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The Gulag was the government agency that administered and controlled the main Soviet forced-labor camp system during the period of Joseph Stalin's rule over the country from the 1930s up until the 1950s.

The first such camps were created in 1918 and the term is widely used to describe any forced-labor camp in the USSR. While the camps housed a wide range of convicts, from petty criminals to political prisoners, large numbers were convicted by simplified procedures, such as NKVD troikas and other instruments of extrajudicial punishment (the NKVD was the Soviet secret police). The Gulag is recognized as a major instrument of political repression in the Soviet Union, based on Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code). The term is also sometimes used to describe the camps themselves, particularly in the West.

The first corrective labour camps constructed after the revolution (Solovki) were established in 1918 and they were legalized by a decree "On the creation of the forced-labor camps" on April 15, 1919. The internment system grew rapidly, reaching a population of 100,000 in the 1920s and from the very beginning it had a very high mortality rate.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, who survived eight years of Gulag incarceration, gave the term its international repute with the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973. The author likened the scattered camps to "a chain of islands" and as an eyewitness he described the Gulag as a system where people were worked to death. Some scholars support this view, though this claim is controversial, considering the fact that with the exception of the war years, a very large majority of the people who entered the Gulag system left it alive. Natalya Reshetovskaya, the wife of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, said in her memoirs that The Gulag Archipelago was based on "campfire folklore" as opposed to objective facts. In March 1940, there were 53 Gulag camp directorates (colloquially referred to as simply "camps") and 423 labor colonies in the USSR. Today's major industrial cities of the Russian Arctic, such as Norilsk, Vorkuta, and Magadan, were originally camps built by prisoners and run by ex-prisoners.

See also

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