Modern history

Chapter 21


Today I bid farewell to the camp with a cheerful smile,
To the wires that for a year kept freedom away . . .
Will nothing be left of me here,
Will nothing restrain my hurried steps today?
Oh no! Behind the wire I leave a Golgotha of pain
Still trying to pull me to the outer ends of misery.
Behind I leave graves of anguish and the remains of yearning
And secretly shed tears, the beads of our rosary . . .

All that now seems to have floated away, like a leaf blown off a tree At long last we have broken our ties of bondage. And my heart is no longer filled with hate For today rainbows break through the clouds in my eyes!

—Janusz Wedów, “Goodbye to the Camp” 1

MANY OF THE METAPHORS that have been used to describe the Soviet repressive system—the “meat-grinder,” the “conveyor belt”—make it sound relentless, inexorable, uncompromising. Yet at the same time, the system was not static: it kept turning, churning, producing new surprises. If it is true that the years from 1941 to 1943 brought death, illness, and tragedy to millions of Soviet prisoners, it is equally true that for millions of others the war brought freedom.

Amnesties for healthy men, of fighting age, began only days after the war broke out. As early as July 12, 1941, the Supreme Soviet ordered the Gulag to free certain categories of prisoners directly into the Red Army: “those sentenced for missing work, for ordinary and insignificant administrative and economic crimes.” The order was repeated several more times. In all, the NKVD released 975,000 prisoners during the first three years of the war, along with several hundred thousand ex-kulak special exiles. More amnesties continued up to, and during, the final assault on Berlin. 2 On February 21, 1945, three months before the end of the war, more orders were issued to release prisoners: the Gulag was told to have them ready for induction into the army by March 15.3

The size of these amnesties had an enormous impact on the demography of the camps during the war, and, consequently, on the lives of those who remained behind. New prisoners poured into the camps, mass amnesties freed others, and millions died, making statistics for the war years extremely deceptive. Figures for the year 1943 show an apparent decline in the prisoner population, from 1.5 million to 1.2 million. In that year, however, another figure indicates that 2,421,000 prisoners passed through the Gulag, some newly arrested, some newly released, some transferred between camps, and many dead.4 Still, despite the hundreds of thousands of new prisoners arriving every month, the total number of Gulag inmates most definitely declined between June 1941 and July 1944. Several forestry camps, hurriedly set up to accommodate the glut of new prisoners in 1938, were just as rapidly eliminated.5 Remaining prisoners worked longer and longer workdays, yet even so, labor shortages were endemic. In Kolyma, during the war years, even free citizens were expected to help pan for gold in their free hours after work.6

Not that all prisoners were allowed to go: the amnesty orders explicitly excluded both “criminal recidivists”—meaning the professional criminals—as well as the political prisoners. Exceptions were made for a very few. Recognizing, perhaps, the damage done to the Red Army by the arrests of leading officers in the late 1930s, a few officers with political sentences had been quietly released after the Soviet invasion of Poland. Among them was General Alexander Gorbatov, who was recalled to Moscow from a distantlagpunkt of Kolyma in the winter of 1940. Upon seeing Gorbatov, the interrogator assigned to reinvestigate his case looked again at a photograph taken before his arrest, and immediately began asking questions. He was trying to establish whether the skeleton in front of him could really be one of the army’s most talented young officers: “My quilt trousers were patched, my legs were wrapped in cloths and I wore miner’s ankle boots. I also had a padded jerkin which was smooth and shiny with dirt. I wore a tattered, filthy cap with earflaps ...”7 Gorbatov was ultimately released in March 1941, just before the German offensive. In the spring of 1945, as noted, he led one of the assaults on Berlin.

