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Henriette Derman: LS Alumna, Crusader, and Political Prisoner: The Gulag


The Gulags were labor prison camps, located in less populated areas of Russia. Between 1936 and 1953 over 19 million Russians were sent to the gulags.

Why Was Derman Imprisoned?

Many scholars have speculated why Derman was arrested and sent to Vorkuta. Derman was a Communist and very politically active. So why would she be targeted?

"Latvians along with other non-Russian communists were targets of Joseph Stalin repressions. Before the purges many Latvians were involved in Soviet government, many took high rank posts. Nearly all them became victims of Stalinist repressions. Along them many low rank Latvian activists and intellectuals were killed only because of their nationality. However, not all Latvians living in Soviet Union were exterminated, but they are part of overall Stalin Genocide that took place during 1929 to 1939, that was aimed on social and ethnic groups."

Derman was Latvian. It is very possible that this is the reason for her imprisonment.

(Information found here.)

Gulag Memorial Sculpture

CNN's Eye on Russia: Vorkuta


Henriette Derman was improisoned in Vorkuta, a prison located in the Siberian region of Russia. "Vorkuta Gulag was established in 1932 to exploit the resources of the Pechora Coal Basin, the second largest coal basin in the former U.S.S.R" (Wikipedia).

In 'To Know and To Remember', I.A. Zhadaeva gives a first hand account of meeting Derman in Vorkuta:

"Henrietta Karlovna [Derman] was in a very difficult physical condition. She was dying of hunger; she could not eat because of scurvy...She wore this terrible sheeskin vest, with a piece of rope instead of the belt; she could barely stand on her feet which were bound with something, she was very pale because of her scurvy. She spoke with great difficulty; to me she looked ancient..."

Image found here.

Who was sent to the Gulag?

As stated on the online exhibit Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom:

"The Gulag held many types of prisoners. It served as the Soviet Union's main penal system: robbers, rapists, murderers, and thieves spent their sentences not in prisons but in the Gulag.

In addition, the Gulag held political prisoners, a group including not only real opponents of the Soviet regime but also many innocents caught up in the paranoid clutches of the Soviet secret police. Most prisoners were the victims of arbitrary and severe legal campaigns under which petty theft, lateness, or unexcused absences from work were punished by many years in these concentration camps.

Have you ever been late to work?

In the Stalin era, a person who arrived late to work three times could be sent to the Gulag for three years.

Have you ever told a joke about a government official?

In the Stalin era, many were sent to the Gulag for up to 25 years for telling an innocent joke about a Communist Party official.

If your family was starving, would you take a few potatoes left in a field after harvest?

In the Stalin era, a person could be sent to the Gulag for up to ten years for such petty theft."


Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives

Virtually experience life in the Gulag through the online exhibitions offered by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason Univeristy.

Visit the exhibition. You will find descriptive narrative, personal account from prisoners, and haunting images as you follow one prisoner through his/her experience in the Gulag.