A gulag is a forced labor camp; the term is derived from the Russian Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitel'no-Trudovykh Lagerey i koloniy, or “Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps,” an institution in the former Soviet Union. Today, the term “gulag” is sometimes jokingly used to describe any sort of grueling labor, but historical gulags were no laughing matter. The conditions in gulags were extremely harsh, and the camps were used as political tools to repress political dissidents and punish other “enemies of the state.”
The first gulags emerged in the 1920s, shortly after the Revolution in Russia. These labor camps were ostensibly designed to promote technological and industrial advancement in Russia by providing a source of cheap and readily available labor. However, they were also clearly intended to act as corrective tools for the Soviet government, with many citizens being terrified of the threat of the gulag for themselves or their family members. Propaganda posters, for example, featured gulags prominently, telling citizens exactly what their fates would be if they defied the government or engaged in “counter revolutionary” activity.
Many of these camps were located in isolated regions of Russia, sometimes very close to the Arctic Circle, where conditions were extremely harsh. Residents of the gulags were offered minimal sustenance, limited clothing, and very little in the way of entertainment, enrichment, or education. These camps were designed as functional penal camps, not necessary as facilities for personal improvement.
Some gulag labor undoubtedly did contribute to industrial advance in Russia, but many residents of the gulags noted that their work didn't seem to have any practical function. People might dig trenches one day, and fill them up the next, or build structures which were never used. While in the gulag, people had limited contact with the outside world, and they were subject to brutal punishments if they were outspoken about the government or conditions in the gulag.
In addition to being used to imprison native Russians, gulags were also used to house prisoners of war. The precise number of people who went through the gulags is not known, and death estimates vary from 10 million to 30 million, with some historians believing that the true number lies somewhere around 15-18 million. The last gulags were closed in the 1950s, but the specter of the gulag continued to be a part of Russian society, with gulags appearing in Russian literature and art which eventually introduced the concept of the labor camps to the outside world.