The Soviet Gulag system never received the amount of attention it deserved. A kind explanation is that it was overshadowed by the Nazi Holocaust. Not exactly. The Soviets actually killed more than the Nazis. Communist sympathizers frequently vilified the historians, such as Robert Conquest, who tried to catalog the abuse. So the history still remains obscure.

Kolyma, in the Artic Circle, was one of the death camps in the gulag system.

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag is another good history of Soviet atrocities.

The Gulag adminstered hundreds of “corrective labor camps and colonies” with some 18 million prisoners. Slave labor defered the costs of running the camps. Some camps harvested lumber, others mined for gold, coal, or uranium. Others built roads and dams. Some prisoners were used for medical experimentation.

Most inmates were political prisoners, rounded up by the NKVD during Stalin’s Great Terror. In other cases, ethnic minority groups, like the Chechens, were ‘relocated’ to Siberia to prevent rebellion. Others were POWs from World War II.

The prisoners (zeks) were provided with cheap bread and watery soup – roughly 1,200 calories a day. Even in some of the coldest climates, including Kolyma, fur clothing remained outlawed. Prisoners stuffed their shoes with newspaper for some insulation.

More than 3 million died in these camps. Conditions varied, but a few camps were little more than deferred death sentences. Kolyma and Vorkuta were two of the worst; both are frigid wastelands inside the Artic Circle.

At Kolyma, the GULAG transported the prisoners along the river to an isolated camp to mine for gold. At Vorkuta, they mined coal. They had no chance to escape – without proper clothing, hypothermia would kill a man within half an hour during winter; summer only lasted a couple of weeks. Attrition rates were highest at Kolyma, with 1/3 of the population dying in their first year, and nearly all by the end of 5 years. Keep in mind, the typical gulag sentences ranged from 10 years to 25 years – thus the saying “Kolyma means death.”

During the Great Terror, the luckiest ones were shot. The State sent the unfortunate to Kolyma. There they would die in a mine cavein, freeze to death, starve to death, or simply worked to death. It was an agonizingly slow death – exhausted, clearly starved men shuffling like ghosts. All to get blood soaked gold.

The gulags were a perfect invention for a totalitarian state. It allowed the state to dispose of undesirables, while getting a little profit on the side from the slave labor.