The labor camps were managed by a special department of the NKVD, the Главное Управление Исправительно-Трудовых Лагерей и колоний or Main Directorat for Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies, which was created in 1929 and also well known in the west under its Russian abbreviation ГУЛАГ or Gulag. An estimated 18 million people were imprisoned in labor camps and prison camps across Russia during the Soviet era.
The Gulag held many types of prisoners. It served as the Soviet Union’s main penal system: robbers, rapists, murderers, and thieves spent their sentences not in prisons but in the Gulag.
In addition, the Gulag held political prisoners, a group including not only real opponents of the Soviet regime but also many innocents caught up in the paranoid clutches of the Soviet secret police. Most prisoners were the victims of arbitrary and severe legal campaigns under which petty theft, lateness, or unexcused absences from work were punished by many years in these concentration camps. To get an idea of the insecure position of Soviet citizens, you should imagine what can happen to you if one of the following happened to you...
Being late at work
In the Stalin era, a person who arrived late to work three times could be sent to the Gulag for three years.
Telling a joke about a government official
In the Stalin era, many were sent to the Gulag for up to 25 years for telling an innocent joke about a Communist Party official.
Taking a few potatoes left in a field after harvest
In the Stalin era, a person could be sent to the Gulag for up to ten years for such petty theft.
Trying to feed her four hungry children during the massive 1932-1933 famine, the peasant mother allegedly stole three pounds of rye from her former field - confiscated by the state as part of collectivization. Soviet authorities sentenced her to ten years in the Gulag. When her sentence expired in 1943, it was arbitrarily extended until the end of the war in 1945. After her release, she was required to live in exile near her Gulag camp north of the Arctic Circle, and she was not able to return home until 1956, after the death of Stalin. Maria Tchebotareva never found her children after her release.
Seeking the appearance of democracy, the Soviet Union held elections, but only one Communist Party candidate appeared on the ballot for each office. Fear of punishment ensured that nearly all Soviet citizens “voted” by taking their ballot and ceremoniously placing it into a ballot box.
In 1949, Ivan Burylov, a beekeeper, protested this absurd ritual by writing the word “Comedy” on his “secret” ballot. Soviet authorities linked the ballot to Burylov and sentenced him to eight years in camps for this “crime.”