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Days and Lives in Stalin’s Gulags

I am absolutely blown away by the impressive online exhibit Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, a moving portrayal of the Stalinist prison experience brought to us courtesy of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, in collaboration with the Russian NGO Memorial. I highly recommend that readers give the site a thorough visit. There is such abundant and important material there that we will probably revisit many times for items of discussion. Below, a video and transcript depicting what it was like to be awoken in the middle of the night and dragged off to one of these dreaded prison camps.

When citizens of Stalin’s Soviet Union climbed into bed at night, an uninterrupted sleep was never a guarantee. The secret police’s sharp 2 a.m. knock often launched an odyssey into the hellish depths of the Gulag. Many would never return alive.When that 2 a.m. knock came, only one set of lights burned in an entire apartment building—that of the arrested man or woman. In cramped communal apartments, nothing remained secret, and neighbors would peek furtively out their door trying not to be noticed, trying not to be next. Frightened family members would watch as the secret police searched for potentially incriminating materials—anything that might indicate independent thought. Most new prisoners believed their arrest to be a mistake.The Soviet police operated unpredictably, arresting people not only in the dark of night but also in the light of day. No matter when or where arrest occurred, special trucks outfitted with tiny prison cells hauled the new prisoners to their tormentors in an interrogation prison. The crushing loneliness of solitary confinement awaited some. Crowded cells smelling of sweat, urine, and feces greeted others. Prisoners only escaped their cell for marathon interrogations, enforced sleeplessness, and other forms of torture designed to elicit their “confessions” to often invented crimes. Interrogations concluded with a farcical trial that lasted perhaps several minutes before pronouncement of a predetermined verdict. For many, this was the end—a death sentence carried out almost immediately. The “lucky” found themselves boarding a stinking, crowded cattle car with just a hole in the floor for a toilet. Days or weeks later, they arrived to begin their sentence in a Gulag labor camp, usually with a weakened body and confused mind.