SU HAS A PROGRESSIVE PRISON AND EXILE SYSTEM
The Soviet prison system, as applied to ordinary criminals, embodies a number of progressive penological ideas. Educational and manual training instruction courses exist in the more advanced prisons; prisoners are not required to wear uniforms; and the well-behaved prisoner receives a vacation of two weeks every year, which is certainly a unique Russian institution.
Chamberlin, William Henry. Soviet Russia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, p. 124
In the 1930s, as we have seen, the spread of industrialization and collectivization brought about a socialist state with a broad spectrum of social and political rights. As we would expect from such a state, the legal and prison systems that it established were essentially just and nonpunitive. In fact, they were praised and admired by liberal attorneys and penologists throughout the world. People’s courts, in which ordinary citizens sat with a professional judge on the bench, tried 80 percent of all cases, and legal services could be obtained free of charge. As a desirable alternative to prisons, “agricultural and industrial labor colonies” were established where some prisoners brought their families and where they were allowed to marry. The basic objective of the system was rehabilitation, not just in words, as in capitalist states, but in reality, as was dramatically shown, for instance, in the film Road to Life, depicting the regeneration of teenage criminals. One of the most extensive industrial camp projects was the building of the Baltic-White Sea Canal by prisoners, a vast enterprise whose three chief engineers were former “wreckers.” At the completion of the project, 300 prisoners received scholarships, 12,000 were freed, and 59,000 had their sentences reduced. Such was the normal course of working class justice in the USSR. Therefore, if changes were made in some aspects of the system, there must have been reasons for it.
Cameron, Kenneth Neill. Stalin, Man of Contradiction. Toronto: NC Press, c1987, p. 128
We built the Moscow-Volga Canal for the most part with convict labor. Back then, convicts were real criminals and were treated accordingly. Actually, I’d say that on the whole our convicts received fairly humane treatment. They were considered to be the products of capitalist society. Therefore, it was felt that our socialist society should re-educate them rather than punish them.
Talbott, Strobe, Trans. and Ed. Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little Brown, c1970, p. 99
Ordinary criminals, such as murderers and thieves, are mixed up indiscriminately in forced labor camps with members of the various disfavored groups such as the kulaks, nomads, ex-priests, and the like. In fact, the authorities seem to have a more friendly feeling for ordinary criminals than for social groups which have opposed their various reforms. They treat a brutal murderer, as a rule, with more consideration than a small farmer who didn’t want to turn his domestic animals and house and garden into a common pool with his neighbors to make a collective farm.
In the winter of 1936, when my wife and I were making a trip by automobile into Yakutsk, the great northeastern province of Russia, our car ran into a ditch soon after crossing the trans-Siberian railway. We had observed large groups of men under guard working on the double-tracking of the Railway, and decided to go back to ask some of them to help us put our automobile back on the road. We had run across many such groups in our travels through the Far East; great gangs of these laborers have been working on the railways being built out there for many years.
When we got back to the railway, there was no guard in sight anywhere; in this isolated country, prisoners could hardly get far off if they wanted to. These men were dressed in ordinary Soviet working clothes, and there was nothing to show they were prisoners, except that they were perhaps a little more ragged than the average worker. We asked them if they would help us out, and they readily agreed.
What struck as most about these people, and those like them whom we had seen elsewhere, was that they did not appear to be what we would call criminal types. It is probable that most of them were not criminals, in our sense of that word; they were rather members of social groups who had failed to co-operate with the authorities in their various schemes for reform.
I was told that political prisoners, including members of other revolutionary groups and disgruntled or disgraced Communists, are seldom if ever put into such prison camps or gangs. If they are considered dangerous, they are confined in concentration camps or isolated prisons. If they are considered merely a nuisance, they are given what is called free exile.
The “free exile” system is uniquely Russian; it is practiced today in very much the same forms as before the Revolution. I encountered free exiles almost everywhere I worked in Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Far East. I have heard it said that one can meet more former aristocrats and well-to-do people in the Central Asian cities than in Leningrad, the former capital of the Tsars.
Free exile is a comparatively mild punishment. These people can hardly be distinguished from other residents; they move about as they please within certain limits, and usually have regular work. They have been given a “minus,” to use the Russian description. Say, for example, that some petty political offender is given a “minus six.” This is a very common penalty; the political police seem to give it out to anyone even faintly suspected of disloyalty to the regime. The man or woman with a “minus six” cannot live in or visit the six principal cities of European Russia for a number of years.
I came across some fairly distinguished exiles working in remote mining towns in Asiatic Russia. Usually they were doing routine work, such as bookkeeping; it is not easy for them to get responsible work, and most of them would not take it even if it were offered to them, since they would be held to account if anything went wrong. The Soviet police, like police in other countries, round up the most obvious suspects whenever anything goes wrong, and exiles are pretty obvious. Those I knew were very quiet and inoffensive; they usually had a melancholy air, being separated usually from the people and kind of life they had known before.
BUT IN GENERAL I BELIEVE THE HORRORS OF THE EXILE SYSTEM HAVE BEEN EXAGGERATED. BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, ACCORDING TO ALL ACCOUNTS, IT WAS PRETTY TERRIBLE. FORCED LABORERS IN THOSE DAYS, INCLUDING EXILES, WERE KEPT IN LEG -IRONS, WHICH IS NEVER THE CASE TODAY. THE PRESENT AUTHORITIES DO NOT USE LEG-IRONS, HANDCUFFS, OR UNIFORMS FOR PRISONERS IN ANY CASE WHICH IS KNOWN TO ME. But even before the Revolution, according to the books which I have read on the subject, most political exiles were allowed a considerable degree of freedom, similar to that of the free exiles today. If they proved tractable, even in Tsarist days they were allowed to take jobs to eke out their pittance from the Government, and they boarded with small farmers in the cities, towns, or villages of Siberia, and visited among themselves. Some of them even were friendly with Tsarist officials and paid visits back and forth, according to the accounts of those days which seem to be reliable. I have never seen evidence of any friendliness between Soviet officials and exiles.
However, when one reads books written by exiles either before or since the Revolution it becomes apparent that exile is a terrible ordeal to the persons concerned. Why is this? Well, in the first place, no human being enjoys being sent off in disgrace, separated from his family, friends, and old associations, compelled to live for years in some distant part of the country during routine work for a bare pittance. And that is a fair description of the life of an average free exile in Russia today.
There is another reason, too, it seems to me. Exiles for the most part are city people; the dispossessed small farmers were not exiled but put to forced labor. These city dwellers, not being accustomed to existence in undeveloped, isolated country, are naturally unhappy. When I read Leon Trotsky’s description of his periods of exile, for example, I didn’t feel any sympathy for him, although it was clear that he felt very much abused because he missed the cities bright lights and political maneuvers. For myself, I would rather live in the places he was living in than modern cities, and for that reason I couldn’t feel sorry for him.
The word “exile,” and all its implications, arouse a sense of horror in the minds of Americans which I am convinced is seldom felt so keenly by Soviet citizens. The latter are so accustomed to being knocked about by their own authorities, under this as well as previous regimes, that they accept as a matter of course treatment which Americans would heartily resent. A friend of mind had an experience with a Russian family which throws light on this state of mind. The family had a daughter about 19 years old, who sometimes spoke out rather critically about the Government. An old lady who posed as a friend of the family one-day heard her talking, and reported her to the police. The police visited the family’s apartment in the middle of the night, as they usually do in such cases, and took away the girl and a diary she had kept from the age of 15.
The girl was kept for two months in the Moscow prison for political suspects, during which time her family was not permitted to communicate with her. At the end of that period, the mother was called in and told she could talk with her daughter for 20 minutes. The girl told her the police had decided she had “counter-revolutionary moods,” and would therefore be exiled for two years. My friend, talking to the mother, asked: “And what do you think of such treatment?” The mother replied earnestly: “Oh, we are very much pleased because our daughter received only two years of free exile; she might have been sent to a concentration camp.”
As a matter of fact, there is not a great deal of difference, so far as I could observe, between the treatment accorded to those in free exile and those who are presumably entirely free. FROM THE AMERICAN VIEWPOINT, ALL SOVIET CITIZENS ARE TREATED VERY MUCH LIKE PRISONERS ON PAROLE, ESPECIALLY SINCE THE OLD TSARIST PASSPORT SYSTEM WAS REVIVED IN 1932. Every citizen must have a passport and register it with the police at regular intervals; the must show his “documents” whenever he turns around. He has to get special permission to travel from one part of the country to another, and register with the police wherever he goes. He must have a very special standing with the authorities to get permission to leave his country; only a few hundred get such permission every year.
Littlepage, John D. In Search of Soviet Gold. New York: Harcourt, Brace, c1938, p. 135-139
Practically speaking, there’s not much difference between the Soviet citizen sentenced to free exile and the citizen who is refused a residence permit in the larger cities of European Russia. The former knows that he cannot visit or live in certain cities, and this may be a very severe hardship upon him if his family lives in one of these cities. Husbands and wives, parents and children, are often separated for years as a result of this system. But the same is true, to a lesser degree, by the working at the passport system, which enables the authorities to refuse permission to any citizen to live in overcrowded cities. I have known them to refuse permission to a husband or wife to join the rest of the family in a city on the grounds that there was no more room.
In any case, if family ties are strong enough, a husband or wife will follow the other into exile or will rejoin each other in the provinces if it is impossible for both to get permission to live in some desirable city. The authorities never refuse permission to leave cities, although an official might lose standing in the bureaucracy if he left responsible work where he could not easily be replaced merely for the sake of having his family with him.
Littlepage, John D. In Search of Soviet Gold. New York: Harcourt, Brace, c1938, p. 141
The officials have become callous in this respect, at least from our viewpoint. A friend of mine told me about a former aristocrat who was arrested during a general roundup of suspects at Leningrad in 1934. He was held in prison for a couple of months, and then the police said they could find nothing against him, and let him go. He returned to his apartment, looking for his wife, from whom he had heard nothing all this time.
The apartment was empty, and his wife was nowhere to be found. Someone had broken into his apartment while he was in prison and taken off most of his personal possessions. That didn’t bother him so much, but he was very fond of his wife and gave up his whole time to the search for her. He could get no clue in Leningrad, and finally came to Moscow, where he learned that she had been exiled to Central Asia. He immediately telegraphed to her that he was joining her as soon as possible, and started making preparations for the trip.
A Soviet official heard somehow what this man was planning to do, and called him into his office. “Apparently you have misunderstood the situation,” said the official. “The police have cleared you, and you’ll have no further trouble. You have a good job waiting for you either at Leningrad or here in Moscow. You have done good work for us in the past, and we will see that you get ahead. Under the circumstances there is no need for you to go to Central Asia.”
“But my wife is there,” replied the Leningrad resident. “She was exiled, and cannot get permission to return to European Russia for several years. She is not in good health, and I am concerned about her. She needs someone to look after her, and I will have to go to her.”
Littlepage, John D. In Search of Soviet Gold. New York: Harcourt, Brace, c1938, p. 142
The Soviet official shook his head. “In my opinion, you are very foolish, my friend,” he said. “Your wife has been branded with the mark of an exile, while you have been entirely cleared. You will lose your own favorable position with the authorities if you rejoin her now, and will never get ahead so long as you stick to her. It is better for you to break with the past once and for all.”
The Leningrad man replied quietly: “My wife means more to me than my career, or a favorable status with the authorities.”
The official shrugged his shoulders. “In that case, you are not the man we had believed,” he said. “Go to central Asia, by all means.”
Littlepage, John D. In Search of Soviet Gold. New York: Harcourt, Brace, c1938, p. 143
Persecution of prisoners already in the gulag took place under Yezhov; such reports cease after Beria took charge of the NKVD in late 1938.
Different kinds of camps and exile with widely varying features and regimens existed, indicating that gulag practice was not simply to hold or destroy innocent people. Prisoners were treated according to the nature and degree of the crimes for which they had been convicted. The NKVD colonel Almazov reported that inmates sentenced to administrative exile were often hired by the camps as free workers. The gulag administration did not need to house, guard, or feed such people, whose productivity was higher than that of the regular prisoners. And Avar man arrested in 1937 went to a state farm in Kazakhstan, part of a colony of such NKVD facilities. “We all worked very hard in the hope of eventual freedom.” He recalled. Nor did he report any starvation at his site. A young Russian man arrested in the same year was sent to a factory in Archangel. Not kept under guard, he was taught how to use a powersaw for wood. “I learned and worked hard on this machine,” he said later. This man was not a political prisoner; people in that category worked in the forests under guard and had a high mortality rate. Instead of being used for economic gain, politicals were typically given the worst work or were dumped into the less productive parts of the gulag.
The difference in treatment for the two categories of prisoners is also illustrated in the memoirs of Victor Herman. He contrasted the camps Burepolom and Nuksha 2, both near Viatka, in the north of Russia. In Burepolom there were about 3000 prisoners, all nonpolitical, in the central compound. They could walk around at will, were lightly guarded, had unlocked barracks with mattresses and pillows, and watched western movies. But Nuksha 2, which housed serious criminals and politicals, featured guard towers with machine guns and locked barracks and allowed no correspondence….
Earlier in the decade [the 1930s], prisoners and exiles more often worked at their specialties, as did a Russian man who lived near the Usbirlag after his arrest in 1933. At that time prisoners could shorten their sentences by overfulfilling the work norms. The newspaper Perekovka of the White Sea-Baltic Combine, marked “not for distribution beyond the boundaries of the camp,” lists 10 prisoners released early in 1936 for good performance. Here were powerful incentives to work hard.
Other productive options were open to inmates at this point. In early 1935, the same paper mentioned a course in livestock raising held for prisoners at a nearby state farm; those who took it had their workday reduced to four hours. During that year the professional theater group in the camp complex gave 230 performances of plays and concerts to over 115,000 spectators.
Up to 1937 free men and inmates, though never politicals, were used as armed guards. Camp newspapers and bond drives existed until then; although it is ironic and cruel to collect money for the state from prisoners, it is at least an indication that they were still regarded as participants in society to some degree.
Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 102-104
It [the Baltic-White Sea Canal] was finished, as far as it ever was to be, in May 1933. In July Stalin himself, with Kirov, Yagoda, Voroshilov and others, visited the canal and went on a short boat trip. This was the occasion for a vast public build-up of the project as not merely an industrial but also a moral triumph, in that the Soviet penal system was born humane and rehabilitatory. Many prisoners were quoted as expressing their joy at having been saved and turned into decent citizens. A group of writers, including Gorky, was sent to the canal, and a ludicrous book emerged. Gorky seems to have been genuinely taken in. [Conquest has the ludicrous book]
Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York, New York: Viking, 1991, p. 186
In May 1934 civil rights were restored to labor deportees, and from January 1935 the right to vote.
Siegelbaum and Sokolov. Stalinism as a Way of Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, c2000, p. 97
But the prison administration was held strictly responsible for the actual life of every prisoner. This was taken to such paradoxical lengths that “in the same cell you would find prisoners suffering severely from the effects of interrogation about which nobody bothered, while every conceivable medicine for the prevention and cure of colds, coughs, and headaches were regularly distributed.” And great precautions were taken against suicide.
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 265
In the village of Palatka [north of Magadan on the Pacific Coast] I spoke to Boris Sulim, who had worked in one of the camps when he was a teenager and was now serving on the local raikom, the Party committee….
Under Stalin, Sulim worked in the Omsuchkan camp, about 400 miles from Magadan. “I was 18 years old and Magadan seemed a very romantic place to me. I got 880 rubles a month and a 3000 ruble installation grant, which was a hell of a lot of money for a kid like me. I was able to give my mother some of it. They even gave me membership in the Komsomol. There was a mining and ore-processing plant which sent out parties to dig for tin. I worked at the radio station which kept contact with the parties.
“If the inmates were good and disciplined they had almost the same rights as the free workers. They were trusted and they even went to the movies. As for the reason they were in the camps, well, I never poked my nose into details. We all thought the people were there because they were guilty.
Remnick, David. Lenin’s Tomb. New York: Random House, c1993, p. 425
From 1947 to the mid-1950s numerous individuals were denied the right to leave the U.S. on the grounds of their leftist political associations or beliefs, while blanket prohibitions were applied to travel to certain socialist countries. The U.S. State Department’s policy of denying exit from the country to those whose overseas activities might not be in the ‘best interests of the United States’ was incorporated into the 1950 McCarran act, which forbade the issue of passports to members of the Communist Party, and the 1954 Internal Security Act, which gave the Secretary of State discretionary powers to refuse to issue an individual a passport. At this time, individuals who left the U.S. without a valid passport (even to go to Mexico or Canada) were subject to criminal penalties on their return. As the Cold War diminished in the late 1950s the Secretary of State’s discretionary powers withered away. However, restrictions remained on travel to some countries, for political reasons (for example, Cuba, China, Vietnam, Albania) throughout the mid-1970s, and Iran in 1980, and were reinforced by the threat of criminal action. In 1981, the Reagan Administration once again restricted travel to certain countries–for example, to Cuba and Vietnam.
Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984, p. 21
…virtually all states, almost throughout history, have put serious difficulties in the way of those members of their populations who wished to leave their territory.
Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984, p. 23
According to Wheatcroft:
“The category of forced labor without confinement had existed from the 1920s. By the mid-1930s about half of all those sentenced to forced labor served this sentence without confinement, generally at their normal place of work. The sentences were normally for periods of up to six months or in some cases a year. Up to 25 percent of the normal pay was deducted from wages.”
Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984, p. 246
Russia’s pre-revolutionary prison system was probably the most backward in Europe. Today Russia has the most advanced penal code in the world….
On must understand the underlying ideology of Marxism if one would comprehend the prison system of the USSR. With the Revolution the old penological theories were junked along with all the rest of the prevailing cultural bases. According to Marx, Engels, and their modern interpreter, Lenin, crime is the product of the capitalistic economic system. Change the economic order and the fountainhead of all crime dries up. Since, however, the revolution cannot accomplish the change from a capitalist to a communist society at once, there are forms of anti-social activity due to the transitional stage through which Russia is now passing.
Davis, Jerome. The New Russia. New York: The John Day company, c1933, p. 219
Russia’s penal code is based upon no sentimental humanitarianism. Like her other laws it is the outcome of cold logic working from certain premises looked upon as self-evident with the same assurance as that of the mathematician who accepts the axioms of geometry. These axioms are the fundamental Marxian and Leninist principles. From these grow the fundamental penological principles. These principles may be summarized as follows:
1. “Wrongs” are the results of long centuries of acculturation in a capitalistic society.
2. Some individuals are unable to adapt their habits to a new social order.
3. Others can more easily form a new habit pattern and thus can adapt themselves to a new order of things.
4. The purpose of “punishment” is to protect society.
5. Society should attempt to change the attitude of “wrong-doers” by every method known to modern pedagogical and medical science.
6. Those who cannot be “reformed” should be eliminated from society for its protection.
No sentimentality here; just cold logic. No tears over the possible mistakes made in selecting those to be eliminated; some risk must be taken for social protection. However, every effort must first be made to correct the wrong-doer….
The Soviet leaders recognize that a capitalistic society cannot at once be transformed culturally into a communistic one. Socialism is the intermediate stage….
During this period of restraint society has a chance to order the life of these persons most closely and if possible convert them into good members of society. The first task is to train them in industry. So the prisons are great trade schools. Recognizing that in the transition period of socialism the economic motive must be kept alive for the individual, the Soviet authorities provide that the prisoner must be paid practically the same wage as the free man, consideration being given to the cost of his maintenance….
More interesting still, instead of conducting their prisons on the theory that prison labor and free labor are in inevitable conflict, Russia arranges the closest connection between prison labor and free labor. The prisoner must be brought to realize the solidarity of all labor. He is not an outcast, but a part of the labor-force of the nation. If he is a member of a trade union upon being sent to prison he does not lose that connection. In fact the prisoner who shows by his industry and conduct that he is one with the great body of free workers may be sent from the prison during the later stages of his sentence to work in a factory….
In accordance with their theory of the purpose of confinement the Soviet authorities have done away with life sentences; the longest sentence is 10 years. If a man cannot be changed in that time he cannot be changed at all….
As indicated above, capital punishment is reserved for incorrigible criminals….
It is clear that the system is devised to correct the offender and return him to society. The means employed are associated labor, social pressure, education for a trade, education in Sovietism and in certain stubborn cases disciplinary treatment. In all these institutions the Code provides that there shall be no brutality, no use of chains, no deprivation of food, no use of solitary confinement, and no such degrading devices as interviewing visitors through screens. Prisoners are transferred from one institution to another as the authorities see improvement in attitude and conduct. Work for all is compulsory. Two days of labor counts as three days of the sentence for those who make good progress. Labor conditions in the prisons are controlled by the same labor code as governs free laborers. Those condemned to labor in these institutions are entitled to two weeks’ furlough each year after the first 5 1/2 months. If they belong to the working class, this furlough is deducted from the sentence. The wages paid the prisoners are about the same as those paid free labor less the cost of maintenance. Those condemned to forced labor receive about 25% less. The prisoner may spend a greater proportion of his wages as he advances in grade. The institutions must be self-supporting, so careful management is required….
The educational work in the prisons is a unique feature. There is regular class work, recreation with an educational aim, wall-and printed newspapers, clubs, theatrical performances, sports, musical activities, and self-government in the most advanced grades. Every sort of stimulus and pressure is brought to bear to socialize (” sovietize”) the inmates. In the institutions I visited, including old Czarist buildings and modern farm industrial colonies, I saw these activities carried on with great enthusiasm and earnestness. Perhaps the most interesting of all I saw was the GPU industrial colony outside a Moscow, called Bolshevo. Founded by the GPU for homeless children, it has become one of the most progressive correctional institutions for young offenders, both male and female, I have ever seen. With 2000 inmates, without walls and with very few guards, it appears to be a great industrial village….
The disciplinary measures are limited to reduction in grade with loss of privileges, limitation of the use of personal funds, isolation of the individual up to 14 days and in removal to an isolator where harsher treatment prevails. However, solitary confinement in Russia does not exist in our sense of the word. It is prohibited by Paragraph 49 of the Code. It consists of a stricter separation from the outer world, disbarment from outdoor work and from furlough.
Davis, Jerome. The New Russia. New York: The John Day company, c1933, p. 221-229
However, as the writer visited prisons, especially the farm and industrial colonies, he was shown the pictures of many graduating classes and was told of many who had become agronomists and technicians on Russian state farms and collectives and in Russian industrial establishments….
The following appraisal is a summary of the writer’s judgment of the Russian experiment in dealing with offenders. Space does not permit justification of his opinion. He can say only that these judgments are based upon what he was able to learn from those in Russia in a position to know what are the results of the system and upon his long and rather extensive observations in the prisons of a large part of the world….
For those who show by their conduct that they are amenable to correction every effort is made to prevent the development of a sense of social isolation; solidarity with the dominant group is cultivated in every possible way….
For those who show that they are incorrigible there is only one end — elimination. Before that end is reached every effort is made to correct them. From the Soviet point of view that is the purpose of the colonies of kulaks and other “enemies of the public” at Archangel and in Siberia….
The emphasis upon the role of economic opportunity and industrial and social training in correction is found nowhere else. Even negative disciplinary measures are conceived as reformative in purpose. There is no punishment for retribution.
Davis, Jerome. The New Russia. New York: The John Day company, c1933, p. 236
The introduction of a kind of self-government into the Russian institutions is the most thorough-going attempt to apply this principle [the principle of involving prisoners in prison governance] ever attempted. It seems rather complicated, but those with whom the writer talked about it said that it works remarkably well. It attempts to do away with some of the abuses found in the American experiments and yet brings to the prisoner a sense of participating responsibility.
Davis, Jerome. The New Russia. New York: The John Day company, c1933, p. 238
The farms and industrial colonies without walls and with a minimum of guards is an experiment worth watching. So far as the writer could learn, it works well, if proper personnel is in charge and if careful attention is given to the selection of the inmates….
The method used to keep intact the economic and social ties are unique and effective. The periodical furloughs with the family is a step forward. The prison wage is wholly commendable. The effort to keep in close touch the prisoner and free laborers and employers is most commendable.
Davis, Jerome. The New Russia. New York: The John Day company, c1933, p. 239
We were taken aback by the liberty that prevailed among the prisoners. In our previous prisons we had seen nothing like it. But greater surprises lay in store for us.
The following day comrades showed us papers published in the prison. What a diversity of opinion there was, what freedom in every article! What passion and what candor, not only in the approach to theoretical and abstract questions, but even in matters of the greatest actuality. Was it still possible to reform the system by peaceful means, or was an armed rising, a new revolution required? Was Stalin a conscious or merely an unconscious traitor? Did his policy amount to reaction or to counter-revolution? Could he be eliminated by merely removing the directing personnel, or was a proper revolution necessary? All the news-sheets were written with the greatest freedom, without any reticence, dotting i’s and crossing t’s and–supreme horror–every article signed with the writer’s full name.
Our liberty was not limited to that. During the walk which brought several wards together, the prisoners were in the habit of holding regular meetings in a corner of the yard, with chairman, secretary and orators speaking in proper order. When the order of the day could not cope with all the business, debates were postponed until the next recreation-time. At these meetings the most dangerous and forbidden subjects were discussed without the least restraint and without any fear whatsoever. The invigilating inspector would sit down somewhere or walk to and fro. He no doubt made his reports in the proper quarters, but nobody seemed to be in the least concerned with that. At these meetings Stalin came off very badly, being called all sorts of names. I have seen many things in the USSR but none so bewildering as this isle of liberty, lost in an ocean of slavery–or was it merely a madhouse? So great was the contrast between the humiliated, terrified country and the freedom of mind that reigned in this prison that one was first inclined toward the madhouse theory. How was one to admit that in the immensity of silence-stricken Russia the two or three small islands of liberty where men still had the right to think and speak freely were… the prisons?
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 199
The Amnesty Commissions periodically visited the prisons and the prison administrations prepared list of those recommended for amnesty. Candidates for amnesty came firstly from among the “activists,” the so-called “enthusiasts for socialism” re-educated in prison; secondly from those obviously sentenced in error; thirdly from the gravely ill whose upkeep cost far more than could be covered by any possible unpaid labor they might be able to do.
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 365
PRISONS IN SU REHABILITATE PEOPLE VERY WELL
Many former prisoners from the Baltic-White Sea Canal, after receiving freedom together with special prizes and high honors for their good work, went of free choice to help build the Moscow-Volga Canal, another convict-labor job. Here they were especially valued because through their own experience they understood the process through which new prisoners had to go and were especially skilled in helping them make themselves over….
So well known and effective is the Soviet method of remaking human beings that criminals occasionally now apply to be admitted. I met one such man in Gulin village. Notorious locally as a thief and drunkard, he had a dozen convictions to his discredit, till at last he went to the authorities saying: “I’m a man destroyed, but I want to be made over.” They sent him to a labor camp whence he returned a qualified worker. Bolshevo Commune, the most famous “cure” for criminals, can be entered only by application approved by the general meeting of members. It’s waiting list is so long that it accepts only the most hardened cases, priding itself on being able to make over persons who cannot become cured in any other institution. Its strength lies in its large membership of intelligent former criminals, who apply to new entrants their intimate knowledge of the criminal mind.
Crime today is rapidly diminishing in the Soviet Union. From 1929 to 1934 sentences for murder decreased by 1/2 while sex crimes fell off to 1/4. The cause is found in the growing strength of the Soviet environment to remake human beings; the penal policy is only a supplementary force. A striking example of the play of both causes may be found in the figures of prostitution. Pre-war Moscow had 25,000 to 30,000 prostitutes; these sank by 1928 to about 3000, a diminution clearly due to economic causes.
Strong, Anna Louise. This Soviet World. New York, N. Y: H. Holt and company, c1936, p. 261
Kulaks committed arson, cattle-killing, murder, and were exiled in large numbers; anti-Soviet engineers and officials sabotaged and were sent to labor camps. Today the kulaks have been amnestied, not only because many of them have recovered their civil status by honest labor, but also because the collective farms in the villages are strong enough to withstand their attack and absorb them. The labor camps which supplanted prisons are themselves diminishing, partly because they have “cured” their inmates, and still more because the normal free life of Soviet society is becoming strong and prosperous enough to have a direct regenerative influence on those social misfits that remain.
