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Book review: Oleg Khlevniuk' s History of the GULAG
Oleg V. Khlevniuk:The History of the GULAG: From Collectivization to the
After a comparatively
restrained repression during the 1920s, the Soviet regime began a series of
campaigns against potential or imagined opponents. From that decade, the
structure of the Stalinist penal system was created. Its key feature was the
large-scale exploitation of convicts in labor camps, where many convicts died.
The bureau of the Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey, (Chief
Directorate of Corrective Labor Camps)--called at times the GULAG, part of the
OGPU, and later the NKVD--managed the Soviet penal system, and its various
acronyms became synonymous with mass repression.
The growth of the
penal system was part of Stalin's successive campaigns to break the Soviet
population to his will. The penal system's history has been known in broad
outlines, but lacked precise data until the archives of the Communist Party and
the central GULAG administration became available. Oleg Khlevniuk, from the
State Archives of the Russian Federation (GARF), uses these now public internal
documents to trace the GULAG expansion from 1929 to 1941 in The History
of the GULAG: From Collectivization to the Great Terror. He describes the
circumstances that led the Stalinist regime to prefer camps over other forms of
forced labor, including evidence that shows Stalin's responsibility for the
terror and repression. He uses regulations and reports to show that while the
penal system intended to isolate and exploit (not exterminate), its brutality
and disregard for human life cost the lives of many. From his deep knowledge of
the archives, he adds precision to the discussion about the overall scale of
Stalinist repression during these years, and the likely number of dead. His
book adds to the ongoing debate among genocide scholars: Was Stalin's GULAG a
genocidal act or not?
Initially, the regime
preferred labor settlements as the main form of penal labor. From 1930 to 1933,
"Kulaks" (land-owning peasants) and their families were exiled to
create settlements in the forests of northern Russia, Siberia, or the steppes
of Central Asia. After executing at least 20,000 Kulaks, another 2.14 million
were dumped in the wilderness with inadequate food, tools, and shelter (another
4 million "Third Category" Kulaks were resettled on wasteland in
their home region). The exiles labored for the government, with nature and
climate cutting much of the cost of guarding the settlements. However, so many
died that the regime stopped deportations in 1933 and issued several
resolutions. After five years, Kulaks might have their civil rights restored,
though they would never leave their exile settlements. They could send invalids
and children to relatives. Punishments, fines, arrest, penal teams, and penal
quarters were implemented, but wardens were ordered not to use food or physical
abuse as punishment. Life, though harsh, gradually improved. Of those who had
arrived as children, the government established regulations that set many of
them free after they became adults, letting them leave the settlements.
mass exile was still used. In 1935 and 1937 two waves of
"counterrevolutionary national contingents" (p. 146), were
exiled--borderland ethnic groups, such as 171,000 Koreans, were dumped in
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Many did not survive the first winter. The same
happened to 400,000 Poles deported from areas annexed after the Hitler-Stalin
In 1929, OGPU managed
only labor camps. In 1931 it also became the administrator of labor
settlements, and in 1934, as the new NKVD-USSR, of labor colonies and prisons.
While labor colonies remained an important but secondary part of the GULAG
penal system, labor camps became the primary manner of convict labor. Already
in June 1929, before the Dekulakization and Collectivization campaigns, the
Politburo had added 50,000 convicts to the small labor camps to develop mining
and agriculture in remote regions. The camps grew from 179,000 convicts in 1930
to 510,307 in 1934.
Yet the need to get the work done also made OGPU leaders
try to preserve the long-term exploitability of convicts. For example, a
November 1930 regulation stressed that the daily ration remain at 2,500
calories. Convicts could earn bonus days towards early release and sick
convicts could not be worked to death, but sent to "recovery teams,"
though not those "whose health cannot be restored" (p. 43); they
would just die. Though the camps continued to grow - 725,483 in 1935 to 839,406
in 1936, then falling to 820,881 in 1937- the proportion of deaths fell, as new
convicts arrived in reasonable health, camp rations became more plentiful, and
the disabled were released. Anxious to know the true conditions in the camps,
the NKVD leadership even put sealed complaint boxes in camps, mailed
periodically to Moscow, and prosecuted a few commanders for wasting convicts.
