“If all camp labour was manual, how much could it drive the country?”

The foundation of Gulag — forced labour camps — was laid 90 years ago

The Soviet leadership made a decision to create forced labour camps for inmates sentenced for more than three years 90 years ago sharp. Citizens deprived of their liberty began to be engaged to build large industrial enterprises and infrastructure facilities, while the management of such camps was created soon in the country — the well-known Gulag. Realnoe Vremya remembers this important date with Research Adviser to the Gulag History Museum’s Science and Research Department Ilya Udovenko.

“In the early 20s, the camps were a kind of social retribution for the ruling class”

Ilya, why did the appearance of labour camps become possible in our country? Perhaps, it is not only the case of industrialisation.

Russia in general became a pioneer around the world in creating the “camp culture” as such — no country had taken such measures to its citizens as camp imprisonment. The camps were created at first during WWI and were designed for prisoners of war — it was German camps, English (particularly the English created the first camp for inmates in the country near the Northern Dvina River in Russian North during WWI).

The first camps in Russia for its own citizens appeared in spring 1918, with the beginning of the civil war — the Bolsheviks considered the vision of the enemy from within one of the principles of their politics, here is the appearance of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission headed by Dzerzhinsky, while the idea of creating concentration camps came from the bowels of the Cheka, which fought counter-revolution. In April 1918, the authorities of the country decided that all places of detention had to become self-sustainable and begin inmates’ retraining. Then these two principles would be the foundation of the performance of special-purpose camps and Gulag labour camps.

And when the camps became a widespread practice in our country, Dzerzhinsky wrote to his vice Unszlicht in an internal chat in 1923 that nobody would give money for new prisons, that they had to provide the camps with security and the inmates with food and so on, and he stressed that it was high time to explore new territory to achieve self-sufficiency with the help of inmates. Dzerzhinsky often put an example of northern regions as an example — the district of modern-day Pechora, Inta, Vorkuta.

And did Lenin approve the exploration of territories with the help of inmates as the head of the state?

Lenin gave Dzerzhinsky almost the complete control of the whole penitentiary politics and didn’t take part in such decisions directly.

How did Dzerzhinsky handle the labour camps as an economic entity? Did everything remain as intentions or did authorities begin to do what then in 1929 started to become widespread?

122 concentration camps had already been created by 1922 when the decree on the Red Terror on the territory of the RSFSR came into force. But they were created to destroy the former ruling class — it was a kind of social retribution for the White movement and the then Polish prisoners of war. These camps didn’t pursue economic goals yet. Yes, in 1919, the authorities created the Main Administration of Camps, and inmates were sent to do this job, but it couldn’t be compared with what happened in Gulag later. It was mainly local works in the 20s.

Photo: inosmi.ru
The situation changed in 1924. Many camps simply showed their incapacity and closed, “the state of inmates” was created on the Bolshoi Solovetsky Island in the White Sea — the Special-Purpose Solovetsky Camp. And it became a game changer in the Soviet penitentiary politics: inmates were taken from big cities and transferred to self-sufficiency

As it is known, all monastery lands became property of the state, and many concentration camps were located there, and sewing and carpentry workshops were organised on the same territory, inmates worked away, they unloaded wagons, worked in warehouses. The penitentiary politics was really bad thought out in the 20s — the percentage of fugitives was very high, and some inmates in some camps in Bashkiria were released home at night because of the absence of armed security, and if there was security, the same inmates were hired. In addition, concentration camps were a kind of filter — many inmates were sent to serve in the Red Army during the Civil War if these Whites were peasants.

The situation changed in 1924. Many camps simply showed their incapacity and closed, “the state of inmates” was created on the Bolshoi Solovetsky Island in the White Sea — the Special-Purpose Solovetsky Camp. And it became a game changer in the Soviet penitentiary politics: inmates were taken from big cities and transferred to self-sufficiency. In Solovki, the inmates built barracks themselves and lived there, they had their own life, they had their own infrastructure with an aerodrome and a head post office, their own money spread across the camp, they had their own newspaper.

There was no such a place through late 1929 when the Middle Asian Camp appeared in Central Asia, Far East Camp in the Far East.

“The first camp construction projects certainly show a failure in terms of costs — Gulag remained a subsidised structure

Why did the authorities of the country decide to create labour camps in 1929? Was it Stalin’s idea?

