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A Picture from History: The Gulag

The year is 1917, and the Bolshevik Revolution has been successful.

It’s not long afterward that a new criminal arrives within the Soviet Union — the “class enemy.”

Woman at Gulag
A “class enemy” poses in a Gulag.

With an incredibly vague and undefined meaning, the term class enemy brands anybody.

What lands you in trouble?

An argument with a neighbor, ticking off your ex, or bumping into the wrong person on the road…

And once the term stuck to you, kiss your family goodbye.

Not even a year later, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky begin setting up a series of concentration camps to deal with the large influx of newfound class enemies.

Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Lenin

The name for this system of camps — Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, better known by its nickname, the Gulag.

Table of Contents


To Share a Cell with Family

Anybody within the Soviet Union could be sent to the Gulag, and it seemed as if everyone was.

People who traveled Europe in World War II went there. Anybody who opposed Bolshevism went there. Intellectuals, doctors, writers, artists – they were all sent as well.

Gulag Locations
Gulag Locations

If you were deemed as a “class enemy,” that proved more than sufficient for you to be sent to the Gulag with a minimum sentence of five to eight years of hard labor.

Even women and children were not immune to the terrors of the Gulag, shipped off by the thousands as well.

Stalin really boosted the Gulag numbers, however.

Stalin July 1941
Stalin, July 1941

His Great Purge — an attempt to “purify” the Soviet Union of all dissidents guilty of Orwell’s thoughtcrime — sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths.

During this time, the death rate of Gulag prisoners increased three-fold as Gulags attempted to deal with a mass influx of prisoners.

Life Within the Gulag

For those shipped (often aboard freezing boxcars) to a Gulag, the terrors were just beginning.

Interrogations, sleep deprivation, regular beatings, extreme temperatures, forced false admissions, starvation, and disease were just some of the regular occurrences of the new normal.

Prisoners Eating in Gulag
Prisoners eating in a Gulag

Men suffered beatings so badly that they endured broken bones (famed Soviet scientist Sergei Korolev actually had his jaw broken by interrogators).

Despite their injuries, prisoners still engaged in heavy manual labor with primitive tools. Workdays of 14 hours or more in Siberian weather were not uncommon.

Gulag Prisoners
Gulag Prisoners

For women, the threat of rape was a regular occurrence.

Prison guards regularly assaulted women in such a manner and used their prison henchmen – the “thieves” – to do the same.

The Thieves

While the greater majority of Gulag prisoners were innocent class enemies, true criminals arrived in the Gulags as well.

Murderers, rapists, robbers all came to the Gulags and became known as “thieves.”

Kanal Moskva Volga Gulag
Kanal Moskva Volga Gulag

The thieves experienced preferential treatment within the Gulag system with more food, less work, and other benefits.

They often stole what little food and clothing class enemies received and used violence – whether in the form of beatings, rape, or murder – to get their way.

Gulag administration knew about this and used it to their advantage.

Manual Labor at Gulag
Manual labor at Gulag

Through bribes and other gifts, guards used thieves to act as their own form of internal security to keep the class enemies in line.

A political prisoner acts unruly, spreading dissent through the ranks? Just let the thieves know, and the situation would be taken care of.

Where Are We Now?

After the death of Stalin, the use of the Gulag system gradually began to die down.

But somewhere around 18 million people fell victim to the Gulag system. Perhaps 1.5 million died there due to executions, starvation, exposure, disease, or the like.

The Gulag system would have never reached the world’s ears had it not been for writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A Gulag prisoner himself for eight years, Solzhenitsyn collected stories of other survivors throughout his incarceration. He eventually published his findings in Paris in a 3-volume work called The Gulag Archipelago, released from 1973 to 1975.

The cost of his writing?

Covert Pages of the Gulag Archipelago
Covert Pages of the Gulag Archipelago (Photo: Adam Jones)

Arrest, stripped of his citizenship, torture of his secretary (who later was found hanging – an alleged suicide), and banishment from his country.

This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical; if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. To catch up on previous Pictures from History, click on over to our History Category.

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31 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar

    “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
    George Santayana, Philosopher

    October 10, 2021 8:04 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    good short article...interesting and the type that can get one to delve deeper

    August 9, 2021 9:05 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    Excellent history, thank you for publishing this. We need more of it.

    To folks like Iggy, if you can't see the direct connection between this and the second amendment, you're either ignorant or malicious.

    August 5, 2021 8:28 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      Gerry, for the sake of argument, let's assume I'm ignorant. What is the connection between this and the 2nd Amendment?

      August 7, 2021 3:57 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    I highly recommend the book, Gulag Archipelago. Start with the abridged version. Even it is a long read.

    August 5, 2021 5:36 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    Enjoyed the unexpected bit of history, which in this case holds valuable lessons about the importance of vigilance (and the price of inaction) in the face of evil. Those who enjoy our hard-won rights earned by centuries of sacrifice while snoozing through the constant ongoing battle to protect them are apparently unaware that "freedom isn't free" and can be lost in a single generation. As they say, "you may not be interested in history, but history may be interested in YOU".

    August 4, 2021 6:44 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    What did any of this article have to do about guns, gear, or training? The main appeal of this website is the ability to stay generally apolitical with the exception of the 2nd Amendment specifically, and only rarely. That's what's made this site enjoyable to read for me, and why I've recommended it to friends who aren't out-and-out right-wingers. Even Johnny B knows how to skirt the line between his personal views on his own channel and the objective stuff for PPT. There's a time and place, especially if you're a site explicitly billed as "apolitical". Honestly hoping to see none of this in the future. We get this enough with IV8888 and Mrgunsngear.