For ordinary soldiers, amnesty did not guarantee survival. Many speculate—although the archives have not yet confirmed this—that the prisoners released from the Gulag into the Red Army were assigned to “penal battalions” and sent directly to the most dangerous sections of the front. The Red Army was notorious for its willingness to sacrifice men, and it is not hard to imagine that commanders were even more willing to sacrifice former prisoners. One ex-prisoner, the dissident Avraham Shifrin, claimed to have been put into a penal battalion because he was the son of an “enemy of the people.” According to his account, he and his comrades were sent directly to the front despite a shortage of weapons: 500 men were given 100 rifles. “Your weapons are in the hands of the Nazis,” the officers told them. “Go get them.” Shifrin survived, although he was wounded twice.8

Nevertheless, Soviet prisoners who joined the Red Army often distinguished themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, few seem to have objected to fighting for Stalin either. At least from the way he tells it, General Gorbatov never had a moment’s hesitation about rejoining the Soviet army, or about fighting on behalf of a Communist Party which had arrested him without cause. Upon hearing of the German invasion, his first thought was of how fortunate he was to have been freed: he could use his regained strength for the benefit of the motherland. He also writes with pride of the “Soviet arms” that his soldiers were able to use, “thanks to the industrialization of our country,” with no comment about how that industrialization was achieved. True, on a number of occasions he showers scorn upon the Red Army’s “political officers”—the military secret police—for meddling too much with the work of the soldiers, and he was once or twice mistreated by NKVD officers, who murmured darkly that he “hadn’t learned much in Kolyma.” But the sincerity of his patriotism is hard to doubt.9

This also appears to have been true of many other released prisoners, at least from the evidence contained in NKVD files. In May 1945, the Gulag’s boss, Viktor Nasedkin, composed an elaborate, almost gushing report on the patriotism and the fighting spirit shown by former prisoners who had entered the Red Army, quoting extensively from letters they sent back to their former camps. “First of all, I inform you that I am in a hospital in Kharkov, wounded,” wrote one. “I defended my beloved Motherland, disregarding my own life. I too was sentenced for working badly, but our beloved Party gave me the chance to pay back my debts to society by achieving victory on the front line. By my own calculations, I killed 53 fascists with my steel bullets.”

Another wrote to express his thanks:

First of all, I write to thank you sincerely for re-educating me. In the past, I was a recidivist, considered dangerous to society, and therefore was placed more than once in a prison, where I learned to work. Now, the Red Army has put even more trust in me, it has taught me to be a good commander, and trusted me with fighting comrades. With them, I go bravely into battle, they respect me for the care I take of them, and for correctness with which we fulfill the military tasks we are set.

Occasionally, officers wrote back to camp commanders too. “During the storming of Chernigov, Comrade Kolesnichenko commanded a company,” wrote one captain. “The former prisoner matured into a cultured, steadfast, and militant commander.”

With the exception of five ex-zeks who became Heroes of the Soviet Union, receiving the highest military distinction in the Red Army, there do not appear to be separate records of how many other ex-prisoners won medals. But the records of the more than 1,000zeks who wrote back to their camps are instructive: 85 had become officers, 34 had been inducted into the Communist Party, and 261 had won medals.10 While this was probably not a typical sampling of ex-prisoners, there is no reason to think that it was very unusual either. The war produced a surge of patriotism across the Soviet Union, and former prisoners were allowed to take part in it.11

Perhaps more surprisingly, prisoners still serving out their sentences in camps were sometimes swept up by patriotic feelings as well. Even harsh new rules and cuts in food supplies did not necessarily turn all of the Gulag’s zeks into hardened opponents of the Soviet regime. On the contrary, many later wrote that the worst thing about having been in a concentration camp in June 1941 was being unable to go to the front and fight. The war was raging, their comrades were fighting—and they were far in the rear, burning with patriotism. They instantly snubbed all the German prisoners as fascists, insulted the guards for not being at the front, and constantly exchanged gossip and rumors about the war. As Evgeniya Ginzburg remembered, “We were ready to forgive and forget now that the whole nation was suffering, ready to write off the injustice done to us ...”12

On a few occasions, prisoners in camps close to the front line had the opportunity to put their patriotism into practice. In a report he intended as a contribution to the history of the Great Motherland War, Pokrovsky, a former employee of Soroklag, a camp in the Karelian Republic, near the Finnish border, described an incident which took place during the camp’s hasty evacuation:

The column of tanks was growing closer, the situation was becoming critical, when one of the prisoners . . . jumped up into the cabin of a truck, and began driving as fast as possible toward the tank. Slamming into the tank, the prisoner-hero was destroyed, along with the truck—but the tank also stopped and burst into flames. The road was blocked, the other tanks turned around in the opposite direction. It saved the situation, and made possible the evacuation of the rest of the colony.

