With average temperatures well below freezing throughout winter and into April and thousands of kilometers of land that remains frozen throughout the year, Siberia has long been one of the most unforgiving climates on Earth. Used as a dumping ground for political prisoners and criminals since the mid-1700s, even Stalin had spent some time imprisoned there during the early days of his career as a revolutionary.
The system of Siberian labor camps already existed when Stalin came to power, but they were vastly extended under his rule. Differing from the death camps of Nazi Germany in that they were not explicitly run with the intention of murdering their inmates, conditions in the gulags were nonetheless appalling. Starvation was a constant threat, and it wasn’t unknown for the inhabitants of entire camps, prisoners, guards, and even their dogs, to freeze to death.
Historian Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev estimated that up to six million people may have been sentenced to Stalin’s gulags. Perhaps a million or more of these didn’t survive the experience.