Staunton, January 23 – Many Russians believe that the GULAG regardless of its cruelties promoted economic growth and helped prepare the USSR for war; and because of such views, they are prepared to support Vladimir Putin’s order to restore the use of slave labor (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/01/putin-restores-gulag-by-legalizing.html).
But in fact, Znak journalist Aleksandr Zadorozhny says on the basis of a review of official figures as well as studies by experts, “it is obvious the GULAG was senseless and even harmful from the point of view of the economic interests of the country -- and its only real meaning was as a machine for punishment and terror” (znak.com/2020-01-25/nekotorye_dumayut_chto_gulag_pomog_industrializacii_i_ekonomike_sssr_na_samom_dele_vse_naoborot).
In reality, he continues, “the camp system was not only economically unproductive. It operated at a loss and harmed the tasks of the industrialization” of the country.
The GULAG system did provide some advantages to the rulers, historian Oleg Khvenyuk points out. It allowed the Soviet leaders to dispatch workers to far away places they would not have willingly gone, to shift them from place to place as needed, to exploit those in it almost without limit, to be a threat to those not yet incarcerated, and to reduce consumption.
But its costs to the system exceeded “the profits” it brought the country, he and others say, including many of the managers of the prison camp system. First of all, the costs of guarding and moving inmates exceeded what the inmates produced. Second, productivity of slave labor was extremely low. And third, it led to misassignment of workers to needed tasks.
Because Stalinist bosses assumed that such a labor force was inexhaustible, Zadorozhny says, they often used slave labor for tasks that were not justified economically or strategically and kept the inmates working on these tasks long after it became obvious that the projects were operating at a loss.
In addition, and again in contrast to current assumptions, the GULAG was extremely corrupt. Given how isolated many of the camps were, guards and bosses had ever incentive to seek to extract money from families of those incarcerated with the certainty that they would be able to get away with this. Such crimes cost the country billions of rubles.
It may come as a surprise to Russians today but “the Soviet government and leaders of the camp system soberly assessed the ineffectiveness of the GULAG and from the very beginning put in place a whole range of measures designed to stimulate the productivity of labor” in the camps.
But the most effective of these – reducing sentences for higher productivity – was ended by Stalin himself in 1938. Others involved using free labor alongside the inmates, or reducing the number of guards overseeing what the prisoners were doing. And in the early 1950s, the camp bosses even paid inmates in the hopes of boosting their productivity.
At that time, the USSR Council of Ministers “introduced payment for the work of inmates in all corrective labor colonies and camps except special ones where ‘politicals’ were held.” That led to a rapid rise in productivity across the board. But there were still many camps were costs exceeded production.
There, the only real means available to “make ends meet” was to length the working day and increase the norms prisoners were to fill. But over time that didn’t work either. And consequently after the death of the dictator, this system of slave labor was done away with. One can only hope that its revival will not last very long.