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 (and criminals), not merely tellers of anti-Tsar jokes. It supposedly 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, by basing all sentences on the harshest Tsarist "katorga" regimes. In the post-WWII period, even the actual word "katorga" was revived for a brief time.
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 Gulag's modern successor organization is called FSIN, and is used to hold mostly common criminals, though political prisoners still exist. The system of camps themselves changed little, if became somewhat more lenient.
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.
- Another way—all too common, by the way—was to escape from German captivity. The "logic" was that since nobody could escape the Nazi prisons, any "escapees" were actually spies who had made a deal with the Germans.
- The conditions were horrible, leading to lots and lots of deaths. The guards would summarily execute prisoners for no reason, as many guards were prisoners themselves who'd get years taken off their sentence for killing an "escapee" (leading to them simply choosing someone they didn't like and shooting them). 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 also ran the risk of being thrown in "the hole" note 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). Thanks, Uncle Joe!
- Not all the camps were up in Siberia. Many inmates would probably be sent off to a camp or prison closer to home before being transferred somewhere else. For example 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.
- Stalin even stated that communism is good for everyone, so anyone who disagrees must be insane.
- That was actually the main reason. As the dissidents were non-violent and technically weren't committing any real crime, only insisting for the authorities to follow their own Constitution (which in reality was paper-only), they couldn't be realistically tried without the court being an obvious sham, and this was impossible from the PR standpoint. So the only possible solution for removing those annoying pesterers become the insane asylums after all, it then could be claimed that these people are genuinely crazy.
- The Special Project Prisons or Sharashkas. Seen in books like The First Circle (based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences at a Sharashka). These were Luxury Prison Suites for useful scientists and engineers. Cryptography, nuclear weapons and the Soviet space program all used Sharashka.
- While "Siberia" is often used as short-hand for "the Gulag", Siberia is an area larger than Canada, and with about as much diversity when it comes to climate.
- During the Soviet period, most of the camps had similarly mediocre levels of security, with Mother Nature doing the extra guarding if necessary, and the death penalty working fine for those too dangerous to live. However, in the modern period, with the moratorium on the death penalty, supermaxes for lifetime prisoners were also added to the system. Some of the more well known ones include White Swan Prison in Solikamsk, Black Dolphin in Sol-Iletsk and Fire Island in the Vologda Oblast.
- Very few managed to escape, and for those that did, anyone caught harboring fugitives would be subject to the same prison sentence as the fugitive (who by the way would almost certainly be executed upon returning to the Gulag). Even so, a lot of Siberian villagers were bitter towards the Soviet government anyway and would do what they could to help escapees, within reason.
The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle (about the Sharashka system) and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, all by the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, are highly recommended further reading. On the other hand 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.
- In Bakuon!!, Hayakawa remembers being sent to The Gulag in Siberia in the wake of World War II.
- The first season of the animated shorts Usavich, show the life of two antropomorphic rabbits in a Gulag. They don't seem to mind too much about being imprisioned, though, as former laborer Putin is pretty optimistic and enjoys the free food, while his cellmate, former mafia boss Kirenenko doesn't really care about anything besides his magazines about sneakers (and if he gets angry, he can easily beat the guards into sumbission). The second season has them escaping the Gulag and shows their life while on the run.
- In The Warlord, Mariah returns to the USSR decdes after she left and is arrested as a Western spy and sent to the Gulag. A later arc involves her escaping and attempting to return to Skataris.
- HBO film Gulag.
- Russian film Major Pugachev's Last Battle, based on the work of Varlam Shalamov.
- German film As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me about a German POW who escapes the Gulag.
- The Way Back is another Gulag escape story.
- One of the main locations of Muppets Most Wanted, as Kermit is taken there after being mistaken for his criminal doppelganger Constantine. The warden Nadya has watched every prison escape movie ever made, so she's not letting Kermit escape, even if she knows he's not Constantine. Also, there's a whole musical number, and Danny Trejo is there.
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about this place, as described above.
- Varlam Shalamov also wrote about his experiences there. His stories are considered to be grittier than those of Solzhenitsyn, and generally speaking, more accurate.
- Austrian-Yugoslav communist Karlo tajner wrote "Seven Thousand Days in Siberia" about his experience in the Gulag. The book was a bestseller in Yugoslavia.
- In Enemies and Allies, Superman gets captured and imprisoned there.
- Odinochka: Armenian Tales from the Gulag follows an Armenian political prisoner at a Siberian gulag in 1930, as he narrates the circumstances that brought his fellow Armenian prison mates to the gulag before eventually starting a fight with one of them and being thrown in The Hole, where he slowly freezes to death over the course of the novel.
- In Worldwar, the Lizards who have surrendered to the Soviet Union after rebelling against the Fleetlord are imprisoned a Gulag.
- In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Lieutenant Mamiya is sent to a gulag for 10 years after being captured during the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.
- On The X-Files, Mulder and Kryczek are both sent to one of these. (Bizarrely, the series takes place after the Soviet era.) It turns out that the Black Oil is being tested on human subjects there. Mulder and Kryczek are both exposed.