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Inside the Gulag

True, the consensus was to vary greatly, from camp to camp and from year to year, about precisely how inhumanly inmates should be treated. Death rates were much lower in the early 1930s and went up in 1933, at the time of national famine; they fell again and then were allowed to rise after 1937. Finally, they were brought down again, as Galina Ivanova points out, when Lavrenty Beria took over the NKVD, the renamed OGPU, in 1938. Arguing that the ill and the dying were destroying the efficiency of the NKVD’s economic progress, Beria ordered the food rations to be raised and output to be increased. This was not out of kindness: when there were other priorities, as there were during the war, food rations dropped again. What really interested him was proving that the NKVD could be a powerful part of the economy. Hence, for example, his special role in promoting the “Special Technical Bureau” of the NKVD, the offices and laboratories where prisoner-specialists, among them the brilliant engineer Andrei Tupolev, designed military aircraft and artillery systems and other technical projects. Their existence was known—Solzhenitsyn described them in his novel The First Circle—but only now is it possible to see how important they were to their founders.5

Contrary to popular belief, it was only in the 1940s that the Gulag then became, in the words of the Spravochnik‘s authors, a fully fledged “camp-industrial complex,” an integral and important part of the Soviet economy: the camps reached their peak in industrial might not, as is usually assumed, in 1937-1938 but in 1950-1952. How fully integrated and how important they were is still the subject of debate between those who think prisoner labor was essential to the Soviet economy and those who think prisoner labor was a vast money-squandering and time-wasting distraction. In the former category are many of the Gulag’s former bosses, who argued (and argue) that certain kinds of tasks could only have been completed at the required speed using prisoners. Alexei Loginov, former deputy commander of the Norilsk camps, gave a typical justification in an interview with Angus Macqueen for his documentary film GULAG, shown in July 1999 on BBC2.

If we had sent civilians, we would first have had to build houses for them to live in. And how could civilians live there? With prisoners it is easy—all you need is a barrack, an oven with a chimney, and they survive.6

None of which is to say that the camps were not also intended to terrorize and subjugate the population. Certainly prison and camp regimes, which were dictated in minute detail by Moscow, were openly designed to humiliate prisoners. The prisoners’ belts, buttons, garters, and items made of elastic were taken away from them; they were described as “enemies,” and forbidden to use the word “comrade.” Such measures contributed to the dehumanization of prisoners in the eyes of camp guards and bureaucrats, who therefore found it that much easier not to treat them as people, or even as fellow citizens.

Nowhere is this powerful ideological combination—the disregarding of the humanity of prisoners, combined with the need to fulfill the Plan—clearer than in the camp inspection reports, submitted periodically by local prosecutors, and now kept neatly on file in the Moscow archives. Discovering them almost by accident, I was shocked, at first, both by their frankness and by the peculiar kind of outrage they express. Describing conditions in Volgolag, a railroad construction camp in Tatarstan in July 1942, one inspector complained, for example, that “the whole population of the camp, including free workers, lives off flour. The only meal for prisoners is ‘bread’ made from flour and water, without meats or fats.” As a result, the inspector went on indignantly, there were high rates of illness, particularly scurvy—and, not surprisingly, the camp was failing to meet its production norms.

The outrage ceased to seem surprising after I had read several dozen similar reports, each of which used more or less the same sort of language, and ended with more or less the same ritual conclusion: conditions needed to be improved so that prisoners would work harder, and so that production norms would be met. Much odder is the fact that despite Beria’s desire for profits, and despite a vast system of inspections and reports and reprimands, no improvements were made in the system once it was in place.

It might have been expected that small camps like Volgolag would have struggled to find food and supplies during the war years, particularly during the “hungry winter” of 1941-1942. But although conditions nationally did improve after the war, an inspection of twenty-three large camps in 1948 still concluded, among other things, that 75 percent of the prisoners in Norillag in northern Siberia had no warm boots; that the number of prisoners unfit for hard labor in Karelia had recently tripled; that death rates were still “too high” in half a dozen camps—too high, that is, to allow for efficient production. 7 The reports make the reader recall the inspectors of Gogol’s era: the forms were observed, the reports were filed, the effects on actual human beings were ignored. Camp commanders were routinely reprimanded for failing to improve living conditions, living conditions continued to fail to improve, and there the discussion ended.

