Anti-Communist propaganda map of the Soviet Gulag

Isaac Don Levine, “GULAG”—SLAVERY, INC. THE DOCUMENTED MAP OF FORCED LABOR CAMPS IN SOVIET RUSSIA[.] New Edition (1951)… New York: Free Trade Union Committee of the American Federation of Labor, 1951.
Map printed in two-color halftone, 16”h x 21”w plus margins. Old folds and some staining and discoloration.

A rare and chilling relic of the Cold War, being a “persuasive map” published with covert CIA support and documenting the vast extent of the Soviet Gulag system. So effective that many tens of thousands of copies of this and similar maps were distributed worldwide.

The Gulag was created under Vladimir Lenin almost immediately after the Revolution, taking its name from an acronym of the Russian phrase for “Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps.” Though estimates of its scale differ, it eventually grew to include hundreds of camps housing millions of criminals, political prisoners, and prisoners of war. All lived under extremely rough conditions, marked by poor food, hard labor, and high mortality. After the Second World War, the size and brutality of the Gulag provided much ammunition for the propaganda efforts of Cold Warriors in America and abroad.

Offered here is a striking example, being a rare thematic map depicting the distribution of forced labor camps in the Soviet Union. The image features a central map of the country, projected in a manner that exaggerates its east-west extent and, by implication, the extent of the Gulag system. Areas occupied by camps are named and highlighted in red, with those under local control indicated by a hammer and sickle and those under centralized control by a small circle. An inset at lower right bears three wrenching photographs of starving ““Gulag” Children,” while surrounding the map are twelve “Photostats of “passports” issued by the various GULAG administrations, with the seals and signatures of camp commanders.” A long note at bottom center describes the system’s size—“if consolidated, would make a submerged empire the size of Western Europe”—and its staggering brutality, with an “average mortality rate… exceed[ing] 12% a year.” Whatever the horrors of the Gulag, this figure is grossly exaggerated, with the exception of the years of the Second World War.

According to P.J. Mode’s Persuasive Maps web site (item #1330), this and several similar English-language maps were based on one drawn by Polish officers Sylvester Mora and Pierre to illustrate their Sprawiedliwość Sowiecka (Rome, 1945). Mora and Zwierniak’s work was an early attempt to describe the Soviet gulag system, of particular interest for its use of prisoners’ first-hand accounts and attempts to quantify the use of slave labor.

The Mora-Zwierniak map was first adapted in America when Isaac Don Levine, editor of the anti-Communist magazine Plain Talk, included a revised, English-language version in the May, 1947 issue (See Persuasive Maps #1337.) The revisions included a more precise rendering of the locations of labor camps, the inclusion of wrenching photos of “Gulag children,” and the offer of a $1000 reward for “evidence disproving the authenticity of the Soviet documents here reproduced.” According to Mode, “The publication of the Plain Talk map gained some prominent press coverage and led the American Federation of Labor to make a formal proposal that UNESCO conduct an international investigation of forced labor.”

When the proposal went nowhere, the AFL undertook its own propaganda campaign–in cahoots with the CIA–and new versions of the map were published in 1951. Persuasive Maps tells the story well:

“After publication of the Plain Talk map in 1947, the AFL asked UNESCO to conduct an international investigation of forced labor. When nothing substantial had resulted, the union determined to “wage a specific campaign galvanizing both domestic and international public opinion in a more innovative way” using the map (Timothy Barney, “(Re)Placing America: Cold War Mapping and the Mediation of International Space.” PhD diss., University of Maryland, College Park, MD, 2011, p. 327) To that end, the AFL enlisted its Free Trade Union Committee – an entity covertly funded by the CIA and headed by a CIA operative. The FTUC commissioned Isaac Don Levine of Plain Talk to produce an updated version of the map, which was distributed in 1951 (Ibid., pp. 327-28).


“The domestic response to ““Gulag”—Slavery, Inc.” wildly exceeded expectations. The AFL fielded requests for reprints from a wide diversity of institutions – particularly labor unions, high schools, universities, and churches, but also government and military institutions.” (Barney, “’Gulag-Slavey, Inc.’: The Power of Place and the Rhetorical Life of a Cold War Map.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 16, p. 336.) And the impact of the map was not only domestic. As reported here by Time Magazine, the map was used to embarrass Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Gromyko publicly at a conference in San Francisco (ibid., pp. 317-19). Information about the map and the Gromyko incident were broadcast on the Voice of America, and thousands of copies were distributed in Latin America and on both sides of the iron curtain in Europe. In October 1951, 500,000 German-language copies of the map printed for an Austrian newspaper were seized by Soviet military police when the Austrian printer sent them for finishing to a shop in the Soviet sector of Vienna (ibid., pp. 337-38).


“Through this map, “the U.S. coalition of labor unions and foreign policy elites spatialized and literally projected their power on to the flat page and into the culture of the Cold War.” (Ibid., p. 343.)” (Persuasive Maps #1345)

The 1951 map described by Mode appeared in the September 17, 1951 Time. The map offered here is larger, was separately published, includes photostats of “passports” not included in the Time map, and differs in other ways, but was clearly part of the same propaganda effort.

Not in Persuasive Maps: The PJ Mode Collection.