Saturday, March 20, 1999

The Soviet Gulag (1929-1953)

The Gulag is the system of slave labor camps initially established in 1919 by the Cheka--the secret police established by the Bolsheviks after they seized power from the Russian Provisional Government. It was a crime against humanity without parallel in European history, except for the NAZI system of forced labor and death camps. The numbers of people incarcerated was relatively limited during the 1920s while Lenin was alive and after his death when Bolshevik leaders struggled for control. This began to change once Stalin had seized control of the Soviet Union. Stalin was in control by 1929 and by the early 1930s the numbers of people incarcerated in the camps of the Gulag began to reach sizeable numbers. The Gulag under Stalin was administered by the Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps, a unit under the NKVD which had replaced the Cheka. As a result of the increased arrests ordered by Stalin, the Gulag by 1934 had several
million inmates. As in any country, some of the inmates were murderers, thieves, and all variety of ordinary criminals. Under Stalin the make up of the prisoners changed and included increasing numbers of political and religious dissenters. Most were not dissenters in the sense of men and women actively working against the Soviet system. Many may simply have told a joke or have been reported by others for a host of reasons. Some were arrested simply because NKVD officers were given quotas. The Soviet Union under Stalin was a country in which the average citizen could at any time be arrested. Then they would be tortured and killed or sent to forced labor camps comprising an immense Gulag where they would often simply disappear. The Gulag camps were located throughout the Soviet Union, but primarily in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North where living conditions were often extremely severe--a factor in the low survival rates at some camps. The Gulag reached such significant levels that under Stalin it was a major factor in the Soviet economy. Gulag prisoners were used in several difficult construction projects such as the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line, many hydroelectric stations, and strategically important roads and industrial enterprises in remote regions where it would have been difficult and expensive to have recruited free labor. GULAG slave labor was extensively used in the Soviet Union's lumber industry as well as the mining of coal, copper, and gold.


Chronology


The Soviet Gulag is difficult to date precisely. The system of forced labor camps for "corrective" labor was established by Lenin. It only began to reach sizeable numbers of inmates, however, after Stalin was in total control of the Soviet state by about 1929. It from that time until Stalin's death in 1953, a major force in the Soviet economy and political system. The inmates were not immediately released and the Gulag continued until after the De-Stalinization effort was begun by Khrushchev in 1956. We date the Gulag from 1929-53, but a valid case can be drawn for dating from the early Bolshevik period (1919) to the de-Stalinization program initiated by Khrushchev (1956).


The Bolshevik Revolution (October 1917)


The Gulag is the system of slave labor camps initially established in 1919 by the Cheka--the secret police established by the Bolsheviks after they seized power from Kerensky and the Russian Provisional Government.


Lenin


The foundation for the Gulag was laid by Lenin and the Cheka. Some authors maintain that the Gulag would have never been created had Lenin lived longer and prevented Stalin from taking power. We are not so sure. It is probably true that the Gulag would have never reached the dimensions it did without Stalin. Lenin was clearly not opposed to using force to pursue the Revolution and to deal harshly with opponents. Lenin was clearly determined to establish a Bolshevik regime and to prevent open debate and political opposition. To do this a concentration camp system would be needed for opponents. Thus the debate about Lenin is not whether he would have created a Gulag, but the size of the enterprise. The NAZIs in Germany demonstrated that a dictatorship can be maintained with a much smaller system than what developed in the Soviet Union.


Early Gulag


The numbers of people incarcerated was relatively limited during the 1920s while Lenin was alive and after his death when Bolshevik leaders struggled for control. This began to change once Stalin had seized control of the Soviet Union.


Stalin


It is now recognized by most authors that Stalin's ruthless policies including engineering a famine in the Ukraine resulted in more deaths that even Hitler's Holocaust and other genocidal policies. Stalin set up a cult of personality in which the Soviet people were forced to virtually worship him. Stalin organized a series of show trials in which prominent officials and military officers were forced to admit to ludicrous accounts of treason. Soviet citizens were encouraged to denounce their neighbors. Many did in an effort to improve their chances of survival.


