Modern history

Chapter 22

THE ZENITH OF THE CAMP–INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX

At seventeen—we loved to study.
At twenty—we learned to die.
To know that if we are allowed to live
That means nothing has happened, just yet.
At twenty-five—we learned to exchange
Life for dried fish, firewood and potatoes . . .
What was left to learn at forty?
We have skipped so many pages
Perhaps we’ve learned that life is short—
But then, we already knew that at twenty . . .

—Mikhail Frolovsky, “My Generation”1

Meanwhile, 1949, twin brother of 1937, was advancing on our land, on the whole of Eastern Europe, and, before all else, on the places of prison and exile . . .

—Evgeniya Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind 2

WITH THE END OF THE WAR came victory parades, tearful reunions—and the widespread conviction that life would, and should, grow easier. Millions of men and women had endured terrible privations in order to win the war. Now they wanted to live easier lives. In the countryside, rumors of the abolition of the collective farms spread rapidly. In cities, people openly complained about the high prices charged for rationed food. The war had also exposed millions of Soviet citizens, both soldiers and slave laborers, to the relative luxuries of life in the West, and the Soviet regime could no longer plausibly claim, as it had once done, that the Western working man was far poorer than his Soviet equivalent.3

Even many in power now felt it was time to reorient Soviet production away from armaments and toward the consumer goods that people desperately needed. In a private telephone conversation, taped and recorded for posterity by the secret police, one Soviet general told another that “Absolutely everyone says openly how everyone is discontented with life. On the trains, in fact everywhere, it’s what everyone is saying.”4 Surely, the general speculated, Stalin must have known this too, and would soon have to take action.

By the spring of 1945, hopes were high among prisoners as well. In January of that year, the authorities had declared another general amnesty for women who were pregnant or had small children, and large numbers— 734,785 by July, to be precise—were being released.5 Wartime restrictions had been eased, and prisoners were allowed to receive food and clothing from home again. For the most part, it was not compassion that had dictated these new rules. The amnesty for women—which excluded political prisoners as a matter of course—did not represent a change of heart, but was rather a response to the shocking increase in the numbers of orphans, and the consequent problems of homeless children, hooliganism, and children’s criminal gangs all across the USSR: grudgingly, the authorities recognized that mothers were part of the solution. The lifting of restrictions on packages was not a kindness either, but an attempt to muffle the impact of the postwar famines: the camps could not feed the prisoners, so why not let their families help. One central directive declared sternly that “in the matter of prisoners’ food and clothing, packages and money orders must be treated as an important supplement.”6 Nevertheless, many drew hope from these decrees, interpreting them as harbingers of a new, more relaxed era.

It was not to be. Within a year of victory, the Cold War had begun. The American atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki persuaded the Soviet leadership that the Soviet economy must devote itself wholeheartedly to military and industrial production, and not to the manufacture of refrigerators and children’s shoes. Despite the devastation wreaked by five and a half years of fighting, Soviet planners tried harder than ever to cut corners, to build quickly—and to make as much use of forced labor as possible.7

As it happened, the emergence of a new threat to the Soviet Union suited Stalin’s purposes: it was precisely the excuse he needed to tighten, once again, his control over his people, exposed as they had been to the corrupting influence of the outside world. He therefore ordered his subordinates to “deliver a strong blow” to any talk of democracy, even before any such talk had become widespread.8 He also strengthened and reorganized the NKVD, which was split into two bureaucracies in March 1946. The Ministry of Internal Affairs—or MVD—continued to control the Gulag and the exile villages, effectively becoming the ministry of forced labor. The other, more glamorous bureaucracy—the MGB, later called the KGB— would control counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence, border guards, and ultimately the surveillance of the regime’s opponents as well.9