Pokrovsky also described how a group of more than 600 freed prisoners, stranded in the camp by the lack of trains, voluntarily threw themselves into the work of building the defenses of the city of Belomorsk:

All of them agreed with one voice, and immediately formed themselves into working brigades, delegating brigadiers and foremen. This group of freed prisoners worked on the defenses for more than a week, with exceptional zeal, from early morning until late evening, 13 to 14 hours every day. The only thing they demanded in return was that someone conduct political talks with them, and give them information about the situation on the front line. I fulfilled this task conscientiously.13

Camp propaganda encouraged such patriotism, and generally gathered pace during the war. As elsewhere in the Soviet Union, there were poster campaigns, war films, and lectures. Prisoners were told “we would now have to work even harder, since every gram of gold we dug out would be a blow against facism.”14 Of course, it is impossible to know whether this sort of propaganda worked, just as it is impossible to know whether any propaganda ever works. But the Gulag administration did perhaps take this message more seriously when the Gulag’s production capacity suddenly became vital to the Soviet war effort. In his pamphlet on re-education, “Return to Life,” the KVCh officer Loginov wrote that the slogan “All for the Front, all for Victory” found a “warm echo” in the hearts of those working behind the front lines in the camps of the Gulag: “The prisoners, temporarily isolated from society, doubled and tripled the pace of their work. Selflessly working in factories, building sites, woodlands, and fields, they threw all of their highly productive work into speeding up the defeat of the enemy at the front.”15

Without a doubt, the Gulag did make an industrial contribution to the war effort. In the first eighteen months of the war, thirty-five Gulag “colonies” were converted to the production of ammunition. Many of the timber camps were put to work producing ammunition cases. At least twenty camps made Red Army uniforms, while others made field telephones, more than 1.7 million gas masks, and 24,000 mortar stands. Over one million inmates were put to work on the construction of railways, roads, and airfields. Whenever there was a sudden, urgent need for construction workers—when a pipeline gave way or a new rail route had to be constructed—the Gulag was usually called in to do it. As in the past, Dalstroi produced virtually all of the Soviet Union’s gold.16

But, as in peacetime, this data, and the efficiency it appears to suggest, is deceptive. “From the first days of the war, the Gulag organized its industries in order to meet the needs of those fighting at the front,” wrote Nasedkin. Might those needs not have been better met by free workers? Elsewhere, he records that production of certain types of ammunition quadrupled. 17 How much more ammunition might have been made if patriotic prisoners had been allowed to work in ordinary factories? Thousands of soldiers who might have been at the front were kept behind the lines, guarding the imprisoned workforce. Thousands of NKVD men were deployed arresting and then releasing the Poles. They too might have been better used. Thus did the Gulag contribute to the war effort—and probably help to undermine it as well.

Alongside General Gorbatov and a few other military men, there was another, much larger exception to the general rule against political amnesties. Despite what the NKVD had told them, the exile of the Poles to the outer edges of the USSR was not, in the end, destined to be permanent. On July 30, 1941, a month after the launch of Barbarossa, General Sikorski, the leader of the Polish government-in-exile in London, and Ambassador Maisky, the Soviet envoy to Great Britain, signed a truce. The Sikorski-Maisky Pact, as the treaty was called, re-established a Polish state—its borders still to be determined—and granted an amnesty to “all Polish citizens who are at present deprived of their freedom on the territory of the USSR.”