In September 1936,
Stalin appointed Nicolai Yezhov head of the NKVD. Several smaller groups were
purged, such as naturalized foreigners, and then, in July 1937, the Politburo
issued Order Nr. 00447 "To repress former kulaks, criminals, and other
anti-soviet elements" (p.145), which began the mass-repression period
called the Great Terror. Though "seemingly chaotic," Khlevniuk notes,
the Great Terror was "a centrally directed action against various groups
perceived as real or potential enemies" (p. 140). Stalin decided at all
times the scale and scope of the repression, yet in such a manner that he could
abruptly end it and blame the bloodshed on overzealous local NKVD agents.
Khlevniuk cites new bloodcurdling internal NKVD reports that confirm survivor
testimony found in works by Roy Medvedev and Robert Conquest.
decided to end the mass purge, he scapegoated Yezhov and his crew, notably for
using torture, technically against the law. But when Yezhov's successor,
Lavrenti Beria, asked Stalin for guidance, he confirmed to Beria that torture
was allowed and ordered an end to prosecutions of NKVD agents. To the scared
masses it seemed that Stalin had not known of the bloodshed, and once he did
had boldly reestablished socialist legality. For the number of victims, Khlevniuk
follows the 1953 NKVD Pavlov report, published in greater detail by Arch Getty
and Oleg Naumov. But he cautions that the numbers noted in the NKVD report
are a "minimal starting point" (p. 305), as obviously many people
died without formal NKVD reports filed in Moscow.
During the Great
Terror, the labor camp population jumped from 996,367 in 1938 to 1,317,195 in
1939 while life in the penal system worsened. Though seven new camp complexes
were built, they could not handle the huge influx of new, often sick, convicts,
despite orders that only able-bodied convicts be sent to labor camps. Internal
reports speak of emaciated prisoners in infirmaries "lying naked on long
bunks" (p.174). Of the 54,000 convicts at Ukhta-Pechora Camp, above the
Arctic Circle, 8,000 were so sick they could not work at all and 11,132 were
only to do light work according to the rules--yet they did heavy labor. Death
rates in several camps were so high that Khlevniuk calls them "provisional
death camps" (p. 178) since the state knew, yet did not care, that people
were dying in such numbers. Disappointing the regime's hopes, many of the new
convicts were too weak to fulfill the work expectations.
The NKVD was now one
of the largest economic enterprises in the country and Stalin kept assigning it
new projects, straining its resources. Beria successfully lobbied Stalin for
new convicts. In June 1939 the Politburo ended early releases, allowed the
transfer of more short-term prisoners from prisons and labor colonies to the
camps, and gave the NKVD the right to execute convict "absentees, those
refusing to work, and wreckers" (p. 203). The GULAG issued circulars
warning against convict self-mutilation to gain early release and exhorted
guards to punish them. To prevent escapes, Beria expanded the network of spies
and fabricated a few cases of anti-Soviet underground to intimidate convicts.
In 1940 the regime criminalized many workers in the general population by
punishing unauthorized leaves with time in a prison or labor colony, as well as
absences and tardiness. In less than a year over 3 million people were
convicted thus, with 500,000 transferred to labor camps. The number of convicts
grew from 1,344,408 in 1940, to 1,500,524 in 1941, falling to 1,415,596 in
By January 1, 1941,
there were 4 million people registered in the four branches of the GULAG penal
system: 1.5 million in NKVD corrective labor camps; 429,000 in labor colonies;
488,000 in prisons; and 1.5 million in special settlements, excluding the
Polish citizens exiled in 1940 and those nominally freed but still bonded to
the exile village. Another 2 million did corrective labor, a step away from the
GULAG, to which they would be sent at the next infraction.
