All 3 entries tagged Forced-Labour

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May 14, 2009

At the Centre of the Gulag Archipelago, a Quiet Lagoon …

What sights and sensations does the word "lagoon" evoke? The poet Sheri Hoff thinks of:

A quiet lagoon...
Floating in the salty, blue water,
the sun shining on my face.

That's what it makes me think of, too.

If you like playing with words, there can be other associations. For Germans and Russians the first syllable of this beautiful word might evoke less pleasurable images. If the British invented the concentration camp (at the time of the Boer war), the Germans abbreviated the term to konzentrationslager and the Russians imported the word lager from German for their own forced labour camps. "Lag" was the Soviet-era abbreviation of anything to do with the institutions of forced labour. GULAG for example, was the chief administration of labour camps of the USSR interior ministry in Moscow; Siblag, Sevlag, among many others, were respectively the Siberian and Northern camp complexes.

But how could you get from the frostbitten outposts of the Soviet empire, encircled by barbed wire, to a lagoon? While some could only dream, others played with words.

On July 5, 1946, Lt. Col. Luferov, chief of the secretariat of GULAG (the chief administration of labour camps) of the USSR MVD (interior ministry) in Moscow, signed off a curt memorandum to his party comrade Major Silant'ev, chief of the control and inspection department (the document is in the Soviet archives collection of the Hoover Institution: GARF, f. R-9414, op. 1 dop., d. 144A, folio 91):

I inform you that the word "Laguna" is assigned to GULAG as its customary telegraphic address.

I request you to inform all departments and administrations of the USSR interior ministry chief administration of labour camps and also the peripheral units: ITL MVD [the labour camps themselves], UITLK MVD (the administration of labour camps and colonies), OITK MVD [the department of labour colonies], and PFL MVD [the verification and filtration camps for returning Soviet prisoners of war and labourers previously held in Germany].

This story shows that even the most heartless of Soviet bureaucrats could hear the poetry of word-play in his soul.

May 02, 2009

Truth in Humour; No Humour in Truth

In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn recounted the Stalin-era joke of the labour camp guard who asked a newly arrived convict about the length of his sentence.

The man says 25 years, but proclaims he is innocent!

The guard retorts that he must have done something because the innocent are only given 10 years.

There can be a grain of truth in humour; that's what makes it funny. In this case, it's a matter of historical record that millions of people suffered unjust imprisonment or execution in Stalin's time. It isn't funny when the victim says it; the joke is when it is said by the perpetrator.

This next bit isn't a joke.

On January 31, 1938, the Politburo of the party Central Committee in Moscow considered the problem of foreign refugees. (The document is in the Soviet archives collection of the Hoover Institution: RGANI, f. 89, op. 73, d. 11, folio 53). The minutes of the meeting record:

It has been established that foreign intelligence services are casting their mass espionage and sabotage network of agents into the USSR, mainly under the guise of refugees and those apparently seeking a political safe haven, better economic conditions in consequence of unemployment, deserters from military units and border security, and returning migrants and emigrants.

The Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) resolves:

  1. To propose to the USSR NKVD [interior ministry in charge of state security] to arrest immediately and subject to meticulous interrogation all refugees detained at the border, regardless of their motives for entering the territory of the USSR.
  2. All refugees for whom it is established directly or indirectly that they entered the territory of the USSR with espionage, sabotage, or other anti-Soviet intentions -- to hand them over to the court of the Military Tribunal, with mandatory application of [death by] shooting. 
  3. Cases of all refugees for whom it is established that they entered the territory of the USSR without ill intentions -- to hand them over for consideration by the USSR NKVD Special Asssembly, with application of the penalty of 10 years' imprisonment ... [emphasis added]

So: Guilty, death. Innocent, ten years. It didn't make me laugh.

December 11, 2008

Victims and Perpetrators

Writing about web page

I spent a long weekend in Moscow at an international conference on “The History of Stalinism: Research Problems and Results." The conference was an important public event, organized by liberal scholars to counter the conservative tendencies in government and popular culture. There were 400 participants including academicians, archive directors, professors, and members of the public. In addition to many Russians there were scholars from Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and Japan. The closing session was chaired by Nikolai Svanidze, Russia's Jonathan Dimbleby; Putin's minister for education and science Andrei Fursenko attended and spoke briefly.

Russia's citizens know little about Stalin. We are 55 years since Stalin's death, so no one younger than 60 can have a clear memory of the time when he ruled; the average life expectancy of Russian men today is 59 years. They know only what their parents and grandparents told them. A majority believes Stalin was a positive figure -- on balance, one of the great leaders of the twentieth century. There is nostalgia, inflated by conservative myth-making, summed up in the common perception that Russia needs strong, centralized leadership and should avoid the "excesses" of democracy.

