Zek - About the Exhibit
of the material. No sociological,
historical, demographic or cultural history of Russia can be attempted
without taking into account the profound influence the slave-labor camps and
prisons have had on her development. Russia was called "the prison house of
nations" during the Imperial period; it became even more so during the
Soviet period, a development Solzhenitsyn called the GULAG Archipelago. Much
of the Soviet north, Siberia, the Far East and Central Asia was "settled"
and exploited using slave labor and mass deportations. Zeks were compelled
to build a large number of major construction projects with far-reaching
consequences: the Belomor and Moscow-Volga Canals, the Baikal-Amur (BAM)
Railroad, the double-tracking of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the cities of
Noril'sk and Magadan, and on and on. Historians estimate that 11% of any
generation in the Soviet population was sent to forced labor in the camps,
exile, or to execution. One out of every four or five Russian citizens alive
today have themselves either "sat" in prisons or camps, are now
incarcerated, or have a relative who "sat". Russian prisons today are one of
the world's great incubators for multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis and
AIDS, threatening not only the rest of Russian society but the world as
Availability of material:
Soviet-era court mail is readily available in terms of
municipal and people's courts, much less so for the other kinds and higher
judicial levels. Regular police (i.e., not the secret police) correspondence
can be found, albeit with some effort. As for mail relating to the GULAG
itself, correspondence from some of the bigger camp complexes is not hard to
find, but from many prisons, smaller camps and those complexes where the
death rates were high or their existence was short, it is very difficult.
Some institutions were designed to work people to death, or simply to
execute them, so-called "shooting prisons" and at many of them the inmates
were not allowed to correspond more than once or twice a year, if at all.
For these, only rare and scattered mail exists, most of it official
Difficulty of collecting and exhibiting:
Those factors that militate against the collector in this field are:
The often poor quality of
the paper, envelopes, cards and writing implements available to the
Prison and camp
conditions that were not kind to paper;
Many prisoners' messages were confiscated or simply never delivered, thus
drastically reducing the availability of material today.
Fear. Many letters and
cards that did reach home from the prisons and camps were destroyed by the
recipients because their family members or friends had been arrested on
political charges and the recipients didn't wish to join them.
Secrecy. To mask the
scale of its prison empire, Soviet authorities turned the addresses of its
incarceration facilities and camps into "post office box numbers" and
codes. Only an ability to read Russian and establish which numbers and
letters denote a place of confinement and which do not (whether by
consulting the Smirnov work listed below or deriving the writer's status
from the text of the letter or card) allow a collector to identify such
While much more information has become available since 1991, some of it is
still classified and inaccessible. One such area, if indeed any records
were ever kept at all, is that of censor marks. There are no published
lists of those, so no one has any idea how many there were or what they
all looked like. In that respect, this field is still in its infancy, and
Location. Most Soviet-era
mail available in the West today is international, sent here from there.
Soviet and Russian Federation prison-and-camp mail is almost exclusively
domestic. This makes collecting such material in the West more difficult.
Features of camp and prison mail.
Unlike many other postal history fields, it is usually the addresses and
return addresses on such correspondence that are crucial; postmarks play a
lesser role, and weights and rates not at all. Censor marks on camp mail are
the exception, not the rule.
Categories. There are
four categories of mail in this field:
Correspondence to and
from camp and prison inmates;
to and from camp personnel (guards, administrators, etc.);
Official mail between
camps, prisons and courts.
Correspondence to and
from prisoners of war in Soviet camps.
A fifth, non-mail category is
added to these: official documents, including ID cards and booklets.
"Completeness." There is no
such thing as a complete exhibit or collection of the GULAG, its
predecessors and its successors. In the 42 years of just the GULAG's
existence, there were hundreds of labor camp complexes and tens of thousands
of sub-camps, sections, sub-sections, base camps, remote points, columns and
labor-gang sites. Then there were the prisons - hundreds more of them, and
they came in quite a number of "flavors" and often-changing designations.
The GULAG's masters themselves - the Ministry of Justice, the secret police
and the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) - underwent
numerous re-organizations (Cheka, GPU, OGPU, GUGB, NKVD, NKGB, MGB, MVD,
MOOP, KGB). So too did the GULAG, and during WWII zeks were loaned out to a
bewildering assortment of other commissariats, main directorates and
directorates involved in everything from road building and airfield
construction to lumbering to all manner of defense industries. The regular
police and court systems also changed frequently, especially in the early
days of the USSR.
