Sunday, May 21, 2006

The radical muse

Books and Authors

April 23, 2006

The radical muse

This book documents the rise of the Progressive Writer’s Association, its period of ascendancy, its crucial role in the struggle for independence and its unflagging spirit of resistance against injustice

Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir write about the emerging of a movement that grew into the Progressive Writer’s Association

On the evening of November 24, 1934, the atmosphere at London’s Nanking Hotel must have been electric. A group of young Indian intellectuals were engaged in an intense discussion over a draft document, that had been circulated by the convenor of the meeting, Sajjad Zaheer. The document was audacious in its scope, for it sought to articulate a manifesto for the future of Indian literature.

Some of the faces in the meeting were to become familiar personalities. Jyotirmaya Ghosh would rise to prominence as a key figure in Bengali literature. Mulk Raj Anand had already begun to gain global prominence as an English novelist. Mohammad Din Tasir was to go on to become the founder of the magazine Nairang-i-Khayaal in Lahore. The British writer Ralph Fox was attending in the capacity of an adviser. The fog of history has blurred the names of other attendees, but the institution that was emerging through this meeting was destined to majestically straddle the traditions of Indian literature in general and Urdu poetry in particular for a long time.

The fact that this meeting was being held in London was no accident. Rather, it was a curious outcome of the history of the colonial experience of India. Many among the gathering were students in England, who had been sent by their affluent parents to develop professional skills in areas such as law and medicine. Yet, their experiences with colonial servitude back home were fresh in their minds, and this smouldering energy was readily spurred by the emerging anti-fascist and socialist currents all over Europe. The formation of the United Front in France, the protest against the persecution of writers like Georgi Dimitrov, and the workers’ rebellion in Austria in the early 1930’s, had galvanised the attendees of the Nanking meeting. In their minds, the literary manifesto that was being discussed would serve to lay the framework for the emergence of a new, emancipated identity.

This gathering had its genesis in an interesting episode that had taken place in 1932 with the publication of a book in India called Angaare (Embers), a set of 10 short stories written by Sajjad Zaheer, Rashid Jahan, Mahmuduzzafar and Ahmed Ali, which had attacked a whole range of sacred cows. The stories dealt with prevailing familial and sexual mores, the decadence and hypocrisy of social and religious life in contemporary India, and took more than one potshot at religious orthodoxy, attacking it with what Ahmed Ali later referred to as “the absence of circumspection”.

Within months of its publication, the book generated an uproar within Muslim circles, and was condemned by a variety of organisations as being “obscene” and “blasphemous”. The All India Shia Conference, for example, passed a resolution in 1933 sharply condemning “the heart-rending and filthy pamphlet called Angaare ... which has wounded the feelings of the entire Muslim community by ridiculing God and His prophets and which is extremely objectionable from the standpoint of both religion and morality.” Responding to this outcry, the Police Department of the United Provinces promulgated an order on March 15, 1933 declaring “forfeited to his Majesty every copy of (the book) ... on the grounds that the said book contains matter the publication of which is punishable under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.”

The Angaare authors were unrepentant. Writing in the April 5, 1933 issue of The Leader, an Allahabad-based newspaper, Mahmuduzzafar’s article “Shall we submit to gagging?” declared:

The writers of this book do not wish to make an apology for it. They leave it to float or sink of itself. They only wish to defend the right of launching it and all other vessels like it ... They have chosen (to critique) the particular field of Islam not because they bear any “special” malice towards it, but because, being born into that particular society, they felt better qualified to speak for that alone ... Our practical purpose is the formation immediately of a league of progressive authors, which should bring forth similar collections from time to time, both in English and the various vernaculars of our country.

Undettered by the widespread criticism, Sajjad Zaheer, the leader of the Angaare group had set about trying to use the field of literature as a battering ram to break down the orthodox and conservative fortifications of Indian society. The Nanking Hotel gathering was a significant step in that direction.

By the end of the meeting, the attendees had resolved to formalise their group as an institution, which would be called the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (henceforth, the PWA). The PWA was to be based in India, and Sajjad Zaheer volunteered to give it institutional shape in the subcontinent.