Yet although it was, at the time, taken as axiomatic that prison labor was cheaper—in 1935, Genrikh Yagoda, then chief of the OGPU, wrote a letter to Stalin promising that every kilometer of road built by prisoners would be 50,000 rubles cheaper—the consensus among the new generation of Russian historians is that the camp system was in fact an inefficient diversion of the country’s resources, which permanently damaged its economic development. In Labor Camp Socialism, Galina Ivanova points out that the economic activity of the secret police was, by the late 1940s, “so irrational and inefficient that even such a potentially lucrative form of commercial activity as ‘renting out workers’ did not bring the ministry any profit.” Oleg Khlevniuk, who is currently compiling a collection of Gulag documents for Yale University Press, also notes that in calculating the Gulag’s efficiency, the system’s masters failed to count the costs of the repressive system, including the costs of the guards, of the deaths, and most of all of the misdirected talent.8 How did it serve the country to have brilliant physicists (not all of them made it into Beria’s “Special Technical Bureaus”) digging coal?

With so much cheap labor available, the Soviet economy took far longer than it should have to become mechanized: problems were solved by calling for more workers. Prisoners may have been important to the growth of certain industries—according to official statistics, the Gulag supplied the country with 37 percent of its gold in 1937, for example, and with 40 percent of its timber in 1940—but might these industries not have developed faster and more efficiently in other ways? Viktor Berdinskikh points out in his book Vyatlag that the labor productivity among free workers in the forestry industry was nearly three times that of the prisoners working in the forestry lagpunkts of Vyatlag.

It was probably this argument, as much as any humanitarian one, that led Khrushchev to bring the Gulag’s economic influence to an end. A touch of fear may have helped convince him too: three major camp rebellions followed Stalin’s death in 1953. All were put down with the help of soldiers and tanks, and all are now documented by archives, along with thousands of smaller strikes and protests. Prisons and prison camps continued to exist during the Khrushchev era, of course, and still do. In 1998, I visited a criminal prison in Arkhangelsk, and emerged reeling from what I’d seen: it was as if I had walked into the cell that Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, one of the authors featured in Till My Tale Is Told, a collection of women’s Gulag memoirs just published in English, entered in 1938:

The arched walls were dripping; on either side, leaving only a narrow passage between them, were low continuous bed boards packed with bodies. Assorted rags were drying on lines overhead. The air was thick with the foul smoke of strong cheap tobacco, and loud with arguments, shouts and sobs….

Nevertheless, the “camp-industrial complex” had, as such, disappeared by the 1960s. Exactly what proportion of the population had at some time been part of it still remains, unfortunately, a subject of controversy. I say “unfortunately” not only because the question of numbers detracts attention from more interesting revelations, but because it is impossible to resolve. At one point, Berdinskikh mentions that it was common practice in the Vyatskii camp to release prisoners who were on the point of dying, thereby lowering camp death statistics. In view of the culture of inspection and reprimand, that was probably the case in many camps; the death statistics are almost certainly distorted.

Any answer to questions about numbers also depends upon who is being counted: numbers of prisoners in camps, for example, were kept separately from numbers of prisoners in so-called colonies, the latter being indistinguishable from the former except that they tended to be smaller, populated by prisoners with shorter sentences, and usually built around a single farm or factory. In local archives in Petrozavodsk I came across an indignant description of an early Karelian agricultural colony with fifty-nine prisoners, seven horses, two pigs, twenty-one cows, and guards whose “social life” was “characterized by petty quarrels and drunkenness.” But there were also prisoners in forced exile, whose living conditions were often actually worse and death rates higher than those in camps, since they were not even guaranteed the daily four hundred grams of bread allotted to full-fledged prisoners. There were, of course, also prisoners in prisons—as well as prisoners condemned to various degrees of forced labor who were never part of the penal system at all. The official number of prisoners in camps and colonies for 1942, for example, is 1.7 million. Adding all other categories of forced laborers—exiles, prisoners in NKVD prisons, “mobilized” Soviet Germans, Soviet citizens interned in the “verification and filtration camps” on their way back from occupied territory, plus those with sentences of “forced labor without deprivation of liberty,” the official number is 4.34 million.

Bare statistics also mask other, more interesting facts, most notably the startlingly high rate of turnover. In 1943, for example, 2,421,000 prisoners passed through the Gulag system, although the totals at the beginning and end of that year show a decline from 1.5 to 1.2 million. Prisoners dropped off the rolls because they died, because they escaped (more often than is usually realized), because they had short sentences, because they were being released into the Red Army, or because they had been promoted to guard or administrator. There were also frequent amnesties (usually not applied to political prisoners) for the old, the ill, and pregnant women—camp commanders were always finding themselves with too many nonworking prisoners on their hands—invariably followed by new waves of arrests.