Finally, instead of relaxing repression after the war, the Soviet leadership embarked on a new series of arrests, again attacking the army, as well as select ethnic minorities, including Soviet Jews. One by one, the secret police “discovered” anti-Stalinist youth conspiracies in nearly every city in the country.10 In 1947, new laws prohibited marriages—and, in effect, all romantic relationships—between Soviet citizens and foreigners. Soviet academics who shared scientific information with colleagues abroad could be subject to criminal prosecution too. In 1948, the authorities rounded up some 23,000 collective farmers. All were accused of failing to work the obligatory number of days in the previous year, and were exiled to remote areas, without trial or investigation.11

Anecdotal evidence exists of some more unusual arrests made at the end of the 1940s. According to a recently declassified intelligence debriefing of a German POW, two American airmen may have found their way into the postwar Gulag as well. In 1954, the German ex-prisoner told American investigators that he had encountered two members of the U.S. Air Force in his POW camp in the Komi region, near Ukhta, in 1949. They were the pilots of a plane that had crashed near Kharkov, in Ukraine. They had been accused of spying, and put in what sounds, from the German’s description, like a katorga brigade. One allegedly died in the camp, murdered by one of the camp criminals. The other was taken away at a later date, supposedly to Moscow. 12

Fainter, even more tantalizing rumors float around the Komi region as well. According to a local legend, another group of Englishmen, or at least English speakers, were also incarcerated in another lagpunkt—Sedvozh, also near Ukhta—in the 1940s. As one local man tells the story, the Englishmen were spies, parachuted into Germany at the end of the war. The Red Army captured them, interrogated them, and deported them to the Gulag in great secrecy, since Britain and the USSR had, after all, been wartime allies. Evidence of their presence is slim: a lagpunkt locally nicknamed “Angliiskaya Koloniya,” the “English Colony,” and a single reference in the Moscow military archive to “ten Scotsmen,” whatever that may mean, in a prisoner-of-war camp in the area.13

Thanks to all of these new additions, the Gulag did not contract after the war. On the contrary, it expanded—reaching its highest level in the early 1950s. According to official statistics, on January 1, 1950, the Gulag contained 2,561,351 prisoners in the camps and colonies of its system—a million more than there had been five years earlier, in 1945. 14 The number of special exiles also grew, due to the major deportation operations in the Baltic States, Moldavia, and Ukraine, deliberately designed to complete the “Sovietization” of those populations. And at about the same time, the NKVD resolved, once and for all, the thorny question of the exiles’ future, decreeing that all deportees had been exiled “in perpetuity”—along with their children. By the 1950s, the number of exiles roughly matched the number of prisoners in camps.15

The second half of 1948 and the first half of 1949 brought yet another unexpected tragedy to the Gulag’s former inmates: a series of arrests, or rather re-arrests, of former prisoners, mostly those who had originally been arrested in 1937 and 1938, given ten-year sentences and only recently released. The re-arrests were systematic, thorough, and strangely bloodless. New investigations were rare, and most of the prisoners received only perfunctory interrogations. 16 The exile community in Magadan and the Kolyma valley knew something was wrong when they heard of the arrests of former “politicals” whose names all began with the first three letters of the Russian alphabet: the secret police, they realized, were re-arresting people in alphabetical order.17 No one could decide if this was funny or tragic. Evgeniya Ginzburg wrote that whereas “in ’37 evil had assumed a monumental tragic appearance . . . in ’49, the Georgian Serpent, yawning with repletion, was drawing up at leisure an alphabetical list of those to be exterminated ...”18

Overwhelmingly, the re-arrested describe feelings of indifference. The first arrest had been a shock, but also a learning experience: many had been forced to confront the truth about their political system for the first time. The second arrest brought no such new knowledge. “By ’49 I already knew that suffering can only cleanse one up to a point. When it drags on for decades and becomes a matter of routine, it no longer cleanses; it simply dulls all sensation,” wrote Ginzburg: “after my second arrest I would surely turn into a thing of wood.”19

When the police came for her the second time, Olga Adamova-Sliozberg went to her cupboard to pack, then stopped. “Why should I bother to take anything with me? The children can make better use of my things than I,” she thought. “Obviously I won’t survive this time; how could I possibly stand it?”20 Lev Razgon’s wife was re-arrested, and he demanded to know why. When told she had been sentenced again for the same crimes as before, he demanded further explanations:

“She’s already served her time. Does the law really permit you to punish a person twice for the same offense?”

