Soviet Prisoners Released . . . Not All Necessarily Free

This post was awarded a “red star” from the editorial team.

Fence at the old Gulag

After Stalin’s death on March 1953, a process known as de-stalinization occurred throughout the Soviet Union. When Stalin died, reforms dismantled and altered institutions from Stalin’s reign such as the Gulag labour-camp system that held numerous Soviet prisoners that were arrested in Stalin’s reign.

In the document that was issued on the 27th of March, 1953, The Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet states that “in these circumstances it is no longer necessary to retain in places of custody persons who have committed offenses representing no great danger to the state and who have shown by their conscientious attitude to work that they are fit to return to honest working life and become useful members of society.” The document specifically includes that people were to be released if they were sent to prison “for up to five years”; those sentenced while serving “in an official capacity and for economic offenses, as well as military offenses”; women with children younger than ten; pregnant women, kids under 18; men over 55, women over 50; those who are gravely ill; those with over five years to serve had sentences reduced to half, etc. However, the amnesty did not “apply to persons sentenced to terms of more than five years for counter-revolutionary crimes, major thefts of socialist property, banditry and premeditated murder.” While some people were released under these conditions, many were still trapped in camps and prisons. In May 1954, a special commission was established, through the insistence of Khrushchev, to look into “the use of coercion to extract confessions, the result of which was that several thousand political prisoners were released” (415). Freeze stated that, despite some freedom for prisoners, Soviet prisons still held 1.6 million inmates in 1956, and “Gulag’ s46 corrective labor camps and 524 labour colonies held another 940,000 people” (416). It would take Nikita Khrucshchev’s February 24 speech in 1956, to release the tsunami-like wave of prisoners.

Nikita Khrushchev

On February, 24, 1956, Khrushchev gave a speech on “the cult of the personality and its consequences” (416). He went deep into the Stalin’s crimes and immoral actions during his leadership. After this speech was given, the rehabilitation of the prisoners was accelerated greatly. While many of the former prisoners were able to lead more tranquil lives, things did not go back to normal for them. “Survivors had seen the worst that life could offer” and they were in a changed world that was far different from the one they knew before and during the war. Many were not even allowed to go home, but were forced into exile in distant areas they were unfamiliar with. These prisoners, in an unfamiliar world, were not even allowed the comfort of their own homes. An article by Sovetskaya Litva, published in 1956, titled “To an Honest Soviet Life,” tries to express how the release of the prisoners allows them to lead a more honest life. However, through careful reading, one can see how the phrases leak some of the hardships of the former prisoners. The author notes that the the released prisoners “are finding work in the regions they have chosen to live in” and many citizens are living “abroad.” Many prisoners were freed from the hardships of the prisons, camps, and the GULAG, but they had difficulty integrating into the new society and world.


“De-Stalinization.” Wikipedia. Accessed October 25, 2014.

“Prisoners Return” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Accessed October 25, 2014.

“To an Honest Soviet Life.” The Current Digest of the Russian Pres 15, no. 4 (May 23, 1956): 15-16. Accessed October 25, 2014.

Gulag Image retrieved from:

Khrushchev Image retrieved from:

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4 Responses to Soviet Prisoners Released . . . Not All Necessarily Free

  1. cpurvis2 says:

    Wow, it is surprising to hear about this entire ordeal– first releasing soviet prisoners, and then continuing to find out how they really were not all that free. Prisoners were not even really welcomed back home and were often forced to look elsewhere for work; this idea is heartbreaking, and puts into perspective the change of the times.

  2. rkw15 says:

    Great post on the release on prisoners after Stalin’s death. I like the detail you include about how released prisoners were not accepted back into society. Check out Caitlin’s post:

  3. A. Nelson says:

    Wonderful post. There’s something funny about the Sovetskaya Litva citation. Ask me in class and we can figure it out.

  4. jslattery says:

    I think that it’s funny that in some ways the Soviet Union was quite liberal compared to the rest of the world (women’s rights), but overall most people lacked certain personal freedoms that we, as Americans, take for granted.

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