From my memory the GULAG was abolished, because it was not economical. The prison guards cost much more than the inmates produced and were corrupt as a rule. Yet, for decades, we can read about the rising US prison population and measures similar to the GULAG being tried, that is, using prisoners as a source of cheap labor. Why did the US prison system not implode similarly as the GULAG system did, over the decades, due to unsustainable costs?

EDIT: Here is the quote from my memory:

In reality, a consistent theme throughout the Gulag archives is that the Gulag system cost more than it produced and that it was creating a class of professional criminals.

From the common sense perspective, the GULAG was destroying its workforce (prisoners) and hence can be regarded as uneconomical simply because of that, but the US system is not much better, a jailed intellectual doing menial work can be viewed as a wasted resource as well. The same goes for jailed young people who cannot develop professionally as a consequence of incarceration.

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    Technically, the Gulag institution was closed by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) in early 1960.It's true that forced-labour colonies for political and criminal prisoners continued to exist until the late 1980s, but these were intended to serve a rather different function to the American prison system. As almost everywhere else, the American people will continue to bear the cost of their prison system for as long as they think the benefits provided by that system outweighs its cost. Nov 16, 2017 at 15:02
  • @sempaiscuba forced-labour colonies exist to this day over there, but that's beside the point of my question. Nov 16, 2017 at 15:13
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    The gulag was closed by the order of the Ministry of Internal Affairs No. 020 of January 25, 1960. There doesn't seem to be any indication that economics were a factor in that closure. That suggests that your premise may well be mistaken, particularly since you haven't cited any supporting sources. Nov 16, 2017 at 15:20
  • Furthermore, since the actual question "Why did the US prison system not implode similarly ..." appears to be entirely subjective, it is likely to be closed as, off-topic for this site. Nov 16, 2017 at 15:23
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    I did a quick search, and couldn't see any sources that cited an economic reason for the closure of the Gulag in 1960. If the claim is true, as you say, then provide a link in the question to a source that supports it. Nov 16, 2017 at 15:40

3 Answers 3



Comparing the US prison system to the GULAGs is going to give you more differences than similarities.

The Gulags were not just prisons, there were instruments of terror and torture used to punish political dissidents or any one that the communist party (government) didn't like. You could be sent to the Gulag for being late to work too many times. Or for telling a joke about the communist party. Source

For example, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was sent to 11 years in the Gulag for complaining about how Stalin was handling WWII in personal letters that he wrote to his friend.

(If you are interested in Gulags you should ready his book Gulag Archipelago)

Even the Russian Times (a known English language propaganda site for Russia) admits that the gulags were instruments of terror.

The Gulag reached its peak after 1929 during the rule of Joseph Stalin , who used it to maintain the Soviet state by keeping its populace in a constant state of terror.


The US prison system has its problems but its purpose and use are fundamentally different form that of the gulags. The gulags punished criminals as well as people who disagreed with the Government/Communist philosophy.

And this doesn't even cover the horrible ways Gulag inmates were treated as opposed to US prisons (which are themselves not pleasant places).


The Gulag was uneconomical (didn't make a profit), Like wise the US prison system is uneconomical, Why doesn't the US prison likewise fall apart? well because it exists for a different (and in the Eyes of the people of the US) legitimate reasons. Punishing criminals (men who do others harm) and keeping criminals off the street so that they can not continue to commit crimes.

The Gulag was used to punish people arbitrarily. And as such was not seen as a legitimate use of power by soviet citizens but instead as a tool of tyranny. So when the Tyrant (Stalin) died the Gulags began to decline. Source

  • Given the incarceration rate, there is more to the use of prisons in the US than simply punishing criminals. How on earth did the crime rate get so high in the richest, best country in the world? Nov 16, 2017 at 16:51
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    @axsvl77 Don't get me wrong the US prison system is very much in need of reform. It is not clear, for example, that the use of illegal drugs should be classified as a crime since that use in an off itself does no harm to anyone other than the user. (Though the selling and manufacturing of those drugs is a different matter.) In my opinion we would do better to give drug users addiction treatment instead of prison time. Nov 16, 2017 at 17:08
  • I guess we're in agreement Nov 16, 2017 at 18:16
  • But being an "instrument of terror" is not economical. You destroy your workforce - the gulags needlessly consumed a lot of population. That's my point. Nov 16, 2017 at 20:35

Technically, the gulag might have been abolished but the current Russian penitentiary system, the FSIN, retains the same spirit and the same sort attitude to inmates. They no longer intentionally try to kill the inmates off by hard labour, untreated illness, and frostbite, that much is true. They still don't give a damn, though, if that's what happens.

More to the point, while the gulag might have been uneconomical in the proper sense, it enabled Stalin to accomplish a number of megalomaniac projects (e.g. the BAM). So as far as Stalin was concerned, he was getting things done, no matter what the cost.

Likewise, the decision to close the gulag and to abolish the most atrocious practices was based on the general softening of the regime after Stalin's death, not on an economic calculation.

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    True, but the question was specifically about the Gulags.
    – user27618
    Nov 16, 2017 at 17:12

The comparison between the soviet gulag system and US prison system would have to be made on % population confined. I’ve seen no numbers on that, nor did you provide numbers, other comparisons such as economic would fail to compare.

I agree with Danny's answer, except about the economics. Economics had nothing to do with the ending of the Gulag system. Purely from an economic standpoint, the Gulags were pretty solid. Profit isn't the right word because gulags were run by the state, but as for economic benefits of the gulag systems for the state, they were well beyond significant. Right before the war, Gulags provided 46.5% of the nation's nickel, 76% of its tin, 40% of its cobalt, 40.5% of its chrome-iron ore, 60% of its gold, and 25.3% of its timber. So Gulag's weren't merely a significant part of the Soviet Economy in the 30's, 40's and early 50's. They were the economy. The Soviet Union was dependent upon them for the materials which made the rest of the economy go.

Why did they end? Lenin had started the Gulag system, and Stalin had expanded it. They ended mainly because Stalin died (March 1953) and the new Soviet Leader denounced him and his practices. Stalin was after all a larger mass murder than was Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Leadership which survived him knew it better than anybody else. The Gulag's ended as prisons for criminals in the early 50's. The release of political prisoners started in 1954 and became widespread after Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism in his Secret Speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956.

It is true that some US states have a history of for profit prisons. But the prisoner's offenses, death rates, economic benefits of confinement, and overall national reliance on those piece meal institutions can't be compared with the discredited Soviet era death camps for mostly political prisoners. The Russian historian Golfo Alexopoulos said in 2017 that at least 6 million people died in the Soviet gulags which put's just Stalin's gulags on pare with Hitler's final solution.

  • Thank you, +1 good use of citations and you presented some very interesting information. Your explanation was also very clear. This was the answer I was trying to give. Nov 16, 2017 at 17:55
  • you neglect the fact, that the incarcerated in US are for most practical purposes dead to society. They don't contribute much, if anything. Nov 17, 2017 at 22:50
  • Neglected it? that’s the economic benefits of confinement bit at the end. It’s the theme of the entire answer.
    – user27618
    Nov 18, 2017 at 2:59

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