Was the Russian Media Hiding the Brutality of The Gulag?

Prisoner-made poster at Gorlag (Norilsk):
Prisoner poster at Gorlag (Norilsk): “We are being shot and starved”, Archive of the Federal Security Service

A key facet of de-Stalinization was the deconstruction of the vast Gulag system. These prison camps were amongst the most gruesome reminders of Stalin’s bloody legacy. Aside from the stigma of the brutal Gulag system, there were other reasons Kruschev had for deconstructing the system. For one thing, riots and escape attempts were becoming a regular occcurence. Not only that, the riots were becoming increasingly violent and death counts were increasing dramatically. For instance, the riot at Gorlag in 1953 resulted in military intervention in which Soviet soldiers killed over one thousand prisoners. Notable insurrections also occurred at Steplag, Kolyma, and Ozerlag between 1953 and 1956. Another key issue posed by the prisons was the complete failure of the rehabilitation system. One 1956 study showed that 25% of the prisoners were former inmates (Freeze 415).

In searching the archives of the Russian press for first-hand accounts of released prisoners’ experiences, I could find nothing that reflected the brutality that occurred there. The only articles I could find described the prisons as clean and orderly, and the prisoners as being disciplined and remorseful. For instance, in one article titled, “Reportage: In the Butryka Prison”, a reporter being given a tour of the Butryka prison marvelled at the green laws and a cleanliness similar to that of a medical institution. Prisoners stood at attention when officers entered the room, and chefs were hard at work preparing nutritional meals for the inmates. When questioned about his incarceration, one prisoner simply stated his intention to do his best for the remainder of his sentence and expressed his gratitude at the fairness of the labor quotas. I personally, find this reporting to be hard to believe. The fact that this romanticized view of a Soviet prison is the only type of article I could find describing the Soviet prison experience is highly suspicious. It is certainly no accident that prisons like this, whether or not they are even real, are given a spotlight while prison camps like Gorlag, Steplah, Kolyma, and Ozerlag are kept under wraps.


Freeze, Gregory L.. Russia (p. 415). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Val. Goltsev. “Reportage: IN THE BUTYRKA PRISON” Current Digest of the Russian Press, The , 17 Oct. 1956, https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/13976673.

13 thoughts on “Was the Russian Media Hiding the Brutality of The Gulag?

  • April 20, 2020 at 6:02 pm

    The dismantling of the GULAG is such an important topic! I’m glad you wrote about the pressure to do something about that came in the form of increased unrest and rebellion within the camps. And that photograph you used is terrific. I agree that the article you found about conditions inside Butyrka (which was a notorious prison in Moscow, not a labor camp — there are “tours” of it on YouTube and an eponymous band…..) is intended as “counter programming” to rebut the testimony of the millions of people who were reclaiming their lives after being released from the camps. The answer to your title question is definitely”YES”! It’s amazing to think that at the same time articles like this were published, people could also read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Solzhenitsyn’s understated but still devastating account of daily life in the Gulag. It was published in a serial form in the journal, Novyi Mir.

    • April 20, 2020 at 11:13 pm

      I agree, it is crazy the dichotomy that exists between this report and the horror stories that came out of the Gulag. I knew something was was going on when this was the only report I could find about prison life in the Soviet Union.

  • April 20, 2020 at 9:41 pm

    I really enjoyed your post. Its crazy to think that they still tried to hide the heinous acts that were being committed in these prisons while millions of people were actively speaking out about how bad these prisons really were. I like how you mentioned the one thing you could find about a tour of the prison wrote pretty much the opposite of what the prisons were known for.

    • April 20, 2020 at 11:16 pm

      Absolutely, the report was so over the top and romanticized that it pretty much admitted to being propaganda.

  • April 20, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    Hi Ben, super good read here. I had never heard of the Riot at Gorlag in 1953. Its crazy to think they just mowed down that many prisoners. Its also very interesting that every article you found described the prison system in a nice manner. I agree with you, that this is hard to believe, and that they are definitely covering up the reality of life in the Gulags.

    • April 20, 2020 at 11:19 pm

      One hundred percent, the media was definitely trying to hide the ugly side of Stalin’s legacy. This report shows they not only tried to hide the true nature of the Gulag, but actively published propaganda to counteract the rumors of the horrors that occured.

  • April 20, 2020 at 10:50 pm

    Ben, I loved this post! I find it incredibly interesting that the Russian media was seriously downplaying the atrocities that were taking place in the Gulags, and that the information they were publishing was inherently false. Fantastic read!

    • April 20, 2020 at 11:21 pm

      Thanks, Kendall! It was super interesting to discover this form of propaganda simply by searching Soviet media archives.

  • April 20, 2020 at 11:00 pm

    Hi Ben, this post was really informative about a topic that has always interested me. I think the Soviet government definitely had a role in how the Gulags were presented in the public. Moreover, they did not want the US or any other foreign government to know something that could be used against them. Great post!

    • April 20, 2020 at 11:23 pm

      Thanks Michael! You make a great point about the Soviet Union hiding this information from other nations as well as its people. The space race showed the battle the Soviet Union and America had over international perception. I think this plot to hide the Gulag is another example of this ongoing battle over public image.

  • April 21, 2020 at 2:34 am

    Good post, Ben. The Gulags are probably one of the most interesting parts of Stalin’s rule. I wonder why the party did not remove Stalin after the war, especially if they began dismantling his policies soon after his death.

  • April 22, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    Great Post Ben! Its insane how the Russian media tried to downplay such a huge part of their own country’s memory. You would also think that they would be willing to accept Stalin for what he was, the good and the bad.

  • April 22, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    Great post! What I found most interesting to read about was the part about the false information that was posted regarding the Gulags, and that the media was actively trying to cover things up—clearly the question asked in your title is true!

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