The procurator looked at me in amazement.

“Of course not. But what’s the law got to do with it?”21

The majority of those re-arrested were not sent back to camps, but instead into exile, usually in particularly remote and underpopulated regions of the country: Kolyma, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Kazakhstan.22 There, most would live lives of unrelenting tedium. Shunned by the local communities as “enemies,” they found it difficult to find living space, difficult to work. No one wanted to be associated with a spy or a saboteur.

To the victims, Stalin’s plans seemed clear enough: no one who had received a sentence for spying, sabotage, or any form of political opposition was ever to be allowed to return home. If released, they would be given “wolves passports,” which forbade them from living anywhere near a major city, and would be constantly subject to re-arrest.23 The Gulag, and the exile system which supplemented it, were no longer temporary punishments. For those condemned to them, they had become a way of life.

Yet the war did have a lasting impact on the camp system, albeit one which is hard to quantify. Camp rules and regulations were not liberalized following victory—but the prisoners themselves had changed, and the politicals in particular.

To begin with, there were more of them. The demographic upheaval of the war years, and the amnesties which had pointedly excluded the political prisoners, had left a much higher percentage of political prisoners in the camps. As of July 1, 1946, more than 35 percent of the prisoners in the entire system had been sentenced for “counter-revolutionary” crimes. In certain camps that number was far higher, well above half.24

Although the overall figure would drop again, the position of the politicals had changed too. This was a new generation of political prisoners, with a different set of experiences. The politicals arrested in the 1930s—and particularly those arrested in 1937 and 1938—had been intellectuals, party members, and ordinary workers. Most were shocked by their arrests, psychologically unprepared for prison life, and physically unprepared for forced labor. In the immediate postwar years, however, the politicals included former Red Army soldiers, Polish Home Army officers, Ukrainian and Baltic partisans, German and Japanese prisoners of war. These men and women had fought in trenches, conducted conspiracies, commanded troops. Some had survived German prison camps; others had led partisan bands. Many were openly anti-Soviet or anti-communist, and were not in the least surprised to find themselves behind barbed wire, as one prisoner remembered: “Having looked death in the eyes, having passed through the fires and hell of war, having survived hunger and much tragedy, they were a completely different generation from the inmates of the prewar period.”25

Almost as soon as they started appearing in the camps toward the end of the war, this new sort of prisoner began creating trouble for the authorities. By 1947, the professional criminals no longer found it so easy to dominate them. Among the various national and criminal tribes who dominated camp life, a new clan appeared: the krasnye shapochki, or “red hats.” These were usually ex-soldiers or ex-partisans who had banded together to fight against the dominance of the thieves—and, by extension, against the administration that tolerated them. Such groups operated well into the next decade, despite efforts to break them apart. In the winter of 1954–55, Viktor Bulgakov, then a prisoner in Inta, a far northern mining camp in the Vorkuta region, witnessed an administrative attempt to “break” a group of politicals by importing a contingent of sixty thieves into their camp. The thieves armed themselves, and prepared to start attacking the politicals:

They suddenly got hold of “cold weapons” [knives], just as one would expect in that sort of situation . . . we learned that they had stolen the money and possessions of an older man. We asked them to give the things back, but they weren’t accustomed to giving things back. So at about two o’clock in the morning, just as it was turning light, we surrounded their barrack from all sides, and began attacking it. We started to beat them, and we beat them until they couldn’t get up. One jumped through the window . . . ran to thevakhta, and collapsed on the threshold. But by the time the guards arrived, no one was there . . . They took the thieves out of the zone.26

A similar incident took place in Norilsk, as one prisoner recalled:

A party of thieves arrived at one lagpunkt, where all of the prisoners were politicals, and set about trying to set up their own system. The prisoners, all former Red Army officers, took them to pieces, even though they had no weapons. With wild screams the remaining thieves ran to the guards and the officers, begging for help.27

