The Worst Thing About Prison was… the Dementors

Following the death of Stalin, a set of reforms were made in “de-stalinizing” the Soviet Union. Among these key reforms was the release of prisoners from camps administered by the GULAG. Lavrentii Beria was named minister of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and State Security (MVD) in 1953 and on March 26, Beria sent the Presidium of the Central Committee a proposed decree calling for the release of about one million inmates from GULAG camps, colonies, and prisoners. The decree was made public in the central press, and within the next three months, over 1.5 million million prisoners were released (about 60% of the GULAG population.)

The release of prisoners included the following:

  • Persons sentenced up to five years
  • Persons convinced of economic and military crimes
  • Women with children under 10 years of age
  • Women who were pregnant
  • Juveniles under 18 years of age
  • Men over 55 and women over 50
  • Convicts suffering incurable diseases

Following the preceding release of the 1.5 million prisoners under Beria’s amnesty, Beria was arrested and executed; “according to Khrushchev, Beria deliberately released a large number of criminals to strengthen the MVD to make himself the new dictator” (Tikhonov, 68), and thus used this conspiracy theory to justify Beria’s execution. “Mutinies” followed Beria’s death and the purges of security apparatus, most prominently in camps located at Norilsk, Steplag, and Kolyma. In May of 1954, a special commission was created to inquire into the methods used to obtain confessions in the GULAGS. As a result, thousands of political prisoners were released. (Noted above: political prisoners were not released in the original amnesty.)

Song commemorating the lost and forgotten Soviets sent to the Siberian gulags 

Prisoners were not fully reincorporated into society after their release. Jobs were difficult to obtain, released prisoners were to report to the police every week and released prisoners were required to stay home between the hours of 10:00 pm and 6:00 am. Families from labor camps were also denied certain privileges, such as access to higher education. Although the released prisoners faced injustices, their shared experiences became incorporated into popular culture; survivors were seen as “living testaments to the injustices of the state” (Soviet History).

Check out Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s non-fiction trilogy- books based off his 11-year experience in labor camps and exile.

Excerpt from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Geldern, von James. “Prisoners Return.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.

Tikhonov, Aleksei. The Economics of Forced Labor. Hoover Press, 2003.

Hays, Jeffrey. “GULAGS.” Facts and Details.


11 thoughts on “The Worst Thing About Prison was… the Dementors

  1. Maura, I loved your post! Your title is great and I think you did a great job explaining the tensions of releasing prisoners from the gulags. Although I think now, we tend to see their release as something positive, I think it’s easy to see how at the time it would have been a very controversial move. Your last paragraph was really interesting– even after being “freed” from gulags, these former prisoners faced extremely oppressive restrictions in everyday life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I also wrote about prisoners and the gulags! I didn’t come across info on how they had to report to police every week and all the other restraints they faced. This was very informative to read side by side with my post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Justin, I actually found a lot of contradicting information about the re-integration of prisoners into society, either people receiving compensation and support for finding jobs, or facing numerous obstacles when returning home. I believe the disparate experiences were based on how the prisoners were classified/how long they spent in the camps.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! I think the main point is that individual experience varied. Also, remember that this first wave of amnesties mainly affected non-political prisoners (i.e. people convicted of criminal offenses). The big emptying of the camps comes later as part of de-Stalinization.


  3. This is a really fantastic post! The release of the prisoners and the knowledge that so many were wrongly held captive contributed a great deal to the de-romanticism of rule under Stalin and brought forward the knowledge that he was truly a cruel leader, despite the progress made under his guidance.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I went to check this out after seeing someone’s comment about your blog on Phil’s post; he also wrote about the prisons. I did comment on his asking why prisoners had trouble fitting back into society but your blog answered that. I thought it was interest Beria released these criminals to make himself the new dictator; it seems like there could have been better methods. Overall, I thought your post was great and everything was well explained!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Good post! I really liked the title, it definitely made me want to read your whole post and I wasn’t disappointed. I liked how you went into detail about who was released. It’s how some of those people were imprisoned in the first place. Were there other types of people who were released along with the political prisoners in the 2nd amnesty?


  6. I enjoyed reading your post, and like you mentioned how we talked about two different aspects about the subject. It’s very unfortunate how the prisoners were never fully incorporated. Some of the prisoners, like Aleksandr, fought valiantly for their country and unfortunately suffered in a Gulag for speaking out against Stalin. At least their memories and experiences would thrive in popular culture.


  7. Interesting post. Referencing Harry Potter was a nice touch in the title as well. I had no idea how tightly structured the prisoners lives were back in those rough conditions. There were alot of harsh restraints placed upon them after leaving those camps.


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