    August 3, 2021 10:27 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Aden Tate

      It's part of the new series looking at different periods in history. We have pieces on the Mujahideen, Francis Marion, World War 1, the Holocaust, and a number of other pieces from history.

      Everything within the article was presented factually, with zero spin whatsoever.

      The greater question is this: why does talking about the misery and injustice of the gulags feel like an attack on your personal beliefs?

      August 4, 2021 5:46 am
      • Commenter Avatar

        If you read the other comments on here, it should be clear that everyone else also understands this to be political, from their false equivalence of Stalin with Hitler to... the 2nd Amendment with Stalin, I guess? (Idk if I should respond to that, I was mostly just trying to let Jacki know that there are people who don't especially like softcore anticommunist agitprop.) Anyway, you present this as having "zero spin", but no matter what facts you include (or don't), your perspective on history inevitably involves subjectivity, you just went a little light on the context. Personally, I just wish you would say it with your chest: "Stalin was bad, communism was bad, there is simply no alternative explanation to justify what happened. Stalin woke up one day and just decided to throw people in the gulag for the following crimes: 'An argument with a neighbor, ticking off your ex, or bumping into the wrong person on the road…', and then Solzhenitsyn spoke out. And that's that." If you want more information on my personal beliefs, neither of us has the time for that conversation. I merely brought all this up to point out a major blindspot in your reporting, as well as to make clear that this IS in fact a political stance that you've taken. If you're commenting on policies adopted and carried out by other countries, it's political, and there is "spin" in there by default.

        August 7, 2021 3:54 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Jacki Billings, Editor

      Hey Iggy! Thanks for reading and dropping us a comment. Though our bread and butter at PPT is gun stuff and gear, we sometimes dip our toes in other areas We find that adding in different content helps keep things fresh and interesting. We do strive for an apolitical stance and this article was not intended to cause division or make any kind of political statement. It merely was a look at something that happened in history. We have been running this style of article for several months and do have a variety of pieces on all sorts of things -- from the dogs of WWII to Otto Frank. Regardless, thank you for your opinion and, again, thank you for being a PPT reader!

      August 5, 2021 5:22 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      How's this "political"? Authoritarian regimes of any kind - communist or fascist - are awful towards their people.

      August 7, 2021 1:52 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    Keep it going. Good stuff!

    August 2, 2021 6:56 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Great article Aden! If I may, and to the other writers of/for PPT, longer articles would be welcome about anything to do with history. As a few others have stated, we need to keep teaching history to every generation. Without knowing history and what other generations (and peoples) have gone through, the newer generations have nothing to measure their experiences against.

    August 2, 2021 1:43 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Jacki Billings, Editor

      We have lots of historical articles in the works, so stay tuned! Thanks for reading!

      August 5, 2021 5:24 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    Great job with the article. Maybe some people might wake up if we share this article.

    August 1, 2021 5:54 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Len C

      Exactly what I plan to do is share the heck out of this.

      August 1, 2021 7:51 pm
  • Commenter Avatar


    August 1, 2021 5:04 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    More of this, please.

    August 1, 2021 4:27 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Check out r.j. Rummel. Nobel who has dedicated his life work to studying death correlation with government type. Communist/socialist have killed more than any other form. Pol pot, stalin, mao, the lost goes on. Any time governments streamline power death tolls sky rocket.

    August 1, 2021 4:10 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Gun totin’ RN

    Lighten up Francis.

    July 31, 2021 7:48 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Ryan DeCort

    Indeed these stories need to be learned and relearned.

    July 31, 2021 6:05 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    i enjoy the history lesson! has enough info so we get an over view of the event and enough info so we can gain interest and look up more in-depth info on our own.

    July 31, 2021 5:26 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      I second this statement! PPT has inspired me to read a few books on topics I otherwise wasn't aware of. Thanks.

      August 3, 2021 3:43 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    To learn from, and appreciate the past.

    July 30, 2021 11:23 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    I love the history lesson.. It hasn't been taught in a typical school for 40 years, and we are repeating it all over again.. Mao and his hi-jinx would be a great next article, and Chavez a perfect follow up..

    July 30, 2021 9:06 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Liked it, although a very quick read. Didn't realize this was a Pew Pew article because my feed has similarly titled articles. Gave me enough info to do more searches on my own.

    July 30, 2021 7:13 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    "That system" of which you speak is growing in your midst right here.

    July 30, 2021 6:29 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Young people don't know what WW1 or WW2 were--or when they happened. They don't know anything about Korean or Vietnam wars. They know nothing except propaganda. Actual history should be welcome, but you might focus a BIT more on America and on guns.

    July 30, 2021 6:14 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    The history lessons are great ! Keep up the good work. All of you at Pew Pew !

    July 30, 2021 5:49 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Captain Kirk

    Really enjoying the new "Pictures from History" series...very interesting & well-written...

    July 30, 2021 4:38 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Thank you for writing this. Not enough people know about the atrocities in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. So many people think that this kind of thing happened a long time ago in a land far away and could never happen again. They think it could never happen here. Number one lesson: Do not give up your ability to defend yourself and your family.

    July 30, 2021 3:30 pm
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