Both Gulag prisoners and deported exiles were officially freed, and allowed to join a new division of the Polish army, to be formed on Soviet soil. In Moscow, General Władysław Anders, a Polish officer who had been imprisoned in Lubyanka for the previous twenty months, learned that he had been named commander of the new army during a surprise meeting with Beria himself. After the meeting, General Anders left the prison in a chauffeured NKVD car, wearing a shirt and trousers, but no shoes.18

On the Polish side, many objected to the Soviet Union’s use of the word “amnesty” to describe the freeing of innocent people, but this was not the time to quibble: relations between the two new “allies” were shaky. The Soviet authorities refused to take any moral responsibility for the “soldiers” of the new army—all in a terrible state of health—and would not give General Anders any food or supplies. “You are Poles—let Poland feed you,” the army’s officers were told. 19 Some camp commanders even refused to let their Polish prisoners out at all. Gustav Herling, still imprisoned in November 1941, realized that he would “not survive until spring” if he were not released, and had to conduct a hunger strike before he was finally let go.20

The Soviet authorities complicated matters further by stating, a few months into the amnesty, that its terms applied not to all former Polish citizens, but only to ethnic Poles: ethnic Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Jews were to remain in the USSR. Terrible tensions erupted as a result. Many of the minorities tried to pass themselves off as Poles, only to be unmasked by genuine Poles, who feared re-arrest themselves if the identity of their “false” comrades was revealed. Later, the passengers on one Polish evacuation train, bound for Iran, tried to evict a group of Jews: they feared the train would not be allowed out of the USSR with “non-Polish” passengers. 21

Other Polish prisoners were released from camps or exile settlements, but not given any money or told where to go. One ex-prisoner recalled that “The Soviet authorities in Omsk didn’t want to help us, explaining that they knew nothing about any Polish army, and instead proposed that we find work near Omsk.”22 An NKVD officer gave Herling a list of places where he could get a residence permit, but denied all knowledge of a Polish army.23 Following rumors, the released Polish prisoners hitchhiked and rode trains around the Soviet Union, looking for the Polish army.

Stefan Waydenfeld’s family, exiled to northern Russia, were not told of the existence of the Polish army at all, nor offered any means of transport whatsoever: they were simply told they could go. In order to get away from their remote exile village, they built a raft, and floated down their local river toward “civilization”—a town which had a railway station. Months later, they were finally rescued from their wanderings when, in a café in the town of Chimkent, southern Kazakhstan, Stefan recognized a classmate from his school in Poland. She told them, finally, where to find the Polish army.24

Nevertheless, the ex-zeks and their deported wives and children did slowly make their way to Kuibyshev, the Polish army’s base camp, and to the army’s other outposts around the country. Upon arrival, many were overwhelmed by the experience of finding “Poland” again, as Kazimierz Zarod wrote: “All around us in every direction, Polish speech, familiar Polish faces! I myself met several old acquaintances, and there were scenes of jubilation and exultation as men and women greeted each other with hugs and kisses.”25 On the day of General Anders’s arrival, another ex-zek, Janusz Wedów, composed a poem, entitled “A Welcome to the Leader”:

Ach, my heart! Again you beat so strongly, so happily I had thought you had grown hard, died inside me ...26

Within a few months, however, the optimism had diminished. The army lacked food, medicine, equipment—everything. Its soldiers were mostly sick, tired, half-starved men, who needed professional help and medical care. One officer recalled the horror he felt when he realized that “A vast tide of human beings who had left the places to which they had been exiled or deported . . . were now flowing down into the starving districts of Uzbekistan, to surge round an army organization which was itself undernourished and decimated by disease.”27

In addition, relations with the Soviet authorities remained poor. Employees of the Polish Embassy, deployed around the country, were still subject to unexplained arrest. Fearing the situation might worsen, General Anders changed his plan in March 1942. Instead of marching his army west, toward the front line, he won permission to evacuate his troops out of the Soviet Union altogether. It was a vast operation: 74,000 Polish troops, and another 41,000 civilians, including many children, were put on trains and sent to Iran.

In his haste to leave, General Anders left thousands more Poles behind, along with their Jewish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian former fellow citizens. Some eventually joined the Kosciuszko division, a Polish division of the Red Army. Others had to wait for the war to end to be repatriated. Still others never left at all. To this day, some of their descendants still live in ethnic Polish communities in Kazakhstan and northern Russia.