Gulag Expanded


Stalin was in control by 1929 and by the early 1930s the numbers of people incarcerated in the camps of the Gulag began to reach sizeable numbers. While the system was founded under Lenin, it is only under Stalin that the massive slave labor system which came to be called the Gulag came into existence. The Gulag under Stalin was administered by the Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps, a unit under the NKVD which had replaced the Cheka. As a result of the increased arrests ordered by Stalin, the Gulag by 1934 had several million inmates.


The Terror





The Prisoners


As in any country, some of the inmates were murderers, thieves, and all variety of ordinary criminals. Under Stalin the make up of the prisoners changed and included increasing numbers of political and religious dissenters. Most were not dissenters in the sense of men and women actively working against the Soviet system. Many may simply have told a joke or have been reported by others for a host of reasons. Some were arrested simply because NKVD officers were given quotas. The Soviet Union under Stalin was a country in which the average citizen could at any time be arrested.


Treatment


Then they would be tortured and killed or sent to forced labor camps comprising an immense Gulag where they would often simply disappear. Conditions in the Gulag varied from camp to camp. Conditions were harsh in all of the camps, but assignment to some of the camps in the far north was a virtual death sentence. Camp prisoners received inadequate food and clothing that was inadequate for the harsh winter weather. Many died from exposure. The poor food, skimpy clothing, and long working hours at hard labor accounted for countless deaths. Camp inmates were also physically abused by the guards adding to the death rates. The guards in particular used career criminals ho were especially brutal, to supervise the larger number of so called political prisoners. [Appelbaum]


Camp Locations


The Gulag camps were located throughout the Soviet Union, but primarily in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North where living conditions were often extremely severe--a factor in the low survival rates at some camps.


Economic Importance


The Gulag reached such significant levels that under Stalin it was a major factor in the Soviet economy. Gulag prisoners were used in several difficult construction projects such as the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line, many hydroelectric stations, and strategically important roads in remote regions where it would have been difficult and expensive to have recruited free labor. GULAG slave labor was extensively used in the Soviet Union's lumber industry as well as the mining of coal, copper, and gold. Stalin constantly turned to the NKVD when new projects came to him. This resulted in the gradually increased importance of slave labor in the Soviet Union. The Gulag became a major source of labor in the Soviet Union and not just for major construction projects. The NKVD began contracting irs prisoners out to various state economic enterprises. There has never been a thorough economic study of the Gulag, primarily because of the secrecy under which the Gulag was administered and the political goals. One scholar describes the Gulag as a combination of punitive hysteia, economic exploitation, and mind boggling waste. [Applebaum] While the Gulag did contribute to the Soviet economy, that contribution was made as a result of immense human tragedies and loss of life. It was also a gigantic drag on the Soviet economy. [Applebaum] The impact of which still affects the Soviet Union.


NAZI Concentration Camps


The Soviet Union and NAZI Germany are often looked at as opposites in the political spectrum. In fact these two monstrous totalitarian systems had a great deal in common. It was no accident that Hitler was able to launch World War II because of the NAZI-Soviet Non-aggression Pact (1939). One of the common elements of the two regimes was an extensive system of concentration camps. The NAZIs began to build their system within months of Hitler's rise to power. A necessary step in both Hitler's consolidation of his hold on
the German people and eventually and the Holocaust was the creation of concentration camps. The first camp was established at Daccau in 1933 and was to be a model for the vast network of camps throughout Europe that were to follow. These lead directly after the start of World War II to the Death Camps opened almost entirely in occupied Poland. I am not sure what happened to the Soviet camps the NAZIs overran. I do know that many of the Soviet soldiers who managed to survive the horrors of the NAZI POW camps and Soviet civilian slave laborers were arrested and incarcerated in the Gulag after the War.


