Political Prisoners of Siberia, part 2: The Gulag Legacy

Oct 8, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in April 2012. I am happy to report that Mikhail Khodorkovsky has since been released.]


As explored in the previous post, Siberia was widely used as place of exile and imprisonment by the Tsarist government of Russia from the late 1600s until the end of the regime. Once the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, they quickly replaced the tsarist katorga (penal servitude) system with the one of their own, which has become known as the Gulag Archipelago, after the 1973 book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.* The grim details of life in the Gulag were also described by other eyewitnesses such as Varlam Shalamov and Evgenia Ginzburg. Yet a group of Western revisionist historians has waged a war against this portrayal of the Siberian camps by Solzhenitsyn and other “anti-Soviet memoirists”, as they described them. Rather than focus on the slave labor and inhuman conditions that Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, and others testified to, these historians stressed the role of the Gulag system in the Soviet Union’s rapid economic development and urbanization under Stalin. While none questioned the existence of the Gulag, they minimized its place in the Soviet life, often denying that the population as a whole was ever terrorized. A number of historians suggested that the Gulag system was simply a continuation of katorga prisons of the Tsarist era.

In actuality, the Soviet Gulag was incomparable to the tsars’ katorga prisons, in both quantity and quality. According to Anne Applebaum’s fascinating and thorough book Gulag. A History, approximately 6,000 katorga convicts were serving sentences in 1906. In 1916, the last pre-Revolutionary year, this number rose to 28,600. As for the number of Gulag prisoners, various sources give different figures, but all indicate a difference of several orders of magnitude: the numbers of Gulag prisoners ran in millions rather than thousands. According to V. P. Kozlov’s Istorija Stalinskogo Gulaga (‘History of Stalin’s Gulag’), a combined inmate population in the wake of the Great Purge and on the eve of World War II in 1939 was upwards of 1.6 million. Applebaum’s Gulag. A History and Steven Rosefielde’s The Russian economy: from Lenin to Putin provide similar figures of 1.2-1.5 million prisoners in 1939. During the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) the number of Gulag inmates declined sharply as many prisoners were released to fight at the front — and many more died of starvation. But starting in 1945 the number of inmates rose sharply again, reaching approximately 2.5 million by the early 1950s. Applebaum further estimates that more than 18 million people coursed through the camps between 1929 and 1953, with a further six million being exiled to remote regions of the Soviet Union. Two more comparisons clarify this numerical difference: according to the carefully collected archival materials presented by the Memorial organization, the Corrective Labor Camp in Norilsk alone held 2.5 times more prisoners in 1951 than all the katorga prisons did in 1916.Put differently, the number of individual prisoners in 1916 was comparable not to the number of prisoners but to the number of penal institutions under the Soviets (30,000). At some point numbers matter: quantity becomes quality.

Another numerical comparison, drawn by Western revisionist historians, Russian Gulag apologists, and journalists like Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, equates the number of prisoners in the Soviet Gulag with the number of people incarcerated today in Russia or the United States. Russian historian Leonid Borodkin, professor of history at Moscow State University, addressed this argument in a 2010 interview (translation mine):

“People who are imprisoned today are condemned to be incarcerated, deprived of their freedom. … They have been convicted in court, helped by defense lawyers, both sides have been given a hearing, and so on. When we talk about the Gulag, it should be understood that these are not just convicted criminals. Most of them got there by an extrajudicial decision… . And they were condemned not just to incarceration. They had to work somewhere on Kolyma or beyond the Arctic Circle in Norilsk, to work in the harshest permafrost conditions for just a ration of bread. They were habitually condemned to inhuman conditions. … So let’s not confuse imprisonment in jail for a criminal act and a person sent by an extrajudicial decision to a death-by-starvation in a camp.”

As Professor Borodkin stresses, the main qualitative difference between the tsarist katorga – or the modern penal systems – and the Soviet Gulag is that the prisoners of the latter more often than not were condemned by an extrajudicial decision and had no rights whatsoever. This point is also made forcefully by W. Bruce Lincoln in The Conquest of a Continent. Siberia and the Russians:

“men and women whom fate sucked into Stalin’s vast Gulag system … faced greater misery, were fed and sheltered more wretchedly, and were forced to live perpetually closer to death in Soviet slave labor camps than their tsarist forebears ever had because the system that sent them to Siberia was more capricious and cruel” (p. 164).