My taxi driver to the airport, a man in his 50s, told me that his family was rooted in the trading class of Riazan, to the south east of Moscow. In the 1930s relatives of his grandparents' generation were arrested and executed. But when I asked for his personal view of Stalin he told me Stalin was too far away and high up for him to care. "The most terrible tsar," he said, "is the one that is nearest to you -- your boss at work or the neighbourhood bully." Between Stalin and the victims were many layers of perpetrators, who were also responsible.

That's true, of course. One statistic I heard quoted in the meetings was that, by the fall of the Soviet system, the KGB had 25 million informers -- a tenth of the whole Soviet population.

But, while true, it doesn't do justice to Stalin. One feature of Stalin is that he was an effective dictator. He had an exceptional talent for orchestrating the activities of those under him. As master of the ruling party and state, he ran an army-like command system that directed the lives of everyone. One thing that he orchestrated was the murder of three quarters of a million "potential enemies" in the Great Terror of 1937. When he gave the order, the shooting started. He ordered the creation of lists of numbers to be executed by region and category. He accepted or rejected the amendments proposed by those below him. When he was satisfied that enough had been shot, he gave another order and the shooting stopped.

So, who was more terrible: the man that fired the bullet, or the one that gave the order?

For the sake of justice, to bring the facts into the open, and to reconcile the state with its victims, both the man that fired the bullet and the man that gave the order need to be held to account. Not only Stalin but those who followed his orders. Not only those who followed orders, but Stalin himself. As South Africa has shown, it is possible to have truth and reconciliation without revenge, but without truth there can be no reconciliation.

One participant in the meeting noted that the crimes of Stalinism have produced victims but no perpetrators. Some real perpetrators were punished in Stalin's time, because Stalin was not satisfied until he had "cleaned out" his own secret police in addition to the rest of society. But Stalin is dead; since the collapse of communism not one executioner or torturer has been brought to account. The archives protect them from history, since files relating to living persons may not be disclosed and the families of dead persons retain the right to prevent disclosure.

On a different note, as an economist I was interested in discussion of the efficiency of forced labour. There is a debate about how effectively Stalin's GULAG labour camps used their resources. At various times Stalin held between a million and two and a half million people in the labour camps of the GULAG, but since most sentences were relatively short the throughput was much higher. During Stalin's time, maybe 25 million people passed into the GULAG -- and most came out again. In peacetime the annual death rate averaged around 30 per thousand, rising to 200 per thousand in the worst years of the war when there was not enough food to go round. Most forced labourers were engaged in logging and mining in the remote regions of the far north and east, and in construction around the country. A few were engaged in research and development, as Solzhenitsyn described in The First Circle.

How effectively were the forced labourers used? To some participants in the meeting, this question was clearly a source of anxiety.

By the end of Stalin's lifetime senior officials saw the GULAG as a financial loss-maker and an economic and social burden. They wanted increasingly to abolish it, but couldn't persuade Stalin. Conditions were awful and labourers were paid little, but even behind barbed wire it was hard to force effort out of people who had little or nothing to lose, so even in the labour camps there were cash incentives and better food for hard workers. A million forced labourers required a hundred thousand guards. In short, forced labour was not as cheap as you might think. Productivity was probably low on average, but some camp commanders may have been better at forcing or inducing effort than others. Or perhaps some were better than others at inflating reports; that is also possible. There are many details in the evidence, and as yet there is no summary.

So what? Here's what. More than 30 years ago there was a debate on the profitability of American slavery before the Civil War. Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross settled it, showing clearly that slavery was profitable. What did this mean? It meant that slavery would not have withered of its own accord. It was necessary to fight a civil war and spill blood to destroy it. That was how the American debate went.

Here is how the Russian debate goes: if the GULAG labourers were unproductive, if the GULAG was a burden on society, well and good that it is gone. But if it was productive and profitable -- well, then it worked! In that case, why not restore it? If only parts of the GULAG were efficient, why not study those parts to find out the secret -- and copy that? In short, on one side of the Russian debate, the price of forced labour paid in liberty lost and blood and tears spilt is seen as unimportant, compared with patriotic pride in the success of a great national effort carried out within barbed wire and under armed guard.

To conclude, we need to research the facts about Stalinism, but we also need a moral compass. A former comrade once said (I paraphrase, because neither the ideas nor the words were mine): "we study what happened in history, not to criticize history in the light of our ideals, but so that we can criticize our ideals in the light of history." I go along with that; communism is a nice set of ideals, but it is because of knowing what has happened in history that we can see its consequences. Evidently, to draw conclusions from the economic record of Soviet forced labour is a test not only of our knowledge but also of our political morality.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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