Strong, Anna Louise. This Soviet World. New York, N. Y: H. Holt and company, c1936, p. 264
I had received my background on the Polish question from members of the Polish government-in-exile when I was in London in 1943. I was entertained at dinner by the Minister of Information of the London group. Present at the dinner were some Poles who had been imprisoned in Russia. They told me what they considered worst in their prison experiences. It so happened that I had for a time been Director of prisoner of war work in Canada for the World Committee of the YMCA and their description of conditions did not show the Russian camps to contrast unfavorably with those of Canada. They had been put to work, but that was a policy I had continually urged upon the Canadian government.
Davis, Jerome. Behind Soviet Power. New York, N. Y.: The Readers’ Press, Inc., c1946, p. 99
Sentences to prison are limited to 10 years, even for the most serious offenses, including murder. Up to 1921 the maximum was only five years. In practice, time off for good conduct cuts the ten-year sentence to five or six. The theory of this limited prison sentence is that Soviet prisons are intended to reform, not punish, and that if a man can’t be reformed in 10 years, he can’t be reformed at all. The death penalty, applied to a long list of crimes and rather commonly resorted to up to 1927, was abolished on the 10th anniversary of the Revolution for all cases except political crimes and armed robbery.
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 65
The maximum prison sentence in Russia for any offense, criminal or political, is 10 years. The theory as applied to criminals is that if they cannot be reformed in that period they cannot be reformed at all, and so a longer time is useless. In political cases 10 years is evidently regarded as long enough for any offense not punished by death. The 10 years is, in practice, often reduced to six or seven by good behavior.
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 203
[Jan. 27, 1925 NKVD circular on measures for developing work in areas of labor camps]
The Corrective Labor Code defines our basic mission as assigning inmates to productive employment for the purpose of imparting the benefits of corrective labor to them.
In order to develop inmates employment, inmates should be organized as self-supporting work units exempt from all national and local taxes and levies….
According to our information, it is obvious that work programs for inmates have not been organized at any large number of places of incarceration, thus depriving the inmates of the benefits of corrective labor, i.e., the places of incarceration are failing to accomplish their primary mission as defined by the Corrective Labor Code.
Koenker and Bachman, Eds. Revelations from the Russian Archives. Washington: Library of Congress, 1997, p. 141
… This book [a volume on the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal], with contributions by Gorky… and other notable writers, extolled the rehabilitative benefits of the prison labor project; many of those who worked on the canal were rewarded subsequently with pardons.
Koenker and Bachman, Eds. Revelations from the Russian Archives. Washington: Library of Congress, 1997, p. 153
The Governor came to see me in prison at 10:00….
“You see, Kleist, the essential difference between investigation and punishment in the USSR and in your capitalist countries is that with us the investigatory period is one of rigid discipline and inquiry, and the so-called ‘punishment’ period is a reformatory one in which we make it as easy as possible for the prisoner to adjust himself to normal society. With you, the investigatory period is one of leniency and the punishment period is one of savage reprisal of society against one whom in practice it henceforward rejects.”
Edelman, Maurice. G.P.U. Justice. London: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd.,1938, p. 192
In August 1935 Pravda added a weighty editorial voice to this campaign when it announced that “to punish for mistakes–this is the last resort. It is necessary to teach how to avoid mistakes…. It’s necessary to remember a basic rule: persuade, teach, help.” Repression was to be used only in “extreme cases,” but even then it should also educate.
Thus, during 1935 Party organs and the central authorities of the judicial system issued a series of strong warnings to lower courts and prosecutors alike that petty problems and infractions were not to be considered crimes, that cases of counter-revolution were not to be pressed unless serious, and that careful attention to evidence was the order of the day. Krylenko’s and Vyshinsky’s protests against NKVD behavior and the wide application of Article 58 had a similar thrust.
Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 14
All inmates of the institution have a classification. The citizens who have “gone wrong” and are sent to prison are at the beginning placed in the first category. They are left there until the observation committee approves of them being promoted to the second category. While they are under this first classification each is allowed three days’ vacation a year–to go home or anywhere they please, but must report back to the prison on the assigned day. Those deserving a promotion are raised to the second category which gives them seven days a year vacation in addition to other privileges. When promoted to the third category they receive one month. These vacations are counted in each case as a part of their sentence.
If a prisoner is released on good behavior he is given a job. But if convicted of a crime again, the new sentence, plus the remaining part of the old sentence, is added to the time he must serve. Every prisoner is allowed to go anywhere in the prison he pleases and the trusted ones are given the right to be guards. If on account of bad behavior, a prisoner is punished by isolation in a cell and only allowed to walk around where there are no other inmates, this punishment the prison warden said is to remind him of his misbehavior and has produced good results.
The institution contained a factory where every prisoner had to work if able. The inmate who did not already know a trade is taught one, both by theory and practice, so when released he is much abler to find employment. Each is paid a wage for his work and allowed to spend a certain amount for incidentals at the prison store, the remaining part is put in a bank account; and when released, each one has his savings account money returned so that he can care for himself and therefore would not be so apt to commit another crime. The wage ranges from 50 to 60 rubles a month. This is thought to be low enough so as not to compete with other labor, for if wages were equal or better the workers might have a tendency to commit crime to take advantage of it as the wage is a clear one, the prisoners being free of the expenses of food, clothes, and shelter.
All prisons are considered open prisons, the only isolated ones being in north Siberia and they are isolated only in the sense that prisoners are kept in a prison community. Only exceptionally bad prisoners are sent there and the repeaters who have a long list of crimes. These, however, are those classed as “incurables.”
This prison contained no confinement cells–I had the privilege of going anywhere I wished here and found nothing of this sort. The number of inmates in each cell were three. The condition of the cells would be classified as average, each having a good sized window which let in sufficient light. As for the food and clothes, these items, too, may be said to be average.
The Soviet idea of treating a criminal is not to beat and punish him by physical force, but to consider him as a citizen “gone to wrong” and help train him to be a law-abiding citizen. If a person has a prison record it does not in any way hinder him from getting employment. Quite different from our prison system!
There are only two things which every prisoner is forced to do and that is, learn to read and write while in confinement.
Sometime later I saw a group of prisoners doing harvest work with machinery on one of the government farms. There were only a few guards on hand and no evidence whatever of exploitation.
Wright, Russell. One-Sixth of the World’s Surface. Hammond, Ind., The Author, c1932, p. 33-34
The state proclaimed a policy of “reformation through forced labor.” Those who actively showed their worth in “the building of socialism” had a good chance of being pardoned, rewarded, even allowed to continue their careers. In the 1930s a highly popular film “Prisoners” depicted the rapid reeducation at the Baltic-White Sea Canal Construction Camp of both criminals and political prisoners, transformed into active participants in building socialism.
Siegelbaum and Sokolov. Stalinism As a Way of Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, c2000, p. 89
Forced labor, in the strict sense, was imposed on peasants who had resorted to violence in resisting collectivization. They were treated like criminals and were subject to imprisonment. Here history played one of its malignant and gloomy jokes. Soviet penitentiary reforms of earlier years, inspired by humanitarian motives, viewed the imprisonment of criminals as a means to their re-education, not punishment. They provided for the employment of criminals in useful work. The criminals were to be under the protection of trade unions; and their work was to be paid at trade-union rates. As the number of rebellious peasants grew, they were organized in mammoth labor camps and employed in the building of canals and railways, in timber felling, and so on.
Deutscher, Isaac. Stalin; A Political Biography. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967, p. 336
QUESTION: Is the 0GPU under another name employing two or 3 million political prisoners in carrying out a program of forced labor?
ANSWER: The picture that these words aroused for the average American–of idealistic intellectuals condemned to heavy, unpaid, chain-gang work–does not exist in the USSR.
There are, however, “labor camps” in many parts of the country, as part of the Soviet method of reclaiming anti-social elements by useful, collective work. They replace prisons, which have been steadily closing; I have found old prison buildings remodeled as schools. Men in the labor camps draw wages, have vacations in which they leave the camp, and rise in their profession like free workers. They work at their specialty; engineers do large-scale engineering, intellectuals do cultural work, teaching and clerical work; actors put on plays, unskilled workers are trained in trades and illiterate men get schooling. Their wives and families are often allowed to visit them for extended periods.
These camps usually work on some nationally famous project which is intended to stir instincts of creative energy and collective pride. Men who respond to these motives may rise to the highest honors. The Baltic-White Sea Canal, for instance, was celebrated not only as an achievement in construction, but as a place where criminals “made themselves over.” Many former thieves, saboteurs, murderers, received the Order of Lenin, the highest honor in the country.
Strong, Anna Louise. “Searching Out the Soviets.” New Republic: August 7, 1935, p. 358\
Likewise, throughout [until] 1936, except in extraordinary conditions (such as the Civil War of 1918-1920, and the rural conflict of 1930-31) very few opponents were executed. The standard remedy for active opponents of the regime (as it was for common criminals) was socialist re-education, in good part through productive labor. This represented a humane and largely effective strategy…. Until 1937 the conditions applying to those actually confined for active opposition to the regime were considerably better than those for ordinary criminals; until 1937 torture was officially prohibited in the USSR (and, in fact, was rare). It was standard practice for those sentenced to a term in labor re-education camps in the remote region of the country to return to their old positions (as engineers, party leaders, etc.) after a relatively short time;…
Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984, p. 228
SCOTT DESCRIBES TREATMENT OF MAGNITOGORSK PRISONERS
There were almost no acquittals in Magnitogorsk in 1937, nor were there more than half a dozen death sentences. After the trial, the operative department of the NKVD turned the convicts over to the ULAG (criminal camp administration), whose job it was to get certain construction work done, using the labor of the convicts, and also to carry on re-educational work. The ULAG was a completely separate and independent part of the NKVD organization. They received a prisoner accompanied by a frayed document stating that he had been convicted on such-and-such an article. Beyond this they knew nothing. Their job was to build dams and railroads, and in the interest of high productivity, if for no other reason, they treated the prisoners as well as possible.
Arrived at the construction job, the prisoners received better food than they had had since their arrests and warm, sturdy clothes, and were told that from then on the thing that counted was their work. Until 1938, twenty, forty, or sixty percent of their sentences were frequently commuted for good work….
Alexei Pushkov, the chief of the Magnitogorsk NKVD during 1937, was himself purged in 1939 for his excessive ardor in purging the people of Magnitogorsk.
Scott, John. Behind the Urals, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942, p. 193
At the time of their arrest, “saboteur”-Communists apparently expected that they would suffer a relatively light punishment, much like the nonparty specialists at the beginning of the 1930s, who were given decent living and working conditions after their trial. John Scott tells how in 1932, the GPU sent to Magnitogorsk 20 to 30 engineers who had been convicted in the case of the “Industrial Party.” Upon arriving in Magnitogorsk with their families, they were given four-room cottages and automobiles. They worked under contracts according to which they were paid 3000 rubles per month (10 times more than the wage of an average worker). Although they were watched by the 0GPU, they were allowed to go hunting on holidays in the forests of the Urals located tens of kilometers from the city. “They were also given highly responsible positions and instructed to work hard in order to prove that they really intended to become good Soviet citizens.” One of the former “wreckers” worked as the chief electrician at the combinat, another as the main engineer at a chemical plant. Several of them were decorated with medals for labor achievements.
Rogovin, Vadim. 1937: Year of Terror. Oak Park, Michigan: Labor Publications, 1998, p. 269
SECRET POLICE ARE FAIR TOWARD PRISONERS
All the British subjects at the Metro Vickers trial, however, subsequently revealed that they had been treated with great politeness and consideration by the Soviet authorities. None of them had been subjected to any form of coercion, 3d agree methods or force.
Alan Monkhouse declared of his OGPU examiners in a statement in the London Dispatch on March 15th: “they were extraordinarily nice to me and exceedingly reasonable in their questioning. My examiners seemed first-rate men who knew their job. The OGPU prison is the last word in efficiency, entirely clean, orderly and well-organized. This is the first time that I have ever been arrested, but I have visited English prisons and can attest that the OGPU quarters are much superior. OGPU officials showed every concern for my comfort.
Sayers and Kahn. The Great Conspiracy. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1946, p. 175
But it is said by those who have dealt constantly with the GPU in behalf of prisoners, that the heads, when they can be reached, are solicitous to correct the injustices or abuses of their subordinates. Even Dzerzhinsky, head of the old Cheka, was scrupulous in such cases, though severe–and he was fairly accessible.
While the GPU is the strong arm of the Soviet state for the protection of the Revolution and to keep the way clear of obstructions to the State’s program, it is essentially an organ of the Communist Party under the control of the Central Committee, as its creator, Dzerzhinsky, insisted it should be. It does not get out of hand, as do the secret services in some other countries–as, for instance, in the United States under the Daugherty-Burns regime.
To the minds of opponents of the Soviet regime the GPU bulks big. It is to them the Red Terror, supreme, lawless, all-powerful, ruthless, shooting at will on suspicion. But to any sober student of the political phenomena of Soviet Russia the GPU must appear as an exceedingly well-organized and efficient military police, with the function of combating all opposition, but working within definite bounds under the central political authority–to all appearances quietly, almost invisibly.
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 194
Concentration camps and temporary prisons for political prisoners or hostages were established in Soviet Russia during the civil war that followed the revolution. But it was not until the early 20s that a more or less regular penitentiary system began to be introduced and laws elaborated to apply to it. The regimen for political prisoners in the ’20s was relatively lenient. They received extra food, were exempt from forced labor, and were not subjected to humiliating inspections. In political jails self-government was allowed; the politicals elected “elders,” who dealt with the prison administration. They kept their clothes, books, writing materials, pocket knives; they could subscribe to newspapers and magazines. Their imprisonment was regarded as temporary isolation during a national emergency.
For example, on December 30, 1920, when the civil war had barely ended, the Cheka issued a special order;
“Information received by the Cheka establishes that members of various anti-Soviet parties arrested in political cases are being kept in very bad conditions…. The Cheka points out that the above-listed categories of people must not be regarded as undergoing punishment, but as temporarily isolated from society in the interests of the revolution. The conditions of their detention must not have a punitive character.”