What had been the
"price of terror"? And why? Some historians, such as Robert Thurston,
argue that Stalin did not know about the terror, that it was a reflection of
bureaucratic infighting, or that the enslavement of people was a necessary, if
cruel, method to quickly industrialize the country. Khlevniuk, on the other hand,
stresses that new Politburo Special Files indicate that repression and terror
were always initiated and supervised from Moscow, and Stalin's role was
"active and decisive" (p. 331). Not once did NKVD leaders decide an
important issue without Stalin's approval. Each wave of repression had
political goals, the economic use of the repressed being a secondary though
welcome side effect, especially as Soviet leaders were convinced that centrally
managed slave labor was more effective than free labor. Yet, Khlevniuk shows,
save for a few specific projects, convict labor was less economical. Also, many
GULAG projects were ill-conceived, adding little lasting value to the
infrastructure. The GULAG system did not help the Soviet Union industrialize
faster than less repressive forms of labor would have.
Concerning camp life,
the new archival documents Khlevniuk reprints show a lesser known side of
Beria, who, according to these records, truly tried to make the camps more
efficient, notably by checking that the official food and clothing ration was
distributed and keeping overly brutal camp commanders on their toes with
impromptu audits and occasional prosecutions for wrecking the slave herd. His
efforts lowered the official death from 6.7 percent overall in 1938, with 10.4
percent average in forest camps, to 2.9 percent and 3.5 percent respectively,
in 1939. Yet he could not be successful. He did not set the overall plan in
which the GULAG was expected to be self-sufficient, the fees paid by other
agencies for its work covering its expenses--a plan that always assumed convict
labor to be cheaper than it really was.
The NKVD leaders' orders to keep
convicts in good condition also put camp commanders in a difficult spot.
Convicts who did not fulfill their norm were under threat of harsh
punishment--but so were camp commanders. To fulfill their allotment, camp
commanders pushed convicts to the brink. In turn the NKVD center could not be
too strict without crashing the system. To ease the pressure, camp staff simply
fed tufta (garbage) into the statistics, bribing controllers
to report work complete when it was not or by listing dead inmates as escapees
in their reports. And just when Beria seemed to have stabilized camp mortality,
Stalin crashed his reforms with a new wave of repression and assignments that
sent death rates soaring. In 1940, the GULAG grew by nearly 200,000 inmates;
the workday was raised from 10 to 11 hours, with 3 days off per month.
Using the 1953 NKVD
reports by MVD Colonel Pavlov, still "our main source" (p. 287),
Khlevniuk discusses the scale and scope of Stalinist repression during the
decade. This report was published in English in 1992 and remains our main
archival source given that the FSB archives are closed again and regional
studies are still lacking detail. For some historians, the NKVD report shows
that the regime, except for the Great Terror, was not that lethal, especially
if one adopted its restricted definition of "political crimes" while
obfuscating its responsibility for the terror-famine.
On the other side,
Alexander Yakovlev, who as a Politburo member saw other secret reports and knew
something about the quality of Soviet statistics, stated about the Pavlov
numbers for the Great Terror (but by extension about Pavlov's numbers in general),
that "These figures, of course, are false." Considering that the
central planning was based on laboriously collected yet unreliable statistics,
with the 1930s an era of egregious statistical make-believe (e.g., the saga of
the population Census of 1937 and 1939), one should indeed be distrustful.
Based on his knowledge
of the archives, Khlevniuk provides clarification to the debate. Concerning the
scale of the repression, he notes that the NKVD data does not include arrests
and sentences by police and regular courts, though from 1930 to 1940, non-NKVD
courts passed 19.9 million convictions. Most were sentenced to corrective labor
at their regular workplace or received suspended sentences, but 5,580,000
people received prison terms. The number of prison sentences is taken from a
2001 study by Kokurin and Morukov. Khlevniuk cautions the reader that the two
authors "did not explain their method of calculation" (p.391, n16,
23). One wished for clarification--was their number reliable or not? Some
historians essentially limit the victims of political repression to those
sentenced by NKVD organs, but Khlevniuk, from his knowledge of the NKVD
memoranda, concludes that most people sentenced by the non-NKVD courts were
also "victims of the regime's brutality and its terrorist nature rather
than ordinary criminals" (p. 306).
And so, from 1930 to 1940, a total of
21 million people were sentenced (some repeaters) by NKVD and non-NKVD courts,
plus 2.8 million Kulaks and exiled borderland ethnics, and over 4 million third-category
Kulaks resettled within their home region, a staggering proportion of repressed
for a population of about 100 million adults.