In a society whose set of values was turned on its head – “a lifetime’s accumulated wealth and experience was a liability, robbery was glamorized as “nationalization”, murder became an accepted part of the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat” (Applebaum, p. xxvii) – the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands simply on the grounds of their former wealth, titles, or familial connections hardly seemed out of line. Although the Gulag system is often associated with Josef Stalin, imprisoning people deemed “enemies of the proletariat” started shortly after the 1917 Revolution, under Vladimir Lenin. Even the term kontslager, or ‘concentration camp’, appears as early as June 1918 in Leon Trotsky’s writings. Such camps were “constructed to incarcerate people not for what they had done, but for who they were” (Applebaum, p. xxxiv). As a result, the Soviet Gulag system was more akin to the Nazi concentration camps than to tsarist katorga prisons. Applebaum is understandably  appalled at the sight of those Westerners who “would be sickened by the thought of wearing a swastika” but are happy to wear “the hammer and sickle on a T-shirt or a hat” (Applebaum, pp. xviii).**


While many sources estimate that about a third of all Gulag prisoners were “politicals”, it is hard to make such a firm determination. The various categories of political prisoners at different times included: prisoners of war from the Russian Civil War and from WWII (both enemy POWs and Soviet POWs repatriated from Nazi camps); officials accused of corruption, sabotage, and embezzlement; members of the intelligentsia who opposed the regime; priests and members of sectarian communities, such as the Molokans, Baptists, and Dukhobors; members of ethnic groups that were exiled from European Russia before or during WWII; and members of the vanquished political fractions, such as Trotskyites, Mensheviks, anarchists and the like. The infamous Article 58 of the Criminal Code of the USSR, originally put in force in 1927, defined punishment for various forms of “counterrevolutionary activities”, including not only treason, espionage, and terrorist acts, but also acts of sabotage (also known as “wrecking”, in Russian vreditel’skaja dejatel’nost’), “anti-Soviet and counter-revolutionary propaganda and agitation”, and non-reporting of said “counter-revolutionary activities”. Practically anything could be defined as a “counterrevolutionary activity”, and often was. Anyone whose deeds and thoughts were not contributing to the “strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat” could be convicted as an “enemy of the people”. The definition of a “crime against the state” often extended even to petty crime. According to the early Bolshevik dogma, there would be no room in the “socialist heaven” for any sort of criminal activity. Beggars, prostitutes, and other criminal elements, even teenage street urchins, thus presented an insurmountable problem for the Soviet ideology. Moreover, theft was often considered to be a crime against the state, as most property actually belonged to the state.

But the biggest difference between the tsarist katorga and the Gulag concerns the goals of incarceration. The chief purpose of katorga (as well as of exile, or in Russian ssylka) was to remove those deemed unfit or dangerous from the midst of the society in European Russia. The aim of the Stalin’s Gulag was quite different. The early post-Revolutionary jurists proclaimed that while the capitalist penal system aimed to punish offenders, the Soviet system was designed to redeem and reform them. But by 1929 the camps took on a new significance as Stalin decided to use forced labor to accelerate the Soviet industrialization campaign. In the same year, the Soviet Secret Police, the OGPU, began to assume control over the camps in place of the judicial system. In 1930, Stalin decided to create a monster that would spread its tentacles into every part of the USSR; before long, the economic function of the Gulag outweighed its punitive function.


The economic function of the Gulag was can be seen from the geographical distribution of the camps. During the Tsarist and early Soviet periods, prison locations were chosen primarily for their isolatation, such as the Solovetsky Island in the White Sea, the site of a former monastery turned prison. But starting in 1929 new camps were constructed throughout the Soviet Union, wherever economic tasks dictated their existence. The majority of Gulag outposts were in extremely remote and underpopulated areas of northern and northeastern Siberia, areas rich in minerals and other natural resources where living conditions were too arduous for freely hired personnel.

The growth of the Soviet penal system coincided with the peak of the industrialization campaign, which required hard currency for the purchase of machinery and other industrial goods from Western countries. One was to obtain such currency was through the extraction of precious natural resources. Yakutia (today, the Republic of Sakha) provided the bulk of Russia’s gold and diamonds. As mentioned in Martin Lewis’ post, the climatic conditions in northeastern Siberia are extremely harsh, with the average January high temperature of -44.9 F (-42.7 C). While gold mining started in this area in the mid nineteenth century, it long time remained capital-intensive and unprofitable, with appalling working and living conditions for the miners. Their hardships led to the infamous Lena massacre of 1912, when striking goldfield workers were shot by the tsarist army, resulting in hundreds of dead and wounded. However, the conditions that prompted massive protests in 1912 were quite comfortable compared to what awaited their counterparts in the Dalstroy camps. The majority of Gulag prisoners in the gold and diamond districts faced meager food rations, inadequate clothing, overcrowding, poorly insulated or heated housing, atrocious hygiene, and inadequate health care. Political prisoners were also subject to constant victimization on the part of blatnye, hardened professional criminals who received preferential treatment from the guards and were often employed as by camp administration as another tool for tormenting “politicals”, both mentally and physically. According to Adam Jones’s Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction,

“It was these Siberian camps, devoted either to gold-mining or timber harvesting, that inflicted the greatest toll in the Gulag system. Such camps can only be described as extermination centers… The camp network that came to symbolize the horrors of the Gulag was centered on the Kolyma gold-fields, where outside work for prisoners was compulsory until the temperature reached −50C and the death rate among miners in the goldfields was estimated at about 30 per cent per annum.” (p. 195)

