By Thomas Arevalo
The Gulag was a system of forced labour camps in Soviet Russia. Throughout it’s history from the creation in 1918 until the closure of most of the camps in 1960, about 18 million of prisoners passed true the Gulag camps (Conquest, 1997). The amount of prisoners peaked under Stalin, when the Gulag became an important resource for the construction of many industries and projects around the country (Gulag history, n.d.). In the eyes of the authorities the prisoners had almost no value, the exact numbers are unknown but probably millions of the prisoners died due to hunger, cold and hard labour. On top of this many of the prisoners were falsely convicted (Conquest, 1997). Nevertheless some prisoners maintained loyal to the system of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) who put them there (Adler, 2010).
In this blog there will be looked at the complex question of how it could be that prisoners of the Gulag remained loyal to the communist party after becoming a victim of this system.
There are several possible explanations for prisoners to remain loyal to the CPSU, including it being a substitute for religion, cognitive dissonance and the ‘traumatic bond’ (Stockholm Syndrome) (Adler, 2010).
Some of the prisoners had an active role in the repression system before their imprisonment. They sometimes blamed their misfortune on behalf of that the system had failed in their particulate case but not as the system as a whole (Adler, 2010). Other prisoners didn’t lose faith in the Party or communism but lost their fate in particular leaders. They blamed the terror of the Gulag on Stalinism and switched their devotion from Stalin to Lenin. They believe that the terror was to blame on Stalin and that the Party of Lenin would not have had a part in the repression, was sometimes expressed in a prayerful way. Some of them sent letters of complaint and appeals for justice to the deceased Lenin, addressing them to his mausoleum (Kozlov & Mironenko 2005, mentioned in Adler, 2010). By doing so they were rejecting the current system and reaffirming their faith in communism.
The hardships within the Gulag camps marked the prisoners for live. After returning from the camps they struggled to reintegrate (Adler, 2014). Some prisoners tried to get back in the CPSU and renew their status as a Party member. Some got accepted back in and others were denied until the Gorbachev era (Adler, 2010). In the scientific articles that where used for this blog there is a general consensus that the goal of the Gulag system was not only to punish prisoners or for economical gain coming from the forced labor the prisoners performed but also to re-forge them in obedient Soviet citizens.
Adler, N. (2010). Enduring Repression: Narratives of Loyalty to the Party Before, During and After the Gulag. Europe-Asia Studies, 62(2), 211–234.
Adler, N. (2014). Communism’s “Bright Past”: Loyalty to the Party despite the Gulag. Culture & History Digital Journal, 3(2), 1–9.
Conquest, R. (1997). Victims of Stalinism: A Comment. Lanham, Europe-Asia Studies,
Gulag history. (n.d.). Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom. On the internet: http://gulaghistory.org/nps/, consulted on 17 October 2015.
Van Ree, E. (2013). Problems of Communism: Gulag Authorities and Gulag Victims. IRSH, 58, 107–119.