What this means is that although the official numbers of prisoners who died are lower than might have been expected—they peaked at 25 percent of the 1.7 million camp population in 1942, and, if they are to be believed, normally hovered around 3 to 5 percent—the number of Soviet citizens with some experience of labor camps is significantly higher. Adding up the totals for all of the years between 1930 and 1953, and factoring in the turnover, it is safe to say that some 18 million Soviet citizens had experience of camps, and perhaps another 15 million had experience of some other form of forced labor.9 Yet even these estimates include neither those shot before they made it to the camps nor the plight of families left behind. Wives of prisoners lost their jobs; children were forced into orphanages which were hardly more than breeding grounds for epidemics. Many died as a result, but how many?

Revelations of the last decade have also helped us to better understand who, at least, all of these people were. For too long, our perspective was skewed by published memoirs whose authors were more likely to have been intellectuals, and even more likely to have been political prisoners. In the last decade, however, the various branches of the Memorial Society, the Sakharov Institute, the Polish Karta Institute, Simeon Vilensky’s dedicated publishing house Vozvrashenia (the name means “Return”), and others have been systematically collecting, indexing, and publishing a far wider variety of manuscripts and recorded interviews with survivors. Vozvrashenia was the original publisher of Till My Tale Is Told, much celebrated in the Russian original. Reading these and other new memoirs, old categories break down, and some of the archival statistics begin to look different too. It turns out, for example, that all but a relatively small number of prisoners were not intellectuals at all, but workers and peasants. Nor, according to the Gulag’s own figures, were most prisoners necessarily “politicals”—those sentenced for “counterrevolutionary” crimes—although their numbers did rise to 59 percent during the war and afterward, and were always high in certain camps.

Yet many of these “politicals” were not really “political prisoners” in the way that we define the term today either. That is, they were not dissidents, or priests saying mass in secret, or even former Party bigwigs, but ordinary workers or peasants who were swept up in mass arrests and did not necessarily have political views of any kind. Adamova-Sliozberg, a factory manager, writes in Till My Tale Is Told, “Before my arrest, I led a very ordinary life, typical of a professional Soviet woman who didn’t belong to the Party. I worked hard but took no particular part in politics or public affairs….”

Many of the nonpoliticals, on the other hand, were professional criminals; but many were again ordinary people, convicted of “everyday” crimes that in other societies would not be considered crimes at all. General Alexander Lebed’s father, a factory worker, was twice ten minutes late to work in 1937, for which he received a five-year camp sentence. At the largely “criminal” Polyansky camp near Krasnoyarsk-26, home of one of the Soviet Union’s nuclear reactors, S.P. Kuchin has identified one prisoner with a six-year sentence for stealing a single rubber boot in a bazaar, another with ten years for stealing ten loaves of bread, and another, a truck driver raising two children alone, with seven years for stealing three bottles of the wine he was delivering. Another got five years for “speculation,” meaning he had bought cigarettes in one place and sold them in another.

During the past decade, similar stories have accumulated, as has the long-buried archival evidence, to paint a truly sickening picture. After ten years of closer examination, the Gulag looks now not like the efficient economic machine it was for so long feared to be (although it was an economic giant) or even like a carefully crafted plot to destroy the intelligentsia (although it did that too). In its demography, in its slovenly working practices, in its criminally stupid bureaucracy, and in its sullen disregard for human life, it is beginning to look, rather, like a microcosm of the Soviet Union itself. Which is fitting, for that is what its prisoners always knew it to be: in prison camp slang, the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as “freedom,” but as the bolshaya zona, the “big prison zone,” larger and less deadly than the “small zone” of the camp, but no more human, and certainly no more humane, nonetheless.

  1. 5

    Aleksandr I. Kokurin, “Osoboye Tekhnicheskoye Byuro NKVDSSSR,” Istoricheskii Arkhiv, No. 1 (1999), pp. 85-99.

  2. 6

    This film was the first in English to interview both prisoners and camp commanders. Excerpts from some of the interviews also appeared in an article by Angus Macqueen in Granta 64 (Winter 1998), pp. 37-53, under the title “Survivors.”

  3. 7

    GARF, fond 8131, opis 37, delo 1253 and 4547.

  4. 8

    Oleg Khlevniuk, “Prinuditelny Trud v Ekonomike SSSR, 1929-1941 gody,” Svobodnaya Msyl, No. 13 (1992), pp. 73-84.

  5. 9

    A good summary of the Western controversy over statistics, as well as an account of the post-1991 statistical revelations, can be found in Edwin Bacon, The Gulag at War (London: Macmillan, 1994), pp. 6-41 and 101-122.

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