Even women had changed. Tired of being intimidated, a woman political told a group of female thieves that if they did not return some money they had stolen, “we will throw all of you and your rags outside and you can sleep outdoors tonight.” The criminal women returned the money. 28

The thieves did not always lose, of course. In one incident in Vyatlag, a struggle between the criminal and political prisoners ended with the death of nine politicals. The thieves had demanded a 25-ruble bribe from every prisoner, and had simply murdered those who refused to pay.29

But the authorities took note. If political prisoners could band together to fight thieves, they could also band together to fight the camp administration. In 1948, anticipating rebellion, the Gulag’s Moscow bosses ordered all of the “most dangerous” politicals into a new group of “special camps” (osobyelagerya). Specifically designed for “spies, diversionists, terrorists, Trotskyites, right-wingers, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, anarchists, nationalists, white emigrants and participants in other anti-Soviet organizations” the special camps were really an extension of the katorgaregime, and contained many of the same features: the striped uniforms; the numbers on their foreheads, backs, and chests; the barred windows; and the locking of the barracks at night. Prisoners were permitted only minimal contact with the outside world, in some cases one or two letters a year. Correspondence with anyone other than family members was strictly forbidden. The working day was set at ten hours, and prisoners were forbidden to work at anything except manual labor. Medical facilities were kept to a minimum: no “invalid camps” were set up within the special camp complexes.30

Like the katorga lagpunkts, with whom they soon overlapped, the special camps were also set up exclusively in the harshest regions of the country, in Inta, Vorkuta, Norilsk, and Kolyma—all mining camps near or above the Arctic Circle—as well as in the Kazakh desert, and the bleak forests of Mordovia. In effect, they were camps within camps, as most were placed within existing forced-labor complexes. Only one thing distinguished them. With a surprisingly poetic touch, the Gulag authorities gave them all names derived from the landscape: Mineral, Mountain, Oak, Steppe, Seashore, River, Lake, Sand, and Meadow, among others. The point was presumably conspiratorial—to hide the nature of the camps—since there were no oak trees at Oak camp, and certainly no seashore at Seashore camp. Very soon, of course, the names were shortened, as was the Soviet custom, to Minlag, Gorlag, Dubravlag, Steplag, and so on. By the beginning of 1953, the ten special camps contained 210,000 people.31

But the isolation of the “most dangerous” political prisoners did not make them more docile. On the contrary, the special camps freed the politicals from their constant conflicts with the criminals, and from the mitigating influence of other prisoners. Left to themselves, their opposition to the system only grew: this was 1948, not 1937. Ultimately, they would embark on a lengthy, determined, and unprecedented struggle with the authorities.

As the repressive mechanisms started to tighten again, political prisoners were not the only ones caught in the noose. Now that profits mattered more than ever, the Gulag’s bosses began to re-examine their attitudes to the professional criminals. Their corruption, laziness, and threatening behavior toward the guards harmed the productivity of the camps. Now that they no longer controlled the political prisoners, they brought no corresponding benefits either. Although criminals would never attract the same enmity as the politicals, and although they would never receive the same hateful treatment from camp guards, the Gulag’s postwar leadership nevertheless resolved to put an end to the criminals’ rule of the camps—and to eliminate forever the thieves-in-law who refused to work.

In practice, the Gulag’s war on the thieves took both straightforward and covert forms. To begin with, the most dangerous, dedicated criminals were simply separated from other inmates, and given longer sentences— ten, fifteen, twenty-five years.32 In the winter of 1948, the Gulag also called for the creation of a group of strict-regime criminal lagpunkts for criminal recidivists. According to instructions issued in Moscow, only the most disciplined and “physically healthiest” of the camp guards were allowed to work in them, and they were to be surrounded by particularly high, reinforced fences. Separate instructions laid out the specifications. The Gulag called for the creation of twenty-seven such camps immediately, with space for more than 115,000 prisoners.33

Unfortunately, very little is known about daily life in these punishment lagpunkts, or even whether all of them were created: if they survived, these criminals were even less likely to write their memoirs than criminals in ordinary camps. In practice, though, most camps did have some form of separate incarceration for serious criminals and, thanks to an extremely bad twist of luck, Evgeniya Ginzburg found herself, briefly, in one of them: Izvestkovaya, a punishment lagpunkt in Kolyma. She was the lone political prisoner among a group of criminal women.

