Mental Floss

Gulags: Then and Now

Ransom Riggs
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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Gulag Archipelago and many other works critical of Stalinism and Russian life, which earned him both the scorn and the praise of his people, depending on who was in power. Stalin's regime threw him in a Siberian Gulag for eight years for referring to the dictator sarcastically in a private letter; Kruschev liked him, and personally okayed the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which in 1962 was the strongest indictment of Stalinist repression to date. Both the semi-autobiographical Denisovich and the non-ficiton Archipelago described Gulag life in harrowing detail, and forced the West to finally acknowledge the grave human rights abuses perpetrated inside Stalin's brutal work camps, which at their peak housed more than two million prisoners.

To mark Solzhenitsyn's passing -- he died yesterday at the age of 89 -- we're taking a look at Gulags as they were, and given our penchant for the creepy and the abandoned, how some of them remain today, moldering in the remote wilds of Siberia and Northern Kazakhstan. Rather than relying on blurry black-and-white pictures to depict life inside the camps, we're using a much more colorful source: the drawings of Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya, a gifted artist who spent more than a decade in the Gulags and illustrated her memoirs upon release.

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The gulags now

Built in remote corners of Siberia, many camps were simply abandoned and left standing after the Gulag system was disbanded in the 1950s. What was left behind is a grim reminder of Stalin's legacy of terror, repression and death.

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