the imimprisonment, exile or murder of “eenemies of the working class”.
In Stalin-speak, this could be ananyone obstructing his path to ababsolute power: fellow Communist Paparty members, army personnel, prpriests, musicians, teachers and other mmembers of the intellectual classes. Fufull trials were non-existent. Instead, Ststalin enforced a form of instant justice know as a Troika. Under a troika, just three people – a member of the state police, a local Communist Party secretary and a state procurator – had the authority to issue quick verdicts of death, exile or banishment into prison camps.
After being officially endorsed by Stalin in April 1930, Gulags quickly became a way for the Soviet ruler to both remove ‘enemies’ from normal society (in 1939, the camp population stood at 1.6 million) and to cheaply increase the country’s industrial output. Until the start of World War Two, the Gulags were providing 76% of the nation’s tin, 60% of its gold and 25% of its timber. It’s thanks to prisoners that major infrastructure projects such as the White Sea-baltic Canal and the Baikal-amur main railroad line were built. But it was slavery, in a different name.
Within moments of arriving at the Gulag, prisoners were in no doubt of the brutal, humiliating life awaiting them. “First we were made to strip naked and were shoved into some roofless enclosures made out of planks,” remembers female inmate Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia. “Below our feet lay frozen excrement. An enclosure measured three square feet and each held three to four shivering and frightened men and women.”
Inside the camp, hunger and disease were rampant, but inmates were still made to work 20-hour days. Females often endured degrading strip searches from guards. “I was so shocked about it at first, I refused,” said one woman anonymously. “Soldiers kept my hands behind my back, another forced my legs apart.”
The decline of the Gulag system coincided with the start of World War Two, when more men were needed for the battlefield. When Stalin died in 1953, the Gulag population shrank sharply, but continued to exist, albeit on a small scale, during the Gorbachev period in the late-80s. Incredibly, though, a 2015 poll in Russia showed that 45% of people still believe Stalin’s actions were “to some extent” justified. >
“WHO’ S GOING TO REMEMBER ALLTHISRIFF-RAFFINTENOR TWENTYYEARS’TIME?” JOSEPH STALIN, ON THE VICTIMS OF HIS‘ P URGES’