Besides gold mining, Gulag prisoners cut timber; mined coal, iron and copper ore; built factories and hydroelectric dams, roads, and cities. They erected metallurgy plants in Norilsk that produced nickel, copper and platinum, and a steel manufacturing giant in Nizhny Tagil. They also laid a number of railways, including Salekhard–Igarka Railway and the never finished Sakhalin tunnel. Several major Soviet cities in Siberia were laid and built by Gulag prisoners: Komsomolsk-on-Amur and Sovetskaya Gavan in Khabarovsk Krai, Nakhodka in Primorsk Krai, Norilsk and Dudinka in Krasnoyarsk Krai. At its height, the Gulag system produced “a third of the country’s gold, much of its coal and timber, and a great deal of almost everything else” (Applebaum, p. xvi). According to other sources, the Gulag system at its height produced about 3% of the country’s GNP.

A special kind of forced labor was used in the sharashkas, secret research and development laboratories-cum-prisons also run by the NKVD.  In these facilities, scientists and engineers, often arrested on trumped up charges of sabotage, espionage and the like, were assigned to work on scientific and technological problems for the state. The results of their research were usually published without credit. Still, living conditions in sharashkas were usually much better than in an average Gulag camp, marked by the absence of hard labor. One of the best-known prisoners of a sharashka is Sergei Korolev, the father of the Soviet rocket and spacecraft engineering. A colleague who worked with Korolev in post-war years recalled a scene made by Korolev, then head of a prestigious scientific research institute in Moscow, who yelled at a low-level secretary for wearing gold jewelry. The poor woman, brought to tears by the emotional Korolev, did not know that prior to his imprisonment in sharashka he had served several months in a gold mine in the Kolyma area, and as a result the mere sight of gold jewelry enraged him. Luckily for both Korolev and Soviet space engineering, Korolev’s life was spared by reassignment to a sharashka, with help from the aircraft designers Andrei Tupolev and Vladimir Petlyakov, already incarcerated there on similarly trumped up charges. During World War II, this trio designed both the Tupolev Tu-2 bomber and the Petlyakov Pe-2 dive bomber. Korolev remained in the sharashka until 1944 and later continued to live under constant fear of being executed for the military secrets he possessed.

As a system of forced labor camps involving millions of people, the Gulag was dissolved after Stalin’s death in 1953. Three major uprisings – in Norilsk, Vorkuta, and Kengir – helped speed up the process. But the camps did not disappear altogether. Through the 1970s and into the mid 1980s, some were redesigned for a new generation of dissidents and common criminals. Although Mikhail Gorbachev formally abolished the political camps in 1987, the political persecution of those deemed dangerous to the government has never entirely ceased. Though the physical conditions of such prisoners are much improved, violations of the judicial system continue. One case that continues to make the news is that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.  Khodorkovsky was arrested on questionable grounds, imprisoned on charges other than those cited at the time of arrest, and incarcerated for nearly six years outside of his home region, all in violation of the Russian law. Many analysts believe that Khodorkovsky’s financial support of Russian opposition parties and disagreements with Putin over economic policies have cost him his freedom. Following the first trial, his company, Yukos, was forced into bankruptcy. In the tradition of Soviet purges, people who worked with Khodorkovsky, including some of his lawyers, have been arrested and convicted as well. In the same vein, just as Khodorkovsky’s release date approached, he was retried on new charges – which President Obama described as “repackaging of the old charges” – and received an extended sentence. Following the second trial, the human rights group Amnesty International declared Khodorkovsky a “prisoner of conscience” in May 2011. Garry Kasparov, chess champion and opposition politician, characterized his case as follows:

“His crime is not that he didn’t pay taxes. Just the opposite. His crime is that he did pay taxes straight into the tax administration. He wanted to be independent and honest, which according to unwritten laws of Putin’s regime is a crime.”

From 2005 to 2011 Khodorkovsky was incarcerated in a prison camp near the town of Krasnokamensk located 535 kilometers (332 mi) southeast of Chita, not far from where the famous Decembrists served their katorga sentences. But unlike the Decembrists, some of whom returned to European Russia as free men, Khodorkovsky has been transferred to another prison, this time in Karelia near the Finnish border. Departing President Medvedev has not pardoned Khodorkovsky, as many expected he would. Whether Khodorkovsky’s twin sons, who have just turned thirteen, will ever see their father a free man remains in the hands of one man, Vladimir Putin. The system, which has on the surface been reformed, continues to be “capricious and cruel”.



*GULag is the Russian acronym for Glavnoje upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovyx lagerej i kolonij ‘Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies’. From its creation in 1930 untill 1934, the Gulag was run by OGPU, which was then renamed NKVD (1934-1954). The same organization was originally known as CheKa (1917-1922), and later many its functions were given to KGB (1954-1991) and FSB (since 1991). Over time, the word “Gulag” has come to signify not just the administration of the camps but the whole system of Soviet forced labor itself.


**Ironically, the NKVD set up Gulag camps in the Soviet Occupation Zone in post-war Germany, including in the former Nazi concentration camps like Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, which featured the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” over its gate.

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