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.)
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).
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Geldern, von James. “Prisoners Return.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1954-2/prisoners-return/
Tikhonov, Aleksei. The Economics of Forced Labor. Hoover Press, 2003.
Hays, Jeffrey. “GULAGS.” Facts and Details.http://factsanddetails.com/russia/History/sub9_1e/entry-4969.html