Open Society Archives

Reference Information Paper 8


Forced Labor Camps Under Communism

See also:



The system of forced labor camps was established in the first years of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union. Through the organization of the NKVD and Cheka in 1917, and the adoption of the decree on concentration camps in 1918, labor camps became the most important part of the Soviet penal and repressive system.

According to Aleksandr Solzhenitsin, the Solovetsk Special Camp, situated on a remote island in the White Sea, was called the "mother of GULAG". The experience gained at this camp by the Soviet authorities was used to introduce and spread the system of forced labor camps all over the country.

In 1930 the Soviet secret police (GPU) established the main administration for corrective labor camps (GULAG), thus converting the 1918 penal colonies for "socially dangerous elements" into systematic slave labor projects.

The United Nations International Labor Organization Committee on Forced Labor stated in 1951 that "[] since about 1930, the work of both political and other prisoners has been used in the Soviet Union for large-scale public works. [] Corrective labor camps and colonies appear to be scattered over the whole of the Soviet Union."[1]

Thousands of labor camp prisoners built the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal, the dam and power station at Dneprostroi, the industrial center at Magnitka, the railroad between Salekhard and Igarka, known as "The Road of Death", but they worked on many other construction projects as well.

The system of forced labor camps was first exported outside the Soviet Union in 1940, when a number of arrests and deportations were effected in the Baltic countries even before these countries became incorporated into the USSR on August 3, 1940. After the reoccupation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union at the end of 1944, the first labor camps were established on these territories, too. By 1953 their number was as high as 56.

The Communist takeovers in the Eastern and Central European countries immediately led to mass arrests of non-communist politicians and all sorts of other people identified as class-enemies. Many of them were sentenced to forced labor camps. Thus by 1952 the International League for the Rights of Man was able to document the existence of more than 400 forced labor camps in Central and Eastern Europe.

The forced labor system was primarily an institution of political repression, but it also served as a way of redistributing available labor force in order to meet the needs of the central economic plan. The economic rationale of such measures was highly questionable from the very beginning, yet the system of forced labor survived despite of the obvious indicators of its inefficiency.

Life conditions in these camps were extremely hard. Many of them earned the dubious reputation of "death camps" because of the high death rates caused by the inhuman workload imposed on the inmates, and the severe conditions under which the work was performed. Hunger, brutality, fear, and death were everyday companions of the forced laborer.

After Stalin's death in 1953, due to several amnesties issued in the USSR and other communist countries of Eastern Europe, many people purged as "political prisoners" were released and rehabilitated.

Khrushchev's secret speech to a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party signaled the beginning of the period known in the history of the Soviet Union as The Thaw, which was marked by the hope of reconciliation between the regime and society. The conspiracy of silence surrounding the GULAGs was broken.

However, The Thaw did not last long, and though some of the camps were closed in the Brezhnev era, the labor camp system continued to serve the oppressive needs of the regime.

With the development of the human rights movement in the USSR, information sent from prisons and labor camps reached the Western world via free thinkers and dissidents from inside the country. The letters and appeals of dissidents about the conditions in the labor camps became a significant part of the archives of Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL). Many people behind the Iron Curtain learned details about their countries labor camp system from these radios, which sometimes managed to include in their broadcasts even the names and information about the fate of particular political prisoners.

The Open Society Archives, which took into custody the records of the RFE/RL Research Institute, holds materials relating to forced labor and concentration camps in the following fonds:


HU OSA 205 Records of the
Open Media Research Institute


Bulgarian Subject Files


          Security: Prisons: [General], 1950-1996, 0.10 lm

          Security: Prisons: Victims, 1984-1990, 0.03 lm


Former Soviet Union Archives: Subject Files


          Law and Justice: Penology: Prisons and Camps: GULAG, 1991-1995, 0.07 lm


HU OSA 300 Records of RFE/RL Research Institute

HU OSA 300-3 German Affairs (AGA)

HU OSA 300-3-1 East German Subject Files


          2500 Prisons and Camps, 1956-1974, 0.05 linear meters


HU OSA 300-20 Bulgarian Unit


The materials include press clippings, news agency releases, RFE/RL research reports about prisons and camps (e.g. Belena), and lists of political prisoners from 1989. Files are primarily in Bulgarian and English.