This happened because of the first unsuccessful industrialisation experience (Editor’s Note: the impossibility to get “bread” money for the industrialisation in the 1927-1928 fast). And as early as in 1930-1931, Solovki inmates were those who began to build the White Sea-Baltic Canal.

The idea of Gulag belongs to different people. The first Gulag leaders Genrikh Yagoda, Lazar Kogan, Teodors Eihmans, Matvei Berman promoted it: the Chekist apparatus got stronger by the late 20s, it had new ideas, and state security officials thought that the maintenance of inmates who didn’t make a profit for the state was ineffective and ran counter to the communist ideology.

Was the exploitation of inmates in the industrialisation ineffective everywhere for the state, as some historians suppose?

The first camp construction projects certainly show a failure in terms of costs — Gulag remained a subsidised structure, a huge amount of money was pumped into it. An inmate cost for the government 1,5 times more expensive than a hired one. The inmate has to be protected, given clothes, food, and this all made the production a job. The slave wasn’t interested in the efficiency of his work since ancient times. In the end, the so-called imitation distributed among the inmates in the 30s, that’s to say, to pretend to work, while, actually, you are doing nothing.

The construction of the Moscow-Volga Canal from 1932 to 1937 became the only successful project of Gulag — it was a really necessary construction project in the country (unlike the White Sea-Baltic Canal whose necessity historians have still been arguing about): by that time, Moscow’s population had been three million people, and its water needs had to be met somehow.

Photo: wiki-karelia.ru
This happened because of the first unsuccessful industrialisation experience. And as early as 1930-1931, Solovki inmates were those who began to build the White Sea–Baltic Canal

If manual labour with the minimum use of equipment was used in the first Gulag construction projects, equipment was used to the full in the Moscow-Volga Canal — excavators were purchased abroad and so on. In addition, a labour accounting system was applied there. When the target was overachieved, for instance, an inmate’s one day was counted as two or three, the inmates were paid a salary.

Why did the approaches to the inmates used during the construction of the Moscow-Volga Canal spread to other construction sites in the following years?

The punitive politics simply was tightened in the USSR. The hysteria with searches for the enemy from within began, and it wasn’t possible to diffuse this tension in the country, including in the Gulag system, despite the end of the Big Terror.

“Inmates produced almost everything, and the NKVD already cemented its position as a production headquarters

What were the labour camps for the country’s economy then?

Of course, inmates produced almost everything, and the NKVD already cemented its position as a production headquarters. Administrations of different industrial sectors, railroad construction, aerodrome construction were created there year after year. There was no sector in the USSR not to be covered by the NKVD. And, moreover, new types of industry — such as asbestos production or nuclear energy — also arose from the bowels of the NKVD, and, of course, fell on the inmates’ shoulders. In addition, Vorkuta, Norilsk, Nakhodka were built by inmates. Those metallurgic enterprises operating nowadays were created by inmates, the same Norilsk Nickel.

Photo: russian7.ru
If we compare any camp construction project with civil or Komsomol projects, the latter had better quality and were cheaper

What do the comparison of Komsomol construction projects of that time and those with inmates mean?

If we compare any camp construction project with civil or Komsomol projects, the latter had better quality and were cheaper, the same Dnieper Hydroelectric Station.

But historians also say about good factories made by inmates. Did they exist?

They did, and here everything turned on control over construction, the officials of the construction project, the severity the task was given with, the strategic meaning. By the late 40s, Gulag had provided 40% of copper, 100% of diamonds, 45% of gold — the numbers seem huge, and there is an impression that Gulag was the driver of the country’s economy. But we should consider not only costs and incomes but also look at it from the angle of relations of the state and the individual: if all Gulag labour was manual in the 40s, how much could it drive the country?

Is the engagement of inmates in construction projects in harsh conditions a crime of the state or “just” an element of harsh politics towards them?

Here it’s enough to remember the meeting of Stalin with Churchill after the war ended. When Churchill began talking about the necessity to restore Great Britain, Stalin noted: “But you have plenty of war prisoners!” Churchill objected to ше saying that they couldn’t use their labour, this couldn’t be done, there were international conventions.

While our prisoners of war worked, inmates worked — this all just suggests that the state disrespected human freedom and human life.

By Sergey Kochnev

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