Why were people sent to the Gulag?

Burial in a Gulag camp, Kazakhstan.
Burial in a Gulag camp, Kazakhstan. CERCEC

Under Stalin, people could be sent to the Gulag for any one of several specific reasons, as the experiences of Vera, Antanas, Klara, Silva, Iaroslav, Andrej, Elena and Iosas testify. Marta Craveri, the co-ordinator of the European Gulag sound archive project, explains some of the historical background to the deportations.


Silva, her father and the rest of her family were sent to the camps as part of the pre-World War Two detentions made following Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler. In September of that year, the Soviet Union annexed Poland’s eastern territories – western Ukraine and Belarus – and the Baltic states. Their political, economic and military elites were arrested, sentenced and deported to the Gulag.

In 1943, as the Red Army defeated the Wehrmacht, Germany’s armed forces, and recaptured its territories, special units of the Soviet secret police unleashed a fresh wave of repression in which hundreds of thousands of people living in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and western Ukraine were deported or arrested and sentenced to forced labour.

In the Baltic states, not only people accused of collaborating with the Nazis but anyone who had left to work in Germany, whether they had chosen or been forced to, were also arrested. The same went for resistance fighters who had fought against the Red Army and Baltic soldiers who joined either the Wehrmacht or the Schutzstaffel, the SS. Antanas is among those who actively supported the “Brothers of the Forest”, members of the Lithuanian resistance movement, for which offence he was sentenced to ten years forced labour despite his young age at the time.

The rural population in the Baltic states systematically opposed the forced collectivisation of their land and aided the resistance, leading the Soviets to begin a new series of deportations in spring 1949 that saw some 95,000 people exiled – including the parents of Elena and Iosas.

In western Ukraine, activists and sympathisers with the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) were detained along with members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), like Vera and the father of Iaroslav. Collaborators and soldiers of the First Ukrainian, a division of the SS made up of chiefly Ukrainian volunteers, were also sentenced to long terms of forced labour. Entire villages were burned and their inhabitants deported as the Soviet secret police sought to destroy the UPA’s local support.

From February 1942, Poland began to form an armed resistance force to fight against the occupier: the Armia Krajowa, or AK, which was active across pre-1939 Polish territory. Soviet authorities arrested many of the AK’s soldiers and officers during the Red Army’s advance across western Ukraine and Belarus from late 1943; many of them were sentenced to forced labour in Gulag camps. Andrej was accused of helping the AK.

After the war, Hungary and Czechoslovakia also saw systematic repression of anyone considered a threat to the establishment of a Communist regime. In addition, the Soviets ordered mass deportations of people living near the two countries’ borders with Ukraine. Detainees were taken first to temporary camps in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and from there to the Gulag in the Soviet Union. Klara was one of those deported, aged 14, simply because she was the niece of a policeman.

Marta Craveri, co-ordinator of the European Gulag sound archive project, CERCEC (Centre for Russian, Caucasian and Central European Studies), Paris.

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