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After the Revolution of 1917, the new Russian rulers who overthrew the Czars established labor camps. Instead of sending their enemies to prison, they were sent to the camps to do free labor for a normal sentence of three years. The prisoners were used to build highways, railroads, canals, and factories. By 1929, there were more than one million people in the camps, most of them political prisoners, convicted under Article 58 of the Criminal Code of 1926. This article dealt with counterrevolutionary crimes, which were loosely defined as any action against the Soviet state.
As time passed and the need for modernization grew greater, the Soviet Regime saw the value of the labor camps and sought more prisoners to send there to do free work for longer periods of time. Sentences increased to five, ten, twenty, and twenty-five years. In the beginning, most of the prisoners were dissatisfied farmers, who openly voiced their criticism of the Soviet policy of farm collectivization. Soon, however, many people were arrested and sent to the labor camps because of their religious beliefs, their nationality, or their political beliefs. By 1940, more than twelve million prisoners worked in the labor camps. During World War II, many soldiers, both Russian and foreign, were added to the population in the labor camps. Ivan Denisovich had been a soldier in the novel and was sent to one of the labor camps during the war.