World War II


The composition of the Gulag changed during World War II. Increasingly the camps came to be populated by national groups that Stalin distrusted. This included nationalities recently incorporated into the Soviet Union as the result of the War (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). There war also large numbers of German prisoner of wars as well as POWs from the counties that had joined the Germans in the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. There were also national groups within the Soviet Union that were targeted (Chechens, Poles, Folk Deutch, Volga Tatars, Cossacks, and others). [Appelbaum] Hitler managed to get many ethnic Germans out of the Baltic states before he invaded in 1941, but as far as I know not out of the pre-1940 Soviet Union.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn


Much of what we know about the Soviet Gulag is due to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a giant in Russian history. Unlike the NAZIs, the Soviets did not lose World War II and therefore the secrets of the Stalin's Gulag were not exposed. Solzhenitsyn himself explains how he was arrested and entered the Gulag. "I was arrested on the grounds of what the censorship had found during the years 1944-45 in my correspondence with a school friend, mainly because of certain disrespectful remarks about Stalin, although we referred to him in disguised terms. As a further basis for the "charge", there were used the drafts of stories and reflections which had been found in my map case." He has since written several books on the Soviet Gulag. His first book, the slender A Day in the Life of Ivan Denesovich about a Gulag slave laborer was followed by a series of books describing the Gulag in great detail. His masterpiece was The Gulag Archipelago (1967). The first volume describes the development of the Gulag and how people were arrested and committed to it. The second volume describes the operation and institutions of the Gulag. The third volume describes the often hopeless struggle for freedom of political prisoners against the Gulag and Soviet system. [Nivat, p.73] Many authors are struck by the spiritual nature of The Gulag Archipelago and other books by
Solzhenitsyn. Nivant writes, "The location of the final section of The Gulag Archipelago 2, entitled The Soul and Barbed Wire,¹ proves to be spiritually strategic. The quotation from St. Paul which heads the section illuminates that strategy: Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed.¹ The section opens with the linked chapters on 'The Ascent¹ and '...Or Corruption?¹ Those who belong to the community of suffering,¹ innocent of crime, albeit not sinless, are so purified of all that is merely mortal that they are already ascending towards the immortality of resurrection." Soviet leader Y. Andropov of course felt differently. He said, "His Gulag Archipelago is not a work of fiction; it is a political document. This is dangerous. Hence, I propose that we expel Solzhenitsyn from the country. If we don¹t take these measures, then all our propaganda work will lead to nothing." Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel literature prize for literature in 1970 as he was still was working on his Gulag Archipelago.


National Suppression


Whole nation groups were targeted by Stalin. There were mass executions such as the Polish officers in the Katyn Forrest. We do not know, however, of mass executions of women and children. There were no gas chambers in the Soviet labor camps, but conditions were so horrific that large numbers of people died in the camps. Those that survived and were eventually released after de-Stalinization suffered debilitating physical conditions as a result of the poor conditions and abuse in the camps.


Eastern Europe Satellite Countries


The Soviets after liberating the Eastern European countries from the Germans went about establishing People's Republics with Communist Party dictatorships. The process varied from country to country and was partially disguised by alliances with other left-wing parties, but with the creation of a People's Republic in Czechoslovakia was completed by 1948. Along with each People's Republic went the creation of a secret police forced like the Stazi in East Germany and a Soviet-style system of concentration camps. I know little about the camp system in each European country. I have an idea that it was much more related to political repression and had less of an economic importance than the Soviet Gulag, but information at this time is lacking. Hopefully our Eastern European readers will provide us some information.


Children


Children were also caught up in the Terror and the Gulag, but we have limited information to date on just how children were dealt with. Often the children of those arrested died in the orphanages set up to care for them. Many camps had nurseries. I believe that these were primarily for the children born to female inmates, but some women arrested may have had their children taken as well. One nursery supervisor reports how she had to forbid mothers from taking their children for walks because some would kill their own children. [Appelbaum] Here we are not sure if the camp had so unhinged the mothers or if this story was used to justify the separation of mothers from their children. Another question we are still unsure about is how juvenile delinquents were dealt with.