HU OSA 300-20-1 Subject Files


          1919 Labor: Recruitment of Manpower, 1952-1988, 0.03 lm

          1925 Labor: Work Safety, 1951-1992, 0.03 lm

          1926 Labor: [Forced Labor], 1985-1993, 0.03 lm

          2200 Persecution and Purges: [General], 1968-1991, 0.03 lm

          2315 Police and Security: KGB, 1991-1994, 0.03 lm

          2400 Prisoners of War: [General], 1952, 0.03 lm

          2500 Prisons and Camps: [General], 1992-1994, 0.03 lm

          2503 Prisons and Camps: Inmates, 1962-1993, 0.05 lm

          2505 Prisons and Camps: Labor-Educational Schools, 1988-1992, 0.03 lm

          2506 Prisons and Camps: Security Measures and Conditions, 1989-1990, 0.03 lm


HU OSA 300-30 Czechoslovak Unit

HU OSA 300-30-2 Old Code Subject Files I

1951-1961, 7 microfilm rolls


          2500 Prisons and Camps: Pankrác, Jáchymov, Ilava

          2502 Personnel and Guards: Inmates

          2504 Female Prisoners

          2507 Security Measures

          2508 Conditions

          2511 Escapes


HU OSA 300-30-8 Old Code Subject Card Files


          2500 Prisons: Prisons A-Z, 0.05 lm

          2502 Prisons: Personnel and Guards, 0.01 lm

          2506 Prisons: Conditions, 0.01 lm

          2500 Prisons and Camps: Camps, 0.12 lm


HU OSA 300-40 Hungarian Unit

HU OSA 300-40-2 Subject Files in English


          Justice: Amnesty: Rehabilitation, 1972-1989, 0.03 lm

          Justice: Political Crimes, 1966-1978, 0.05 lm

          Justice: Prisons and Camps, 1966-1978, 0.03 lm


HU OSA 300-40-4 Information Items

0.20 lm


          137 Labor camps: Ajka, 1953

          137 Labor camps: Albertfalva, 1952

          137 Labor camps: Almásfüzitő, 1953

          137 Labor camps: Bag, 1953

          137 Labor camps: Balatonfenyves, 1952

          137 Labor camps: Balatonmária, 1952

          137 Labor camps: Baracska, 1958-1959

          137 Labor camps: Bernátkút, 1954

          137 Labor camps: Borsós, 1954

          137 Labor camps: Buda, 1952

          137 Labor camps: Cegléd, 1952

          137 Labor camps: Csabrenek, 1953

          137 Labor camps: Csolnok, 1955-1959

          137 Labor camps: Edelény, 1957

          137 Labor camps: Egercsehi, 1953

          137 Labor camps: Felnémet, 1953

          137 Labor camps: Hamvas, 1953

          137 Labor camps: Harta, 1955

          137 Labor camps: Hejőcsaba, 1952-1953

          137 Labor camps: Hortobágy-Elep, 1952-1953

          137 Labor camps: Inota, 1952

          137 Labor camps: Isaszeg, 1952-1954

          137 Labor camps: Jászberény, 1952-1953

          137 Labor camps: Kalocsa, 1951

          137 Labor camps: Kazincbarcika, 1953-1960

          137 Labor camps: Kistarcsa, 1951-1960

          137 Labor camps: Miskolc, 1952-1953

          137 Labor camps: Ormospuszta, 1955

          137 Labor camps: Oroszlány, 1954-1955

          137 Labor camps: Pálhalma, 1960

          137 Labor camps: Pilisszentiván, 1952

          137 Labor camps: Recsk, 1951-1956

          137 Labor camps: Tarcsapuszta, 1952

          137 Labor camps: Tatabánya, 1953-1955

          137 Labor camps: Tiszalök, 1953-1954

          137 Labor camps: Tököl, 1957-1960

          137 Labor camps: Várpalota, 1953-1961

          200.9 Armed Forces: Labor units, 1968


HU OSA 300-50 Polish Unit

HU OSA 300-50-1 Subject Files


These files consist of press clippings, RFE/RL research papers, and reports of anonymous informants relating to the forced labor system in Poland.