One incident highlights the prison customs of the time. When Kropotkin, the Anarchist patriarch, died in his home near Moscow, hundreds of Anarchists who had been put in Butyrskaya prison for anti-Soviet activity demanded permission to attend the funeral of their teacher. Dzerzhinsky ordered that the Anarchists be let out on their honor. After the military funeral they all returned, to a man…?
Of course, in the early 20s there were quite a few instances that could be classified as insulting treatment of prisoners by the GPU. Still, this was the exception, not the rule. The Corrective Labor Code of 1924, which regulated conditions for all prisoners, including criminals and “counter-revolutionaries,” stated:
“The regimen should be devoid of any trace of cruel or abusive treatment, the following by no means being permitted: handcuffs, punishment cells, solitary confinement, denial of food, keeping prisoners behind bars during conversations with visitors.”
In most cases this code was observed at the time.
In the early 20s Commissar of Health Semashko pointed with pride to the establishment of a humane prison regime, which could not exist in capitalist countries. To be sure, some deterioration can be noted even in the ’20s. At the end of 1923, for example, the exercise period was cut down, which provoked a much publicized crash between Social Revolutionaries and guards at Solovketskaia prison. There were other “excesses,” but at the time they were exceptions rather than the rule.
Medvedev, Roy. Let History Judge. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989, p. 501-502
The difficulty of correctly appreciating the treatment of political prisoners in the Soviet Union, due primarily to the lack of factual evidence, is increased by those who, wishing to make obscurance doubly sure, have created OGPU legends which one could describe as entirely fictitious were they not sometimes based on the fiction of others. It is unnecessary to recapitulate them: they are widely held as the truth about the GPU.
The narrative which follows, written from the notes of Peter Kleist, a German engineer accused of espionage and held in prison by the GPU for examination, should destroy at least the more fantastic of these inventions and illuminate the obscurities of the remand period before the “Moscow Trials.” Kleist, whom I know intimately, is a person whose profoundest interests are his work and scientific truth. In the Lubyanka and Butirki prisons he observed the system and experienced the methods of the GPU; and without the passion either of resentment (he is disposed to objective thinking) or of partisanship (he is by no means a Communist) he has noted his experiences and observations. Apart from the changing of some names, necessary in order not to compromise certain individuals, the narrative faithfully adheres to Kleist’s notes. If it is unsensational, it is because the truth of his imprisonment is unsensational. For that reason, I consider Kleist’s narrative an important testimony in judging the GPU even for those who without wishing to surrender their prejudices, may yet wish to correct their misconceptions.
Edelman, Maurice. G.P.U. Justice. London: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd.,1938, p. 7
The warders at the Lubyanka alternated constantly and it was never possible to enter into their intimacy. The precise routine regulations prevented any great variation in the way in which they treated the prisoners. For the most part the behavior of the guards was unobjectionable. Prison regulations required that they should treat the prisoners courteously although they were not allowed to enter into general conversation with them.
Edelman, Maurice. G.P.U. Justice. London: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd.,1938, p. 105
[As Kleist crossed the Soviet border into Poland he was met with] I’m a detective of the Polish police. We like to know something of the intentions of our visitors from the USSR. Well, Kleist–and how do you feel?”
“I’m quite well.”
“I understand that you didn’t confess.”
“No. I had nothing to confess.”
“Tell that to your grandmother. Did they torture you?”
“No,” I snapped at him. “It was a Russian prison not a Polish one.”
He was unruffled. “Our prisons are quite humane,” he said. “Were you brutally treated?”
“No. I was treated as considerately as prison existence permits.”
Edelman, Maurice. G.P.U. Justice. London: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd.,1938, p. 199
[When I got off the train in Poland] One of the young men dashed up with a camera and said, “Look this way!” There was a flash and immediately the photographer dashed away with his camera.
“Polska Gazeta!” the other young man introduced himself briefly, speaking German. “Largest circulation in Warsaw. Offer you 500 zloty for your story.”
“What do you want to know?” I asked, looking over his head for my mother.
“Well, for a start– what tortures did they give you?”
“Oh, come on, what tortures did they give you–did they keep you on bread and water, did they have a tom-tom beating day and night outside your cell, was your cell so small that you couldn’t stretch your legs out, did they shoot Trotskyists in front of your eyes? That’s the sort of stuff we want. Let it rip!”
He waited with his pencil poised.
“There’s nothing haggard I can tell you,” I answered, “that will interest you in that way. I was examined under as good circumstances as the situation allowed. I admitted anything that I had done and denied what I hadn’t done.”
He looked disappointed.
“H’m! What about your talking drug? Were you drugged at all?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Well, you’d know if you were drugged.”
“Well, I’m afraid your story’s not much use. Have to do something about it. Let’s see.” He started writing rapidly in shorthand, muttering as he wrote: “Kleist looked haggard and worn after his three months’ imprisonment in the Lubyanka…refused to speak. His senses seemed to have been numbed by his experiences. He could not remember his sufferings and seemed unable to think coherently. He refused to speak of the tortures of the GPU and cast hunted looks about the platform. Apparently he had friends still in the Lubyanka held as hostages for his silence. How’s that?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“You’re a lickspittle, my dear fellow. Your bosses ask you for this. You’ve got to give it. Don’t expect any from me.”
Unabashed he folded his pocket-book, raised his fawn hat, and rushed away.
(Kleist on the Moscow Trials)
Edelman, Maurice. G.P.U. Justice. London: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd.,1938, p. 203
The NKVD hit lists [in the Baltic states] were very similar to those of the SS and the Gestapo: all members of parliament and senators, local mayors and heads of district administrations, landowners and businessmen, lawyers, priests, policemen, non-Marxist intellectuals and so on. In short, anyone who might possibly cause trouble was arrested and shipped out to the wastes of Kazakhstan or Siberia. Unlike the Nazis, however, the Soviet authorities could claim quite truthfully that their victims were not being treated any differently from their fellow citizens of the Soviet Union.
Read, Anthony and David Fisher. The Deadly Embrace. New York: Norton, 1988, p. 360
Surprisingly, I was never actually beaten….
Kuusinen, Aino. The Rings of Destiny. New York: Morrow, 1974, p. 147
I should also record that, long and exhausting as the interrogations were, I myself was never treated with physical cruelty, though I had to listen to plenty of threats and insults during both periods of questioning, month after month.
Kuusinen, Aino. The Rings of Destiny. New York: Morrow, 1974, p. 197
My experience was not really one of a “police state.” The GPU was as much respected and trusted as feared, in my time. The ordinary urban police was neither respected nor feared, but rather pitied. Twice I witnessed the same scene: a civilian knocked down a policeman; bystanders came to his aid and held the attacker until a second policeman showed up; the two law officers then took the culprit to the station, without twisting his arms. Another time when a policeman admonished two young drunks, one of them, imitating the gestures of regulating traffic, shouted, “You, comrade regulator, just regulate traffic, and don’t hassle us!” The cop just replied, amid general laughter, “All right, boys, go home and sleep it off.”
…Subsequently, however, I was shocked on occasion to see large groups of men and women being roughly herded through the streets by soldiers. I found it hard to believe that they were all criminals. But I could not then, and for many years thereafter, believe that people were physically mistreated, beaten, or tortured in the Soviet Union. It was contrary to the profound and general condemnation of physical violence which I had found prevalent everywhere. Verbal quarrels were often harsh enough, but they never came to blows; this was considered “uncultured.” In Makeyevka, where it cannot have been easy to maintain school discipline among tough kids, it was a great public scandal when a teacher ordered a boy To kneel in a corner of the classroom. When I lived and worked in the “East” I perceived a human face behind the mask.
Blumenfeld, Hans. Life Begins at 65. Montreal, Canada: Harvest House, c1987, p. 167
SOVIET PRISONS ARE DECENT FOR LIVING
Some of the bitterest stories of prison experiences under the Soviets have been written about these preliminary detention prisons. While these stories constitute a fair indictment of certain methods of the GPU, they are not a fair basis for judging the Russian political prison system. All such temporary jails the world over tend to be far below the average prison standard.
Even the larger detention prisons in Moscow and Leningrad, the Butirki and the Spalerna, are much better. Indeed, the Spalerna, built as a political prison by the czar, compares favorably with the “world’s best jails,” though it is often badly overcrowded. I do not recollect seeing a better jail, from a physical standpoint, anywhere in the United States.
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 241
I went into about a dozen prisons of all types, from Georgia to Leningrad, and had no difficulty getting in–and out–except for the political isolators and the detention prisons in Moscow, all of which were closed to foreign visitors because of the excitement at the time over the break with England. They differed greatly in cleanliness and arrangement, just as they do in the United States. I saw none worse than some I have seen in the United States, and two were as clean and well ordered as America’s best. The average, however, is lower; but so is the whole Russian standard of living.
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 244
…The whole system is operated on elastic lines in order to move prisoners about easily from one type of institution to another according to the authorities’ judgment of their ability to stand more or less liberty. A prisoner may progress from an isolator–the severest type, where the regime is like that of prisons anywhere–to a house of correction, where he is freer. That freer regime is marked by one of the most amazing privileges of Soviet prisons, a two-weeks’ vacation each year with pay for every well-behaved prisoner, and for those whose conduct is not first-class, proportionately less time off. Prisoners may take their two weeks all at one time, or divide it into short periods, or even into “weekends in town.”
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 245
Peasant prisoners get three months’ vacation in the summer–without prison pay–to help with the crops if their village Soviet does not object to their return home. The approval of the home-town soviet is now required in order to avoid trouble with the neighbors, following early incidents in which some prisoners were beaten, even killed, by indignant villagers. The officials say that very few prisoners fail to return from vacation. Those who do not return and who are caught suffer no additions to their sentences, but they get no more vacations and may be sent back to prisons of more restricted liberty.
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 246
In “intermediate” houses of correction located usually in cities, prisoners have still more liberty, as they are free to go to work outside, only coming back to sleep in them. Some work in the shops inside; but even they are allowed to go out. I heard envious comment in Leningrad from unemployed workers who thought these prisoners better off than they–with secure jobs and a comfortable home! Farm colonies, in which liberty is least restricted, are connected with most of the large prisons. One I visited near Leningrad was an old estate, surrounded by barbed wire in order to check up at the entrances on the comings and goings of prisoners to the fields and forests–and even to the railroad station a mile away, where they were allowed to see off their visitors. The whole atmosphere was natural and unrestrained. The warden and guards played games with the men, and worked and slept out with them in field and forest. Those who prove unfit for this increased liberty of farm colonies are sent back to the more restricted prisons.
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 246
Within the prisons the relations between the keepers and inmates are unusually democratic, as prisons go. The prisoners share actively in running prison life, though thorough-going self government experiments are still in their infancy. The prisoners share in self government is so far confined to organizing education and recreation and conducting the prison cooperative stores.
…Most of the wardens struck me as more alert, less officious, and with a closer man-to-man relation to the prisoners, than any wardens I have had the privilege of meeting elsewhere–and I have met a good many, in one capacity or another.
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 247
One of the great improvements in Russian prisons is that work is available to almost all prisoners. There is no forced labor, no contract labor, as in the United States. All prisoners are free not to work if they choose. But great inducements to work lie in the payment of wages and in the deduction of one-third time off the sentences of working prisoners. The wages are usually low, but enough to help support the prisoners’ families, to take care of their needs for tobacco, sweets, stationery, and toilet articles at prison stores, and to give them some money on release. In all but a few prisons there is plenty of work in the shops, making textiles, harnesses, shoes, furniture, wagons–and in printing. The goods not purchased by a government department are sold on the market, and the profits go to prison maintenance.
In several prisons where the men–common offenders–crowded around me with curiosity as to my mission, I asked for those who had served time also in Czarist prisons. Each time a few spoke up. In response to inquiry as to what improvements they noted, if any, under the Soviets, they usually laughed at the idea of asking such a question. “Of course this regime is better,” said one, “we can smoke, we don’t have to go to church, we can see the warden any time we ask, and we get pay and vacations.”
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 248
…There is, however, no solitary confinement in Russia, except temporarily for offenses committed in prison.
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 249
The Soviet regime, while pursuing its policy of severity toward political or economic opposition, has made marked advances over the Czarist system in abolishing solitary confinement in single cells, the dungeons of military fortresses, and the brutalities of flogging and forced labor…. While the exile system remains quite as bad, possibly even worse, than under the Czar, the lot of political prisoners, bad as it is, has undoubtedly improved. In comparison with other countries, it is in many respects better–better, for instance, in relation to the lot of ordinary criminals than in the United States, which makes no distinction between political and other offenders, though physically American prisons average higher. But in relation to the standard of living of the people, Russian prisons are on quite as high a level as ours. I have seen far worse political prisons in other parts of Europe where political prisoners are presumed to enjoy a privileged status.
Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 252
[March 3, 1937 resolution of the February-March 1937 Central Committee Plenum on “Lessons of the wrecking, diversionary, and espionage activities of the Japanese-German-Trotskyist agents”]
Even more intolerable are the prison procedures established by the NKVD of the USSR as it pertains to Trotskyists, Zinovievists, rightists, Socialist-Revolutionaries, and other thoroughly vicious enemies of Soviet power who have been convicted.
All of these enemies of the people were as a rule assigned to so-called political isolation prisons, which were placed under the command of the NKVD of the USSR. Conditions in these political isolation prisons were particularly favorable. The prisons resembled forced vacation homes more than prisons.
In these political isolation prisons, inmates were afforded the opportunity of associating closely with each other, of discussing all political matters taking place in the country, of working out plans for anti-Soviet operations to be carried out by their organizations, and of maintaining relationships with people on the outside. The convicts were granted the right to unrestricted use of literature, paper, and writing instruments, the right to receive an unlimited number of letters and telegrams, to acquire their own personal effects and keep them in their cells, and to receive, along with their official rations, packages from the outside in any number and containing any type of goods.
Getty & Naumov, The Road to Terror. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, c1999, p. 423
[Extract from protocol #3 of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of June 10, 1939 regarding NKVD camps]
2. The main incentives for increasing productivity in the camps shall be an improvement in provisions and nutrition for good production workers who demonstrate high productivity, financial bonuses for this category of prisoners, and a lightened camp regime, with general improvement in their living conditions.
