Modern history

Chapter 3


When the Bolsheviks came to power they were soft and easy with their enemies . . . we had begun by making a mistake. Leniency towards such a power was a crime against the working classes. That soon became apparent . . .

—Josef Stalin1

ON JUNE 20,1929, the ship Gleb Boky docked at the small port beneath the Solovetsky kremlin. High above, prisoners watched the scene with a great sense of anticipation. Instead of the silent, emaciated convicts who usually stepped off the Gleb Boky’s decks, a group of healthy and energetic men—and one woman—talked and gestured as they walked on to the shore. In the photographs taken that day, most appear to have been wearing uniforms: among them were several leading Chekists, including Gleb Boky himself. One of them, taller than the rest and with a heavy mustache, was dressed more simply, in a flat workman’s cap and a plain overcoat. This was the novelist Maxim Gorky.

Dmitri Likhachev was one of the prisoners watching from the window, and he recalled some of the other passengers too: “It was possible to see the knoll on which Gorky stood for a long time, together with an odd-looking person dressed in a leather jacket, leather jodhpurs, high boots and a leather cap. It was Gorky’s daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Maxim. She was dressed, clearly, in what was, in her opinion, the costume of an authentic ‘chekistka.’” The group then boarded a monastery carriage, drawn by “a horse from God knows where,” and went off on a tour of the island.2

As Likhachev well knew, Gorky was no ordinary visitor. At this point in his life, Gorky was the Bolsheviks’ much-lauded and much-celebrated prodigal son. A committed socialist who had been close to Lenin, Gorky had nevertheless opposed the Bolshevik coup in 1917. In subsequent articles and speeches, he had continued to denounce the coup and the subsequent terror with real vehemence, speaking of Lenin’s “crazy politics” and of the “cesspit” which Petrograd had become. He finally emigrated in 1921, leaving Russia for Sorrento, where he continued, at first, to fire off condemnatory missives and angry letters to his friends at home.

Over time, his tone changed, so much so that in 1928, he decided to return, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Solzhenitsyn rather meanly claims he came back because he had not become as famous as he had expected to in the West, and simply ran out of money. Orlando Figes notes that he was miserably unhappy in exile, and could not abide the company of other Russian émigrés, most of whom were far more fanatically anti-communist than himself.3 Whatever his motivation, once he had made the decision to return he appeared determined to help the Soviet regime as much as possible. Almost immediately, he set off on a series of triumphal journeys around the Soviet Union, deliberately including Solovetsky in his itinerary. His long interest in prisons dated back to his own experiences as a juvenile delinquent.

Numerous memoirists recall the occasion of Gorky’s visit to Solovetsky, and all agree that elaborate preparations had been made in advance. Some remember that camp rules were changed for the day, that husbands were allowed to see their wives, presumably to make everyone appear more cheerful. 4 Likhachev wrote that fully grown trees were planted around the work colony, to make it seem less bleak, and that prisoners were removed from the barracks so as to make them seem less crowded. But the memoirists are divided as to what Gorky actually did when he arrived. According to Likhachev, the writer saw through all of the attempts to fool him. While being shown around the hospital ward, where all of the staff were wearing new gowns, Gorky sniffed, “I don’t like parades,” and walked away. He spent a mere ten minutes in the work colony—according to Likhachev— and then closeted himself with a fourteen-year-old boy prisoner, in order to hear the “truth.” He emerged weeping, forty minutes later. 5

Oleg Volkov, on the other hand, who was also on Solovetsky when Gorky visited, claims the writer “only looked where he was told to look.”6 And, although the story of the fourteen-year-old boy crops up elsewhere— according to one version, he was immediately shot after Gorky’s departure—others claim that all prisoners who tried to approach the writer were repulsed.7 Certainly it appears as if prisoners’ letters to Gorky were later intercepted, and, according to one source, at least one of their authors was subsequently executed. 8 V. E. Kanen, a disgraced OGPU agent who had become a prisoner, even claims that Gorky visited the punishment cells of Sekirka, where he signed the prison’s journal. One of the Moscow OGPU chiefs who was with Gorky wrote, “having visited Sekirka, I found everything in order, just as it should be.” Below him, according to Kanen, Gorky added a comment: “I would say—it is excellent.”9

But although we cannot be certain of what he actually did or saw on the island, we can read the essay he wrote afterward, which took the form of a travel sketch. Gorky praised the natural beauty of the islands, and described the picturesque buildings and their picturesque inhabitants. On the boat ride to the island, he even met some of the old Solovetsky monks. “And how does the administration treat the monks?” he asks them. “The administration wants everyone to work. We work,” they reply.10

Gorky also writes admiringly of the living conditions, clearly intending his readers to understand that a Soviet labor camp was not at all the same thing as a capitalist labor camp (or a Czarist-era labor camp), but a completely new kind of institution. In some of the rooms, he writes, he saw “four or six beds, each decorated with personal items . . . on the windowsills there are flowers. There is no impression of life being over-regulated. No, there is no resemblance to a prison, instead it seems as if these rooms are inhabited by passengers rescued from a drowned ship.”

Out on the work sites, he encounters “healthy lads” in linen shirts and sturdy boots. He meets few political prisoners and, when he does, he dismisses them as “counter-revolutionaries, emotional types, monarchists.” When they tell him they have been unfairly arrested, he presumes them to be lying. At one point, he seems to hint at the legendary encounter with the fourteen-year-old boy. During his visit to a group of juvenile delinquents, he writes, one of them brought him a protest note. In response, there were “loud cries” from the children, who called the young man a “squealer.”

But it was not just the living conditions that made Solovetsky, in Gorky’s description, a new type of camp. Its inmates, the “rescued passengers,” were not just happy and healthy, they were also playing a vital role in a grand experiment: the transformation of criminal and asocial personalities into useful Soviet citizens. Gorky was revitalizing Dzerzhinsky’s idea that the camps were to be not mere penitentiaries but “schools of labor,” specially designed to forge the sort of worker required by the new Soviet system. In his view, the experiment’s ultimate goal was to ensure the “abolition of prisons”—and it was succeeding. “If any so-called cultured European society dared to conduct an experiment such as this colony,” Gorky concluded, “and if this experiment yielded fruits as ours had, that country would blow all its trumpets and boast about its accomplishments.” Only the “modesty” of the Soviet leaders had, he reckoned, prevented them from doing so before.

Later, Gorky allegedly said that not a single sentence of his essay on Solovetsky had been left “untouched by the censors’ pen.” We do not know, in fact, whether he wrote what he did out of naïveté, out of a calculated desire to deceive, or because the censors made him do it.11 Whatever his motivations, Gorky’s 1929 essay on Solovetsky was to become an important foundation stone in the forming of both public and official attitudes to the new and far more extensive system of camps which were conceived in that same year. Earlier Bolshevik propaganda had defended revolutionary violence as a necessary, albeit temporary evil, a transitory cleansing force. Gorky, on the other hand, made the institutionalized violence of the Solovetsky camps seem a logical and natural part of the new order, and helped to reconcile the public to the growing, totalitarian power of the state.12

As it turned out, 1929 would be remembered for many things other than Gorky’s essay. By that year, the Revolution had matured. Nearly a decade had passed since the end of the civil war. Lenin was long dead. Economic experiments of various kinds—the New Economic Policy, War Communism—had been tried and abandoned. Just as the ramshackle concentration camp on the Solovetsky Islands had become the network of camps known as SLON, so too had the random terror of the Soviet Union’s early years subsided, giving way to a more systematic persecution of the regime’s perceived opponents.

The Revolution had also acquired, by 1929, a very different sort of leader. Throughout the 1920s, Josef Stalin had bested or eliminated first the Bolsheviks’ enemies, and then his own enemies, partly by putting himself in charge of Party personnel decisions, and partly by making liberal use of secret information gathered on his behalf by the secret police, in which he took a particular personal interest. He launched a series of Party purges, which at first meant Party expulsions, and arranged for them to be announced at emotional, recriminatory mass meetings. In 1937 and 1938, these purges would become lethal: expulsion from the Party would often be followed by a camp sentence—or death.

With notable finesse, Stalin had also finished off his most important rival for power, Leon Trotsky. First he discredited Trotsky, then deported him to an island off the Turkish coast, and then used him to set a precedent. When Yakov Blyumkin, an OGPU agent and ardent Trotsky supporter, visited his hero in his Turkish exile—and returned with a message from Trotsky to his supporters—Stalin had Blyumkin sentenced and executed upon his return. By doing so, he established the state’s willingness to use the full force of its repressive organs not only against members of other socialist parties and the old regime but also against dissidents within the Bolshevik Party itself.13

However, in 1929, Stalin was not yet the dictator he would become by the end of the following decade. It is more accurate to say that in that year Stalin put in place the policies that would ultimately enshrine his own power and transform the Soviet economy and society beyond recognition at the same time. Western historians variously labeled these policies the “Revolution from Above” or the “Stalinist Revolution.” Stalin himself called them the “Great Turning Point.”

At the heart of Stalin’s revolution was a new program of extremely— almost hysterically—rapid industrialization. At that time, the Soviet Revolution had still not brought real material improvement to the lives of most people. On the contrary, the years of Revolution, civil war, and economic experimentation had led to greater impoverishment. Now Stalin, perhaps sensing the growing popular discontent with the Revolution, set out to change ordinary people’s living conditions—radically.

To that end, the Soviet government in 1929 approved a new “Five-Year Plan,” an economic program that called for a 20 percent annual increase in industrial output. Food rationing returned. For a time, the seven-day week—five days of work, two days of rest—was abandoned. Instead, workers rested in shifts, so as to prevent any factory from ever shutting down. On high-priority projects, thirty-hour shifts were not unknown, and some workers stayed on the job an average of 300 hours a month.14 The spirit of the age, imposed from above but enthusiastically adopted below, was a form of one-upmanship, in which factory owners and bureaucrats, workers and clerks, vied with one another to fulfill the plan, to overfulfill the plan, or at least to propose newer and faster ways of overfulfilling the plan. At the same time, no one was allowed to doubt the wisdom of the plan. This was true at the highest levels: Party leaders who doubted the worth of rushed industrialization did not remain long in office. It was also true at the lowest levels. One survivor of that era remembered marching around his kindergarten classroom, carrying a little banner and chanting:

Five in Four, Five in Four, Five in Four And not in five!

Alas, the meaning of this phrase—that the Five-Year Plan was to be completed in four years—escaped him entirely.15

As was to be the case with all major Soviet initiatives, the onset of mass industrialization created whole new categories of criminals. In 1926, the Soviet criminal code had been rewritten to include, among other things, an expanded definition of Article 58, which defined “counter-revolutionary” crimes. Formerly a mere paragraph or two, Article 58 now contained eighteen subsections—and the OGPU made use of them all, most notably to arrest technical specialists.16 Predictably, the high tempo of change could not be met. Primitive technology, applied too quickly, led to mistakes. Someone had to be blamed. Hence the arrests of the “wreckers” and the “saboteurs” whose evil aims were preventing the Soviet economy from living up to the propaganda. Some of the earliest show trials—the Shakhty trial of 1928, the Industrial Party trial of 1930—were in fact trials of engineers and technical intelligentsia. So too was the Metro-Vickers trial of 1933, which attracted a great deal of international attention because it included British citizens as well as Russians, all accused of “espionage and sabotage” on behalf of Great Britain.17

But there would be other sources of prisoners too. For in 1929, the Soviet regime also accelerated the process of forced collectivization in the countryside, a vast upheaval which was in some ways more profound than the Russian Revolution itself. Within an incredibly short period of time, rural commissars forced millions of peasants to give up their small landholdings and to join collective farms, often expelling them from land their families had tilled for centuries. The transformation permanently weakened Soviet agriculture, and created the conditions for the terrible, devastating famines in Ukraine and southern Russia in 1932 and 1934—famines that killed between six and seven million people.18 Collectivization also destroyed— forever—rural Russia’s sense of continuity with the past.

Millions resisted collectivization, hiding grain in their cellars or refusing to cooperate with the authorities. These resisters were labeled kulaks, or wealthy peasants, a term which (much like the definition of “wrecker”) was so vague that nearly anyone could qualify. The possession of an extra cow, or an extra bedroom, was enough to qualify some distinctly poor peasants, as was an accusation from a jealous neighbor. To break the kulaks’ resistance, the regime revived, in effect, the old Czarist tradition of the administrative deportation order. From one day to the next, trucks and wagons simply arrived in a village and picked up entire families. Some kulaks were shot, some were arrested and given camp sentences. In the end, however, the regime deported most of them. Between 1930 and 1933, over two million peasant kulaks were exiled to Siberia, to Kazakhstan, and to other underpopulated regions of the Soviet Union, where they lived out the rest of their lives as “special exiles,” forbidden to leave their exile villages. A further 100,000 were arrested, and wound up in the Gulag.19

As famine kicked in, helped by poor rainfall, more arrests followed. All available grain was taken out of the villages, and deliberately denied to kulaks. Those caught stealing tiny amounts, even to feed their children, also ended up in prison. A law of August 7, 1932, demanded the death penalty, or else a long camp sentence, for all such “crimes against state property.” Soon afterward, the “gleaners” appeared in the camps: peasant women who had picked up leftover grain in order to survive. They were joined by others, such as the hungry people who received ten-year sentences for stealing a pound of potatoes or a handful of apples.20 These laws explain why peasants formed the vast majority of prisoners in Soviet camps throughout the 1930s, and why peasants would remain a substantial part of the prison population until Stalin’s death.

The impact of these mass arrests on the camps was enormous. Almost as soon as the new laws came into effect, camp administrators began to call for a rapid and radical overhaul of the entire system. The “ordinary” prison system, still run by the Commissariat of the Interior (and still far larger than Solovetsky, which was run by the OGPU) had remained overcrowded, disorganized, and over-budget throughout the previous decade. Nationally, the situation was so bad that at one point the Commissariat of the Interior attempted to reduce inmate numbers by sentencing more people to “forced labor without deprivation of freedom”—assigning them jobs but not locking them up—thereby relieving the strain on the camps.21

As the pace of collectivization and the strength of repression picked up, however—as millions of kulaks were evicted from their homes—such solutions began to seem politically inopportune. Once again, the authorities determined that such dangerous criminals—enemies of Stalin’s great drive for collectivization—required a more secure form of incarceration, and the OGPU prepared to build one.

Knowing that the prison system was deteriorating as fast as prisoner numbers were rising, the Politburo of the Communist Party set up a commission in 1928 to deal with the problem. Ostensibly, the commission was neutral, and contained representatives of the Interior and Justice Commissariats, as well as the OGPU. Comrade Yanson, the Commissar of Justice, was placed in charge of it. The commission’s task was to create “a system of concentration camps, organized in the manner of the OGPU camps” and its deliberations took place within clear limits. Despite Maxim Gorky’s lyrical passages about the value of labor in the reformation of criminals, all of the participants used fiercely economic language. All expressed the same concerns about “profitability” and spoke frequently about “rational use of labor.”22

True, the protocol written up after the commission meeting of May 15, 1929, records a few practical objections to the creation of a mass camp system: camps would be too difficult to set up, there were no roads leading to the far north, and so on. The Commissar of Labor thought it was wrong to subject minor criminals to the same punishment as recidivists. The Commissar of the Interior, Tolmachev, pointed out that the system would look bad abroad: the “White Guard emigrants” and the bourgeois foreign press would claim that “instead of building a penitentiary system intended to reform prisoners through corrective labor, we’ve put up Chekist fortresses.” 23

Yet his point was that the system would look bad, not that it was bad. No one present objected on the grounds that camps “of the Solovetsky type” were cruel or lethal. Nor did anyone mention the alternative theories of criminal justice of which Lenin had been so fond, the notion that crime would disappear along with capitalism. Certainly no one talked about prisoner re-education, the “transformation of human nature,” which Gorky had lauded in his essay on Solovetsky and which would be so important in the public presentation of the first set of camps. Instead, Genrikh Yagoda, the OGPU’s representative on the committee, put the regime’s real interests quite clearly:

It is already both possible and absolutely necessary to remove 10,000 prisoners from places of confinement in the Russian republic, whose labor could be better organized and used. Aside from that, we have received notice that the camps and jails in the Ukrainian republic are overflowing as well. Obviously, Soviet policy will not permit the building of new prisons. Nobody will give money for new prisons. The construction of large camps, on the other hand—camps which will make rational use of labor—is a different matter. We have many difficulties attracting workers to the North. If we send many thousands of prisoners there, we can exploit the resources of the North . . . the experience of Solovetsky shows what can be done in this area.

Yagoda went on to explain that the resettlement would be permanent. After their release, prisoners would stay put: “with a variety of measures, both administrative and economic, we can force the freed prisoners to stay in the North, thereby populating our outer regions.”24

The idea that prisoners should become colonists—so similar to the Czarist model—was no afterthought. While the Yanson commission was holding its deliberations, a separate committee of the Soviet government had also begun to investigate the labor crisis in the far north, variously proposing to send the unemployed or Chinese immigrants to solve the problem. 25 Both committees were looking for solutions to the same problem at the same time, and no wonder. In order to fulfill Stalin’s Five-Year Plan, the Soviet Union would require huge quantities of coal, gas, oil, and wood, all available in Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the far north. The country also needed gold in order to purchase new machinery abroad, and geologists had recently discovered gold in the far northeastern region of Kolyma. Despite freezing temperatures, primitive living conditions, and inaccessibility, these resources had to be exploited at breakneck speed.

In the then-fierce spirit of interministry competition, Yanson initially proposed that his own commissariat take over the system and set up a series of forestry camps in order to increase the Soviet Union’s export of timber, a major source of foreign currency. This project was put aside, probably because not everyone wanted Comrade Yanson and his judicial bureaucrats to control it. Indeed, when the project was suddenly revived, in the spring of 1929, the Yanson commission’s conclusions were slightly different. On April 13, 1929, the commission proposed the creation of a new, unified camp system, one which eliminated the distinction between “ordinary” and “special” camps. More significant, the commission handed direct control of the new unified system straight to the OGPU.26

The OGPU took control of the Soviet Union’s prisoners with startling speed. In December 1927, the Special Department of the OGPU had controlled 30,000 inmates, about 10 percent of the prison population, mostly in the Solovetsky camps. It employed no more than 1,000 people, and its budget hardly exceeded .05 percent of state expenditure. By contrast, the Commissariat of the Interior’s prison system had 150,000 inmates and consumed .25 percent of the state budget. Between 1928 and 1930, however, the situation reversed itself. As other government institutions slowly gave up their prisoners, their prisons, their camps, and the industrial enterprises attached to them, the number of prisoners under OGPU jurisdiction swelled from 30,000 to 300,000. 27 In 1931, the secret police also took control of the millions of “special exiles”—mostly deported kulaks—who were effectively forced laborers, since they were forbidden to leave their assigned settlements and workplaces under pain of death or arrest.28 By the middle of the decade, the OGPU would control all of the Soviet Union’s vast prisoner workforce.

In order to cope with its new responsibilities, the OGPU reorganized its Special Department for camps and renamed it the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Labor Settlements. Eventually, this unwieldy title would be shortened to the Main Camp Administration or, in Russian, Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei. Hence the acronym by which the department, and ultimately the system itself, would be known: GULAG.29

Ever since the Soviet concentration camps first came into existence on a grand scale, their inmates and their chroniclers have argued about the motives that lay behind their creation. Did they come about haphazardly, as a side effect of collectivization, industrialization, and the other processes taking place in the country? Or did Stalin carefully plot the growth of the Gulag, planning in advance to arrest millions of people?

In the past, some scholars have claimed that no grand design lay behind the camps’ founding. One historian, James Harris, has argued that local leaders, not bureaucrats in Moscow, led the drive to build new camps in the Ural region. Forced to comply with the impossible requirements of the Five-Year Plan on the one hand and facing a critical labor shortage on the other, the Ural authorities increased the pace and cruelty of collectivization in order to square the circle: every time they removed a kulak from his land, they created another slave laborer.30 Another historian, Michael Jakobson, argues along similar lines that the origins of the mass Soviet prison system were “banal”: “Bureaucrats pursued unattainable goals of prison self-sufficiency and inmate re-education. Officials sought manpower and funds, expanded their bureaucracies, and tried to meet unrealistic goals. Administrators and warders dutifully enforced rules and regulations. Theorists rationalized and justified. Eventually, everything was reversed or modified or abandoned.”31

Indeed, if the Gulag’s origins were haphazard, that would not be surprising. Throughout the early 1930s, the Soviet leadership in general, and Stalin in particular, constantly changed course, implemented policies and then reversed them, and made public pronouncements deliberately designed to disguise reality. It is not easy, when reading the history of the era, to detect an evil master plan designed by Stalin or anyone else.32 Stalin himself launched collectivization, for example, only to change his mind, apparently, in March 1930, when he attacked overzealous rural officials who had become “Dizzy with Success.” Whatever he meant by this pronouncement, it had little effect on the ground, and the destruction of the kulaks continued unabated for years.

The OGPU bureaucrats and secret police who planned the expansion of the Gulag also seem, initially, to have been no clearer about their ultimate goals. The Yanson commission itself made decisions, and then reversed them. The OGPU also conducted policies which seemed contradictory. Throughout the 1930s, for example, the OGPU declared frequent amnesties, intended to end overcrowding in prisons and camps. Invariably, the amnesties would be followed by new waves of repression, and new waves of camp construction, as if Stalin and his henchmen were never quite sure if they wanted the system to grow or not—or as if different people were giving different orders at different times.

Similarly, the camp system would go through many cycles: now more repressive, now less so, now more repressive again. Even after 1929, when the camps had been set firmly on the path of economic efficiency, a few anomalies remained in the system. As late as 1937, for example, many political prisoners were still kept in jails where they were explicitly forbidden to work—a practice that would seem to contradict the general drive for efficiency.33 Nor were many of the bureaucratic changes terribly meaningful. Although the formal division between secret police camps and nonsecret police camps did come to an end in the 1930s, a vestigial division remained between “camps,” supposedly designed for more dangerous and political criminals, and “colonies,” for petty criminals with shorter sentences. In practice, the organization of work, food, and daily life at both camps and colonies was very similar.

And yet—there is also now a growing consensus that Stalin himself had, if not a carefully designed plan, then at least a very firm belief in the enormous advantages of prison labor, which he maintained until the end of his life. Why?

Some, like Ivan Chukhin, a former secret policeman and historian of the early camp system, speculate that Stalin promoted the Gulag’s overambitious early construction works in order to build up his own prestige. At this time, he was still just emerging as the leader of the country after a long and bitter power struggle. He may have imagined that new industrial feats, achieved with the help of prison slave labor, would help him secure his power. 34

Stalin may also have been inspired by an older historical precedent. Robert Tucker, among others, has amply demonstrated Stalin’s obsessive interest in Peter the Great, another Russian ruler who deployed massive serf and prison labor to achieve enormous feats of engineering and construction. In a speech to a Central Committee plenum, made just as he was getting ready to launch his industrial program in 1928, Stalin noted admiringly that

When Peter the Great, conducting business with the more advanced countries in the West, feverishly built mills and factories to supply the army and strengthen the defenses of the country, it was a special sort of effort to leap clear of the confines of his backwardness.35

The italics are mine: they emphasize the link between Stalin’s “Great Turning Point” and the policies of his eighteenth-century predecessor. In the Russian historical tradition, Peter is remembered as both a great and a cruel leader, and this is not thought to be a contradiction. After all, nobody remembers how many serfs died during the building of St. Petersburg, but everybody admires the city’s beauty. Stalin may well have taken his example to heart.

Yet Stalin’s interest in concentration camps need not have had a rational source at all: perhaps Stalin’s obsessive interest in vast construction projects and toiling teams of forced laborers was connected, somehow, to his particular form of megalomaniacal madness. Mussolini once said of Lenin that he “is an artist who has worked in men as others have worked in marble or metal.”36 This description may be better applied to Stalin, who literally enjoyed the sight of large numbers of human bodies, marching or dancing in perfect synchronization.37 He was captivated by the ballet, by orchestrated exhibitions of gymnastics, and by parades featuring giant pyramids built out of anonymous, contorted human figures. 38 Like Hitler, Stalin was also obsessed with the cinema, particularly Hollywood musicals, with their enormous casts of coordinated singers and dancers. He might have derived a different but related form of pleasure from the vast teams of prisoners who dug canals and built railway lines at his bidding.

Whatever his inspiration, whether political, historical, or psychological, it is clear that from the Gulag’s earliest days, Stalin took a deep personal interest in the camps, and exerted an enormous influence on their development. The crucial decision to transfer all of the Soviet Union’s camps and prisons away from the ordinary justice system and into the hands of the OGPU, for example, was almost certainly made at Stalin’s behest. By 1929, Stalin had taken a great personal interest in this institution. He took an interest in the careers of the top secret policemen, and oversaw the construction of comfortable houses for them and their families.39 By contrast, the prison administration of the Interior Commissariat was very much out of his favor: its leaders had backed Stalin’s opponents in the bitter, internal Party factional fighting of the time.40

Everyone who took part in the Yanson commission would have known all of these details perfectly well, which might have been enough to persuade them to put the prisons in the hands of the OGPU. But Stalin also intervened directly in the Yanson commission’s deliberations. At one point in the tangled deliberations, the Politburo actually reversed its original decision, declaring its intention to take the prison system away from the secret police once again, and put it back in the hands of the Commissariat of the Interior. This prospect outraged Stalin. In a 1930 letter to his close collaborator, Vyacheslav Molotov, he denounced this idea as an “intrigue” orchestrated by the Commissar of the Interior who is “rotten through and through.” He ordered the Politburo to implement its original decision, and shut down the Commissariat of the Interior altogether.41 Stalin’s decision to give the camps to the OGPU determined their future character. It removed them from ordinary judicial scrutiny, and placed them firmly in the hands of a secret police bureaucracy whose origins lay in the mysterious, extralegal world of the Cheka.

While there is less hard evidence to support the theory, it may also be that the constant emphasis on the need to build “camps of the Solovetsky type” came from Stalin as well. As mentioned earlier, the Solovetsky camps never were profitable, not in 1929, not ever. In the June 1928–June 1929 working year, SLON still received a 1.6-million-ruble subsidy from the state budget.42 Although SLON might have appeared more successful than other local businesses, anyone who understood economics knew that it hardly competed fairly. Forestry camps which employed prisoners would always appear more productive than regular forestry enterprises, for example, simply because the latter’s peasant employees only worked in the winter, when they were unable to farm.43

Nevertheless, the Solovetsky camps were perceived to be profitable—or at least Stalin perceived them to be profitable. Stalin also believed that they were profitable precisely because of Frenkel’s “rational” methods—his distribution of food according to prisoners’ work, and his elimination of needless “extras.” Evidence that Frenkel’s system had won approval at the highest levels is in the results: not only was the system very quickly duplicated around the country, but Frenkel himself was also named chief of construction on the White Sea Canal, the first major project of the Stalin-era Gulag, an extremely high post for a former prisoner. 44 Later, as we shall see, he was protected from arrest and possibly execution by intervention at the very highest level.

Evidence of interest in prison labor can also be found in Stalin’s continuing interest in the intimate details of camp administration. Throughout his life, he demanded regular information about the level of “inmate productivity” in the camps, often through specific statistics: how much coal and oil they had produced, how many prisoners they employed, how many medals their bosses had received.45 He was particularly interested in the gold mines of Dalstroi, the complex of camps in the far northeastern region of Kolyma, and demanded regular and precise information about Kolyma’s geology, Dalstroi’s mining technology, and the precise quality of the gold produced, as well as its quantity. To ensure that his own edicts were carried out in the more far-flung camps, he sent out inspection teams, often requiring camp bosses to make frequent appearances in Moscow as well. 46

When a particular project interested him, he sometimes got even more closely involved. Canals, for example, seized his imagination, and it sometimes seemed as if he wanted to dig them almost indiscriminately. Yagoda was once forced to write to Stalin, politely objecting to his boss’s unrealistic desire to build a canal using slave labor in central Moscow.47 As Stalin took greater control of the organs of power, he also forced his colleagues to focus their attention on the camps. By 1940, the Politburo would discuss one or another of the Gulag’s projects almost every week. 48

Yet Stalin’s interest was not purely theoretical. He also took a direct interest in the human beings involved in the work of the camps: who had been arrested, where he or she had been sentenced, what was his or her ultimate fate. He personally read, and sometimes commented upon, the petitions for release sent to him by prisoners or their wives, often replying with a word or two (“keep him at work” or “release”). 49 Later, he regularly demanded information about prisoners or groups of prisoners who interested him, such as the west Ukrainian nationalists. 50

There is also evidence that Stalin’s interest in particular prisoners was not always purely political, and did not include only his personal enemies. As early as 1931, before he had consolidated his power, Stalin pushed a resolution through the Politburo which allowed him enormous influence over the arrests of certain kinds of technical specialists.51 And—not coincidentally—the pattern of arrests of engineers and specialists in this earlier era does suggest some higher level of planning. Perhaps it was not sheer accident that the very first group of prisoners sent to the new camps in the Kolyma gold fields included seven well-known mining experts, two labor-organization experts, and one experienced hydraulic engineer.52 Nor, perhaps, was it mere chance that the OGPU managed to arrest one of the Soviet Union’s top geologists on the eve of a planned expedition to build a camp near the oil reserves of the Komi Republic, as we shall see.53 Such coincidences could not have been planned by regional Party bosses reacting to the stresses of the moment.

Finally, there is a completely circumstantial, but nevertheless interesting body of evidence suggesting that the mass arrests of the late 1930s and 1940s may also have been carried out, to some degree, in order to appease Stalin’s desire for slave labor, and not—as most have always assumed—in order to punish his perceived or potential enemies. The authors of the most authoritative Russian history of the camps to date point out the “positive connection between the successful economic activity of the camps and the number of prisoners sent to them.” Surely it is no accident, they argue, that sentences for petty criminal activity suddenly became much harsher just as the camps were expanding, just as more prison laborers were urgently needed.54

A few scattered archival documents hint at the same story. In 1934, for example, Yagoda wrote a letter to his subordinates in Ukraine, demanding 15,000 to 20,000 prisoners, all “fit to work”: they were needed urgently in order to finish the Moscow–Volga Canal. The letter is dated March 17, and in it Yagoda also demanded that the local OGPU bosses “take extra measures” to ensure that the prisoners had arrived by April 1. Where these 15,000 to 20,000 prisoners were supposed to come from was not, however, clearly explained. Were they arrested in order to meet Yagoda’s requirements?55 Or—as historian Terry Martin believes—was Yagoda simply struggling to ensure a nice, regular inflow of labor into his camp system, a goal which he never in fact achieved?

If the arrests were intended to populate the camps, then they did so with almost ludicrous inefficiency. Martin and others have also pointed out that every wave of mass arrests seems to have caught the camp commanders completely by surprise, making it difficult for them to achieve even a semblance of economic efficiency. Nor did the arresting officers ever choose their victims rationally: instead of limiting arrests to the healthy young men who would have made the best laborers in the far north, they also imprisoned women, children, and old people in large numbers.56 The sheer illogic of the mass arrests seems to argue against the idea of a carefully planned slave-labor force—leading many to conclude that arrests were carried out primarily to eliminate Stalin’s perceived enemies, and only secondarily to fill Stalin’s camps.

Yet, in the end, none of these explanations for the growth of the camps is entirely mutually exclusive either. Stalin might well have intended his arrests both to eliminate enemies and to create slave laborers. He might have been motivated both by his own paranoia and by the labor needs of regional leaders. Perhaps the formula is best put simply: Stalin proposed the “Solovetsky model” of concentration camps to his secret police, Stalin selected the victims—and his subordinates leaped at the opportunity to obey him.

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