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  Send him to Siberia!

That place where Stalin sends you if you don't behave. No, not Hell but the next best thing. And by 'best' we mean 'worst'.

Gulag is an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovyk Lagerey i Koloniy, which in English roughly means (now take a deep breath) "The Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies" and was the name of the NKVD wing that administered the prison labor camps.

Note that a similar labor camp system existed in Tsarist Russia, but it was only used to imprison actual revolutionaries, not merely tellers of anti-Tsar jokes. It was also much nicer--Lenin himself noted that it was one of the best times of his life, with the rich Siberian countryside doing wonders for his health and lax policing leaving plenty of time for the revolutionary prisoners to fraternize and catch up on their reading. When he and the Bolsheviks took over, they went out of their way to show those incompetent Tsarists how prison camps are supposed to be run.

A term not used much in Russia itself at the time ("the camps" was the most commonly used term), it has expanded to cover the entire system of Soviet oppression.

The history of the Gulag system has been covered elsewhere, so a few general points:

  • People could be sent to the labor camps for stuff like anti-government jokes. The conditions were horrible, leading to lots and lots of deaths. The guards would summarily execute prisoners for no reason, the physical slave labor was beyond exhausting, and in the summer months the prisoners were "fed" only bowls of water so many died of starvation. If you stepped out of line even once (or maybe if the guards were just cranky that morning) you ran the risk of being thrown in "the hole" [1] overnight, or even for several nights, and most likely freezing to death.
  • The labor camps did contain many genuine violent criminals and gangsters - which is the main reason why the Russian Mafia ended up in the US. When the US said it would take all Russian Jews who'd been imprisoned, the Soviet Union gave them their Jews, plus their gangsters (some of whom also happened to be Jewish, especially those from the Odessa gangs).
  • Not all the camps were up in Siberia. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was incarcerated inside a fenced-in slum village in southern Kazakhstan, where he almost died from the terrible conditions, lack of fresh water and rampant diseases.
  • The Soviet Union put many peace protesters and dissidents in mental asylums when the labor camps became overpopulated. These people were mixed in with genuine mental patients--and Russia was not the only Warsaw Pact country to do this.
  • The Special Project Prisons or Sharashkas. Seen in books like The First Circle. These were Luxury Prison Suites for useful scientists and engineers. Cryptography, nuclear weapons and the Soviet space program all used Sharashkas.

The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich, both by the late, great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, are highly recommended further reading. Though many people criticize Solzhenitsyn for being biased and not entirely truthful, so the most informative author is probably Varlam Shalamov, also a former inmate of the Gulag, but not politically motivated and generally regarded as more accurate.

Compare Penal Colony.

Notes

  1. usually an outdoor cell with stone walls and little to no protection from the elements
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