Gulag describes a vast network of slave labor camps operated by the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s. From the time that the Soviet Union was founded in 1917, it imprisoned people who disagreed and spoke out against it. This was in fact no different from what Imperial Russia did in previous decades, with its katorga camps. But the Soviet Union camp system eventually grew to be one of the biggest prison systems in existence.
During the 1920s, the Soviet Union imprisoned more and more people that disagreed with it. It believed that it was better to put these people to work and make their labor and goods part of the national economy. The Gulag system was officially created in 1930. During the 1930s there was a lot of fear of the Soviet government. Police officials were encouraged to round up and imprison many citizens for the most trivial offenses, even if they were innocent, and this caused the Gulag system to swell. By 1939 there were 1.3 million people in labor camps.
Even though the Gulag is often associated with Siberia, labor camps were located nationwide. Siberian camps greatly simplified the problem of keeping prisoners from running away, though it was harder to feed these camps and move goods in and out because of the vast distances involved.
The Gulag system died during the 1950s after the death of Stalin, and many people were released starting in 1954. The Gulag program was ended with a government decree in 1960.
It is thought that as many as 20 million people had been in a Gulag camp at one time or another.