          105.25 Penal Code, 1954-1962, 150 pages

          135.01 Amnesty, 1952-1967, 200 pages

          135.1 State Security Organs, 1951-1960, 100 pages

          135.2 Political Cases, 1951-1960, 300 pages

          135.3 Concentration Camps in Poland, 1953-1964, 50 pages

          135.33 Labor Camps, 1951-1956, 200 pages

          135.92 Poles in Soviet GULAG, 1963-1967, 50 pages

          862 Police, 1952-1959, 300 pages

          863 Prisons, 1952-1977, 200 pages


HU OSA 300-50-3 Subject Card Files


          Camps: A-Z, 1954-1965, 500 cards


HU OSA 300-50-7 Collection of Interviews with Jozef Swiatlo [former head of Polish State Security]
1954-1956, 0.50 lm


Additional information on labor camps and prisons is available in the Polish Evaluation Index Cards, a collection of microfilms dated 1950-1958, which contain primarily Polish and English language materials.


HU OSA 300-60 Romanian Unit

HU OSA 300-60-1 Subject Files


          318 Armed Forces: Military Labor Units, 1951-1969, 0.03 lm

          1700 Industry: Canal: Danube-Black Sea, 1951-1990, 0.06 lm

          1919 Labor: Recruiting of Manpower, 1951-1976, 0.05 lm

          1926 Labor: Forced Labor, 1951-1972, 0.08 lm

          2500 Prisons and Camps, 1951-1971, 0.03 lm

          2501 Prisons and Camps: Atrocities, 1951-1968, 0.05 lm

          2502 Prisons and Camps: Personnel and Guards, 1951-1968, 0.03 lm

          2504 Prisons and Camps: Concentration Camps: Locations, 1951-1964, 0.05 lm

          2504 Prisons and Camps: Prisons, 1948-1964, 0.05 lm

          2505 Prisons and Camps: New Constructions, 1951-1962, 0.03 lm

          2506 Prisons and Camps: Security Conditions and Measures, 1951-1971, 0.03 lm


HU OSA 300-70 Yugoslav Section

HU OSA 300-70-1 Subject Files


This series contains no direct files on forced labor camps. Nevertheless, there are several files (about 0.25 lm) pertaining to Yugoslavia's 1948 split with the Cominform and especially to the Goli Otok concentration camps established by Yugoslav Communist authorities in order to isolate and control those who sided with the Soviet Union and Cominform. These files consist of Yugoslav and foreign press clippings, RFE/RL Background Reports and other printed matters. Materials are primarily in Serbian.


