Medical Research in Stalin's Gulag

Bull Hist Med. 2016;90(3):363-393. doi: 10.1353/bhm.2016.0070.


Recently declassified Gulag archives reveal for the first time that the Stalinist leadership established medical research laboratories in the camps. The present work offers an initial reading of the medical research conducted by and on prisoners in Stalin's Gulag. Although Gulag science did not apparently possess the lethal character of Nazi medicine, neither was this work entirely benign. I argue that the highly constrained environment of the Stalinist camps distorted medical science. Scientists were forced to produce work agreeable to their Gulag administrators. Thus they remained silent regarding the context of mass starvation and forced labor, and often perpetuated Gulag myths concerning the nature of diseases and the threat of deceptive patients. Rather than aggressive treatment to save lives, they often engaged in clinical observations of dead or dying patients. At the same time, a few courageous scientists challenged the Gulag system in their research, in both subtle and overt ways.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / ethics
  • Biomedical Research / history*
  • Communism / history
  • Concentration Camps / ethics
  • Concentration Camps / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Patients
  • Prisoners / history*
  • USSR