To some Russians, the memory of a first encounter with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’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.

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.

This Issue

June 15, 2000