The camp and prison systems
that came after the GULAG underwent revision as well, often due to the tug
of war between the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the KGB and the Ministry of
Justice over which of them should have jurisdiction over the prisoners. To
demonstrate all of this with envelopes, postcards, documents and forms in a
thorough manner would require hundreds of frames.
of the Exhibit
To the extent possible, the
exhibit is arranged by period and chronologically within each period.
1. "Inheritance" - The
tsarist and Provisional Government legacy, 1699-1917.
The slave-labor concept.
Chaos in the penal system
during the Provisional Government period.
2. "Infancy" - The first
stirrings of the Soviet penal system and the political police, 1917-1922.
Change of masters.
POWs, internees and
continued police surveillance of their mail.
Early prisons in
fortresses, naval barracks, Tsarist-era prisons.
The Cheka and its prisons
- Butyrka and the Lubyanka.
Ministry of Justice
prisons - district jails.
The concept of
rehabilitation and the corrective-labor facilities.
3. "Adolescence" - The
USLON, other OGPU camps and the birth of the GULAG, 1923-1929.
The Solovetsky Islands.
facilities in the 1920s.
4. "GULAG structure,
communications and codes" - An explanation of the various levels in the
forced-labor hierarchy and the terminology to be used in the remainder of
Base camps and columns.
Separate base camps.
Remote sub-base camps.
The courier post.
5. "Life and Death in the
Camps and Prisons."
Links with home.
Censorship of camp mail.
Tasks in the camps -
Transports within the
The GULAG and the Great
Shared background between
the GULAG and the Nazi extermination camps.
6. "Maturity" - The GULAG
empire & other main directorates employing slave labor, 1930-1940: a tour of
camps and prisons around the USSR.
corrective-labor colonies and labor communes
7. "Middle Age" - WWII and
the rise of the "Camp-and-Industrial Complex," 1941-1953.
Prisoner loan to other
main directorates, subordinate directorates and other commissariats.
Wartime starvation in the
Camp life begins to
and northern logging camps.
Prison labor in defense
Vetting and filtration
Main POW Directorate.
Beginning of the
The GULAG's Central and
Eastern European waves.
POWs as zeks.
The Ministry of Internal
Affairs takes over the GULAG.
"Touring" some of the
oblast- directorate prisons.
8. "The Final Years" -
(March 1953 - January 1960).
Some camps survive -
DUBRAVLAG & the Western Railroad Corrective-Labor Colony.
decentralization of the GULAG.
The rise of psychiatric
9. "Aftermath" (1960-1991).
The last of the Soviet
prisons, 1992-2000. Prisons in the Russian Federation and the former
Soviet republics. The rise of the "tuberculosis and AIDS factories."
Sources consulted to compile
this exhibit (for both information and illustrations):
Ispravitel'no-trudovoy kodeks RSFSR (Corrective-Labor Code of the RSFSR),
"Yuridicheskaya literatura," Moscow, 1972.
Ugolovno-isponitel'nyy kodeks Rossiyskoy Federatsii. Ofitsial'nyy tekst.
(Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Official Text.), Ministerstvo
yustitsii Rossiyskoy Federatsii, Moscow, 1997.
Anne, GULAG: A History, Doubleday, New York, 2003.
A.N. & S.I. Shurov (eds.), Atlas SSSR (Atlas of the USSR), Glavnoye
upravleniye geodezii i kartografii Ministerstsva geologii i okhrany nedr
SSSR, Moscow, 1962.
Janusz & Kathleen Gleeson, Man Is Wolf To Man. Surviving the Gulag,
University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1998.
Viktor, Istoriya odnogo lagerya (Vyatlag) (A History of One Camp (Vyatlag)),
Agraf, Moscow, 2001.
Vladimir, Letters from Behind the Barbed Wire, "American Philatelist,"
January 1994, pp. 38-47.
Vladimir, Mail from the Solovetskyi Camps. The Road to Calvary, "American
Philatelist," January 2003, pp. -33.
Vladimir, Mail of the Gold Kolyma, "American Philatelist," June 1998, pp.
Vladimir, More Camps of the Gold Kolyma, "Pochta" No. 26, July 1999, pp.
Aleksandr, Put' na Golgofu. Khronika gibeli velikikh knyazey Romanovykh
(The Path to Golgotha. A Chronicle of How the Romanov Grand Dukes
Perished), Izd-vo "Muzeydiplomaticheskogo korpusa, Vologda, 2000.