Their experiences with colonial servitude back home were fresh in their minds, and this smouldering energy was readily spurred by the emerging anti-fascist and socialist currents all over Europe

By the middle of 1935, the final manifesto of the PWA was ready. Zaheer returned to India with the document and circulated it among prominent Indian literary figures. The manifesto found an immediate champion in Premchand, one of the most highly respected figures in Hindustani literature, who published its Hindi translation in the October 1935 issue of his journal Hans (Swan). Subsequently, the English version of the manifesto was published in the February 1936 issue of London’s Left Review. The text of the manifesto was as follows:

Radical changes are taking place in Indian society. Fixed ideas and old beliefs, social and political institutions are being challenged. Out of the present turmoil and conflict a new society is emerging. The spirit of reaction however, though moribund and doomed to ultimate decay, is still operative and is making desperate efforts to prolong itself.

It is the duty of Indian. writers to give expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and to assist in the spirit of progress in the country. Indian literature, since the breakdown of classical literature, has had the fatal tendency to escape from the actualities of life. It has tried to find a refuge from reality in spiritualism and idealism. The result has been that it has produced a rigid formalism and a banal and perverse ideology.

Witness the mystical devotional obsession of our literature, its furtive and sentimental attitude towards sex, its emotional exhibitionism and its almost total lack of rationality. Such literature was produced particularly during the past two centuries, one of the most unfortunate periods of our history, a period of disintegrating feudalism and of acute misery and degradation for the Indian people as a whole.

It is the object of our association to rescue literature and other arts from the priestly, academic and decadent classes in whose hands they have degenerated so long; to bring the arts into the closest touch with the people; and to make them the vital organs which will register the actualities of life, as well as lead us to the future.

While claiming to be the inheritors of the best traditions of Indian civilisation, we shall criticise ruthlessly, in its political, economic and cultural aspects, the spirit of reaction in our country and we shall foster through interpretive and creative work (with both native and foreign resources) everything that will lead our country to the new life for which it is striving. We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today — the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjugation, so that it may help us to understand these problems and through such understanding help us to act.

With the above aims in view. the following resolutions have been adopted:

• The establishment of organisations of writers to correspond to the various linguistic zones of India; the coordinations of these organisations by holding conferences, publishing of magazines, pamphlets, etc.

• To cooperate with those literary organisations whose aims do not conflict with the basic aims of the association.

• To produce and translate literature of a progressive nature and of a high technical standard; to fight cultural reaction; and in this way, to further the cause of Indian freedom and social regeneration.

• To strive for the acceptance of a common language (Hindustani) and a common script (Indo-Roman) for India.

• To protect the interests of authors; to help authors who require and deserve assistance for the publication of their works.

• To fight for the right of free expression of thought and opinion.

The manifesto was unabashedly modernist and anti-religious in its tenor, and utilised a left-liberal vocabulary that was popular at that time. It sought to play an integrative role in the Indian literary landscape through the acceptance of a common language and script. It made a case for building international solidarities. Importantly, it emphasised realism, with its insistence that literature be used as a tool to display the “actualities of life”. Finally, despite the stridency of its tone, it sought to leave the door open for coalitions with other literary groups “whose aims did not conflict with the basic aims of the association.” The manifesto was an astute political document, and a highly ambitious one that sought to position the PWA as the harbinger of revolutionary changes in the literary landscape of India.

The publication of this manifesto had a huge impact, especially in Urdu literary circles. The ideas it espoused were, however, not entirely new. Just a year earlier, a young literary critic named Akhtar Husain Raipuri had published an essay called “Adab our Zindagi” (Literature and life), in which he had attempted to analyse the entire corpus of Urdu literature, and had denounced all works of fiction and poetry that did not directly link themselves to the material conditions of the society in which they were produced. Raipuri’s essay in some measure made the manifesto easier to sell to Urdu literary figures, just as Premchand’s support (and subsequent endorsements by the Hindi poets Sumitranandan Pant, Maithilisharan Gupt and Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’) succeeded in broadening the horizon of the PWA’s influence.

Stalwarts of Indian literature like Mohammad Iqbal and Rabindranath Tagore also provided legitimacy to the PWA through their approval, and eventually Urdu poets like Hasrat Mohani, Josh Malihabadi, and Firaq Gorakhpuri also joined it, as did the Telugu poet Sri Sri, the Gujarati poet Umashankar Joshi, the Punjabi writer Gurbaksh Singh and the Marathi writer Anna Bhau Sathe. The PWA’s anti-colonialist reputation was enhanced and its credentials endorsed by the fact that the British government expressed its deep suspicion of the group. On September 7, 1936, the Home Secretary of India sent a private circular to relevant authorities, which read:

I am directed to address you in connection with an organisation known as the Progressive Writers’ Association ... The proclaimed aims of the association are comparatively innocent and suggest that it concerns itself solely with the organisation of journalists and writers and the promotion of interest in literature of a progressive nature. The inspiration however comes from ... organisations and individuals who are ... advocating policies akin to those of the communists ... I am desired to suggest therefore, that suitable opportunities may be taken to convey, preferably in conversations, friendly warnings about this association to journalists, educationists and others who may be attracted by its ostensible programmes.

