Prisoners of the Main Directorate of the NKVD camps occupied a large place in solving the problem of labor resources, as well as providing personnel for a number of sectors of the economy. The population of the Gulag began to increase significantly in the prewar year. The decree of June 26, 1940 “On switching to an eight-hour working day, a seven-day week and banning the unauthorized departure of workers and employees from enterprises and institutions” introduced criminal liability for unauthorized leaving from work, absenteeism and being late for work at 21 minute and more. Most of those who fell under the action of this decree were sentenced to corrective labor at the place of main activity for a period of up to 6 months with a deduction from wages of up to 25%. By the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, 1 million 264 thousand people were sentenced to corrective labor without imprisonment.
On August 10, 1940, the government adopted two more decrees: on responsibility for the production of low-quality products and on consideration by people's courts without the participation of people's assessors of cases of absenteeism and unauthorized withdrawal from enterprises. As a result, by the end of 1940 several tens of thousands of prisoners were replenished with prisons. By the beginning of the war, their total number in camps, prisons, and colonies was 2.3 million.
The military operations led to the fact that already during the war, 27 camps and 210 GULAG colonies with a total of 750,000 prisoners were evacuated from areas threatened by enemy occupation.
Often they were sent on foot to a distance of 1000 km to the crowded eastern camps of GU-LAG, which led to extreme crowding. In 1942, the average living area per person was less than 1 square meter. The decrease in nutritional standards, along with increased production rates, led to an increase in mortality.
From the first day of the war, the release of prisoners accused of espionage, banditry, and treason was stopped. It was particularly hard for those convicted of counter-revolutionary conspiracies, members of the opposition, members of the anti-Soviet parties. As a rule, they were kept in special prisons and camps located in the Far North and the Far East. For them, enhanced security was combined with hard physical work for the extraction of coal, oil, iron ore, and timber blanks. Numerous political requests to be sent to the front were most often not satisfied.
In accordance with the Decrees of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of July 12 and November 4, 1941 on the early release of certain categories of prisoners convicted of absenteeism, domestic and other minor crimes, 420 thousand prisoners were released and transferred to the Red Army. According to special decisions of the State Defense Committee in 1942-1943. An early release of another 157 thousand people was carried out in the gulag with their transfer to active units. Since the beginning of the war and until June 1944, 975 thousand GULAG prisoners were transferred to the manning of the Armed Forces.
Many of them fulfilled their duties with honor. For combat exploits, former prisoners V.E. Breusov, A.I. Otstavnov, Efimov, Sergeants and others were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union . The exploits of the pupil of the Ufa labor colony of children A.M. Matrosov, who in February 1943 closed the breast of the enemy’s bunker with his breast, were devoted to works of literature and the visual arts.
In addition to Soviet citizens, in 1941-1942. 43 thousand Polish and 10 thousand Czechoslovak citizens sent to national military units were released from the camps.
GULAG prisoners were actively used on the labor front. During the first three years of the war, more than 2 million people worked on construction sites under the NKVD, including the construction of railways (448 thousand), industrial construction (310 thousand), in the camps of the forest industry (320 thousand), airfield and highway construction (268,000), etc. In 1941 and early 1942, 200,000 prisoners were transferred to work on the construction of the defensive lines of the Gulag. In the following years they worked at the enterprises of ferrous and non-ferrous metallurgy (40 thousand in the middle of 1944), the aviation and tank industries (20 thousand), etc. Even in the conditions of camp life, prisoners sought to contribute in victory. In 1944, labor competition covered 95% of their total number.
During the first three years of the war, 2.9 million people departed from the camps and colonies and 1.8 million convicts were received. The prisoners built 612 operational airfields and 230 airfields with runways. They built a group of aircraft factories in Kuibyshev, built 4,700 km of highways and over 1,000 km of oil pipelines. At the defense industry enterprises, prisoners produced 70.7 million units of ammunition (mines, hand grenades, etc.), produced 1.7 million masks for gas masks, 6.7 million meters of fabrics.
Prison labor was not only used in industry. By the middle of 1944, the Gulag had 414 agricultural divisions: 3 agricultural camps, 96 colonies, and 315 farms. The convicts surrendered to the slaughter of animals with a living weight of 42 thousand tons, received 112 thousand tons of milk, produced 2600 tons of animal oil. The structure of the Gulag also had a specialized fishing camp (Astrakhan), 8 fishing colonies and 45 subsidiary farms.
Thus, the Gulag tried to meet the needs of camps and colonies for vegetables, potatoes, fish and other products, striving for "full self-sufficiency". At the same time in 1941-1944. The state budget was transferred 2 billion 650 million rubles, used for defense.