Probationary release may be granted by the Collegium of the NKVD or the Special Board of the NKVD at the special petition of the camp supervisor and the supervisor of the political department of the camp to certain prisoners who have proven themselves to be exemplary workers and who have shown, over a long period of time, a high level of work….
4. The work force at camp should be equipped with foodstuffs and work clothes calculated in such a way that the physical strength of the camp work force may be utilized to the maximum at any productive task.
Getty & Naumov, The Road to Terror. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, c1999, p. 549
Harsh as nature was in the Kolyma region, few people died in the Dalstroi camps in the years 1932-1937. There existed a system of examinations which allowed 10-year sentences to be reduced to two or three years, excellent food and clothing, a workday of four to six hours in winter and 10 in summer, and good pay, which enabled prisoners to help their families and to return home with funds. These facts may be found not only in the book by Vyaktin, a former head of one of the Kolyma camps, but also in Shalamov’s Tales of the Kolyma Camps.
Medvedev, Roy. Let History Judge. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989, p. 508
I do not exaggerate if I say that my cell in the Lubyanka was one of the cleanest and freshest rooms that I lived in during my whole stay in the USSR.
Edelman, Maurice. G.P.U. Justice. London: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd.,1938, p. 73
We rarely complained of the treatment re-received. The food was monotonous–a rotation of peas and cabbage, or potatoes, meatloaf or fishloaf–but there was always enough to satisfy one’s hunger. The tea was sometimes not hot but this was remedied on our objecting. The cell was adequately warm and in addition we were supplied with four thinnish blankets.
Edelman, Maurice. G.P.U. Justice. London: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd.,1938, p. 106
Medical inspection in the Butirki was as systematic as in the Lubyanka. Each day at about 9:30, the doctor went the rounds of the cells with two orderlies, prisoners from the penal section of the prison who were training as male nurses. The doctor’s stock question was, “Any patients?” There would be an immediate rush from all sides of the cell. Some prisoners complained of headaches, others of constipation; some of diarrhea and a dozen valetudinarian afflictions. The doctor, who wore civilian clothes, took it all good-humouredly, never charged anybody with malingering, although would-be malingerers were habitual, and rapidly and accurately dispensed diagnosis and advice. He was never deceived by malingerers nor did he ever reject a complaint of anybody genuinely ill.
Edelman, Maurice. G.P.U. Justice. London: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd.,1938, p. 163
…It is curious that despite the relative amount of freedom allowed within the prison, attempts to escape were negligible. A more effective deterrent than bars is the certainty of apprehension. There is also in Soviet prisons a sense of being on parole. This discourages that resentment which drives prisoners elsewhere to escape at any cost.
Edelman, Maurice. G.P.U. Justice. London: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd.,1938, p. 165
The company [in prison], apart from a plague of stool pigeons, was usually good, especially in Moscow, and innumerable cases are given of kindness and self-sacrifice–as when (a Hungarian Communist reports) a prisoner, back from even worse conditions, was allowed a bed to himself for a whole day by the 275 men crammed into a 25-man cell, and was given extra sugar from their rations….
All prisoners report cases of Party officials who remained loyal, and held either that Stalin and the Politburo knew nothing of what was happening or, alternatively, that they themselves were not qualified to judge these decisions, and simply had the duty of obeying Party rules, including confession….
Smoking was permitted. All games were forbidden….
Books are reported as available in two Moscow prisons, the Lubyanka & the Butyrka (though at the height of Yezhov’s power, they seem to have been prohibited). These libraries were good, containing the classics, translations, histories, and scientific works–sounding much better than those of British prisons or, indeed, hospitals or cruise liners. The Butyrka was particularly fine. The reason was that it had been used for political prisoners in Tsarist times, and the big liberal publishing houses had always given free copies of their books to these jails. That of the Lubyanka was largely of books confiscated from prisoners.
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 266
A special category of prison consisted of the half-dozen “political isolators,” notably those at Suzdal, Verkhne-Uralsk, Yaroslavl, and Alexandrovsk. These dated from earlier days of the regime, when they had been thought of as a comparatively humane method of removing fractious Communists and other left-wing “politicals” from public life. Even in the early 1930s, treatment in these prisons was comparatively humane.
The Lubyanka was free of bugs, and the same is reported of some of the Kiev prisons, though bugs usually abounded….
The corridors of the Lubyanka were clean, smelling of carbolic and disinfectant.
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 268
And, indeed, there had long been an alternative Soviet story. There were, it is true, corrective labor establishments of a highly beneficent type. Their operation could be seen in such works as Pogodin’s play The Aristocrats, which showed how prisoners were reclaimed at labor on the White Sea Canal and elsewhere. Pogodin represents bandits, thieves, and even “wrecker” engineers being reformed by labor. A re-generated engineer, now working enthusiastically at a project, has his old mother visit him. The kindly camp chief puts his car at her disposal, and she is delighted at her son’s healthy physical appearance. “How beautifully you have re-educated me,” a thief remarks, while another sings, “I am reborn, I want to live and sing.”
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 308
In the penal camps proper, however, there was considerable freedom of speech:
[A prisoner in Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich says, “…The great thing about a penal camp was you had a hell of a lot of freedom. Back in Ust-Izhma if you said they couldn’t get matches “outside” they put you in the can and slapped on another 10 years. But here you could yell your head off about anything you liked and the squealers didn’t even bother to tell on you. The security fellows couldn’t care less.
The only trouble was you didn’t have much time to talk about anything.”
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 318
A meeting [during glasnost] took place between members of the local branch of Memorial [a group collecting signatures to establish a monument to honor the victims of Stalinism] and veteran members of the organs of the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), who had done guard duty in the camps in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the latter shouted that writers of defamatory articles on the camps should be shot, and there was some applause. Others claimed that the inmates of the camps had been criminals and not political victims. No one remembered cases of inhumane treatment, food had been plentiful, medical care excellent. If one believed these witnesses, conditions had been similar to those of a holiday resort. True, some people had died, but then, others had died outside the camps.
Laqueur, Walter. Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations. New York: Scribner’s, c1990, p. 269
[On May 6, 1936 Zinoviev said in prison] I am treated humanely in prison here. I get medical attention etc. But I am old and badly shaken.
Radzinsky, Edvard. Stalin. New York: Doubleday, c1996, p. 339
Thus, those who, in the late 1930s, actually died in the camps of various causes were very few, probably a matter of not more than 10,000. According to the great anti-Soviet mythology especially after the war, the Soviet labor camps were almost exactly the same as Hitler’s extermination camps: in the Soviet camps people “died like flies.” In reality they were like the camp described by Solzhenitsyn in Ivan Denisovich. This, in recent years (when one could, at last, at least privately talk to those who had been in camps), was confirmed to me by a very large number of Russians…. In addition, most, though not all of the people I interviewed confirmed that until the war prisoners could–and did–receive letters and food-parcels from home.
Werth, Alexander. Russia; The Post-War Years. New York: Taplinger Pub. Co.,1971, p. 30
The prisoners went for their walks twice daily and these lasted one hour in winter, an hour and a half in summer. Four to five wards, that is to say from 25 to 35 prisoners, went at a time, and were allowed to do what they liked: walk, hold meetings, take exercise (football, tennis or gorodki, a Russian game of ninepins). In summer they were allowed to grow flowers or vegetables. Twice a month the prisoners went to the baths, and on those occasions sheets would be changed and body linen taken to the laundry.
The prison possessed a considerable library, the nucleus of which consisted of the books inherited from the Czarist prison (works from Russian, German, French and English literature). Many volumes, especially works on sociology, politics and history, were gifts made by prisoners at the time of their release; moreover, the administration would occasionally buy books. Thus I was able to read some very new books: Andre Gide’s Voyage au Congo and Traven’s Coton. On the whole the library was not at all bad. Apart from that, some of the prisoners brought with them an excellent choice of personal books, often as many as a hundred or even two or 300 volumes. A certain number of prisoners had new publications sent them by relatives. The use of these particular volumes was not limited to their owners, but all the owners ward-mates and the occupants of neighboring wards shared them alike. The prisoners, moreover, had the right to subscribe to any of the periodicals appearing in the USSR. As to the foreign papers, we were allowed only the central organs of the Communist Party, the Rote Fahne, l’ Humanite and the Daily Worker, and then only one copy per floor of the prison….
Under such conditions, having enough reading material was not much physical occupation, the prisoners, who were mainly educated people, spent all their energy on the political life of the prison: the editing and publishing of news sheets, articles, the holding of meetings and debates. It is no exaggeration to say that the political isolator of Verkhne-Uralsk, with its 250 political prisoners, constituted a veritable university of social and political sciences–the only independent university in the USSR.
An important question was that of the communications between the prisoners. These communications, though prohibited, were actually tolerated to a certain extent by the prison authorities. There was a constant struggle concerning the “internal postal service,” but both parties played this game according to certain accepted rules. Communications between the four or five wards of each floor were naturally easy. Less easy were “vertical” relations between wards on different floors. But they took place all the same: at a given signal a bag would be lowered from the higher floor in which the “mail” was placed. The warders had long polls with which they tried to intercept the bags. They succeeded on very rare occasions only, for it was impossible constantly to watch all windows, especially as there were prisoners brave enough to fend off the warders’ poles with sticks. The rules of the game demanded that a victory was won as soon as the bag had been taken or raised again. The bars, with which the windows were provided, were far enough apart to allow all of these manifestations.
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 202-203
A peculiarity of our barrack-prison was the fact that one could sit for hours at a time with a considerable number of the inmates of the various blocks, talking as though one were at liberty–no, even more frankly than one would have done if free, since in the USSR free men are more afraid of frankness. Our talks took place in the two gardens and the 3 yards. One could also drop into a neighboring cell, visit the hospital, the rooms housing the cultural institutions, and stroll through the various coridors.
Looking into the prison library one was sure to encounter from five to ten readers and two or three assistants, all “our” people, that is, prisoners. There one could stay and browse….
Library regulations allowed two books a week to each cell. During the week books could be exchanged between cells. Those who were at liberty to circulate within the prison could go to the library and take out books….
Several courses were organized in the library. The illiterate were taught to read and write, and for the literate there were courses in arithmetic, geography, the natural sciences. Textbooks especially published for this purpose were used. I had a look at them. Some were graphically and interestingly written. Both pupils and teachers were prisoners. Arithmetic was taught by a little old man, a former merchant from the Ukraine who after the Revolution had worked as a book-keeper in Soviet enterprises….
We had also a drama circle, an orchestra, and a weekly cinema show. For all these “cultural activities,” as one calls them in the Soviet Union, a whole block was allocated, taking up the space of six to eight large cells. Half of them were occupied by the “cultural workers” and the musicians. They were the best cells in the prison.
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 353
My many meetings and long talks in Irkutsk prison were for me a return to the realities of Soviet life…. I felt much more free, here in prison, than I was later to feel at liberty, in deportation. This sensation arose not only from my freedom of movement within the prison, but also from my free contact with the outside world through the continual flow of thousands of prisoners bringing with them the living spirit of the country.
Even direct contact with the outside world was not lacking. There were among us not a few who worked individually in some outside institution or who were permitted visits from relatives. Since they were subjected to hardly any searching when they returned to prison, it was possible to receive and send letters. There was also an authorized correspondence. There was even a post office within the prison, next to the administration office, and it was open to all of us for normal postal transactions. Censorship was more a matter of form than of reality. This was not a GPU prison, that is, a political prison with its draconic severity, but a common “criminal” prison belonging to the People’s Commissariat of Justice, with almost the atmosphere of 1917….
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 357
But during my time in this “blessed” criminal prison one could write openly to friends abroad, just as one could from any part of Russia. I then and there wrote several letters to my friends in Russia and to relatives abroad. This for the first time in three years, since throughout that time the GPU had forbidden me to correspond with anyone.
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 358
In spite of hunger and overcrowding, the prison was a beehive of activity: courses, lectures and propaganda. The illiterate were taught the alphabet; courses in mathematics, geography, physics and so on were organized for those who had a modicum of instruction. There were orchestras and a theater, the musicians and actors being recruited from among the prisoners. Films were shown. The prison library provided books and newspapers for every cell. I was asked to give a course of Latin classes to the infirmary staff. The young people followed all these classes with avidity and showed no despair at all.
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 312
“For the moment you will go into the political section, corridor nine; you’ll find a couple of your comrades there. Your cell will be open all day. You will be able to walk around freely and do some sunbathing. You’ll receive “political’ rations; you’ve got nothing to complain about. Better than in Italy,” concluded the clerk, with a slightly mocking smile.
I did indeed find two political prisoners there…. They took me for a walk in the garden and acquainted me with the general lay-out of the prison. We politicals were given free run of the yards and some of the buildings. The same privilege was also permitted those who “worked” and in general to all who were well-dressed and looked like “intelligentsia.”
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 338
The organization of the Trotskyist prisoners called itself the “Collective of the Verkhne-Uralsk Leninist Bolsheviks.” It was divided into Left-wing, Center, and Right-wing. This division into three sections persisted during the three years of my stay, although the composition of the sections and even their ideologies were subject to certain fluctuations.
Upon my arrival at Verkhne-Uralsk I found three programs and two Trotskyist newspapers….
Right-wing and Center, between them, published Pravda in Prison (Truth in Prison), the Left-wing The Militant Bolshevik. These newspapers appeared either once a month or every two months. Each copy contained 10 to 20 articles in the form of separate writing books. The “copy”, ’.e. the packet of 10 to 20 writing books, circulated from ward to ward and the prisoners read the notebooks in turn. The papers appeared in three copies, one copy for each prison-wing.
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 211
All these preoccupations of the Trotskyist majority left me indifferent. Their outlook was not very different from that of the Stalinist bureaucracy; they were slightly more polite and human, that was all.
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 263
It should also be mentioned that all of Trotsky’s works, and those of socialists and anarchists that had lawfully been published in the USSR before the groups that produced them had been forbidden, were in no way subjected to a GPU ban and were therefore not confiscated when in the possession of prisoners. We could lawfully read the works of Trotsky, Plekhanov, Martov, Kropotkin and Bakunin. But from 1934 onwards all these books, though lawfully published, were beginning to be confiscated.
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 231
The great mass of the prison population, the plebians as it were of that world, was made up of the most varied categories. In the first place there was a group of 200 employed on all sorts of work inside the prison; attending to and supervising the other prisoners, looking after the bath-house, working in the hospital, running the ambulance service, working in the kitchen, the store-rooms, the barbershop, in the prison office and the various “cultural” departments, cleaning the cells and doing internal guard duties. There were only a very few paid workers from the outside–in fact, only the Governor, the heads of the various departments, and the doctors.
Ciliga, Ante, The Russian Enigma. London: Ink Links, 1979, p. 347
One of the big differences between the Hitler and the Stalin systems was the treatment of the weak and sick. A man who fell sick in Auschwitz was at once gassed or shot. But in Stalin’s camps, for all their cruelty, the attitude to the sick prescribed from above was, if such a word can be used in this context, almost humane… The deaths were not planned. Those who were meant to die were killed outright, but a great number of others died through disorganization and neglect. As I mentioned earlier, daily reports had to go to the central administration of the camps and if the mortality rate surpassed a given level, something was done. Eighty per cent was too much. The camp commandant, Razin, and his whole staff were dismissed; the commandant was tried and condemned either to death or to a long term of imprisonment. The camp system was able to provide workers for remote regions and at the same time isolate those considered dangerous to the State, but it was not intended to kill them off. The corrective was the medical department. The doctors recruited from among the prisoners were good and devoted men who at great sacrifice saved many people from death. True, there were some monsters among them as well, but on the whole the hospitals were islands of humanity.
Berger, Joseph. Nothing but the Truth. New York, John Day Co. 1971, p. 197
LARGE NUMBERS OF IMPRISONED PEOPLE CONTINUED TO SUPPORT STALIN & STRONG METHODS
Why did large numbers of regime supporters continue to believe in Stalin, the Bolshevik Party, and the necessity for repression even after they themselves had spent years in labor camps as victims of that very system?
Getty & Naumov, The Road to Terror. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, c1999, p. 9
In the face of Hitler’s all too real conspiracy, the bogus conspiracies of previous years were as if forgotten. Survivors of the crushed oppositions, who could be useful in the war effort, were brought out of concentration camps and assigned to important national work. Tukhachevsky’s disciples, who had been cashiered and deported, were rushed back to military headquarters. Among them, according to one reliable report, was Rokossovsky, the victor of Stalingrad, a former Polish Communist, who had served as liaison officer between Tukhachevsky’s staff and the Comintern. Professor Ramzin, the head of the ‘Industrial Party’, who, in the early 30s had been charged with conspiracy and compact with a foreign power, was released, acclaimed for his services, and awarded the highest prizes and metals. Professor Ustrialov, who had in fact advocated the transformation of the Soviets into a nationalist-bourgeois republic, reappeared as a contributor to leading Moscow newspapers.
Deutscher, Isaac. Stalin; A Political Biography. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967, p. 486
Galina Serebryakova, who spent nearly 20 years in Siberia from this time, had been married to two leading victims, Serebryakov and Sokolnikov. Through all this, she retained her Party-mindedness, and after her rehabilitation spoke up warmly at writers meetings in 1962 and 1963 against the liberalizing trends.
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 165
Most of the close relations of those accused had been arrested, but more of the descendants of the second and third trial survived than had been assumed. The most prominent of the survivors was Galina Serebryakova, who was best known as an author of children’s books and who had been married first to Serebryakov later to Sokolnikov; she had returned to Moscow under Khrushchev. Like some other prominent figures, such as Mrs. Karp-Molotov, her faith in the party was unbroken; she remained a conservative figure opposed to the anti-Stalinist thaw.
Laqueur, Walter. Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations. New York: Scribner’s, c1990, p. 81
No wonder so many people were delighted at the harsh sentences passed on most of the Old Bolsheviks. One sometimes heard a prisoner say that he would now willingly accept whatever fate was in store for him-it was enough for him to have lived to see this day.
Berger, Joseph. Nothing but the Truth. New York, John Day Co. 1971, p. 157
One day a very young, disheveled man was dragged in, resisting violently; he started hammering on the cell door as soon as it closed. and walked straight up to Dubinsky and Ivanov… He sat down on Ivanov’s bed, and began to curse as I had rarely heard anyone curse before.
The terrifying thing was that he cursed the Government, the leaders and even Stalin himself by name. It was dangerous for all who listened. Ivanov reminded him that he might be overheard by spies.
‘Let them listen,’ said the boy. ‘What have I got to lose?’ He told us that he too had belonged to the Opposition-‘and don’t we see just how right we were!’…
We listened, too astonished to say anything. Then the door opened, the boy was removed and we never heard of him again.
The reaction of the prisoners was characteristic. Some remained silent. Others whispered: ‘Poor chap! What he must have been through!’ But nearly all said loudly: ‘There’s a really dangerous counter-revolutionary for you.’ A former lawyer even made a speech, justifying the Government’s repressive measures by its need to ‘defend itself against such desperate criminals.’ Had the unfortunate stranger been tried, not by a special court but by the inmates of this cell, all of them accused of counter-revolutionary activity, they would undoubtedly have condemned him to be shot. In other words, they might well have judged him more severely than the court.
Berger, Joseph. Nothing but the Truth. New York, John Day Co. 1971, p. 158
EXILES COULD WORK IN THEIR TRADE IN EXILE AREAS
[December 23rd 1935 NKVD/Procuracy circular on employment of exiles]
1. Persons exiled or deported administratively on the basis of a decision by the Special Board of the NKVD of the USSR as, for instance, engineers, technicians, physicians, agronomists, bookkeepers, and skilled laborers, may be employed in their specialties in institutions and enterprises in those localities where they have been permitted to reside, with the exception of those persons who have been deprived, by the decision of the special board, of the right to engage in their occupation in their places of exile or deportation.
NOTE: Persons mentioned in the Item #1 above may not be employed in work of a secret character or in institutions and enterprises pertaining to defense. Exceptions to this rule may be made in individual cases with the permission of the NKVD of the USSR.
Getty & Naumov, The Road to Terror. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, c1999, p. 185
4. The children of persons mentioned in item #1 above, deported or exiled as dependents of their parents, are permitted to transfer to educational institutions in their places of exile or deportation.
5. In delivering the NKVD special board’s decision to exiles or deportees, the organs of the NKVD are obligated to explain to them their right to work in their professional specialty in places of exile or deportation and to issue them the appropriate certificates.
Signed: NKVD Commissar, Yagoda and Procurator of the USSR, Vyshinsky
Getty & Naumov, The Road to Terror. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, c1999, p. 186
[Supplement to protocol #36]
1. Restrictions based on the social origin of the applicant or on the disfranchisement of the applicant’s parents as they pertain to admission to institutions of higher education and technical colleges are to be abolished….
Getty & Naumov, The Road to Terror. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, c1999, p. 186
VYSHINSKY ARGUES FOR JUST TREATMENT OF PRISONERS
In February 1936 USSR Procurator Vyshinsky had complained to Stalin that NKVD officials were refusing to release prisoners whom procurators had ordered freed for lack of evidence. NKVD chief Yagoda had replied that procurators and courts were incompetent; procurators could “suggest” release of prisoners, but the decision should remain in the hands of the NKVD. On February 16th, Stalin wrote to Molotov, “Comrade Molotov: it seems to me that Vyshinsky is right.”
Getty & Naumov, The Road to Terror. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, c1999, p. 219
Between 1932 in 1936, Vyshinsky stood for the opposite on each of these points, advocating instead due process, careful judgments on the basis of evidence, a strong role for defense lawyers in all cases, firm legal codes that applied equally to the entire population, and a strengthening of law.
Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 6
In February 1936 Vyshinsky wrote to Molotov, Stalin’s right-hand man in the Politburo and chairman of the Sovnarkom (Council of Ministers), to call for a reduction of the NKVD’s administrative powers. The commissariat’s Special Session, its internal tribunal, deliberated without calling witnesses or the accused, especially in cases of counter-revolutionary agitation and “expression of terrorist intentions.” In the process, serious mistakes could occur. Vyshinsky wanted the “maximum limitation” placed on the Special Session’s right to hear cases; he believed they should go instead through the regular courts, following normal judicial procedure. For cases that continued in the Special Session, the Procuracy should be allowed to make a “most careful check of investigative materials” and to obtain the release of prisoners if it found no basis for further action.
… Instead he believed that attention should be paid to objective evidence. He publicly attacked the NKVD’s secret procedures, because, unlike open show trials, they “served no educative or legitimating functions.” In an article published shortly thereafter, one of many similar pieces, he warned against violations of law and poor investigative procedures. He gave several examples of how not to operate,…
Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 7
In discussing Yezhov’s report, only two contributions struck a highly discordant note. One of them, no matter how strange this might seem at first glance, belonged to Vyshinsky, who spoke about actual shortcomings in the activity of the NKVD. First of all, he read several transcripts of interrogations which were filled with vulgar abuse from the investigators and which testified to their unconcealed application of pressure on the people under arrest. After citing the words of one peripheral investigator which were directed at a person under arrest: “Do not remain silent and do not play games…. Prove that this is not so,” Vyshinsky explained to the plenum’s participants that the accused should not have to prove his innocence, but, on the contrary, the investigator has to prove the guilt of the accused.
Rogovin, Vadim. 1937: Year of Terror. Oak Park, Michigan: Labor Publications, 1998, p. 278
In July 1934, Vyshinsky, as Deputy State Prosecutor, even issued an order to local prosecutors to cease making engineers and directors scapegoats for administrative failures. He strongly deprecated indiscriminate prosecutions. He stated that he had lately had to quash a large number of sentences wrongly pronounced by Siberian courts. He definitely forbade any further arrests of this kind.
Webb, S. Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation. London, NY: Longmans, Green, 1947, p. 363
NUMBERS GIVEN FOR THOSE IN PRISON ARE FAR TOO HIGH
Until the Soviet government releases figures–if it has them–the controversy on numbers will continue. All that we can say on the present evidence is that an unusually large number of men–very few women seem to have been involved–appear to have been in labor camps at the time for one reason or another, and that an unknown number of those arrested were executed.
In addition to those executed, a large number were said to have died in the labor camps from malnutrition and ill-treatment. Conquest argues that 90 percent of those imprisoned in the labor camps perished. But this does not make any sense, for the camps were, after all, labor camps–lumbering, road building, Canal construction, mining, farming, and so on–and there would be no point in having 90 percent of the workers perish if the state wanted to get the work done. No doubt some people died in the camps, as in any prison camp, but again, the numbers will remain speculative unless statistics become available.
But the question of numbers, however, of imprisonments or debts, is not the essential question. The basic issues are those of motivation and guilt. Why were these people arrested? What had they done? Why was the penal code amended to secure swift arrest and imprisonment? The underlying, indeed sometimes outspoken thesis of Khrushchev, Medvedev, Conquest, and others is that of a sadistic persecution of innocent people by an insane dictator. But this view smacks more of sensationalist journalism than of social analysis. Moreover, Stalin alone could not have initiated the prosecutions. Even if the whole Party leadership was not involved, the central leadership certainly was. At the time, this inner core of leaders included Molotov, Kaganovich, Zhdanov, Voroshilov, and Manuilsky. Thus, if the professional anti-Stalinists are to be believed, we are confronted with not one insane dictator but a group of insane dictators. When we consider the records of these men, their years of heroic revolutionary work, and their determined struggle for socialist industrialization, it is clear that, mistaken or not, they must have believed they were acting in the face of a threat to socialism. They were all responsible and serious men, not men who would persecute for the sake of persecution or who would lightly endorse executions.
Cameron, Kenneth Neill. Stalin, Man of Contradiction. Toronto: NC Press, c1987, p. 128
From the recent researches of Zemskov and Dugin in the NKVD archives, it appears that the highest Western estimates on the size and mortality rate of the GULAG’S convict population were substantially exaggerated.
[Footnote: Conquest’s estimate of 8 million political prisoners (not including common criminals) in labor camps at the end of 1938 is almost 20 times greater than the figure of under half a million “politicals” in the GULAG cited by Dugin from the NKVD archives, and four times as great as the total GULAG and prison population cited by Zemskov from the same source. According to Zemskov’s figures, the entire convict population (including both “politicals” and “criminals”) of the GULAG’S labor camps and labor colonies on January 1, 1939, numbered 1,672,438, with an additional 350,538 prisoners held in jails in mid-January of the same year–a total of a little over 2 million.]
Getty and Manning. Stalinist Terror. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 248
Figures purporting to represent the number of victims of “Stalinist repression” are also subject to definitional ambiguity. This particularly affects exiles. These range from those who were given a minus (i.e., could live anywhere “minus” a list of forbidden cities) through to those exiled to remote areas often under harsh conditions, but not kept behind wire.
Getty and Manning. Stalinist Terror. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 262
In 1937, the average number detained in the GULAG was given by the Soviet historian Zemskov as 994,000, the total rising to a maximum of 1,360,019 in 1939. It follows that the larger part of the detainees were not “technically” in the Gulag, but rather in prison, “colonies,” and [special settlements]. The same conclusion is suggested by the evidence for 1939 (unless we suppose all the evidence to be faked in the archives).
Getty and Manning. Stalinist Terror. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 269
Dugin has studied tables showing numbers “in” and “out” of detention for the period 1930-53, and comes to the conclusion that the probable total number passing through camps, colonies, and prisons in the whole period came to 11.8 million or 8,803,000 for the period 1937-50. He also reproduces a table showing numbers in [camps and colonies] on Jan. 1, 1946, to be 1,371,986 of which 516,592 were condemned for counter-revolutionary activities (203,607 for “treason to the Motherland,” 15,499 for “spying,” etc.). These figures naturally exclude exiles and possibly also the prison population. He criticizes those (including Roy Medvedev & Solzhenitsyn, as well as Conquest) who persist in citing much higher figures that cannot be supported by evidence….
Another source gives the following figures: Emelin, a military historian, states that in June 1941 there were 2.3 million [detainees], which may be the total for the Gulag, colonies, and prisons, excluding [special settlements]. By the end of 1941, 420,000 of these detainees were serving in the Red Army. In 1941-43 a million “previously sentenced” persons were serving.
