Letter from the Gulag: The story of a Soviet Prisoner who Complained to Stalin's Secret Police Chief and Got Results

Publication Date: January 2008

Publisher: Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace

Author(s): Golfo Alexopoulos

Research Area: Politics

Keywords: Soviet Union; Stalin; Gulag

Type: Report

Coverage: Soviet Union


In the last years of Joseph Stalin’s life, the Gulag became increasingly unmanageable. A culture of violence and routine insubordination descended not only on the prisoner population but on camp authorities as well. In 1952, Alexander Ivanov, a prisoner at Pechorlag wrote two letters to the Soviet Council of Ministers describing the torturous acts commited by prison guards and inmates.

His second letter may have helped to bring the Gulag to an end. Ivanov's letter landed in the hands of Stalin’s chief of state security, Lavrenty Beria, leading to extensive investigation that would result in the arrest of several camp officials and the firing of the camp’s director. Shortly after Stalin died, Beria openly criticized many features of the penal camp system and arranged a massive release of criminal offenders, which would signal the beginning of the end of the Gulag.