Did This Really Happen?

Labor Camp Guard, H-hour
Labor Camp Guard, H-hour

Deep below the surface in an intricate tunnel network beneath Moscow, Archival interviewed Russian historian, Dr. Sergey Kudryashov during filming at Bunker 42 Cold War Museum.

Profile of Prisoner sculpture by Grisha Bruskin

Kudryashov— The idea of the concentration camp was invented by the British during the British Boer War. This is not Soviet experience; it was a repeated experience. During WWI camps were built not only in the Soviet Union but in other countries also for prisoners of war for people who were deprived of their place of living, displaced persons, they had to live somewhere. And for them the camps were created.


These sort of camps existed on the territory of Russia at the end of WWI and during the Civil War… But step by step the following idea appears in Soviet government of creating a working instructional camp, though it’s now a camp where people are not only kept but also educated. This idea seems to be very attractive. What if we have a lot of camps where people live, work and at the same time labour educates them? Stalin also liked the idea, and the camps were built all over the country.

Guard Tower in a prison camp
Guard tower in a prison camp

We can hardly find a dictatorship and a dictator who didn’t destroy his opponents. Therefore, in terms of purges and neutralization of dissidents and public enemies Stalin didn’t invent anything new. However, the scope of what happened in the Soviet Union was dramatic. It was too much and this, of course, had an impact on the whole development of the country,

Robbery, H-hour
Robbery, H-hour

Everything starts from some small steps, when the largest opponents of the dictator are eliminated. As a rule, these are figures from his immediate surrounding – But gradually, the main figures were destroyed, and then they start to destroy supposed opponents, or real opponents, or latent opponents – people, who, it would seem, had nothing against the regime. A neighbour could write a letter, and say that this man was bad. It was enough to imprison or banish him. Repressions started, continued, and they had to settle all those people somewhere, to build some camps for them.

They started to build camps, prisons.

Gulag Network
Gulag Network

There were not enough prisons, and it started to develop like a giant network throughout the whole country as spider web. It turned into an element of Stalinist economy of that time. As the number of camps was growing, and the population of GULAG was growing. The conditions were getting worse, because many camps were not in the central part of Russia but in Siberia in conditions of frost. And when it was required to build something, to cut forest, many people couldn’t do that physically. So the conditions were catastrophic for them.

Of course, all this emphasis on labor was dominating, and labor turned out to be exploitation, a form of responsibility a person couldn’t get rid of. So because of the terrible conditions, that existed there, people died. And the menu of the prisoners changed also. And indeed some things were done, but the efficiency of these economical costs was minimal. It just seems that it is easy, but these people die, you need new people, those people die, too, and, of course, this is terrible for the economy. Basically, it ruins the country as it happened with the Soviet Union.

Labor Camp
Labor Camp


During the postproduction of The Frozen Theater, Archival worked with Burt Patenaude who lectures in history and international relations at Stanford University. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives and provided historical accuracy in the development of the film’s script and archival scenes.

Patenaude— As we say, de-Stalinization began the day Stalin died, on March 5. In fact, the changes begin immediately after Stalin’s death, in March 1953. Khrushchev becomes First Secretary of the Communist Party, and that’s the important position he occupies (the government position he took in 1958, called prime minister but really chairman of the Council of Ministers, was more a matter of securing his authority).

Khrushchev and Stalin in 1936
(Left) Nikita Khrushchev, (Right) Joseph Stalin

Mass terror was ended by the very people who had perpetrated it. There was an amnesty declared on March 24, 1953, but it was limited to political prisoners who had been sentenced to five years or less, and also non-political prisoners who had been arrested for lesser crimes. These prisoners were set free and began to return to society.

At the same time, this loosening of the reins set off unrest inside the camps, and even uprisings. We are still trying to determine the extent of these protests. Perhaps partly in response to this unrest, the release of other political prisoners began in 1954. In the course of the years 1953 to 1956 about 2.6 million prisoners returned to society. They returned to face their denouncers, who sometimes were living in their apartments!

Prisoner, Archeologist’s Collection
Prisoner, Archeologist’s Collection

The Gulag as an official Soviet state institution was shut down formally in January 1960, although labor camps for political prisoners and criminals persisted in the USSR into the 1980s and were terminated by Gorbachev in 1987.


“I had been playing.
Screaming, I ran into Father’s study,
clearly bothering him at work.

Papa put down his manuscript,
took out a pistol, aimed it at me,
and said:

‘If you don’t get out of here, I’ll shoot.’

I felt my heart stop from fear.
Did this really happen?”

-Grisha Bruskin, Past Imperfect

What if we have a lot of camps where people live, work and at the same time labour educates them?
-Dr. Sergey Kudryashov

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