During her sojourn in Izvestkovaya, Ginzburg spent her days working in a limestone quarry, where she was unable to meet the norm and therefore received no food whatsoever. During her first few evenings she sat “bolt upright” in the corner of the barrack, since there was no space on the bunks, watching the mostly naked women drink ersatz alcohol in the vastly overheated cell. Later, one of the women, a syphilitic in the final stages of the disease, made way for Ginzburg and allowed her to lie down, but that was little comfort. “The overpowering stench of putrefaction” coming from the woman’s distintegrated nose nearly stifled her. “In Izvestkovaya, as in the most real of hells, there was not only no day and no night, there was not even an intermediate temperature to make existence bearable. It was either the glacial cold of the lime quarry or the infernal cauldron of the hut.”

At this camp, Ginzburg barely avoided rape. One night, the camp guards, who were “a long, long way from their bosses” burst into the barracks and began attacking the women. Another time, one of them thrust an unexpected loaf of bread at her. The camp management, expecting an inspection team, was worried she might die. “What with the total isolation, the gluttony, the alcohol, and their constant skirmishes with the girls, our soldiers had completely lost their bearings and hardly knew what they might get it in the neck for. At any rate a death certificate was something they could do without if the management arrived.”34

But she escaped. With the help of friends, Ginzburg managed to get transferred to a different camp, using the influence of the housecleaner of the boss of Sevvostlag, no less. Others would not have been so lucky.

Stricter regimes and longer sentences were not, however, the administration’s only weapon against the criminal leadership. All across central Europe, the Soviet Union’s great strength as an occupying power was its ability to corrupt local elites, to turn them into collaborators who willingly oppressed their own people. Precisely the same techniques were used to control the criminal elites in the camps. The method was straightforward: privileges and special treatment were offered to those professional criminals—the thieves-in-law—who would abandon their “law” and collaborate with the authorities. Those who agreed received complete freedom to abuse their former comrades, even to torture and murder them, while the camp guards looked away. These thoroughly corrupted criminal collaborators became known as suki, or “bitches,” and the violent battles which erupted between them and the remaining professional criminals became known as the “war between the bitches and the thieves.”

Like the politicals’ own fight for survival, the thieves’ war was one of the defining elements of postwar camp life. Although conflicts between criminal groups had occurred before, none had been so vicious, nor so clearly and so openly provoked: separate battles broke out simultaneously, all across the camp system, in 1948, leaving little doubt as to the authorities’ role. 35 Many, many memoirists have recorded aspects of this struggle, although, again, most of those who wrote about it were not a part of it themselves. They watched instead, as horrified observers and sometimes as victims. “Thieves and bitches fought one another to the death,” wrote Anatoly Zhigulin:

Thieves finding themselves in a bitches’ lagpunkt, if they hadn’t managed to hide in a punishment barrack, would often find themselves facing a dilemma: die, or become a bitch. Likewise, if a large group of thieves arrived at a lagpunkt all of the bitches would hide in the punishment barracks, as the power had shifted . . . when the regime changed, there were often bloody results.36

One thief told a prisoner that all bitches are “already dead men, sentenced by the rest of us, and at the first opportunity some blatnoi [thief-in-law] will kill him.”37 Another witnessed the aftermath of one of their battles:

After an hour and a half, the thieves from our group were carried back and thrown on the ground. They were unrecognizable. All of their good clothes had been ripped off and removed. In exchange, they had received ragged camp jackets, and instead of boots they had foot coverings. They had been beaten like animals, many had lost teeth. One couldn’t lift his arm: it had been broken with an iron pipe.38

Leonid Sitko witnessed the start of one particularly vicious battle:

A guard ran down the corridor and shouted “War! War!”—whereupon all of the thieves, who were less numerous than the bitches, ran to hide in the camp punishment cell. The bitches followed them there, and murdered several. The guards then helped the remainder to hide, not wanting them all to die, and then smuggled them out of the camp the next day.39

Noncriminal prisoners sometimes became involved in the battles too, particularly when camp commanders granted broad powers to the bitches. Although “it isn’t worth romanticizing the thieves and the laws, which is what they do in their lives and folklore,” Zhigulin continued:

The bitches in prisons and camps were indeed truly terrible for ordinary prisoners. They faithfully served the prison directors, worked as foremen, commandants, brigade leaders. They behaved like beasts towards ordinary workers, fleeced them of their possessions, took their clothes down to the last thread. Bitches were not only informers: they would also carry out murder in accordance with the camp directors. The lives of prisoners living in camps run by bitches was very difficult indeed.

Yet this was the postwar era, and the politicals were no longer defenseless in the face of such harassment. In Zhigulin’s camp, a group of ex–Red Army soldiers managed first to beat up the retinue of the much-hated bitch leader of the lagpunkt, and then to kill the leader himself, by attaching him to one of the woodcutting machines. When the rest of the bitches locked themselves up in the barracks, the politicals sent them a message: decapitate the man’s deputy, show us his head through the window, and then we won’t kill the rest of you. They did it. “Obviously their lives were more important to them than the head of their leader.” 40

The open warfare became so nasty that even the authorities eventually grew tired of it. In 1954 the MVD proposed that camp commanders designate “separate camps for the incarceration of recidivists of specific types,” and ensure the “separate incarceration of prisoners” under threat from others. The “isolation of hostile groups from one another” was the only way to avoid widespread bloodshed. The war had been started because the authorities wanted to gain control over the thieves—and it was brought to an end because the authorities lost control of the war. 41

By the early 1950s, the Gulag’s masters found themselves faced with a paradoxical situation. They had wanted to crack down on the criminal recidivists, the better to increase production and ensure the smooth functioning of camp enterprises. They had wanted to isolate counter-revolutionaries, in order to prevent them from infecting other prisoners with their dangerous views. By tightening the repressive noose, however, they had made their task more difficult. The rebelliousness of the politicals and the wars of the criminals hastened the onset of an even deeper crisis: finally, it was becoming clear to the authorities that the camps were wasteful, corrupt, and, above all, unprofitable.

Or, rather, it was becoming clear to everyone except Stalin. Once again, Stalin’s mania for repression and his dedication to the economics of slave labor dovetailed so neatly that it was hard for contemporary observers to say whether he raised the number of arrests in order to build more camps, or built more camps in order to accommodate the number of arrestees. 42 Throughout the 1940s, Stalin insisted upon giving even more economic power to the MVD—so much so that by 1952, the year before Stalin’s death, the MVD controlled 9 percent of the capital investment in Russia, more than any other ministry. The Five-Year Plan written for the years 1951 through 1955 called for this investment to more than double.43

Once again, Stalin launched a series of spectacular, attention-grabbing Gulag construction projects, reminiscent of those he had supported in the 1930s. At Stalin’s personal insistence, the MVD constructed a new asbestos production plant, a project that required a high degree of technological specialization, precisely the sort of thing the Gulag was bad at providing. Stalin also personally advocated the construction of another railway line across the Arctic tundra, from Salekhard to Igarka—a project that became known as the “Road of Death.”44 The late 1940s were also the era of the Volga–Don, the Volga–Baltic, and the Great Turkmen Canals, as well as the Stalingrad and Kuibyshev hydroelectric power stations, the latter the largest in the world. In 1950, the MVD also began the construction of a tunnel, and a railway line, to the island of Sakhalin, a project which would require many tens of thousands of prisoners.45

