This week’s podcast is an interview with Wilson Bell on his book Stalin’s Gulag at War: Forced Labor, Mass Death, and Soviet Victory in the Second World War.
Here’s a partial transcript to whet your appetite. I didn’t include a lot of our conversation on the gulag’s place in the war. For that, you’ll have to listen to the interview.
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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.
Wilson Bell is an Assistant Professor of History at Thompson Rivers University where he specializes on the Gulag prison camps in the Soviet Union under Stalin. He’s the author of Stalin’s Gulag at War: Forced Labor, Mass Death, and Soviet Victory in the Second World War published by the University of Toronto Press.
Your book, Stalin’s Gulag at War: Forced Labor, Mass Death, and Soviet Victory in the Second World War, addresses the little researched subject, of the Gulag during World War II. How would you fit the Gulag during the war into the general history of Stalin’s penal system?
I think one thing that we can see by looking at the wartime Gulag is a better sense of the periodization of the Gulag itself because there’s a tendency in the scholarship to talk about how the Gulag developed in the 1930s, and then it’s sort of formed. Anne Applebaum and others talk about the 1930s as this formative period for the Gulag, and then we have, by the end of the 1930s, this institution that we all know as the Gulag. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me because then you have the war, which is an incredibly disruptive time. We see a lot of changes during the war. It’s a harsher period because of the lack of resources, a lot of fluctuation in the population as prisoners are released to the front, and a very high mortality rate.
The war seems to be this very distinct period, and then we have this seven to eight year period after the war for the Gulag to restabilize and form. And that’s the period when it grows the most for a variety of reasons. I think if we look at the Gulag in different periods under Stalin, we really see a system that’s always in flux. It never really solidifies as one institution that we can recognize as being a whole for the entire period. I think that’s one thing we can gain by looking at just a specific period. There are certainly scholars who’ve covered the war, but it tends to be covered more as a chapter in a larger book. I wanted to look at it in more detail.
We tend to think of the Gulag as a uniform system that’s mostly modeled on an archetype like camps in Kolyma and similar camps. When we read Shalamov and other writings and memoirs about the Gulag, I think there’s an assumption that all the camps are similar. But the Gulag encompassed a variety of different levels of penal systems. Yours is the first study to look at the corrective labor colonies. What are corrective labor colonies, and how did they fit within the hierarchy of Gulag institutions?
The Gulag, depending on how you define it, can include a lot of different types of institutions related to incarceration within the Gulag system. The Gulag itself is just an acronym for Main Camp Administration (Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei–GULag). This is the bureaucratic body that runs the camp system and is in charge of what were called corrective labor camps and corrective labor colonies and through the 1930s and the war, it also runs the special settlements, which were exile settlements for peasants and then specific ethnic groups starting in the late 1930s and into the war. We have those three institutions.
Often, scholars will include the prisons in the Gulag system as well. It was relatively uncommon to be sent to a prison after sentencing. This did happen, but for the most part, once you were sentenced to a crime, you were sent to a corrective labor camp or a corrective labor colony. The prisons were generally used as basically remand prisons where you’d be imprisoned until your trial and sentencing. Now, even within the corrective labor camps you have a variety of punishment regimens. You will have strict regimen camps and light regimen camps, and these can look very different from one another.
For example, a lot of the lighter regimen camps don’t even have barbed wire fences or any type of border. Prisoners are basically just told not to go beyond the camp zone, which is the space of the penal camp. So those might have a much lighter regime in terms of what’s expected of you. And then the stricter regimen camps will be more like what we stereotypically think of as a concentration camp with watchtowers, barbed wire and guard dogs and so on. So you have a variety there.
My book covers both corrective labor colonies and corrective labor camps. In western Siberia, where I focused, half of the camps were designated corrective labor colonies and the other half corrective labor camps. But one of the most interesting things about focusing on the corrective labor colonies is that they tended to be in urban areas, technically for prisoners with sentences of three years or less, and supposed to be a lighter regime for the prisoners.
However, they’ll often look similar to the corrective camps. You might not be able to distinguish them aside from their urban environment. But one of the fascinating things to look at when examining these colonies specifically, is that they have a higher mortality rate, at least during the war, than many of the camps, which is not something you would initially expect. You would think the harsher camps like the Kolyma, Vorkutlag or Norilsk that are in very remote areas above the Arctic Circle might have the highest mortality rates. But when you look at the statistics we have available, it turns out that it’s often the corrective labor colonies in urban areas and some of the agricultural camps in the more southern areas that actually have the highest mortality rates.
Then there’s a question of why this is the case. And we can get at that a little bit by studying these corrective labor colonies. And one other thing, I think, I should say about the corrective labor colonies versus the camps is that on paper, they’re very different from one another. On paper, the corrective labor camps have prisoners with longer sentences, and they’re in more remote areas, while the corrective labor colonies are for prisoners with short sentences. But then if you look at available statistics, it is true that the camps tend to have more of the article 58ers [those convicted of “counter-revolutionary activities], the so-called political prisoners with lengthy sentences, and the colonies do tend to have more of the prisoners with shorter sentences. Six months, a year, this type of thing.
But in both institutions, the largest number of prisoners is in that middle range, the three to five year and five to ten year sentences in both institutions. So the actual differences, I think, can be exaggerated if we just looked at what’s there on paper.
Another aspect of this relationship between the corrective labor camps and the corrective labor colonies is the mortality rate. And we had, I think, long assumed that things would be better in the corrective labor colonies. They were not in remote areas, so theoretically should have better access to goods. And people were there under lighter sentences, shorter sentences, under lighter regimes, so you would expect better conditions.
