Prisoners Return

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

One of the key elements of “destalinization” was the release of prisoners from camps administered by the GULAG (Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps). The first post-Stalin action of this kind was the amnesty issued by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on March 27, 1953. The edict covered persons sentenced for up to five years, those convicted of economic and military crimes regardless of their terms of imprisonment, women with children under 10 years of age or who were pregnant, juveniles up to age 18, men over 55 years of age and women over 50 years of age, and convicts suffering from incurable diseases. However, this could be interpreted not so much as a departure from past practices but as conforming to older Russian and Soviet traditions whereby amnesties were granted upon the death of a tsar or after war. Over 1.5 million prisoners were released within three months of the decree.

The subsequent arrest and execution of Lavrentii Beria, the Minister of State Security, and the purge of the security apparatus spawned rumors of further amnesties and mass releases. Disorders or “mutinies” followed, most notably at Norilsk in 1953, Steplag (1954), and Kolyma (1955). In May 1954 the party set up a special commission to inquiry into the use of coercion to extract confessions, the result of which was that several thousand political prisoners were released. Many were not permitted to return home but rather were assigned to live in administrative exile in remote regions of the country. Only after Khrushchev’s secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956 did the rehabilitation process intensify.

Released prisoners were never fully integrated into Soviet society. Though many went on to live peaceful lives, they stood as living testament to the injustices of the state. Survivors had seen the worst that life could offer, instilling some with an unquenchable courage and need to speak forthrightly. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was the most prominent, and his great non-fiction trilogy GULAG Archipelago made plain to the world the evils of the system. Yet the prison experience seeped its way into popular culture through songs and an argot called blatnoi slang, which gave rebels a language of resistance that would guide them through the coming decades.

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