David J. & Boris I. Nicolaevsky, Forced Labor in the Soviet Russia, Yale
University Press, New Haven, 1947.
V.P. & S.A. Krasil'nikov (eds.), Spetspereselentsy v Zapadnoy Sibiri,
vesna 1931 - nachalo 1933 g. (Special Settlers in Western Siberia, From
Spring 1931 to the Beginning of 1933), EKOR, Novosibirsk, 1994.
John J., Chekisty. A History of the KGB, Lexington Books, Lexington, Mass.
& Toronto, 1988.
Murray, Dead Souls, The Atlantic Monthly, January 1999, pp. 26-27.
B.A. (ed.), Organizatsiya suda i prokuratury v SSSR (The Organization of
Courts and the Prosecutor's Office in the USSR), "Yuridicheskaya
literatura," Moscow, 1967.
Gorky, Maxim & L.
Averbakh, S. Firin (eds.), Belomorsko-Baltiyskiy Kanal imeni Stalina.
Istoriya stroitel'stva 1931-1934 gg. (The Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal. A
History of the Construction from 1931 to 1934), OGIZ, Moscow 1934.
L.I., Prinuditel'nyy trud. Ispravitel'no-trudovyye lagerya v Kuzbasse
(30-50-ye gg.) (Forced Labor. Corrective-Labor Camps in the Kuzbass
(1930s-1950s)), 2 vols., Kuzbassvuzizdat, Kemerovo, 1994.
Andrew, A Prisoner of Trotsky's, Doubleday, Page & Co., Garden City, New
Dmitriy & Leonid Pligin, Strana tyuryagiya. Tsiklopediya rossiyskoy
deystvitel'nosti (The Land of Prisondom. A Cyclopedia of Russian Reality),
AST Astrel', Moscow, 2005.
A.I. & N.V. Petrov (comps.), GULAG, 1918-1960. Dokumenty, (2 vols.),
Mezhdunarodnyy fond "Demokratiya," Moscow, 2000.
Mackenzie, F.A., Russia
Before Dawn, T. Fisher Unwin Ltd, London: Adelphi Terrace, 1923.
G.B. (ed.), Tyur'my i kolonii Rossii (Russia's Prisons and Colonies), "Liga
Razum," Moscow, 1998.
Partridge, Ben, The East:
Prisons: Soviet Era Labor Camp System Verges On Collapse, RFE/RL, accessed
Pavel, Ne po svoyey vole - Istoriya i geografiya prinuditel'nykh migratsiy
v SSSR (Involuntarily' The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in
the USSR), OGI Memorial, Moscow, 2001.
P's', Hannu, Tuberculosis
Projects in Karelian Prisons 16.06.03, accessed at http://www.baltichealth.org/cparticle77142-7717a.html
on 16 March 2004.
Rossi, Jacques, The GULAG
Handbook, transl. from the Russian by William A. Burhans, Paragon House,
New York, 1989.
V.M., Organizatsiya sudebnoy vlasti v Rossiyskoy Federatsii (The
Organization of Judicial Authority in the Russian Federation), Izd-vo BEK,
Avraham, The First Guidebook to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the
Soviet Union, Bantam Books and Stephanus Edition Verlags AG, New York,
Smirnov, M.B. (comp.),
Sistema ispravitel'no-trudovykh lagerey v SSSR, 1923-1960. Spravochnik
(The Corrective-Labor Camp System in the USSR, 1923-1960. A Reference
Book), "Memorial," Moscow, 1998.
Solzhenitsyn, A., The
Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation,
Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 1973.
V.G., Ugolovno-ispolnitel'naya sistema Rossii: tsifry, fakty i sobytiya
(The Criminal-and-Executive System of Russia: Numbers, Facts and Events),
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system. Russian Life, October-November 1999, pp. 37-47.
George, Soviet Slave Labor Camp Mail, Pochta No. 23, January 1998, pp.
M.M. (ed.), Voyennoplennyye v SSSR 1939-1956 (Prisoners of War in the USSR
1939-1956), "Logos," Moscow, 2000.
A.I. et al., Penitentsiarnyye uchrezhdeniya v sisteme Ministerstva
yustitsii Rossii. Istoriya i sovremennost' (Penitentiary Establishments in
the Russian Ministry of Justice System. History and the Present Day.)
Izd-vo NORMA, Moscow, 1998.