Why was (is) the Gulag such a feared place? Why does the casual mention of Siberia transmit bone-chilling horror to people thousands of miles away, comfortably insulated by double-glazing, hot chocolate, and lazy Retrievers napping by the hearth?
To be sure, the spectre of Dr. Zhivago's icy transportation lingers in the memories of anyone who has sat through the whole film. Still, that depiction isn't of the desperation found in a true-red gulag. It was just some dude having a fling with a saucy bolshie wench in the countryside. A real gulag is indeed a horror on earth, and it's nothing to do with tundra.
The horror of a gulag is in its lack of specialization and trade in the context of the frozen North. Indeed, if the Kremlin wanted to punish dissidents, it could have done so via banishment to any old place in Mother Russia and the effects would have been a difference in scale, but not in kind. As soon as you remove the ability of people to ply their trade, particularly if its a trade of the mind rather than of the hands, you doom them to ineffectuality, poverty, and misery. Cut off from the ability to trade, the flower of humanity withers on the grave of its stillborn sons and daughters. The harsh climate of Siberia was insult to injury, but the real injury was in making the expunged fend for themselves. That is indeed a terrifying fate, one that would spell a prolonged doom for the very large bulk of us. A doom likely punctuated by cannibalism, rape, murder and pottery, not always in that order.