Those who left kept fighting. After recovering in Iran, Anders’s army did manage to join the Allied forces in Europe. Traveling via Palestine— and in some cases via South Africa—they later fought for the liberation of Italy at the Battle of Montecassino. While the war continued, the Polish civilians were parceled out to various parts of the British Empire. Polish children wound up in orphanages in India, Palestine, even east Africa. Most would never return to Soviet-occupied, postwar Poland. The Polish clubs, Polish historical societies, and Polish restaurants still found in West London are testimony to their postwar exile.28

After they had left the USSR, the departed Poles performed an invaluable service for their less fortunate ex–fellow inmates. In Iran and Palestine, the army and the Polish government-in-exile conducted several surveys of the soldiers and their families in order to determine exactly what had happened to the Poles deported to the Soviet Union. Because the Anders evacuation was the only large group of prisoners ever allowed to leave the USSR, the material produced by these questionnaires and somewhat rushed historical inquiries remained the only substantial evidence of the Gulag’s existence for half a century. And, within limits, it was surprisingly accurate: although they had no real understanding of the Gulag’s history, the Polish prisoners did manage to convey the camp system’s staggering size, its geographical extent—all they had to do was list the wide variety of places they had been sent—and its horrific wartime living conditions.

After the war, the Poles’ descriptions of their experiences formed the basis for reports on Soviet forced-labor camps produced by the Library of Congress and the American Federation of Labor. Their straightforward accounts of the Soviet slave-labor system came as a shock to many Americans, whose awareness of the camps had dimmed since the days of the Soviet timber boycotts in the 1920s. These reports circulated widely, and in 1949, in an attempt to persuade the United Nations to investigate the practice of forced labor in its member states, the AFL presented the UN with a thick body of evidence of its existence in the Soviet Union:

Less than four years ago the workers of the world won their first victory, the victory against Nazi totalitarianism, after a war which was waged with the greatest sacrifices—waged against the Nazis’ policy of enslavement of all people whose countries they had invaded . . .

However, in spite of the Allied victory, the world is perturbed to a very high degree by communications which seem to indicate that the evils we have fought to eradicate, and for whose defeat so many have died, are still rampant in various parts of the world ...29

The Cold War had begun.

Life within the camp system often mirrored and echoed life in the greater Soviet Union—and this was never more true than during the final years of the Second World War. As Germany crumbled, Stalin’s thoughts turned to a postwar settlement. His plans to draw central Europe into the Soviet sphere of influence solidified. Not coincidentally, the NKVD also entered what might be described as its own expansive, “internationalist” phase. “This war is not as in the past,” Stalin remarked in a conversation with Tito, recorded by the Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas. “Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own social system as far as his army can reach.”30 Concentration camps were a fundamental part of the Soviet “social system,” and as the war drew to a close, the Soviet secret police began to export their methods and personnel to Soviet-occupied Europe, teaching their new foreign clients the camp regimes and methods they had now perfected at home.

Of the camps created in what was to become the “Soviet bloc” of Eastern Europe, those set up in eastern Germany were perhaps the most brutal. As the Red Army marched across Germany in 1945, the Soviet Military Administration immediately began to construct them, eventually setting up eleven of these “special” concentration camps—spetslagerya— in all. Two of them, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, were located on the site of former Nazi concentration camps. All of them were under the direct control of the NKVD, which organized and ran them in the same manner as it ran the camps of the Gulag back at home, with work norms, minimal rations, and overcrowded barracks. In the famine-wracked postwar years, these German camps seem to have been even more lethal than their Soviet counterparts. Nearly 240,000 mostly political prisoners passed through them during the five years of their existence. Of these, 95,000—more than a third—are thought to have died. If the lives of Soviet prisoners were never particularly important to the Soviet authorities, the lives of German “fascists” mattered even less.

