Monday, August 8, 2022

Sixty-Nine Years Ago, 30,000 GULAG Inmates Revolted, Held Out Three Months and Changed the Course of Russian History

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 16 – Sixty-nine years ago, in the summer following Stalin’s death, 30,000 GULAG inmates revolted against their jailors and held out for almost three months. Some call it a rising although the prisoners had no arms; others call it a strike. But this largest and longest prison rising in Soviet history convinced the Soviet leadership to change course.

            Alla Markarova, who has studied the rising for many years, says that one must look beyond the myths about this rising, myths that arose because there was so little information available at the time or even for many years thereafter (

            She says that the events of the summer of 1953 took place not in Norillag as many think but in Gorlag, a camp organized in Norilsk in 1948 which had a much harsher regime than did the better known camp. And she insists that it wasn’t a revolt but rather a strike because the prisoners didn’t take arms, attack the guards or attempt to flee.

            Makarova also points out that many of the real causes of the strike have been ignored, including the fact that earlier in 1953, Soviet POWs began to come back from prison camps in Germany where their experience of imprisonment was fundamentally different than that of Soviet citizens who’d been in the camps since the 1930s.

            Also adding to the pressure in Gorlag was the arrival there of 1200 prisoners from the special regime camps of Karaganda where earlier there had been a series of risings. At least some of those dispersed from there came to Norilsk and continued the activities which had led to their transfer.

            But the overwhelming reason for the strike, Makarova says, is that with the death of Stalin, many prisoners expected that they would be amnestied or at least that they would have their conditions of incarceration improved. When neither happened, they were ready to protest in whatever way they could.

            Just how many prisoners were killed in the course of the suppression of the strike remains uncertain. Soviet and Russian officials have admitted that some 50 were killed, but medical records from the camps, the investigator says, suggest that the actual number was much larger than that.

            Most of the participants were ultimately released and even posthumously rehabilitated. But the most important consequence of the strike was that the post-Stalinist leadership was forced to recognize that it could not go back to the past or even continue as it had up to that moment.

            Too many things had changed following the death of Stalin; and one of them was that the GULAG system on which his rule had depended was no longer a viable option for the country going forward.

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