October 01, 1999

Crime & Punishment: Russia's Prison System

The legacy and reality of Russia’s prison system

Few institutions have had a greater impact on 20th century Russia than its prisons. From 1918 through the mid-1950s, millions of innocent Soviet citizens were summarily snatched from their homes and sent as slaves to toil and perish in labor camps, building dams, canals, factories, even whole cities, not to mention working in mines and cutting timber. 

“Originally,” wrote Jacques Rossi, in his encyclopedic book, The GULag Handbook, “inmates were not to perform any work except camp service. However, due to their ever-increasing numbers, local administrators began utilizing them as manpower for timber-felling, road building, peat digging, and the like ... Before Stalin died, the GULag [the acronym for Chief Administration of Correctional Labor Camps] was responsible for all Soviet timber felling, gold mining, highway and railway construction, as well as the bulk of all other major construction projects ... the only ethic [was] that taught by Lenin ‘Everything that serves our purposes is ethical.’” 

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