The tales about the Stalinist terror in 1930s and 1940s were, to put it mildly, an unjustified exaggeration. In the pre-war Soviet Union, the number of prisoners was not any higher than in any other country of the time, and the conditions of their existence were hardly ever worse than in Great Britain, or the USA. It is much later, many years after Stalin's death, that the penitentiary system of the USSR has become somewhat underdeveloped, compared to that of the leading capitalist countries; however, that retardation was rather a result of the cold war and severe economic pressure from the outside than an innate tendency of the socialist society: the country just could not allow spending much to improve the living conditions in prisons and colonies.
The average number of prisoners remained on the level of 2-2.5 % of the total population all the time. Like in the European countries and the USA, most of them were ordinary criminals convicted in accordance with the existing law. I knew people who were pictured as the victims of Stalinist terror, a few my relatives among them. As far as I could judge, they all acted indeed against the law, and punished according to the law. This is one of the functions of any state at all, to preserve its integrity through imposing some formal restrictions on the activity of the citizens.
Obviously, the legal norms in the USSR were different from the law of the capitalist countries, and it would be absurd to revise any individual sentence in a bourgeois court. Thus, all kinds of profiteering are quite normal from the bourgeois viewpoint, but they violate the fundamental principles of the socialist economy, and hence should be treated as a crime. But, when a socialist state legally suppressed the private initiative, the bourgeoisie of all sorts howled about the infringement of the human rights. To put it plain, those who fought against the Soviet regime were criminals from the standpoint of that regime, but those who profited from their acts did not consider them as criminals, blaming the regime instead.
This all is self-evident, nothing but a trivial rationality. However, the public opinion in the late USSR was carefully manipulated by the bourgeois propaganda, and many people yielded to the frightful enumeration of names and the picturesque descriptions of the soviet concentration camps. Any comparison with the rest of the world was carefully avoided, and thus the facts were made into the worst form of lie, the fragments of reality arranged to distort the picture.
Today, the truth finds at least timid public expression. In Moskovskaya Pravda, a semi-official daily of the Moscow government, in the issue of 28 July 2001, one can find an article by Eric Kotlyar, which compared the number of prisoners and their living conditions in the modern Russia and former USSR. Surprisingly, the percentage of prisoners in Russia is nearly the same as at the time of Stalin, but the prisoners' life has become much worse after the restoration of capitalism. As Kotlyar writes, the death rate in GUIN (the modern analog of GULAG) is so high that a chief of any Stalinist prison would have been immediately dismissed, at the very first inspection. It is much easier to put people in prison without guilt today than it was during the fabulous Stalinist terror.
One can only wonder how the Soviet powers managed to keep GULAG so small, and the penal system so tolerant, in the pre-war and immediate post-war conditions, with all the subversive activities of the leading capitalist countries, with that primitive public mentality, with all-penetrating ideological corruption. The fact that, despite all, the Soviet Union existed for 70 years, instead of a few months, and became one of the most powerful countries of the world can only be attributed to the profound truth of the communist idea.
Of course, there were those who were put in jail by mistake, or by cross-up, and a certain percentage of political prisoners as well. In this respect, the USSR did not differ from the leading capitalist countries. A single innocent victim is already a tragedy. Any penal machine is vulnerable due to its essential rigidity; it can be manipulated by dishonest people. I knew those who were sent to Kolyma for nothing, from mere prejudice, just to be on the safe side. But they did not complain, they did not blame socialism, and many of them remained true communists despite all the heavy experience, doing their best to improve the life of the people, even at the cost of their own life. Compare them with those who shout about the communist terror, but who have always managed to keep their wealth and health, returning to their criminal activities after confinement; these people have eventually ruined the USSR, and they are building new capitalist societies on the bones of millions of people robbed of anything at all. A capitalist would never admit that a person dying of hunger a thousand miles away were murdered by the capitalist economy; a bourgeois would protest if somebody called him a murderer. Yes, he slaughtered nobody, he merely smothered people economically, just did not allow them to live.