Medicine in the Gulag Hell


Mr. Jecan is a science journalist and can be contacted via his personal website


A new study is about to begin on the medicine that may have saved lives in Stalin’s death camps.

Dr. Dan Healey from Swansea University has recently received a grant of 101,000 pounds from the Wellcome Trust, a medical charity from the U.K., for his research project entitled “Medicine in the Gulag Archipelago”. The three-year project will focus on the medicine in the Soviet Union’s network of labour camps, located in different parts of the country, also known as the Gulag archipelago.

The camps were built during Stalin’s regime from 1929 to 1953 and about 20 million people passed through them, but hundreds of thousands maybe even millions lost their lives in the Gulag hell.

“As far as the Stalinist legal and political system was concerned, camp inmates were all labelled "criminals" of one type or another: either common thieves, rapists, murderers or "political" criminals who supposedly "betrayed" the Soviet Union by spying for foreign powers”, said Dr. Healey.

Among the prisoners there were also the ones labeled by the regime as ‘enemies of the people’. Most of the arrests have been made during the ‘Great Terror’ of 1937-38 when Soviet paranoia was at its highest and anyone was seen as a potential ‘traitor’.

“They were joined by members of some national and ethnic groups who were seen by the Stalin leadership as "untrustworthy" and who were deported to the camps at various times during their existence. Priests and religious monks and nuns constituted another significant category of camp inmates. The social composition of the camps varied significantly over time” Healey added.

After the number of inmates started to increase significantly, new camps had to be constructed. Many were raised by the prisoners themselves who have had to live in the open until they finished building their own prison cells. The process might have taken many lives since little food was available until local agriculture started to provide the necessary alimentation.

“Hard labour regimes, and limited rations, meant many hundreds of thousands simply died of exhaustion coupled with starvation” Healey said. And food was extremely hard to get when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. At that time, most supplies were delivered to the Red Army and the inmates were left to starvation. Thus, malnutrition, exhaustion and various illnesses were responsible for the deaths of thousands.

“Pellagra and vitamin deficiencies were rife, and remedies were in short supply especially in the Far North where most of the camps were located” Dr. Healey said. All work was physical as no machines were available to ease one’s labour, meaning many prisoners suffered different bone fractures or “individuals might be exposed to dangerous substances and contract silicosis or other similar ailments.” Additionally, “a further category of prisoner-patient suffered from self-inflicted wounds, seeking to escape from the compulsory work regime by chopping off fingers or injecting themselves with substances to simulate disease symptoms, sores and wounds.”

Prisoners did not receive a proper treatment and the ‘hospitals’ were in fact shacks redesigned as infirmaries. Conditions were deplorable and there was always a lack of medicine. But this does not necessary mean that there were no good doctors available. In fact, many physicians and specialists landed in the camps thanks to various reasons and were then sent in different concentration camps to work as doctors in camp infirmaries. There were also a few well equipped major hospitals and Dr. Dan Healy will try to find out where these were and what they did.

Healy says that the chances to survive the Gulag were grim. Most memoirs were written by people who worked as cleaners of in the kitchen or those who were not exposed to the harshest conditions. “The number of actual deaths in the camps is unknown and disputed vigorously, but is likely in the millions. About 20 million persons passed through the camps between 1930 and 1953.”

The authorities did not care much for the fate of the inmates but were concerned about epidemics. In this matter the first medical system in the camps was established in 1930 and by 1939 there were about 39,000 beds in over 1100 infirmaries, clinics and hospitals in the Gulag.

“They did not worry about humanitarian concerns but spoke in their internal documents about avoiding epidemics and improving labour output, by not letting so many people die off from exhaustion” Healey said.

The Gulag’s medical system was sometimes improved. Sporadically there were inspections by commissions of doctors that might order an improvement in the conditions of a camp and even assign a qualified physician to a camp that didn’t had one. “Ironically it was in the best interests of even the most negligent of camp administrators to maintain at least a basic standard of health and medical care in his camp. Otherwise the mortality rate began to eat into production figures and such camp administrators would face the prospect of becoming prisoners themselves” Healey added.

The ‘Medicine in the Gulag Archipelago’ project will start in October, when Healey, collaborating with Dr. Kirill Rossianov of the Moscow Institute of the History of Natural Sciences and Technology, will begin investigating the medicine in the Soviet labour camps. 

Dr. Dan Healey has other studies on the Russian medicine in the beginning of the 20th century. Recently he has just finished a book on the history of Russian forensic medicine and sexual disorder under the early Bolshevik regime. The book is entitle Sexual Revolution in Clinic and Courtroom and will be available in 2009.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Mary Schaeffer Conroy - 9/1/2008

Although medical care in the Soviet Union was touted as excellent and accessible to all, in fact, it was defective due to the fact that many pharmaceuticals and vaccines often were in short supply. Put another way, ordinary citizens suffered from inadequate medical care as did the inmates of the GULAG. My research on the problems confronting Soviet pharmaceutical factories and institutes that produced vaccines, how these entities attempted to surmount the problems, and the impact on Soviet citizens is detailed in The Soviet Pharmaceutical Business during Its First Two Decades, 1917-1937 (Peter Lang, 2006), and Medicines for the Soviet Masses during World War II (UPA,Rowman&Littlefield, 2008).
Mary Schaeffer Conroy, Professor Emeritus, Russian History, Univ. of Colorado at Denver.