This time, there was no Gorky to sing the praises of the new Stalinist constructions. On the contrary, the new projects were widely considered wasteful and grandiose. Although there were no open objections to these projects in Stalin’s lifetime, several, including the “Road of Death” and the tunnel to Sakhalin, were aborted within days of his death. The sheer pointlessness of these feats of crude manpower had been well understood, as the Gulag’s own files prove. One inspection carried out in 1951 showed that an entire 52 miles of far northern railway track, constructed at great expense and at the cost of many lives, had not been used for three years. Another 230 miles of similarly costly highway had not been used for eighteen months. 46

In 1953, yet another inspection, carried out on the orders of the Central Committee, showed that the cost of maintaining the camps far exceeded any profits made from prison labor. In 1952, in fact, the state had subsidized the Gulag to the tune of 2.3 billion rubles, more than 16 percent of the state’s entire budgetary allocation.47 One Russian historian has noted that MVD memos to Stalin concerning expansion of the camps often began with the phrase “in accordance with Your wishes,” as if to emphasize the writer’s subtle objections.48

The Gulag’s Moscow bosses were well aware of the spread of dissatisfaction and unrest within the camps too. By 1951, mass work refusals, carried out by both criminal and political prisoners, had reached crisis levels: in that year, the MVD calculated that it had lost more than a million workdays due to strikes and protests. In 1952, that number doubled. According to the Gulag’s own statistics, 32 percent of prisoners in the year 1952 had not fulfilled their work norms.49 The list of major strike and protest actions in the years 1950 to 1952, kept by the authorities themselves, is surprisingly long. Among others, there was an armed uprising in Kolyma in the winter of 1949–50; an armed escape from Kraslag in March 1951; mass hunger strikes in Ukhtizhemlag and Ekibastuzlag, in Karaganda, in 1951; and a strike in Ozerlag in 1952.50

So bad had the situation become that in January 1952, the commander of Norilsk sent a letter to General Ivan Dolgikh, then the Gulag’s commander in chief, listing the steps he had taken to prevent rebellion. He suggested abandoning large production zones where prisoners could not receive enough supervision, doubling the number of guards (which he conceded would be difficult), and isolating the various prisoner factions from one another. This too would be difficult, he wrote: “given the great number of prisoners who belong to one or other of the rival factions, we would be lucky if we could simply isolate the leaders.” He also proposed to isolate free workers from prisoners at production sites—and added, finally, that it would be quite useful to release 15,000 prisoners outright, since they would be more productive as free laborers. Needless to say, this suggestion implicitly threw the entire logic of forced labor into doubt.51

Higher up the Soviet hierarchy, others agreed. “Now we have need of first-class technology,” conceded Kruglov, then-boss of the MVD: clearly, the third-class technology found in the Gulag was no longer considered sufficient. A Central Committee meeting of August 25, 1949, even dedicated itself to the discussion of a letter received from an educated prisoner, identified as Zhdanov. “The most important deficit of the camp system is the fact that it relies upon forced labor,” Zhdanov wrote. “The real productivity of prison labor is extremely low. In different working conditions, half as many people could do double the work that prisoners do now.” 52

In response to this letter, Kruglov promised to raise prisoner productivity, chiefly by bringing back wages for high-performing prisoners, and reinstating the policy of reducing sentences for good work performance. No one seems to have pointed out that both these forms of “stimulation” had been eliminated in the late 1930s—the latter by Stalin himself—precisely on the grounds that they reduced the profitability of the camps.

It hardly mattered, since the changes made little difference. Very little of the prisoners’ money actually reached their pockets: an investigation carried out after Stalin’s death showed that the Gulag and other institutions had illegally confiscated 126 million rubles from prisoners’ personal accounts. 53 Even those tiny amounts of money which did come into the prisoners’ possession were probably more disruptive than helpful. In many camps, criminal bosses set up collection and protection systems, forcing prisoners further down the hierarchy to pay for the privilege of not being beaten or murdered. It became possible to “purchase” easier trusty jobs with cash as well.54 In political camps, prisoners used their new wages to bribe guards. Money also brought vodka into the camps, and later drugs as well.55

The promise of shorter sentences for harder work may have helped increase worker enthusiasm a bit more. Certainly the MVD keenly supported this policy, and in 1952 even proposed to free large groups of prisoners from three of the largest northern enterprises—the Vorkuta coal mine, the Inta coal mine, and the Ukhtinsky oil refinery—and to employ them as free workers. It seems that even MVD enterprise managers preferred, simply, to deal with free men rather than prisoners.56

So great were concerns about the economics of the camps that Beria, in the autumn of 1950, ordered Kruglov to survey the Gulag and uncover the truth. Kruglov’s subsequent report claimed that the prisoners “employed” by the MVD were no less productive than ordinary workers. He did concede, however, that the price of maintaining prisoners—the cost of food, clothing, barracks, and above all guards, now needed in more numbers than ever—far exceeded the costs of paying ordinary free workers.57

In other words, the camps were unprofitable, and many people now knew it. Yet no one, not even Beria, dared take any action during Stalin’s lifetime, which is perhaps not surprising. To anyone in Stalin’s immediate entourage, the years between 1950 and 1952 would have seemed a particularly dangerous time to tell the dictactor that his pet projects were economic failures. Although sick and dying, Stalin was not mellowing with age. On the contrary, he was growing ever more paranoid, and was now inclined to see conspirators and plotters all around him. In June 1951, he unexpectedly ordered the arrest of Abakumov, the head of Soviet counter-intelligence. In the autumn of that year, without prior consultation, he personally dictated a Central Committee resolution describing a “Mingrelian nationalist conspiracy.” The Mingrelians were an ethnic group in Georgia, whose most prominent member was none other than Beria himself. All through 1952, a wave of arrests, firings, and executions rolled through the Georgian communist elite, touching many of Beria’s close associates and protégés. Stalin almost certainly intended Beria himself to be the purge’s ultimate target.58

He would not have been the only victim of Stalin’s final madness, however. By 1952, Stalin had become interested in prosecuting yet another ethnic group. In November 1952, the Czech Communist Party, now in control of Czechoslovakia, put fourteen of its leaders on trial—eleven Jews among them—and denounced them as “Zionist adventurers.” A month later, Stalin told a party meeting that “every Jew is a nationalist and an agent of American intelligence.” Then, on January 13, 1953, Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, revealed the existence of the Doctors’ Plot: “terrorist groups of doctors,” it was claimed, had “made it their aim to cut short the lives of active public figures in the Soviet Union by means of sabotaged medical treatment.” Six of the nine “terrorist doctors” were Jews. All were denounced for their supposed links to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, whose wartime leadership—prominent Jewish intellectuals and writers— had been sentenced a few months earlier for the crime of promoting “cosmopolitanism.” 59

The Doctors’ Plot was a terrible and tragic irony. Only ten years before, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews living in the western part of the country had been murdered by Hitler. Hundreds of thousands more had deliberately fled from Poland to the Soviet Union, looking for refuge from the Nazis. Nevertheless, Stalin spent his final, dying years planning another series of show trials, another wave of mass executions, and another wave of deportations. He may even have planned, ultimately, to deport all Jews resident in the Soviet Union’s major cities to central Asia and Siberia.60

Fear and paranoia swept across the country once again. Terrified Jewish intellectuals signed a petition, condemning the doctors. Hundreds more Jewish doctors were arrested. Other Jews lost their jobs, as a wave of bitter anti-Semitism swept across the country. In her faraway Karaganda exile, Olga Adamova-Sliozberg heard local women gossip about packages sent to the post office by people with Jewish names. Allegedly, they had been found to contain cotton balls, riddled with typhus-bearing lice.61 In Kargopollag, in his camp north of Arkhangelsk, Isaak Filshtinskii also heard rumors that Jewish prisoners were to be sent to special camps in the far north.62

Then, just as the Doctors’ Plot looked set to send tens of thousands of new prisoners into camps and into exile, just as the noose was tightening around Beria and his henchmen, and just as the Gulag had entered what appeared to be an insurmountable economic crisis—Stalin died.

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