Concerning the number
of inmates in labor camps, Khlevniuk stresses that the Pavlov report was
reliable, especially after 1934, when statistics were kept by the Department of
Accounting and Distribution (URO) in a kind of double ledger system. Including
repeaters and excluding those who died, Khlevniuk estimates that at least 3.75
million people "went through" the camps from 1934 to 1940. Under
normal conditions (no purges), camp mortality was lower than commonly believed,
for there were no children and old people and permanent invalids were
periodically released. Less trustworthy is the NKVD reported total for the dead,
from 1930 to 1941 575,000 dead inmates in camps, colonies, and prisons.
total is too low, Khlevniuk stresses, for many inmates who died were listed in
other categories or not counted at all, such as the dead in Kolyma (1930-1933),
those who died outside medical facilities (he estimates at 30,000 for both),
and those who vanished during intercamp transports, (176,740 from 1934 to
1941). The official category to other penitentiaries also included camp
executions, while camp commanders tried to minimize camp mortality by reporting
deaths as escapees. From 1934 to 1941, the difference between
"escaped" and "captured escapees" is a staggering 122,176.
Also not included are 1932-1933 deaths in prison, when about 800,000 prisoners
were fed, at times, only 400 calories a day.
Out of 2.1 million inmates, the
NKVD reported nearly 600,000 deaths for 1930-1934, and listed another 600,000
as "escaped" for 1931-1932. Now a few might indeed have successfully
escaped their isolated outposts, and a few invalids were released after July
1931 to relatives. But most of these "escapees" were probably dead.
The mortality among the 650,000 borderland ethnics deported between 1935 and
1937 is unknown and the fate of the 400,000 Polish exiles is only partly clear.
Khlevniuk notes that
the number of dead in the GULAG "should be augmented," (p. 321) but
does not venture an overall estimate. But looking at the statistical shadows in
his discussion would give as probable numbers: 1 million who died in detention,
1.3 million who died as exiles, and 735,000 executions. He puts the victims of
the terror-famine at a conservative 6-7 million. If one adds the likely dead
among the "third-category" Kulaks and freed invalids dying after
their release because of their time in the GULAG, this would support R.W.
Davies' estimate that the new NKVD data shows 10-11 million deaths caused by
the Soviet state in the 1930s.
On the technical side,
the translation from Russian is excellent. While reading, one does not have the
feeling that it is a translation, which is important, as a bad translation can
stump the reader. And there is much to stump the reader anyway, for the text is
dense. It needs to be read carefully, pencil and pocket calculator at hand.
This work adds much to our knowledge about the internal workings of the
Stalinist penal regime. It is especially useful for the printing, in full, of
104 source documents, invaluable for those without access to Russian archives.
Oleg Khlevniuk's The History of the GULAG: From Collectivization to the
Great Terror should serve as an excellent resource for college
instructors and others interested in the Stalinist regime.
. Roy Medvedev, Let
History Judge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989); Robert
Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1990).
. Arch J. Getty and
Oleg V. Naumov, Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the
Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).
. Robert Thurston, Life
and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941 (New Haven: Yale University
. Alexander N.
Yakovlev, A Century of Violence (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2002), p. 233.
. R.W. Davies,
"Forced Labour under Stalin: The Archives Revelations," New
Left Review 214 (1995): pp. 62-80.
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Covid County Simulator Overview Select the state and county using the drop-down boxes at the top of the page and the page will update with: Daily active cases 3-week forecast of active cases 100-day projection of active cases and deaths Note that you have to look below the graph to see the total projected deaths. Check covidcountysim.org daily as the regression forecast and simulation may change when we upload data each day from Johns Hopkins' GitHub site. Mortality rate : You can override the calculated rate by typing a new one into the field. The model will use the new rate to calculate the number of deaths at the end of the simulation until you refresh the page. Running a social distancing ‘intervention’ The intervention date is set to after the prediction period ends. Then use the slider to increase or decrease social distancing. You will notice that this changes the target Rt value, which is the value you are targeting based