For the most part, the inmates of the East German camps were not high-ranking Nazis or proven war criminals. That sort of prisoner was usually taken back to Moscow, interrogated, and put directly into the Soviet POW camps or the Gulag. The spetslageryawere meant instead to serve the same function as the Polish and Baltic deportations: they were designed to break the back of the German bourgeoisie. As a result, they contained not leading Nazis or war criminals but judges, lawyers, entrepreneurs, businessmen, doctors, and journalists. Among them were even some of the very few German opponents of Hitler, whom the Soviet Union—paradoxically— also feared. Anyone who had dared to fight the Nazis, after all, might also dare to fight the Red Army.31

The NKVD interned a similar sort of person in the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian prison camps, set up by the local secret police services, on Soviet advice, after the Communist Party consolidated power in Prague in 1948, and in Budapest in 1949. Arrests were carried out with what has been described as a “caricature” of Soviet logic: a Hungarian weatherman was arrested after reporting “an influx of icy air coming from the northeastern direction, from the Soviet Union” on the day that a Soviet division arrived in Hungary; a Czech businessman wound up in a camp after his neighbor accused him of referring to “that imbecile, Stalin.” 32

Yet the camps themselves were no caricature. In his memoir of Reczk, the most notorious Hungarian camp, the Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy sketches a portrait of a system which seems almost an exact copy of the Gulag, right down to the practice of tufta and the starving Hungarian prisoners searching for wild berries and mushrooms in the woods.33 The Czech system also had a special feature: a set of eighteen lagpunkts, grouped around the uranium mines of Yachimov. In retrospect, it is clear that political prisoners with long sentences—the equivalent of the Soviet katorgainmates— were sent to these mining camps in order to die. Although they worked extracting uranium for the new Soviet atomic bomb project, they were not given special clothing or any form of protection at all. The death rates are known to have been high—though how high, exactly, is still unknown.34

In Poland, the situation was more complicated. By the end of the war, a significant proportion of the Polish population were living in a camp of some kind, whether a displaced persons’ camp (Jews, Ukrainians, former Nazi slave laborers), a detention camp (Germans and Volksdeutsche, Poles who had claimed German ancestry), or a prison camp. The Red Army set up some of its POW camps in Poland, filling them not only with German prisoners but also with members of the Polish Home Army, on their way to Soviet deportation. In 1954, 84,200 political prisoners were still incarcerated in Poland as well.35

There were also camps in Romania, in Bulgaria, and—despite his “anti-Soviet” reputation—in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Like the central European camps, these Balkan camps began by resembling the Gulag, but over time began to differ. Most had been set up by local police, with Soviet advice and guidance of some kind. The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, seem to have been working under the direct orders of their Soviet counterparts. Perhaps for that reason, the Romanian camps most closely resemble the Gulag, even to the extent that they carried out absurd, overambitious projects of the sort Stalin himself favored in the Soviet Union. The most famous of these, the Danube–Black Sea Canal, appears to have served no real economic function at all. To this day, it is every bit as empty and deserted as the White Sea Canal which it so eerily resembles. A propaganda slogan declared that the “Danube–Black Sea Canal is the tomb of the Romanian bourgeoisie!” Given that up to 200,000 people may have died building it, that may have indeed been the canal’s real purpose. 36

The Bulgarian and Yugoslav camps had a different ethos. Bulgarian police appear to have been less concerned with the fulfillment of a plan and more interested in punishing the inmates. A Bulgarian actress who survived one of the camps later described being beaten nearly to death after collapsing from the heat:

They covered me with old rags and left me alone. The next day everyone went to work, while I was locked up for the entire day with no food or water or medication. I was too weak to get up, due to my bruises and all that I had endured the day before. I’d been brutally beaten. I was in a coma for fourteen hours, and survived by a miracle.37

She also witnessed a father and son being beaten to death in front of one another, merely to satisfy the sadistic pleasures of those doing the beating. Other survivors of Bulgarian camps describe being tormented by heat, cold, hunger, and physical abuse.38 The location of these more southerly camps also brought other sorts of suffering: among the most infamous Yugoslav camps was one built on the Adriatic island of Saint-Gregoire, where water was scarce and the main torment was thirst.39

