Modern history



Cheka Chrezvychainaya komissiya (Extraordinary Commission): secret police, during the civil war era

GPU Gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie (State Political Administration): secret police during the early 1920s, successor to the Cheka

MGB/KGB Ministerstvo/Komitet gosudarstvennoe bezopasnosti (Ministry of/Committee on State Security): secret police in charge of internal and external surveillance in the postwar era

MVD Ministerstvo vnutrennikh del (Ministry of Internal Affairs): secret police in charge of jails and camps in the postwar era

NKVD Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs): secret police during the 1930s and the Second World War, successor to OGPU

OGPU Obedinennoe gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie (Unified State Political Administration): secret police during the late 1920s and early 1930s, successor to GPU

Okhrana Czarist-era secret police


balanda: prison soup

banya: a Russian steam bath

Barbarossa: Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union—Operation Barbarossa—on June 22, 1941

beskonvoinyi: a prisoner who has the right to travel within different camp divisions without an armed guard

besprizornye: Soviet street children. Most were orphans, products of the civil war and collectivization

blatnoi slovo: thieves’ jargon (see urka)

Bolsheviks: the radical faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which under Lenin’s leadership became the Russian Communist Party in 1918

bushlat: a long-sleeved prisoners’ or workers’ jacket lined with cotton wadding

Central Committee: the chief policy-making body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In between Party Congresses, it met two or three times a year. When it was not in session, decisions were made by the Politburo, which was technically a body elected by the Central Committee

chifir: extremely strong tea. When ingested, produces something resembling a narcotic high

collectivization: policy of forcing all peasants to abandon private farming, and to pool all of their land and other resources into a collective, pursued from 1929 to 1932. Collectivization created the conditions for the rural famine of 1932–34, and permanently weakened Soviet agriculture

Council of People’s Commissars (or Sovnarkom): theoretically the ruling government body, the equivalent of a ministerial cabinet. In practice, subordinate to the Politburo

Comintern: The Third (Communist International), an organization of the world’s communist parties, formed in 1919 under the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party. The Soviet Union shut it down in 1943

dezhurnaya or dnevalnyi: in normal parlance, a concierge. In a camp, the man or woman who stays behind in the barracks all day, cleaning and guarding against theft

dokhodyaga: someone on the verge of death; usually translated as “goner”

Dom Svidanii: literally “House of Meetings,” where prisoners were allowed to meet their relatives

étap: prisoner transport

feldsher: a medical assistant, sometimes trained and sometimes not

glasnost: literally “openness.” A policy of open debate and freedom of speech launched by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s

Gulag: from Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei (Main Camp Administration), the secret police division which managed the Soviet concentration camps

Izvestiya: the Soviet government newspaper

Karelia: the Republic of Karelia, in the northwest corner of the Soviet Union, bordering Finland.

katorga: Czarist term for forced labor. During the Second World War, the Soviet regime also adopted the word to describe strict-regime camps for war criminals

kolkhoz: a collective farm. Peasants were forced to work on them after the policy of collectivization was put into practice in 1929–31

kolkhoznik: inhabitant of a kolkhoz

Kolyma: the Kolyma River valley, in the far northeastern corner of Russia, on the Pacific coast. Home to one of the largest camp networks in the USSR

Komi: the Republic of Komi, the northeastern section of European Russia, west of the Ural Mountains. The Komi people are the indigenous inhabitants of the Komi Republic, and speak an Ugro-Finnic language

Komsomol: Communist Party youth organization, for young people ages fourteen to twenty-eight. Younger children belonged to the Pioneers

kontslager: Russian for concentration camp

Kronstadt rebellion: a major uprising against the Bolsheviks, led by the sailors of the Kronstadt naval base, in 1921

kulak: traditionally, a prosperous peasant. In the Soviet era kulak came to mean any peasant accused of opposing Soviet authority or the collectivization policy. Between 1930 and 1933, over two million kulaks were arrested and deported

kum: the camp administrator responsible for managing the informers’ network

KVCh: Kulturno-Vospitatelnaya Chast, the Cultural-Educational Department of each camp, responsible for the political education of the prisoners, as well as theatrical and musical productions

lagpunkt: the smallest camp division

laogai: Chinese concentration camp

Leningrad/St. Petersburg: the same city. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg briefly became (the more Russified) Petrograd in 1914, when Russia went to war with Germany, and was then renamed Leningrad after Lenin’s death in 1924

makhorka: rough tobacco smoked by Soviet workers and prisoners

maloletki: juvenile prisoners

mamka: female prisoner, the mother of a child born in prison

Memorial: organization founded in the 1980s to count, describe, and assist the victims of Stalin. Now one of the most prominent human rights advocacy groups in Russia, as well as the premier historical research institute

