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Inside the Gulag

Sistema Ispravitelno-Trudovikh Lagerei v SSSR, 1923-1960: Spravochnik (The System of Labor Camps in the USSR, 1923-1960: A Guide)

edited by N.G. Okhotin, by A.B. Roginsky
Moscow: Zvenya, 598 pp.

Gulag v Komi Krai (The Gulag in the Komi Region)

by N.A. Morozov
Siktivar: Siktivkarskii Universitet, 181 pp.

Gulag v Karelii (The Gulag in Karelia)

edited by Vasily Makurov
Petrozavodsk: Karelskii Nauchni Tsentr RAN, 225 pp.


by Viktor Berdinskikh
Kirov: Kirovskaya Oblastnaya Tipografia, 318 pp.

Polyansky ITL (Corrective Labor Camp) Zheleznogorska

by S.P. Kuchin
Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-26): Museino-Vystavochny Tsentr, 256 pp.

Till My Tale Is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag

edited by Vilensky Simeon
Indiana University Press, 364 pp., $35.00

To some Russians, the memory of a first encounter with Alexander Sol-zhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is as much a physical memory—the blurry, mimeographed text, the dog-eared paper, the dim glow of the lamp switched on late at night—as it is one of reading the revelatory text itself. Although nearly three decades have passed since unbound, hand-typed samizdat manuscripts of the work began circulating around what used to be the Soviet Union, many can also still recall the emotions stirred by possessing the book, remembering who gave it to them, who else knew about it, whom they passed it on to next. In part, this was because The Gulag Archipelago, banned at home and published to great acclaim abroad, had the allure of the forbidden.

But the book’s appearance also marked the first time that anyone had tried to write a history of the Soviet concentration camps, using what information was then available, mostly the “reports, memoirs and letters by 227 witnesses,” whom Solzhenitsyn cites in his introduction. Many knew fragments of the story, from the cousin who had been there or the neighbor’s nephew who worked in the police. No one, however, had attempted to put it all together, to tell, in effect, an alternative history of the Soviet Union, without which the previous fifty years were hard to comprehend, even for those who had lived through them.

It was in acknowledgment of the contribution Solzhenitsyn made to this alternative history that the editors of Sistema Ispravitelno-Trudovikh Lagerei v SSSR, 1923-1960: Spravochnik (The System of Labor Camps in the USSR, 1923- 1960: A Guide) decided to dedicate their book to the “twenty-fifth anniversary of the appearance of A.I. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.” The Spravochnik‘s editors were themselves of the generation that had been most profoundly affected by the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s work. They are all active members of the Memorial Society—an organization dedicated, since 1987, to writing the history of the Stalinist past, and to promoting human rights in the present.

Nevertheless, their book was intended to have an effect that would be very different from Solzhenitsyn’s. This was not only because they, like others, have been critical of Solzhenitsyn’s many small errors of fact and emphasis: his general historical conclusions have in fact stood up extremely well, proving that prisoners’ gossip was not so unreliable after all. What the wider community of camp survivors and historians dislike is rather the emotions surrounding The Gulag Archipelago and the tone of it, which is that of a great sage imparting a thundering moral lesson to his people. “Only those who had been there knew the whole truth,” he writes of his fellow survivors: “But as though stricken dumb on the islands of the Archipelago, they kept their silence….”1

That Solzhenitsyn chose to put himself and his moral views at the center of the book also left it open to a particularly insidious form of attack: to discredit its substance, it was necessary only to discredit the author—to hint, as the Soviet government did, that he was a virulent nationalist, or even that he might not be altogether sane. The same was true of many of the memoirs published on the subject. When the editors of the Spravochnik began their “History of the Gulag” project in 1990, they, like many young Russian historians, were therefore consciously trying to produce a book whose fortunes would not be so directly linked to those of its author, whose reception would not be colored by so many layers of emotion. They wanted the facts, as far as that was possible, to speak for themselves.

The result is a book that is different from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag in almost every possible way. Solzhenitsyn’s book, circulated in samizdat in the early 1970s, was dramatically published abroad in 1974. The Spravochnik‘s plain black cover gives it a semi-official appearance, as does the fact that it was published under the joint auspices of Memorial and the State Archive of the Russian Federation. Nor has it had the same kind of popular appeal. Like many books being published now in Russia, the Spravochnik had a tiny initial Russian print run of two thousand (the same number appeared simultaneously in Polish). Yet eventually its impact may prove no less. This is not despite, but because of, the fact that it consists mostly of lists: a list of every department of the Gulag (the word is an acronym for Glavnaya Upravlenia Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration); a list of every subdepartment of the Gulag; and a list of all 476 camps whose existence has so far been identified in the archives. We don’t, of course, know what remains to be declassified, and personal files of particular prisoners are still difficult to obtain. But, contrary to popular mythology, Russian archives are not entirely closed: the authors are able to draw on many thousands of secret police, party, government, and procuracy documents, not to mention the administrative and financial archives of the Gulag itself.

As a result, reading the Spravochnik is like watching a blurry image gradually come into focus. Inmates did not always know the precise name or location of their camp. Some, including many German war prisoners, were deliberately not told where they were; others confused the name of their lagpunkt, or camp unit, with the camp itself. Each of the 476 camps was, after all, made up of hundreds, even thousands of lagpunkts, sometimes spread out over thousands of square miles of otherwise empty tundra. The naming of the camps is therefore no mean feat: imagine trying to study the history of the Nazi camps without knowing whether Auschwitz is an actual place or a prisoners’ nickname, a camp or a group of camps, which is exactly the situation in which earlier Soviet historians found themselves.