HU OSA 300-80 Soviet Red Archives

HU OSA 300-80-1 Old Code Subject Files


          : [Dissidents: General], 1971-1993, 0.17 lm

          : [Dissidents: Persecution], 1986-1991, 0.03 lm

          [Destalinization], 1954-1987, 0.10 lm

          [Destalinization: Stalin Reaction-USSR], 1956, 0.03 lm

          [Destalinization: Western Press Analysis], 1956-1966, 0.03 lm

          [Ideological Struggle], 1976-1989, 0.05 lm

          : [History: General], 1962-1988, 0.03 lm

          : [History: Re-writing], 1955-1993, 0.03 lm

          : [History: Historiography], 1962-1987, 0.03 lm

          : [Personality Cult: General], 1955-1966, 0.03 lm

          : [Personality Cult: Collective Leadership], 1967-1991, 0.03 lm

          : : [Punishment: Corrective Labor], 1961-1993, 0.12 lm

          : : [Punishment: Corrective Labor: Vorkuta], 1954-1955, 0.03 lm

          : [Punishment: Forced Labor], 1955-1990, 0.05 lm

          : : [Punishment: Death Sentence: General], 1961-1993, 0.12 lm

          [ ] [MVD: Ministry of Interior Affairs], 1953-1993, 0.05 lm

          : [Law: Criminal], 1953-1968, 0.03 lm

          : [Crimes: Political], 1961-1993, 0.05 lm

          : [Stalin and Stalinism: General], 1951-1990, 0.40 lm

          : [Stalin and Stalinism: GULAG], 1965-1983, 0.03 lm

          : [Stalin and Stalinism: Victims], 1988-1989, 0.12 lm

          : [Stalin and Stalinism: Literature on Stalins camps], 1963-1974, 0.03 lm

          [Prisons and Inmates], 1961-1993, 0.12 lm


HU OSA 300-80-7 USSR Biographical Files


          Ginzburg, Evgeniia, 0.03 lm

          Kuznetsov, Eduard, 0.03 lm

          Marchenko, Anatolii, 0.03 lm

          Shalamov, Varlaam, 0.03 lm

          Solzhenitsin, Aleksandr, 0.87 lm


HU OSA 300-85 Samizdat Archives

HU OSA 300-85-9 Published Samizdat


This series is a collection of copies of samizdat documents written in the Soviet Union and sent abroad which includes, among others, reports, memories and open letters about conditions in the camps and prisons, their location, and the identity and number of inmates. Most of these reports were gathered from prisoners.


HU OSA 300-85-12 Subject Files



          History: Stalinism, 0.05 lm

          Human Rights Movements: Amnesty International, Helsinki Groups, Memorial

          Nonconformism, 0.75 lm

          Penal Institutions: Camps, Prisons, Protests, Slave Labor, History and Memories, and Statistics, 0.75 lm

          Repressive Bodies: KGB, MVD [Ministry of the Interior], Torture, Rehabilitation, and Censorship, 0.37 lm

          Samizdat, 0.37 lm

          Terror: History, 1920-1960, 0.15 lm

          Terror: Kuropaty and Other Places of Mass Shootings, 0.12 lm


HU OSA 300-85-13 Biographical Files



          Amal'rik, Andrei, 0.15 lm

          Bakhmin, Viacheslav, 0.05 lm

          Bukovskii, Vladimir, 0.25 lm

          Chornovol, Viacheslav, 0.12 lm

          Galanskov, Yurii, 0.03 lm

          Ginzburg, Alexandr, 0.10 lm

          Kazachkov, Mikhail, 0.05 lm

          Kovalev, Sergei, 0.12 lm

          Matusevich, Olga, 0.03 lm

          Orlov, Yurii, 0.37 lm

          Ratushinskaia, Irina, 0.37 lm

          Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, 1.00 lm

          Terelia, Iosif, 0.05 lm


HU OSA 300-85-19 Informal Press



This collection consists of newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets, and other printed materials on the history of the GULAG. The Memorial publications (Letopis' terrora, Memorial, Memorial-aspect, Memorial-INFO, Prava cheloveka, Stranichka uznika, 58-aia and others) contain memories of the former GULAG prisoners and materials about the prisons and camps existing in the Brezhnev era as well.


HU OSA 300-506 Records of Analyst Vladimir Socor: Subject File


          Canal: Danube-Black Sea, 1984-1991, 0.05 lm


Related RFE/RL Research Institute materials


Among the materials related to the topic of forced labor camps there is an unprocessed collection of Information Items (77 microfilm rolls), covering the years 1951-1956. Several titles from this collection:


          Item 5592/1953: Profile of the Bulgarian Forced Labor Camp Belene

          Item 11524/1956: Radio Free Europe in Soviet Prison Camps

          Items: 8047, 8614, 8807, 12545, 12577/1953, 813/1954 (reports of prisoners who spent years in the Soviet GULAG and were rehabilitated after Stalin's death)


HU OSA 314 Interviews by Miklós Kun Relating to the Soviet Union

HU OSA 314-0-2 Audiovisual Interviews, 45 VHS videotapes


          Oral history interviews with former communist party officials and leaders of security organs, their relatives and dissidents


HU OSA 317 Collection of Miklós Kun Relating to 20th Century History


          Belomorsko-Baltiiskii Vodnyi Put [The White Sea Canal], 1936, 0.30 hours

A propaganda film produced by Vostokfilm and directed by Aleksandr Lemerg.


          Solovki [Solovki-Solovets Special Labor Camps], 1927-1928, 1.20 hours


A propaganda film produced by Sovkino and directed by A. A. Cherkasov.


Library materials


The OSA Library has a collection of official Russian sources and booklets from the Western press. Handbooks, documents from the fifties and sixties, reports, and publications from contemporary archival research await the curious. Books from the RFE/RL collection related to the GULAG have generally been donated to the Library of the Central European University.


Please also visit the Forced Labor Camps online exhibition in Galeria Centralis at OSA http://www.osa.ceu.hu/gulag/




[1] Forced Labor in the "People's Democracies", Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, New York, 1955, p. 7