Getty and Manning. Stalinist Terror. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 271
The new material on labor camps and other repressed groups has tended to confirm my arguments that the level of population in the Gulag system in the late 1930s was below 4 to 5 million. Zemskov’s figures indicate that the Gulag population (excluding colonies) reached an early peak of 1.5 million in January 1941, and this can be reconciled with Nekrasov’s figures of 2.3 million at the beginning of the war, if we include prisoners in labor colonies and jail. There were also at this time a large number of [special settlements]: By 1939, according to both Ivnitsky & Zemskov, there were only 0.9 million of the original five or so million former kulaks in their place of exile. Even if we allow another 1.5 million for Baltic and other mass groups in [special re-settlements], there would still be in the order of about 4 million. Although this represents to my mind a sufficiently large and disgraceful scale of inhumanity, these are very much smaller figures than have been proposed by Conquest and Rosefielde in the West and by Medvedev & Ovseenko in the USSR.
Getty and Manning. Stalinist Terror. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 290
The question of how many [deaths of prisoners] will not be settled by this or any other discussion. In the former USSR claims continue to appear that high totals are correct, though they are not supported by substantial documentation. Those who see more deaths of prisoners than are indicated by existing data are abandoning the best kinds of evidence used in any other field in favor of speculation.
Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 140
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s numerous people were arrested and sent to the labor re-education camps which, after their transformation in 1937, became penal colonies, functioning to aid the construction of the virgin regions. The number of people so confined has been subject to wild speculation in the extensive anti-Soviet literature that developed with the onset of the cold war. Estimates in these sources for those interned in 1938 range from 2 to 12 million; many such estimates are based on the self-interested speculation and rumors of those once assigned to the camps. Others are based on such factors as alleged discrepancies in Soviet census data, where it is assumed that apparent discrepancies between different grand totals are equal to the number of people in (or on the pay-roll of) the labor camps, discrepancies between projections of populations assuming a particular ‘normal’ birth and death rate and the number of people actually reported in a census; the number of newspaper subscriptions (multiplied by the alleged number of people who read a paper) etc.. These highly speculative estimates have been subject to a careful review and criticism by British Soviet expert, Wheatcroft (1981). After examining the statistical discrepancies, population projections, etc. on which estimates in the Western literature are based, Wheatcroft argues as follows about the logical maximum of the number that could have been in the labor camps in 1939:
[In 1938 one of the 38 labor camp clusters, Vorkuta, was known to have 15,000 people under detention. To quote Wheatcroft], ” Vorkuta was certainly one of the better-known camps, and there is no indication that it was smaller than average. Assuming the Vorkuta population to be typical gives an estimate of less than 600,000 for the total of those confined in 1938.”
Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984, p. 245
… The coincidence of the figures based on known information about the Vorkuta administration and the number of camp administrations, together with a reasonable ratio applied to the disenfranchisement data gives great credibility to an estimate of roughly one million people working in the labor camps in the 1937-38 period, or about .5% of the Soviet population.
For a sense of the significance of this figure it can be pointed out that in 1978, out of a total U.S. black population of 23 million, about 200,000 (roughly 1%) were incarcerated.
Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984, p. 246
To look a little further ahead, “forced labor” in the Soviet Union was to be used, especially after 1947, as the most potent weapon of anti-Soviet propaganda. The most fraudulent figures, bearing no relation whatsoever to the real facts, were produced by “Russian experts,” the biggest fraud of all being the seemingly academic and scholarly work by two old Mensheviks, David Dallin and Boris Nicolaevsky. Anyone who dared challenge their assertion in their Forced Labor in Russia that the camp population was around 10 or 12 million people was treated ipso facto as a communist or Soviet agent, though even the most elementary study of the problem would have shown up the utter absurdity of the Dallin-Nicolaevsky figures.”
Werth, Alexander. Russia; The Post-War Years. New York: Taplinger Pub. Co.,1971, p. 34
It must be acknowledged that none of the data that we yet possess will allow us to arrive at an entirely reliable estimate of the number of arrests in those years.
The more so, since data that became available on the population in Soviet concentration camps are far from confirming traditional assessments.
… the fact that apparently 3,378,234 people had been sentenced “for counter-revolutionary and state crimes”… by courts and extra-judicial bodies during the whole period between 1930 and 1953, does not seem to signal anything near the order of magnitude of the estimates authors usually advance for the number of arrests in 1936-38…. Nevertheless, all the indications are that the figures quoted by the traditional literature are incompatible with the available evidence….
It seems very likely that a less tendentious selection in a more systematic reading of the source material than those made by the authors of the traditional version would alter our view of this crucial period in Soviet history. Seeing how inadequate the literature is which provides our knowledge, it is unlikely that any researcher who devotes himself to the considerable task of sifting through such a vast and unexplored wealth of source material would be motivated merely by perversity. But of course it all depends on the sources which he analyzes and the problems with which he tries to come to grips.
Thus even if there is no reason to question the sincerity of most of the authors of those memoirs, on which most of the “classical” literature is based, the frequent occurrence in their accounts of themes like the role of Kirov as an opponent of Stalin as shown at the 17th Congress, or the systematic extermination of the old guard of the Party, is such as to throw a degree of doubt on the accuracy of the information that they give, and the relevance of their explanations of the whys and wherefores of historical events across the country at large.
Rittersporn, Gabor. Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet Complications, 1933-1953. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers, c1991, p. 13-15
In 1993, for the first time, several historians gained access to previously secret Soviet police archives and were able to establish well-documented estimates of prison and labor camp populations. They found that the total population of the entire gulags as of January 1939, near the end of the Great Purges, was 2,022,976. At about that time, there began a purge of the purgers, including many intelligence and secret police (NKVD) officials and members of the judiciary and other investigative committees, who were suddenly held responsible for the excesses of the terror despite their protestations of fidelity to the regime.
…Despite harsh conditions, the great majority of gulag inmates survived and eventually returned to society when granted amnesty or when their terms were finished. In any given year, 20 to 40% of the inmates were released, according to archive records .
Almost a million Gulag prisoners were released during World War II to serve in the military. The archives reveal that more than half of all gulag deaths for the 1934-53 period occurred during the war years (1941-45), mostly from malnutrition, when severe privatization was the common lot of the entire Soviet population. (Some 22 million Soviet citizens perished in the war.) In 1944, for instance, the labor-camp death rate was 92 per 1000. By 1953, with the postwar recovery, camp deaths had declined to three per 1000.
Parenti, Michael. Blackshirts and Reds, San Francisco: City Light Books, 1997, p. 79
As to the dismal swamp of the aggregate numbers directly involved in the Terror, I did not write much about them, nor did I offer my own estimate. I simply said that my findings tend to support the lower of the available calculations, and they do. As for Weissberg’s and Beck and Godin’s estimates, I believe they are fraught with uncertainties.
First, as Weissberg admitted, he may have counted many prisoners twice; how many, he did not know. I have found numerous cases of prisoners transferred from prison to prison, from camp to camp, from camp to prison, and the like.
Second, as I have shown, there is serious reason to challenge his idea on prisoner turnover.
Third, his account does not make clear how he knew that all he counted came only from Kharkov and vicinity; any number may have come from much farther away [which would raise the total number], which would require lowering the percentage arrested.
Fourth, we simply do not know how typical Kharkov or any other place was. Moscow, Leningrad, and other large cities certainly had substantial prisons and inmate populations; but did Omsk, Vologda, and Kursk have them? I do not know, and I will wait for evidence.
Fifth, at least one of these careful calculations of a camp’s size has been seriously undermined in light of more specific evidence: two Poles who were not in the Vorkutstroi system estimated that it contained 250,000 prisoners by 1938. Since they wrote, an actual inmate has published the figures of just over 15,000 in 1938 and 19,000 in 1941.
Sixth, I am not convinced that we should take the word of NKVD officers on the aggregate figures. They may have tried to protect themselves by arguing that they were part of some massive process that overwhelmed them along with everyone else; this impression is left by remarks one of them made to Weissberg. It is hard for me to believe that anyone much below Ezhov and Stalin could ever have learned hard information on the grand totals.
Finally, prisoners made their estimates of the numbers in all sorts of unscientific ways. Gustav Herling remembered that the amateur statisticians he knew in the cells based their estimates on “stories, scraps of conversation overheard in corridors, old newspapers found in the latrine, administrative orders, movements of vehicles in the courtyards, and even the sound of advancing and receding footsteps in front of the gate. Clearly, he and his fellow prisoners did not have numbered receipts at their disposal, and I have not seen them mentioned in this fashion in any other account. No prisoner was in a position to have firsthand knowledge of the total number of prisoners on any scale larger than a small quantity of cells or camps.
I am not saying that Weissberg’s or any other estimate is wrong, merely that I have much less confidence in any method of calculation than Conquest does. To repeat a point made in my article, available evidence is so fragmentary that it must be interpreted with great caution.
Thurston, Robert W. “On Desk-Bound Parochialism, Commonsense Perspectives, and Lousy Evidence: A Reply to Robert Conquest.” Slavic Review 45 (1986), 242-243.
BOLSHEVIKS TRY TO RE-EDUCATE PRISONERS FIGHTING AGAINST THEIR OWN INTERESTS
Menzhinsky, head of the OGPU, who died recently, once explained to me at length how absurd it was in principle to tax the political Party which directs the Soviet Union with cruelty or indifference to human life, since its ultimate aim is to bring everyone in the world together and to work for universal peace. And, in fact, he pointed out to me that the revolutionary police, brothers of the great mass of workers, are constantly on the lookout for any opportunity for “setting right” or “curing” not only common law prisoners (on this side of prison organization the Bolsheviks have carried patience and indulgence to an almost paradoxical point), but also political prisoners. Communists start from the double principle that transgressors of the common law are people who do not understand their own interests and are ruining their own lives, and that the best thing to do is to impress this upon them, and that the enemies of the proletarian revolution, the forerunner of universal Revolution, are equally (if they are sincere) people who are mistaken, and that the best thing is to prove it to them. Hence the constant effort to turn every kind of prison into a place of education.
Barbusse, Henri. Stalin. New York: The Macmillan company, 1935, p. 84
EXILED PEOPLE WERE ALLOWED TO RETURN
… he (Generalov) was sent to an obscure job in Siberia. Allowed to return at the end of 1933 and reinstated in the Party, he was, however, relegated to Dniepropetrovsk, again on low-level routine work under bureaucratic bosses of the new order, who treated him as an inferior creature. It was then that he married Shura.
Tokaev, Grigori. Comrade X. London: Harvill Press,1956, p. 9
CC PLENUM COMPLAINS THAT PRISONS ARE TOO COMFORTABLE AND LIKE REST HOMES
[Resolution of the Plenum the Central Committee, March 3, 1937, on Yezhov’s report of what was learned from the sabotage, subversion, and espionage committed by Japanese and German Trotskyite agents]
The major defects in the work of state security agencies that have decisively contributed to the delay in unmasking the Trotskyite anti-Soviet organization continue to be:
… d) Even more intolerable is the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs prison policy for the most vile convicted enemies of the Soviet government, the Trotskyites, Zinovievites, Rightists, Socialist-Revolutionaries, and others.
As a rule these enemies of the people have been sent to so-called political isolation facilities supervised by the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. The political isolation facilities have been quite comfortable, resembling involuntary rest homes more than prisons.
Inmates in the isolated political prisons have had the opportunity to talk to each other, to discuss all political events in the country, to elaborate political plans of anti-Soviet activity for their organizations, and to establish contacts outside of prison. The prisoners have enjoyed access to literature, paper, and writing tools in unlimited quantity, and the right to receive unlimited numbers of letters and telegrams, to acquire their own equipment in their cells, and to receive along with prison food parcels from outside prison in any quantity or assortment.
Koenker and Bachman, Eds. Revelations from the Russian Archives. Washington: Library of Congress, 1997, p. 114
During the purges of the 1930s, he [Stalin] would support a proposal by Yezhov that the system for holding political prisoners be altered. At Stalin’s instigation, the February-March 1937 Central Committee plenum introduced a special point into the decree on Yezhov’s report, namely, that ‘the prison regime for enemies of Soviet power (Trotskyites, Zinovievites, SR’s, etc.) is intolerable. The prisons resemble nothing so much as compulsory rest homes. [The prisoners] are allowed to socialize, they can write letters to each other at will, receive parcels and so on. Steps were taken, of course. There was to be no question of ‘universities’ for these unfortunates.
Volkogonov, Dmitri. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991, p. 9
Neither orally nor in writing did Stalin ever call publicly for the repressions of 1937-38 to be intensified. Even the speech he gave at the February-March 1937 plenum, published in abridged form in Pravda, amounted only to a call for greater vigilance against the danger of Trotskyism and so on…. he edited [rewrote] the resolution on Yezhov’s report to the February-March 1937 plenum, including the following points:
…c. The system that has been created for enemies of the Soviet regime is intolerable. Their accommodation often resembles compulsory nursing homes more than prison (they write letters, receive parcels and so on).
Volkogonov, Dmitri. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991 , p. 336
The resolution [of late Feb. 1937] on Yezhov’s report repeated the formulation of the September telegram from Stalin and Zhdanov about being late in exposing the Trotskyists. It indicated that the NKVD “already in 1932-1933 had all the necessary threads in its hands to completely expose the monstrous conspiracy of the Trotskyists against the Soviet regime.”
… It [the resolution] said that the previous leadership of the NKVD, having carried out “an incorrect correctional policy, particularly with regard to Trotskyists,” had established “an intolerable…prison regime when it came to the convicts who were the most vicious enemies of the Soviet regime–Trotskyists, Zinovievists, Rightists, SR’s, and others. As a rule, all these enemies of the people had been sent to so-called political isolators, which…provided beneficial conditions and were more apt to resemble mandatory rest homes than prisons…. Those under arrest were given the right to enjoy literature, paper and writing utensils in an unlimited quantity, to receive an unlimited number of letters and telegrams, to outfit their cells with personal effects, and to receive, along with official nourishment, packages from outside the prison in any quantity and assortment.”
