Grim secrets of the Gulag

Peasant Metropolis - The Gulag at War
September 22, 1995

Few will be unfamiliar with the harrowing memoir literature which disclosed the horrors of the Gulag, the vast punitive Soviet forced labour system. The slaves spoke out wherever possible but the slave masters themselves kept their secrets hidden and largely inviolate, even under Gorbachev's glasnost. The "great Gulag debate" of the 1980s proved to be inconclusive with respect to determining the size of the Gulag population, but Edwin Bacon's first-hand access to the archives has enabled him not only to unravel many of the mysteries of population figures but also conditions in the camps and the contribution of the labour camp system to the Soviet war economy.

To precede this analysis Edwin Bacon presents a detailed picture of the development of the complex system built round the Corrective Labour Camp (ITL) in which economic requirements and imperatives, the need to industrialise and for labour to exploit natural resources, steadily overrode both political rationalisations and ideological justification. By June 1941 the Gulag was a closed system, arguably a state within a state: three administrations and nine departments, engulfing millions serving penal sentences and serving the Soviet economy.

In an extremely significant analysis in the second half of the book, derived directly from archives hitherto only partly utilised or inaccessible, the author illustrates the degree to which the Gulag prisoners contributed not merely to the war economy of the Soviet Union but to the survival of the Soviet Union itself. This was a vital pool of manpower alternatively drained and refilled and from whom ever more was demanded, yet they were condemned as "at best anti-social and at worst enemies of the people".

According to General V.G. Nasedkin, over three years the Gulag sent 975,000 men to the Red Army to fill drastically depleted ranks. Thirty-five NKVD industrial colonies were turned over to produce vital ammunition, the prison labour force producing no less than 10-15 per cent of the entire Soviet ammunition output. To this must be added building factories, constructing roads, railways, airfields, supplying timber, mining gold, a Herculean effort paid for in horrific statistics of disease and mortality, not to mention abortive revolts. "Anti-Soviet activity", "anti-Soviet agitation" increased after June 1941 with the first ever armed uprising occurring at Vorkuta in January 1942. The archives record one person in 12 acting as informers; no less than 150,000 inmates or staff were arrested, one-tenth for "anti-Soviet agitation". Bacon needs no alibi for his reliance on the archive and statistics. His recourse to the archives, the act of compiling and analysing the data with such rigour, the chronicling of a nightmare war effort for long obscured, has produced a work of singular importance and harrowing illumination.

The drive to industrialise not only sucked victims into the Gulag, it lured the peasants to towns and cities. Of the 23 million involved in this unique mass "in-migration" during the 1930s, two million made their way to Moscow to form a newly urbanised workforce, one which held out the promise of constituting a loyal proletariat committed to "building socialism". In his engrossing study of the social, political and economic effects of the peasant influx into Moscow David Hoffmann demonstrates from a vast array of evidence how on the one hand the long-standing tradition of migration assisted industrialisation by directing peasant labour to factories and construction work but on the other the shape of that workforce was in the hands of village networks rather than official recruitment programmes. The failure of the authorities to control migration "amounted to loss of influence over the new workers", which in turn led to nothing short of a protracted struggle between officialdom and former peasants now recruited to the urban workforce.

The former peasants did not take kindly to attempts to impose a "work culture" and labour discipline upon them, in fact it appears that they did not take to either at all, relying rather on their own work culture and "pre-industrial traditions" to implement their own work routines, thus colliding with managerial authority and hamstringing industrial rationalisation. The peasant simply refused to become the "New Soviet Person". With scholarship as penetrating as it is original, Hoffmann shows quite dramatically that for all the slogans the Soviet industrial system, with its "undisciplined workforce, weakened management and Party and police interference", never achieved "rationalised and routinised production". Neither the spectre of the Gulag nor draconian labour laws cowed, converted or convinced this peasant com-munity.

John Erickson is director, Centre for Defence Studies, University of Edinburgh.

Peasant Metropolis: Social Identities in Moscow, 1929-1941

Author - David L. Hoffman
ISBN - 0 8014 2942 0
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Price - $32.50
Pages - 282

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments