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Forced Labour in Soviet Russia 1917-1953

100th anniversary of the Russian revolution:
research, collections and events at IISH

The publication of The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1973 was a revelation for many in the West and in the Soviet Union. The book described the Soviet labour camps system, the suffering of those who perished there, and the hardships of those who managed to survive. The sheer scope of the violence chronicled in these testimonies was overwhelming. The labour camps of the Gulag thus became a powerful image of what had gone wrong with the Soviet experiment.

Guard and convict labourers at the White Sea Canal, propaganda for re-education through labour. From: USSR in construction, 1933, nr. 12 (c/o Pictoright, Amsterdam 2017)

Initially, though, the Russian Revolution had signalled a break with a long tradition of forced labour in Russia. The February Revolution of 1917 freed the political prisoners of the Tsarist regime. The October Revolution brought about the hope of a profound revision of criminological thought and penal practices. Many prisons were shut down, and new progressive concepts of rehabilitation were discussed. However, this moment of reform was short-lived. The secret police (OGPU) was creating its own sprawling network of camps to intern political dissenters. The best-known of these early camps, the Solovki Special Purpose Camp, was created in 1923. It was set up in a former monastery on a group of islands in the northern White Sea. Many political opponents of the Bolsheviks, including social revolutionaries, anarchists, and Mensheviks, were incarcerated there.

But the Soviet labour camps were part of a larger picture. The forced labour of inmates was just one of many types of unfree labour that existed in the Soviet Union. Labour coercion in general became an important characteristic of the Soviet economy. Universal compulsory labour was introduced in January 1920, obliging all adults, except for the elderly and the disabled, to be legally employed. The only unofficial type of labour that the Bolsheviks considered equal to full-time employment was the household work of mothers, and they, too, were thus exempted from this obligation. This policy was not only a response to an acute fall in the size of the labour force due to the losses incurred in the First World War and the Civil War. It was also a result of a long-standing theoretical discussion within the Bolshevik Party on the role of labour coercion in the building of socialism. Leon Trotsky was a strong advocate of labour compulsion as the main driver of society’s movement towards socialism. He argued that it would instil in workers the discipline necessary for the long struggle for socialism.

However, none of the above foreshadowed the explosive growth in the camp system that took place in the 1930s. As Stalin took power, political repression intensified. Labour coercion became an integral part of the breakneck industrialization of the Soviet Union. A vast system of “corrective labour camps” emerged during the 1930s, managed by the Main Camp Administration (Gulag). It was accompanied by deep-seated changes in the criminal justice system. The experimental policies of the 1920s were soon forgotten. The camp system was instrumentalized by the state as a means to suppress political dissent. Terms of confinement were extended, and new laws criminalized ever widening social groups. The secret police played a central role in the organization of the system, and after 1934 it assumed complete authority over the camps.

Forced labour of convicts was widely used in the construction and other industrial sectors, especially those involving work in the harsh conditions of the far north and Siberia. The number of those detained increased rapidly, reaching 2,468,524 by the time of Stalin’s death. Original memoirs of camp survivors are available at the IISH, in the collections of Memorial and the Moscow historical literary society Vozvraščenie [The Return].

Article written by Zhanna Popova

Zhanna Popova is a Ph.D. researcher at the International Institute of Social History and the University of Amsterdam, working in the project Four Centuries of Labour Camps. War, Rehabilitation, Ethnicity (IISH/NIOD). Her research explores continuity and change in the Russian penal policies from the late 19th century till the 1950s. This article is an abridged version of a paper to be published in the 2018 edition of the Jahrbuch für Historische Kommunismusforschung.


10 June 2017