Rogovin, Vadim. 1937: Year of Terror. Oak Park, Michigan: Labor Publications, 1998, p. 280
Still, compared with the camps of later years, Solovki was almost a luxury resort. It had a theater (” Paris of the North”), a newspaper, and visits from close relatives were occasionally permitted. The number of political prisoners counted in the tens of thousands rather than millions. According to official reports, there were 800,000 inmates in the labor camps all over the Soviet Union in 1934, but this figure may have included criminals. There were few Communists among the inmates; instead, the inmates were mainly people deemed to be “class enemies,” that is to say, of “bourgeois” origin, rather liberally interpreted.
Laqueur, Walter. Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations. New York: Scribner’s, c1990, p. 72
PRISONERS WHO HELPED CONSTRUCT THE BALTIC-WHITE SEA CANAL GET REDUCED TERMS
[Resolution of the USSR Central Executive Committee, Sept. 1, 1932, on privileges for convict-workers at the White Sea-Baltic Canal construction site]
… In connection with the successful completion of the basic work on the White Sea-Baltic Waterway, this great new accomplishment of the Soviet regime, the USSR Central Executive Committee resolves:
1. To give the Unified State Political Directorate [OGPU] the right to free those prisoners who distinguished themselves on the construction project from serving the remainder of their sentences, and where needed, from serving supplementary sentences.
2. To instruct the OGPU to grant to all other prisoners (participants who worked conscientiously in the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Waterway), in addition to existing ordinary privileges in the corrective labor camps, a reduction in the term of measures taken to insure the defense of society.
3. To instruct the OGPU to present for review by the USSR Central Executive Committee the expunging of the convictions of those freed in accordance with paragraph 1 of this resolution.
Koenker and Bachman, Eds. Revelations from the Russian Archives. Washington: Library of Congress, 1997, p. 153
To trace down all the criminals, old and new types, is a big enough job, and requires a large police force. But the Soviet police also have many constructive tasks, as I have already suggested. Because they are in charge of all the men and women put at forced labor, and because tens of thousands of people have been sentenced to such labor, the police operate some of the greatest construction and industrial enterprises in Russia. They have built such great public works as the Baltic-White Sea canal and the Moscow-Volga canal; they have double-tracked the trans-Siberian Railway for 2200 miles, using an army of at least 100,000 men and women prisoners for this purpose, who labored without any pause during three of the severe Siberian winters. The police also construct many of the main highways of Russia, especially the great new strategic motor roads.
Littlepage, John D. In Search of Soviet Gold. New York: Harcourt, Brace, c1938, p. 202
[In 1931] at first specialists were returned to their former places under the supervision of OGPU bodies, then a “pardon” was declared for a number of individuals previously labeled “saboteurs” in view of their readiness to work for the good of socialism.
Siegelbaum and Sokolov. Stalinism As a Way of Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, c2000, p. 98
Being human, the prisoners whose labour brought Norilsk into being naturally hoped their work and their devotion to their country would be recognized, and that their sentences would be shortened, but I can testify that their primary motive was to defeat Hitler.
At the end of the war what happened was that the free salaried men, who directed the work, received decorations and promotion while some prisoners who had overfulfilled their norms, even some held under Article 58, were let off one, two, three or four years of their sentence. Of course, if they were serving a sentence of twenty or twenty-five years this did not mean very much, but at least it was taken as a good omen.
Berger, Joseph. Nothing but the Truth. New York, John Day Co. 1971, p. 206
THOSE PRISONERS WHO FOUGHT FOR THE POLES IN SEPT 1939 RECEIVE FAIR TREATMENT
[NKVD order, Oct. 3, 1939, on disposition of prisoners of war in Soviet camps]
The following resolution of the Central Committee of the all Russian Communist Party dated October 2 concerning prisoners of war is reproduced below for your information and guidance:
Approve the following proposals of comrades Beria and Mekhlis:
… 1. Prisoners of war of Ukrainian, Byelorussians, and other nationalities whose homes are located in the western Ukraine and western Byelorussia will be allowed to go home.
2. 25,000 prisoners of war will be kept to build the Novograd-Volynskii-Korets-Lvov Road until the end of December.
3. Prisoners of war whose homes are located in the German part of Poland will be assigned to a separate category and will be detained in the camps until negotiations with the Germans begin and the issue of their repatriation is resolved.
… 6. The Czech detainees (approximately 800 individuals) will be released after they have signed a pledge not to fight against the USSR.
… 8. Officer prisoners of war will receive better rations than enlisted prisoners of war.
… 10. All prisoners of war, including officers and enlisted men, will be required to surrender all valuables and any money over the limit established by the POW Affairs Administration to the administrations of the camps for safekeeping in exchange for a receipt.
… 3. All POWs whose homes are located in the German part of Poland will be temporarily confined to camps. We must explain to them that they will be repatriated in an orderly manner after our negotiations with the Germans on this issue.
4. All other enlisted POWs, including Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and other nationalities whose homes are located in our territory, should be immediately sent home. They should be given all possible assistance, including advice, in getting home. Major political indoctrination efforts should be initiated for these POWs to remind them that they will soon be citizens of the USSR. The soldiers should be informed of the forthcoming sessions of the two popular assemblies and the issues they will decide. The platform we are using in the election campaign should be explained to the soldiers. The indoctrinators should try to get the soldiers to become activists and advocates for our platform.
Koenker and Bachman, Eds. Revelations from the Russian Archives. Washington: Library of Congress, 1997, p. 163
VYSHINKY DEMANDS FAIRER AND MORE JUST TREATMENT OF PRISONERS
With the object of “overinsuring” themselves, procurators were wrongly classifying cases under Article 58. Clearly trying to slow the momentum of the Terror, [in February 1938] Vyshinsky now stipulated that procurators at each level had to have approval from a superior procurator to bring counter-revolutionary charges.
In mid-March  Vyshinsky continued to work against mass political arrests when he complained to Stalin and Molotov about improper counterrevolutionary charges against railroad personnel. He noted that during 1937, procurators took cases to the courts and obtained convictions with ten-year sentences for mere “formal violations of the rules of technical exploitation, in the absence of harmful consequences and evil intentions.” Vyshinsky proposed that all such cases be reviewed in the four months following….
In early February Vyshinsky also began to condemn the use of torture. He informed Yezhov’s assistant Frinovsky that, according to a military procurator in Kiev, prisoners there had been beaten and forced to stand for long periods. Vyshinsky’s concern was partly practical: the ill treatment had become widely known in the area after some of the abused had been released “owing to the complete groundlessness of their cases.” Yet Vyshinsky appeared to be genuinely angry; he referred to “direct fabrication of cases” and demanded that the guilty NKVDisty be arrested. “Slanderers,” or false denouncers, were convicted of wrongdoing by July 1938 at the latest and were sent to prison.
In late March the Procuracy Council referred in general to the “beating of honest Soviet people,” which it ascribed to penetration of its own agency by enemies. All procurators were now instructed to “strengthen the principles of judicial Soviet democracy” and to oppose sentences they disagreed with. At the same time Vyshinsky wrote to Yezhov to protest sleep deprivation and threats against a prisoner, which induced him to sign a statement that he was in an anti-Soviet group. The procurator-general planned to investigate and bring the guilty to justice.
Two days later Vyshinsky wrote to Malenkov, again mentioning enemies within the Procuracy. “In a number of places,” he indicated, citizens had been prosecuted without cause. As a result, higher levels of the Procuracy and judiciary had quashed many cases. Within weeks Vyshinsky’s officials were busy across the country investigating charges against prisoners and cases already decided, with an eye to weeding out the groundless ones. In June he ordered procurators to refer all cases involving the death penalty to him personally or, in his absence, to a deputy. Then on July 25 the Procuracy Council required all counterrevolutionary cases to be cleared by the procurator-general’s office in Moscow; a staff of 12 people would be assigned to review them. As of August 1, no new cases were to go to the troiki, though in fact some did. These changes represented further major steps toward halting the Terror.
By early August an oblast-level prosecutor had been tried, on Vyshinsky’s initiative, for bringing political charges without sufficient evidence. The accused had also classified some ordinary crimes, for example, malfeasance, as counter-revolutionary. Pravda announced that this “overinsurer,” who had carried out orders of enemies of the people, had received a 5-year sentence. In October the former prosecutor of the city of Omsk was sentenced to two years for sanctioning illegal arrests without “penetrating the essence of the case.” These reports were powerful indications to the justice system about how not to operate.
… By this time the judiciary had switched almost completely from facilitating the Terror to opposing it.
Vyshinsky, never a hero but brave enough to criticize the NKVD while Yezhov ran it, remained in important positions for the rest of Stalin’s life. Without the Gensec’s approval, the Procuracy would never have taken the steps it did to protest and curb the Terror.
… But by this point, or earlier, the NKVD had relinquished a great deal of power; conscientious party officials could thwart the agency, while Vyshinsky repeatedly challenged its practices.
Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 109-112
SCIENTISTS WHO CONTRIBUTE TO SOCIETY FROM PRISON HAVE THEIR SENTENCES REDUCED
Scientists whose lives were spared were put to work in camp and prison laboratories under the supervision of the 4th special section of the Ministry of the Interior…. Quick results were what mattered, and when they were achieved, Stalin could even show a little kindness, sometimes reducing a sentence or even releasing a prisoner. Beria’a agency kept Stalin constantly informed of the work of the scientists in the prisons and camps….
And on February 1951 Kruglov reported that:
“in 1947 prisoner-specialist Abramson (sentenced to 10 years) proposed a new and original system for an economic automobile carburetor. Tests on a ZIS-150 produced a fuel saving of 10.9%. It is proposed that Abramson, mechanical engineer Ardzhevanidze and engine-builder Tsvetkov have their sentences reduced by two years.
I request your decision.
Stalin gave his consent.
Volkogonov, Dmitri. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991, p. 556
PRISONERS CHANGED THEIR VIEWS OF MARXISM IN PRISON
There is no doubt that not only nonpolitical defendants, but even strong political opponents can be broken by the “Yezhov method.” In this connection the statements of the Bulgarian Protestant pastors in their February 1949 Trial are the most relevant, since no one could possibly argue that loyalty to Party or creed induced them. In their confessions, they all remarked that they now saw Communist rule of their country “in a new light.” In their final pleas, Pastor Naumov thanked the police for their “kindness and consideration” and said, “I have sinned against my people and against the whole world. This is my resurrection”; Pastor Diapkov was in tears as he admitted his guilt and said, “Do not make of me a useless martyr by giving me the death sentence. Help me to become a useful citizen and a hero of the Fatherland Front”; Pastor Bezlov, who had earlier stated that he had read 12,000 pages of Marxist literature while in prison and that this had entirely changed his outlook, declared, “I have now an intellectual appreciation of what the new life means and I want to play my part in it.”
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 126
LENIN WANTED THE PENAL CODE TO GIVE A BROAD DEFINITION OF COUNTER-REV. ACTIVITY
In his [Lenin] amendments to the project for the penal code, he insisted that the notion of “counter-revolutionary activity” should be given the widest possible interpretation. This definition was to be linked with the “international bourgeoisie” in such a way that this kind of crime became quite imprecise from a juridical point of view and thus left the way wide open for every kind of arbitrary action. Among other things, the crime would cover “propaganda and agitation” and “participation in or aid to an organization” which might benefit that part of the international bourgeoisie that does not recognize the Soviet regime’s equal rights with capitalist states and seeks to overthrow it by force. This definition was already broad enough, but what was worse, in view of the fact that the crime could carry capital punishment, was that it could be extended by analogy. Whoever “gave help objectively to that part of the international bourgeoisie” (which actively opposed the regime), and similarly whoever belonged to an organization within the country whose activities “might assist or be capable of assisting” this bourgeoisie, will also be guilty! This case shows that at this time Lenin was anxious to leave room for the use of terror or the threat of its use (not through the Cheka alone but through tribunals and a regular procedure) as long as the big capitalist countries continued to threaten the USSR.
Lenin, then, was very far from being a weak liberal, incapable of taking resolute action when necessary.
Lewin, Moshe. Lenin’s Last Struggle. New York: Pantheon Books. C1968, p. 133
GOOD PRISON ADMINISTRATORS WITH A GOOD KNOWLEDGE OF MARXISM WERE HARD TO FIND
One of the major difficulties in Russia, as everywhere else, is the matter of proper personnel. With the emphasis upon loyalty to Marxian and Leninist doctrine it is difficult to get men who are good Communists and at the same time have those personal qualities which make them good prison administrators and subtle molders of anti-social personalities. Here is where most of the departures from the ideals occur. Doubtless they happen in Russia as elsewhere. While the usual prison cruelties are forbidden by the Code, it is probable that they occur, due to this difficulty.
Davis, Jerome. The New Russia. New York: The John Day company, c1933, p. 238
WHICH COUNTRY HAS THE MOST PEOPLE IN PRISON
Countries with the most people in prison, 2004 (in thousands):
United States 2,079
South Africa 181
Source: Newsweek International, January 2005
From Hitler to Hearst, from Conquest to Solzhenitsyn
In the United States of America, for example, a country of 252 million inhabitants (in 1996), the richest country in the world, which consumes 60% of the world’s resources, how many people are in prison? What is the situation in the US, a country not threatened by any war and where there are no deep social changes affecting economic stability?
In a rather small news item appearing in the newspapers of August 1997, the FLT-AP news agency reported that in the US there had never previously been so many people in the prison system as the 5.5 million held in 1996. This represents an increase of 200,000 people since 1995 and means that the number of criminals in the US equals 2.8% of the adult population. These data are available to all those who are part of the North American Department of Justice. The number of convicts in the US today is 3 million higher than the maximum number ever held in the Soviet Union! In the Soviet Union there was a maximum of 2.4% of the adult population in prison for their crimes – in the US the figure is 2.8%, and rising! According to a press release put out by the US Department of Justice on 18 January 1998, the number of convicts in the US in 1997 rose by 96,100.
As far as the Soviet labour camps were concerned, it is true that the regime was harsh and difficult for the prisoners, but what is the situation today in the prisons of the US, which are rife with violence, drugs, prostitution, sexual slavery (290,000 rapes a year in US prisons). Nobody fees safe in US prisons! And this today, and in a society richer than ever before!
Sousa, Mario. Lies Concerning the History of the Soviet Union, 15 June 1998.
4 thoughts on “GULag”