An undercover video of one Kyle Jurek, an Iowa field organizer for Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), may be about to derail the Vermont socialist’s resurgent presidential bid. The clip, released by James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas team, featured Jurek claiming the senator’s “free education” policies will “re-educate” President Donald Trump’s supporters in “how not to be a f***ing Nazi,” adding that “Milwaukee will burn” if Sanders does not win the nomination.
He also revealed his historical ignorance, parroting common leftist myths that the atrocities of the Soviet Union have been overplayed, including the forced-labor camp system known as the gulags. The campaign staffer believes the gulags were places where “people were paid a living wage” and “they had conjugal visits.” But was the Main Camp Administration, as it was officially designated, a benign institution? Or was the gulag a nightmare where death was the only relief from daily physical and mental anguish?
The Gulags: A Brief History
The labor camps are synonymous with the Soviet Union. Following the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin erected the first camp in 1919 to house political dissidents, prosperous peasants (kulaks), petty criminals, and individuals who joked about the communist system. It was not until after Lenin’s death that they became centers for industrial production, mining output, and victims of Stalin’s Great Purge.
Not all camps were the same; some were worse than others. Solovki was considered the grandfather of all Soviet camps, a testing ground for mass prison labor. It was later described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as being “soft” because of what would follow. Bamlag adopted a “no work, no food policy,” Karlag had “never-ending” work, and Vorkutlag was “especially dangerous.” The worst of them all was Sevvostlag, according to Varlam Shalamov, who spent more than ten years there and described:
“To turn a healthy young man into a physical wreck takes 20-30 sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, with permanent hunger, ragged clothing, and nights spent in -60°C frost in a hole-ridden tarpaulin tent.”
By 1960, as many as 18 million people were sent to the gulags. Stalin’s campaign first targeted laborers, Communist Party opponents, military officers, and government officials. The initiative extended to educated citizens such as artists, doctors, scientists, and writers. Eventually, family members of these men, including women and children, were ordered to the camps. Prisoners would be arrested by security police and transferred to the gulags without a trial or right to an attorney. Why? For the accusation of being disloyal to Stalin.
If you were not detained, you would shudder for months waiting to be captured. The wife of an engineer named Aleksandr Petrovich could only sleep calmly following German aggression. “Now I can have a rest at least!” she wrote in a diary.
Each inmate was provided a sentence. The minimum was five to eight years of hard labor, and it was typically the family members of suspects who were given the minimum sentence. The only way prisoners would be granted an early release was if they exceeded quotas, worked hard, and perhaps had some influence among the guards. Historians estimate that between 100,000 and 500,000 people were released from the gulag every year between 1934 and 1953.
It would be an understatement to describe the gulags as hellacious. Inmates would toil on large-scale construction, industrial, and mining projects for at least 14 hours per day in the harsh subzero winter conditions of Eastern Europe. Without any safety equipment, prisoners were expected to chop down trees, dig up dirt, and pick through the frozen ground with rudimentary and ineffective tools and their bare hands.
Unable to cope in this environment, inmates would injure themselves by either burning their arms in wood stoves or slashing their hands with pickaxes or handsaws. But staying inside the camps was as bad as slogging in the fields: Living conditions were frigid and unsanitary, food rations were limited (if you failed to meet your work quota, you received less food), clothing was inadequate, and violence was ubiquitous since everyone, from criminals to political prisoners, fought for food and basic supplies. If there was not enough food, people would consume dogs and rats. After Nazi Germany’s attack on Russia, conditions worsened inside the gulags as all resources were dedicated to Soviet troops.
“Among the prisoners, there are some so ragged and lice-ridden that they pose a sanitary danger to the rest. These prisoners have deteriorated to the point of losing any resemblance to human beings,” Soviet diplomat Andrei Vyshinsky wrote in 1938.
The Hoover Institution published a 1937 letter from literary critic Nikolai Antsiferov, who wrote:
“In the cattle car, no provision had been made for the Siberian cold. There was no light source in the dark except for what came in through the windows. We had to take turns sleeping. It was crowded. There wasn’t enough food. Often we didn’t have enough water. When I came down with angina, our group leader couldn’t get a doctor for me. Add to all this the swearing, the quarrels, sometimes even fistfights, and thefts…”
Because it would be a miracle to survive even six weeks, death was the only escape from this hell. In the colder regions, guards were indifferent to prisoners escaping the gulags since the cold would kill the rag-clothed absconders anyway. The experts say that around 10% of the entire gulag prison population died each year – and that is a conservative estimate. Inmates perished from disease, exhaustion, starvation, or by the hands of sentries. The mortality rate in the gulags was six times higher than the Soviet Union average, which was already high under Stalin’s rule due to the nationwide famine.
After Stalin passed away in 1953, the camps were incrementally curtailed. The successor to Stalin and grandson of gulag victims, Nikita Khrushchev, released millions of prisoners and either tore down camps or turned them into prison facilities. Unfortunately, the gulags were still around for 30 more years. In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev completely dismantled the system.
“You Can’t Weep for Everyone”
In September 2018, trans rights campaigners at Goldsmiths University insulted millions of gulag victims by claiming the labor camps were “compassionate,” “rehabilitatory,” and “educational.” Like Kyle Jurek, these students exposed their ignorance. It is comparable to communist sympathizers who deny that communism did not kill at least 20 million people. Perhaps the naïve youth should be given the benefit of the doubt. Footage of these tragedies is not as prevalent as the images and videos of the Holocaust, and higher education refuses to pronounce the atrocities of communism like they have of the Nazis.
Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago offers terrific insight into understanding just how horrific the Soviet prison system was. It is also a must-read for progressives who continue to espouse the communist cause. However, as Solzhenitsyn writes near the end of the book:
“Oh, Western freedom-loving ‘left-wing’ thinkers! Oh, left-wing labourists! Oh, American, German and French progressive students! All of this is still not enough for you. The whole book has been useless for you. You will understand everything immediately, when you yourself — ‘hands behind the back’ — toddle into our Archipelago.”
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