Stalin's Death (1953)


Stalin died in 1953, the Gulag population was reduced significantly, and conditions for inmates somewhat improved. Forced labor camps continued to exist, although on a small scale, into the Gorbachev period, and the government even opened some camps to scrutiny by journalists and human rights activists. With the advance of democratization, political prisoners and prisoners of conscience all but disappeared from the camps. There was considerable uncertainty among Soviet leaders after Stalin's death as to the Gulag. Many recognized the economic inefficiency involved. There were also camp revolts that brought the issue into focus. [Applebaum]


Destalinization (1956)


The De-Stalinization of the Soviet Union began with Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. There were limits on how far Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders were prepared to go. Most had been active participants in he Great Terror. Khrushchev owed his position to Stalin and in agreed with Stalin on many issues. [Taubman]


Late Soviet Period


After De-Stalinization, the Gulag declined in economic importance in the Soviet Union. The number of people incarcerated declined remarkably. Many Gulag inmates were returned to Soviet society. Some were able to make the transition better than others. Many had their life shattered and subsequent arrest. Here time was a factor. Many who served long sentences had their health ruined and could never recover physically. For others the trauma was more psychological. Others returned as strangers to their children. Some were never able to find their children. Often during the height of the terror, the arrest of a husband meant that the mother would eventually also be arrested. The fate of the children varied. As the inmate population declined, many camps were closed. Many camps continued to operate, however, as the system continued to be used to house criminals and as instrument of political repression and control. In the Soviet Union it was very difficult to make a living without bending or breaking some law or regulation. This meant that the regime could arrest anyone that might step out lf line. Also some laws were written so that virtually anyone too freely expressing his or her opinions could be arrested. These arrests, however, were not the arbitrary arrests during the terror, but most aimed at individuals that dared challenge the Soviet system.


Pointlessness


An impression that one gets when reading about the Gulag is the pointlessness of it all. Huge efforts were made costing countless lives for projects that had no real value. Many have since been abandoned. The Great White River Canal was such a project in the early era. A canal was built with no heavy equipment. It was done with manual labor. The suffering of the slave laborers and the loss of life were enormous. Cities were built in the north that are unsustainable without slave labor camps. [Appelbaum] There were various reasons while these useless projects were pursued. The principal reason is that the regime could pursue them at little real cost.


Recognition


The Soviet Gulag has never received the same coverage as the NAZI camps. There are several reasons for this. While more people may have died in the Soviet camps, there were no gas chambers where children were killed. Also the Soviet camps were never liberated by foreign soldiers which provided photographs. The impact of photographs both taken while the camps were still operating and upon liberation can not be over estimated. There are other political reasons. Those with leftist views have generally been less interested in addressing this subject. This has been especially true of European scholars. Even in Russia, there has been unease about exploring the past. Many who grew up in the Soviet years are unwilling to admit that so many of their sacrifices were pointless. The exploration of this subject that President Putin's government is unlikely to promote. There have been a number of memoirs published and quite a few more that have not been published.


Moral Assessment


It was a crime against humanity without parallel in European history, except for the NAZI system of forced labor and death camps. The two systems were conducted for much the same reasons and had similar goals. The major difference was that the Soviet Gulag did not have the racial justification. The Soviet system resulted in more deaths, but the killing was not done in gas chambers. The evil of the Gulag is important to remember because it is often forgotten in comparison to the NAZI system. To many during the Cold War were too willing to view the Cold War as simply a power struggle between two systems in a long line of similar European struggles. Any fair assessment of the Soviet Gulag leads one to the conclusion that the America's struggle in the Cold War had a sound moral foundation President Reagan's description of the "Evil Empire" had considerable historical basis.


American Prison System


While Americans decry the Soviet Gulag, it should be noted that labor camps in the Southern United States until the 1950s were used to suppress Black people and operated in much the same way as the Soviet Gulag. The prison system operated not just to incarcerate criminals, but also as an instrument of political repression. Blacks normally received often summary justice from all-white juries. The camp populations were used as a labor pool for county and state projects as well as being leased out to private persons and companies. A more contemporary issue is the increasingly large number of Americans being incarcerated. America as the largest percapita prison population in the world. A disproportionate share of that populating are minorities--especially Blacks. The prison population is not abused and mistreated as in the Soviet Gulag, but the size and composition of the population is troubling. Another troubling aspect is the impact on the families and communities affected.


Sources


Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History.

Nivat, George (1974).

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. Cancer Ward.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. The First Circle.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. Godlessness, the First Step to the Gulag.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. The Gulag Archipelago.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. The Love Girl and the Innocent

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. The Red Wheel.

Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Norton), 876p.


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