Nor is the placing of the camps a minor detail. We are all familiar with the image of the prisoner in the snowstorm, digging gold or coal with a pickaxe. There were plenty of them—millions, as the figures for the camps of Kolyma and Vorkuta make clear—but there were also, we now know, camps in central Moscow, where prisoners built apartment blocks or designed airplanes; camps in Krasnoyarsk where prisoners ran nuclear power plants; fishing camps on the Pacific coast; collective farm camps in southern Uzbekistan. The Gulag photo albums in the Russian State Archive are full of pictures of prisoners with their camels. From Aktyubinsk to Yakutsk, there was not a single major population center that did not have its own local camp or camps. In the Soviet Union of the 1940s, it would have been difficult, in many places, to go about your daily business and not run into prisoners. It is no longer possible to argue, as some Western historians have done, that the camps were known to only a small proportion of the population.2

Archives have also made possible the first serious studies of the institutional and administrative history of the camp system. Accounts of the history of the system as a whole are given in the two comprehensive historical essays at the beginning of the Spravochnik, as well as in Galina Ivanova’s Labor Camp Socialism: The Gulag in the Soviet Totalitarian System—one of the first major books on the subject to emerge out of the old world of “official” history, its author being affiliated with the Russian Academy of Science.

Dozens of regional historians have also made use of provincial archives to describe the history of particular camps, unfortunately often without footnotes or bibliographies. N.A. Morozov’s Gulag v Komi Krai (The Gulag in the Komi Region), Vasily Makurov’s Gulag v Karelii (The Gulag in Karelia), and Viktor Berdinskikh’s Vyatlag (describing the Vyatskii camps in northern Russia) are perhaps the three most professional. Also among the better books in this genre is S.P. Kuchin’s Polyansky ITL (Corrective Labor Camp)—although it is one (there are others) in which the author tries to defend the Gulag’s legacy.

Thanks to the work of these and other writers, we can now see that Feliks Dzerzinsky, Lenin’s chief of secret police, was mulling over a plan to use prisoners to exploit the Soviet Union’s empty, mineral-rich far north as early as 1925; that the early camps in the Solovetsky Islands, run by the OGPU (then the name for the secret police), were the first to try to make prisoner labor profitable; and how the OGPU—with Stalin’s full support—then wrested the entire prison system away from the justice and interior ministries in a series of institutional battles by the end of the 1920s.

We also know that it was precisely at this point that the Soviet camps ceased to be a harsh but recognizable form of the Western penal system and instead became something quite new. They became part of the Plan—the Five-Year Plan, that is—the program to industrialize the Soviet Union at inhuman speed. Although camp “cultural-education sections” would continue to spin propaganda about “rehabilitation” until Stalin’s death, prisoners, in practice, ceased to be regarded as human beings and were rather considered to be expendable labor, to be fed as little as possible and worked as hard as possible. The essence of the OGPU’s “profitable” system, invented in the Solovetsky Islands in the 1920s and sold so successfully to Stalin, was to feed prisoners according to their productivity. Prisoners were at times murdered in mass killings, at times deliberately frozen to death in punishment “isolators,” and at times shot by guards eager to claim bonuses for killing “escapees”; but for the most part, it was this system for allotting or denying food to prisoners, not deliberate killing, that caused the greatest number of deaths. The weak prisoner, in the famous words of one survivor,

quickly falls into a vicious circle. Since he cannot do his full quota of work, he does not receive the full bread ration; his undernourished body is still less able to meet the demands, and so he gets less and less bread…. He employs his last remaining strength to creep off into an out-of-the-way corner…. Only the fearful cold finds him out and mercifully gives him his sole desire: peace, sleep, death.3

By the time the camps began to expand in the late 1920s, the Soviet Union, a society allegedly inspired by Marx and Marxism, had taken the commodification of labor to new heights. In the concentration camps that emerged at the beginning of the 1930s, human beings’ worth was calculated, like that of the camp horses, in units of labor. Perhaps unexpectedly, this attitude was already clearly reflected in the language of the Gulag’s original founders, who, when they met in 1929 to discuss the expansion of the camps, spoke among themselves almost entirely in terms of economics.

According to the records of their conversations, the ministers and Politburo members who were planning what was to become one of the cruelest prison systems in the world never discussed the need to punish prisoners, never mentioned their living conditions, and certainly never referred to the official ideology of “re-education” in their internal debates about the new system, which went on for about a year. Stalin, although not present, took a great interest in the proceedings, occasionally intervening if the “wrong” conclusions were reached.4 Throughout the series of meetings, the discussion was rather of how many prisoners would be needed to extract the resources of “underpopulated areas,” a euphemism for the barely habitable far north.

  1. 1

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1 (HarperPerennial, 1991), p. x.

  2. 2

    See, for example, Robert W. Thurston, Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941 (Yale University Press, 1996).

  3. 3

    Elinor Lipper, Eleven Years in Soviet Camps (London: World Affairs Book Club, 1950), pp. 105-106.

  4. 4

    S.A. Krasilnikov, “Rozhdenia GULAGa: Diskusii v Verkhnikh Eshelonakh Vlasti,” Istoricheskii Arkhiv, No. 4 (1997), pp. 142-156. For Stalin’s interventions, see Lars Lih, Oleg Naumov, and Oleg Khlevniuk, editors, Stalin’s Letters to Molotov (Yale University Press, 1995), p. 212.

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