The camps. The zone.
M-W: The penal system of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics consisting of a network of labor camps.
[Disclaimer: the following is a redacted and tidied version of the Wikipedia entry for Gulag as at 6 June, 2016.]
Gulag is no more than an acronym of Glavnoye upravleniye lagerey (“Main Camp Administration” or “Chief Directorate of Camps”) — the government agency that administered the main Soviet forced labour camp systems during the Stalin era, from the 1930s through to the 50s.
Of course, … it is so much more than that.
Particularly in the West, the term is also sometimes used to describe the camps themselves. These camps were administered first by the GPU, later by the NKVD, and in the final years by the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs). The first corrective labour camps after the revolution were established in 1918 (Solovki), legalized by the decree “On creation of the forced-labor camps” of April 15, 1919.
This internment system grew rapidly, and by the 20’s had reached a population of 100,000. It had, from the very beginning, a not insignificant death rate attached to it.
In March 1940, there were 53 Gulag camp directorates (or simply, “camps”) and 423 labor colonies in the USSR. Today’s major industrial cities of the Russian Arctic — Norilsk, Vorkuta, and Magadan — were originally camps built by prisoners, and run by ex-prisoners.
The camps housed a wide range of convicts, from petty criminals to political prisoners, but large numbers were convicted by the NKVD [Secret Police] troikas and other instruments of extrajudicial punishment. As such, the Gulag is recognized as a major instrument of political repression in the Soviet Union (See Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code).
Forced labor camps continued to function outside of the agency until the late 80s (Perm-36 closed in 1987), according to a number of Soviet dissidents: Anatoli Marchenko (who died in camp in 1986); and Vladimir Bukovsky, Yuri Orlov, Nathan Shcharansky — released from the Gulag and given permission to emigrate to the West, after years of international pressure on Soviet authorities.
Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the “meat-grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths.
Contemporary usage has extended beyond the USSR, such as in the expression “North Korea’s Gulag” for camps operational today.