Staunton, May 31 – While most Russians view the GULAG as horrific, they generally accept the official line that it transformed Russia from an agricultural country into an industrial powerhouse and that it played a key role in the development of the Soviet defense industry that allowed the USSR to defeat Hitler.
As a result, polls show, many now are inclined to support proposals by the Putin regime to restore the use of prison labor in places where the market cannot attract sufficient workers in order to promote the future development of the Russian Federation economically and geopolitically.
But calls for using Russian inmates now the way GULAG prisoners were in the past ignores the fact, Vladislav Staf of the Moscow Higher School of Economics says, that the GULAG was far less effective than the use of “free” labor would have been and was viewed as such by Stalin’s own officials (kavkazr.com/a/gulag-socyalnyi-lift-nkvd/31281976.html).
Their judgment was reflected in the fact that “immediately after the death of Stalin,” they began to dismantle the system, not because they found it morally abhorrent because of the deaths and suffering it cause but because it was “economically ineffective,” was not promoting growth, and was in fact introducing problems that could have been avoided.
Stalin-era officials recognized as some Russians today do not, he continues, that the GULAG did not by itself make industrialization happen. Instead, it destroyed agriculture and the future demographic development of much of the country, led to the rise of cities that had no economic justification, and involved many “giant” projects that were never profitable or finished.
The only real “beneficiaries” of the GULAG were those hired to be guards. But even they did not always get the benefits they expected. Many died on the job, and many more were themselves repressed by the Stalinist state machine, the historian says, yet another reason for their heirs not to want to restore the GULAG.
Russia today is pockmarked by GULAG projects that were never completed or that, if they were, have proved unnecessary or even harmful. Cities were built in places that had not economic justification, and regions which did produce food were depopulated and remain at risk of losing even more people.
“There are entire cities and settlements which either have died out or are dying out because it turned out that they weren’t adapted to a market economy,” Staf says. “The most obvious example is Vorkuta which now is the city in Russia which is dying out the most rapidly.”
Stalin and other leaders could point to giant construction projects, but few could respond then although many should recognize now that these projects did not achieve the goals the regime said it was pursuing let alone the goals the country needed, the historian adds. Anyone thinking about restoring the system should remember that.
The GULAG was not just a moral disaster; it was an economic and demographic one. And any plans to restore it even in part will likely have similar consequences.