Unlike the Gulag, the majority of these camps did not last, and many had closed even before Stalin’s death. The East German spetslagerya were in fact disbanded in 1950, mostly because they contributed to the deep unpopularity of the East German Communist Party. To improve the new regime’s image—and to prevent more Germans from escaping to the West, which was then still possible—the East German secret police actually nursed prisoners back to health before their release, and provided them with new clothes. Not all were let go: those deemed the most serious political opponents of the new order were, like the Poles arrested in this era, deported to the Soviet Union. Members of the spetslagerya burial battalions appear to have been deported as well. Otherwise, they might have exposed the existence of the camps’ mass graves, which were not located and exhumed until the 1990s.40

The Czech camps did not last either: they reached their peak in 1949, and began shrinking after that, before vanishing altogether. The Hungarian leader Imre Nagy liquidated his country’s camps immediately following Stalin’s death, in July 1953. The Bulgarian communists, on the other hand, maintained several hard-labor camps well into the 1970s, long after the mass system of Soviet camps had been disbanded. Lovech, one of the cruelest camps in the Bulgarian system, operated from 1959 until 1962.41

Perhaps unexpectedly, the Gulag’s export policy had its most enduring impact outside of Europe. In the early 1950s, at the height of the era of Sino-Soviet collaboration, Soviet “experts” helped set up several Chinese camps, and organized forced-labor brigades at a coal mine near Fushun. The Chinese camps—laogai—still exist, although they scarcely resemble the Stalinist camps they were set up to emulate. They are still labor camps—and a sentence in one of them is often followed by a period of exile, just as in Stalin’s system—but the camp commanders seem to be less obsessed with the norms and central work plans. Instead, they concentrate on a rigid form of “re-education.” Prisoners’ atonement, and prisoners’ ritual abasement before the Party, seem to matter to the authorities as much, if not more, than the goods that the prisoners manage to produce. 42

In the end, the details of daily life in the camps of the Soviet satellite states and allies—what they were used for, how long they lasted, how rigid or disorganized they became, how cruel or liberal they remained—all depended on the particular country and its particular culture. It was, it turned out, relatively easy for other nations to alter the Soviet model to meet their own needs. Or perhaps I should say it is relatively easy. The following quotation, from a collection published in 1998, describes an even more recent experience in a concentration camp, in the last remaining communist country on the Eurasian landmass:

On my very first day—at the age of nine—I received a quota. The first work I had to carry out was to walk to the mountain and collect firewood and bring back a large load to the school. I was told to repeat it ten times. It took two or three hours for a round trip from the mountain to the school with a load of wood. Unless you finish it you can’t go home. I worked through the night and by the time I had finished it was after midnight and I fell to the ground. Of course, other children who had been there longer could do it faster . . .

Other types of work included collecting gold from sand, using a net in the river (shaking and washing it in the river). This was much easier; sometimes you would be lucky and meet the quota earlier, and then you could play just a little, rather than tell your teacher you had already met the quota ...43

The writer Chul Hwan Kong defected from North Korea in 1992. He had previously spent ten years, along with his entire family, in Yodok punishment camp. One Seoul human rights group estimates that about 200,000 North Koreans are still being held in similar prison camps, for “crimes” such as reading a foreign newspaper, listening to a foreign radio station, speaking to a foreigner, or in any way “insulting the authority” of North Korea’s leadership. About 400,000 are thought to have died as prisoners in such camps.44

Nor are the North Korean camps confined to North Korea. In 2001, the Moscow Times reported that the North Korean government was paying off its debts to Russia by sending labor teams to work in heavily guarded mining and logging camps across isolated parts of Siberia. The camps—“a state within a state”—contain their own internal food distribution networks, their own internal prison, and their own guards. Some 6,000 workers were thought to be involved. Whether they were being paid or not was unclear— but they were certainly not free to leave. 45

Not only was the idea of the concentration camp general enough to export, in other words, but it was also enduring enough to last to the present day.

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