But then what we see when we look at them in more detail is that mortality rates are actually higher in these corrective labor colonies, and also some of the agricultural camps than they are in the really remote camps like those of Kolyma or Vorkutlag. If you look at the war, the Gulag reaches its peak mortality rate, at least according to official statistics in 1942, with around a 24 percent mortality rate, which is horrific. But you look at somewhere like Vorkutlag or Kolyma, and they’re reporting much lower mortality rates of the 12 percent range. It is still very high, but much lower than the average.
The question is: what’s bringing up the average? Well, it seems to be these corrective labor colonies, and some of the non-priority camps. Siblag in western Siberia was a non-priority agricultural camp, and they’re complaining all the time about receiving unhealthy contingents of prisoners while the healthy prisoners are being sent on to other camps. And it’s the same with the corrective labor colonies in the region. They’re complaining about having to send their healthy prisoners to priority camps while they only get to keep the unhealthy ones.
How did the Gulag develop in western Siberia?
The first camp in the region is modeled on the Solovetsky camp. The Solovetsky camp has special significance because the archipelago metaphor for the Gulag gets its name from it. In the 1920s, there was a forced labor component, although that wasn’t necessarily the main purpose of those camps. The Siberian camps were founded in 1929 even before Gulag itself existed as a bureaucratic body.
And this comes to be known fairly quickly as Siblag, just the Siberian camp, basically. And it’s involved in all sorts of economic activities in the region, from agriculture to a coal mining in the Kuzbass, forestry and so on. It initially encompasses camps stretching basically all the way from Omsk to Krasnoyarsk. So this is an enormous territory. And then as Siberia is administratively divided up over the course of the 1930s, you also get this Siblag being divided up administratively as well.
By the mid-1930s, it’s very clear that Siblag really is an afterthought for central authorities in Moscow. It becomes one of the larger camp systems, but they never included it in their lists of a priority camps and priority projects for the Gulag. Those might be, say the building of the Baikal-Amur Railway in the Far East or the Moscow Volga canal or these types of projects. But Siblag doesn’t have one of these big infrastructure and mobilization projects, and so it gets ignored to a certain extent, and I think, becomes one of these camps where they send unhealthy prisoners. Or maybe because Siblag is in the middle of the Soviet Union, so when prisoners are going across they take the unhealthy ones out and send to the healthy ones on.
Does it also include a lot of special settlers from dekulakization?
Yes, that’s right. So Siblag oversees the special settlements in the region, and Gulag authorities in the region are also in charge of the special settlements. And this is one area where you can see western Siberia as a key site of Stalinist repression, in that western Siberia is one of the main destination points for the special settlers. And it’s interesting if you look at the relationship between the locations of the special settlements and the camps regionally, the special settlements tend to be located in much more remote areas of the region. Like Narym, which is down stream in the north of the region.
While the camps are located pretty close to population centers for the most part, there are a few remote ones. And I should say there are some special settlements as well in the Kuzbass. In these coal mining areas and forestry regions, more southerly. But a lot of them are in Narym and Narym becomes a synonym for the special settlements in a way.
What do we know about the personnel who ran these large institutions?
I think we still know very little about the camp personnel. We don’t have a large number of firsthand accounts. There are a couple out there, but it’s very difficult to get an intimate account of what it might have been like to work for the Gulag or work in the Gulag as a member of the personnel. But one thing I tried to argue in the book based mostly on these Communist Party documents for the Gulag is that there’s really nothing particularly extraordinary about the camp personnel. They often tend to be the same demographic as the prisoners themselves. There are communist party members, but not all that many.
A lot of the personnel are demobilized soldiers perhaps during the war or perhaps even prisoners who have stayed on often without a choice after their sentences have ended and they’re working in the camps now as so-called the civilians. The whole question of the personnel is largely a gray area, I think, in terms of how we situate them. And then even if you look at the Communist Party members who you might expect to be the most vigilant and dedicated, even there, I think, we just see these people who look at it almost as an ordinary job in a way. In these party meeting minutes, they’re talking about who to send to what party conference and what roles they should play.
Prisoners actually come up relatively infrequently. And then if you look at the Control Commission reports, that’s where you see prisoners coming up because they’re admonishing party members for drinking with prisoners or having sexual relationships with prisoners or for taking some prisoners into a local town and letting them do what they want. These types of things. You see party members getting reprimands for this type of activity. But to me, this type of activity suggests a bit of fraternization, that they don’t necessarily see the prisoners as subhuman.
Now, there are certainly accounts of abuse both in the prisoner memoir literature and in these meeting minutes that would suggest dehumanization, but for the most part, I didn’t see that as often as I was expecting to. I guess I could put it that way.
Was the Soviet victory in World War II also a victory for The Gulag?
I think so. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a positive way. Obviously, I think, the Soviet victory in the Second World War is crucially important. They bore the brunt of the Nazi attack and obviously played a very crucial role in defeating Germany. One reason why we see an entrenchment of forced labor and total mobilization in the postwar period is because Stalin and the leadership look back and see that their system worked. They look back and see, “Okay, we started with total mobilization with our first Five Year Plan, and we then ratcheted that up during the war and it worked. We knew we were going to face war, we knew this would be an existential threat, and we survived.”
There’s a reinforcement, I think, in Stalin’s mind, and this is mostly just coming through, I suppose, circumstantial evidence rather than his words. But you see that they, in a way, double down on the Gulag in the postwar period up until Stalin’s death. This is why you can call this Stalin’s Gulag because the huge growth is associated with his Five Year Plans and collectivization and then the decline of the Gulag, if you will, comes after his death.
This real period of total mobilization of the Gulag is part of an almost twenty-five year period of almost total war. It’s associated with Stalin himself, and so I think for Stalin, the Soviet system means total mobilization, and you can’t really relax from that.