Mensheviks: The non-Leninist wing of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Mensheviks tried to become a legal opposition, but their leaders were sent into exile in 1922. Many were later executed or sent to the Gulag

monashki: religious women, of various faiths. Literally “nuns”

nadziratel: prison or camp guard

naryadshchik: the camp clerk responsible for assigning prisoners to work tasks

NEP: Novaya ékonomicheskaya politika (New Economic Policy)—Soviet economic policy launched in 1921. Briefly brought back petty capitalism (private shops and traders). Lenin viewed it as a “strategic retreat,” and Stalin abolished it altogether

norm: the amount of work a prisoner would be required to do in a single shift

normirovshik: the camp clerk responsible for setting work norms

Novyi Mir: Soviet literary magazine, the first to publish Solzhenitsyn

NTS: Narodno-trudovoi Soyuz, the “people’s worker’s party,” an underground political grouping which opposed Stalin, with branches in the USSR and abroad

obshchaya rabota: literally “general work.” In a camp, usually unskilled physical labor such as cutting trees or digging ditches

osoboe soveshchanie: “special commission.” Committees used to sentence prisoners during periods of mass arrest, from the late 1930s

osobye lagerya: “special camps.” These were set up for especially dangerous political prisoners in 1948

otkazchik: someone who refuses to work

otlichnik: an outstanding worker

OUN: Organizatsiya Ukrainskikh Natsionalistov, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. West Ukrainian partisans who fought against the Red Army during and after the Second World War

parasha: a slop bucket in a prison cell or barracks

pellagra: a disease of starvation

People’s Commissar: head of a government ministry

perestroika: a (failed) program of restructuring the Soviet economy, launched by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s

Politburo: The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In practice, the Politburo was the most important decision-making body in the USSR: the government—the Council of People’s Commissars—had to do its bidding

Pravda: the newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party

pridurok (plural pridurki): a prisoner who is not on “general work,” but has an easier or more specialized job

psikhushka: psychiatric hospital for political dissidents

refusenik: Soviet Jews who had asked to emigrate to Israel, but had been turned down

rezhim: prison regime

samizdat: illegal, underground publications. An ironic pun on “Gosizdat,” the name of the state publishing house

scurvy: a disease of malnutrition, from lack of vitamin C. Among other things, results in night blindness and loss of teeth

sharashka: special prison where imprisoned scientists and technicians carried out secret assignments. Invented by Beria in 1938

SHIZO: from shtrafnoi izolyator, a punishment cell within a camp

SLON: Severnye Lagerya a Osobogo Naznacheniya (Northern Camps of Special Significance). The first camps set up by the political police in the 1920s

Social Revolutionaries: A Russian revolutionary party, founded in 1902, which later split into two groups, Left and Right. Briefly, the Left SRs participated in a coalition government with the Bolsheviks, but later fell out with them. Many of their leaders were later executed or sent to the Gulag Sovnarkom (or Council of People’s Commissars): theoretically the ruling government body, the equivalent of a ministerial cabinet. In practice, subordinate to the Politburo

spetslagerya: concentration camps set up by the Soviet Military Administration in occupied Germany after 1945

sploshnye nary: a long, unseparated wooden plank bed—a sleeping shelf—on which many prisoners slept at once

Stakhanovite: a worker or peasant who has overfulfilled the required work norm. Named after Aleksei Stakhanov, a miner who cut 102 tons of coal instead of the norm of seven in a single shift in August 1935

starosta: literally “elder.” In prison cells, camp barracks, and train cars, the starosta was responsible for keeping order

Stolypin wagon or Stolypinka: nickname for a railway car used for prisoner transport, in fact a modified passenger car. Named, unfairly, in honor of Pyotr Stolypin, Prime Minister of Czarist Russia from 1906 until his assassination in 1911

suki: literally “bitches.” Camp slang for criminal prisoners who collaborated with the authorities

taiga: northern Russian landscape, characterized by pine forests, wide rivers, open fields

Thaw: brief period of reform following Stalin’s death. Launched by Nikita Khrushchev’s speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, and effectively halted by his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, in 1964

tovarishch: “comrade.” A term of respect in the USSR

troika: three Soviet officials who sentenced prisoners in lieu of courts during periods of mass arrest, starting in 1937

trudosposobnost: work capability

tufta: in a camp, a method of cheating on work norms in order to receive a larger food ration

tundra: Arctic landscape, where the earth is permanently frozen. Only the surface melts briefly in summer, creating a swamp, a few shrubs and grasses, but no trees

udarnik: a worker or peasant who has overfulfilled the required work norm. After 1935, the term “Stakhanovite” was more common

urka: a professional criminal; also known as blatnoi or vor

vagonki: double-decker bunks in camp barracks, for four people

vakhta: the headquarters of the camp armed guard, stationed at the entrance into the camp compound

valenki: felt boots

Vlasovites: followers of General Vlasov, who fought with the Nazis against the Red Army during the Second World War

VOKhR: from voenizirovannaya okhrana, armed guard. The armed guards in a camp

vor: a professional criminal; also known as urka or blatnoi

Wehrmacht: Hitler’s military forces

zek: from z/k, an abbreviation for zaklyuchennyi, or prisoner

zemlyanka: a house or barracks built in a hole in the ground; an earth dugout

zona: a concentration camp. Literally, the area within the barbed wire

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