It appeared that the PWA had perceptively tapped into the groundswell of a great upheaval in Indian society. The first all-India meeting of the PWA was held at Lucknow in 1936, and was presided over by Premchand, whose inaugural address “Sahitya ka uddeshya” (The purpose of literature) remains one of the most important documents of the movement. The manifesto of the association was reworked to make it more inclusive of those whose politics were not avowedly socialist. Further the demand for a common language and script for Indian literature was dropped, reflecting the political realities of the country’s multilingual structure.

The Hindi version of the manifesto also attempted to articulate a definition of “Progressive” which could accommodate a wide spectrum of views and attract as many people as possible, and included the following additional paragraph:

All those things which take us toward confusion, dissension, and blind imitation are conservative; also, all that which engenders in us a critical capacity, which induces us to test our dear traditions on the touchstone of our reason and perception, which makes us healthy and produces among us the strength of unity and integration, that is what we call Progressive.

From its very inception, the PWA had a group of committed socialists at its core but its larger membership was not limited to writers of any particular political persuasion. In fact, it was consciously opened out to include all writers who shared the manifesto’s basic commitments. The PWA thus functioned as an umbrella under which progressive writers of all stripes could find a place. The PWA understood its mission to be that of constructing a “united front” of writers against imperialism and reactionary social tendencies, and for a life-affirming art. For the longest time then, taraqqi-pasandi or “progressivism” in Urdu literature was justifiably identified with the PWA. Never before had writers across India been mobilised around a single platform so effectively, and in no previous movements had a literary school so redefined the terms of its creative output and its engagement with its society and times.

Excerpted with permission from
A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry: Anthems of Resistance
By Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir
India Ink/Roli Books Pvt.
Available with Liberty Books, Park Towers,
Clifton, Karachi.
Tel: 021-5832525 (Ext: 111)
ISBN 81-86939-26-1
248pp. Indian Rs395

Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir are university professors. They grew up in Hyderabad, India, on a steady diet of progressive Urdu poetry. They divide their time between India and the US

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The making of a democracy

The making of a democracy

in Kathmandu

A road map exists, and the people of Nepal are anxious to get moving. But there are also seven roadblocks to be overcome.

FROM every corner of Nepal they came, triumph, hope and anxiety writ large in equal measure on faces as ethnically diverse as any you will find in South Asia. The date was April 28 and the country's House of Representatives, newly restored by Royal proclamation, was meeting behind the imposing gates of the Singhadurbar. In the streets outside, the marginalised and voiceless tried their best to make sure their concerns were not ignored. From the west of Nepal was the Magar Mahila Sangh, its members wearing traditional Magar attire, with their demand for an end to the `Hindu kingdom' ("Hindu rajya chahidey na") and its replacement by a secular state. The Nepal Sherpa Sangh wanted elections to a Constituent Assembly to be held quickly. Then there were Gurungs and Newars and a sprinkling of Rais and Limbus from eastern Nepal. Young men and women from Kathmandu, many of them middle-class and upper-caste, were there in large numbers too, as were representatives of the disabled. Dalit activists made their presence felt. Finally, the leaders of Nepal's vibrant pro-democracy civil society movement - Dr. Devendra Raj Panday, Krishna Khanal, Shyam Shreshta, Krishna Pahadi and Kanak Mani Dixit, besides others - were also present, joining the festive melting pot that had decanted itself on the streets in front of the parliament building in a raucous vigil that lasted until the first sitting ended some hours later with the tabling of a resolution calling for elections to a Constituent Assembly.

One of the most dramatic but least analysed aspects of Nepal's April revolution is the manner in which the Maoist slogan of a nishart samvidhan sabha, or unconditional Constituent Assembly, has managed to capture the imagination of the entire people of Nepal. The Nepali Congress of Girija Prasad Koirala was fixated on the restoration of Parliament but it was only the promise of genuine constitutional change that brought the people of the country on to the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

True, different sections of the population read different meanings into the demand for a Constituent Assembly. For some, it was simply a way of getting even with King Gyanendra, a monarch widely reviled for a host of real and imagined sins, including his supposed involvement in the Royal Palace massacre of 2001. For others, it was something Nepal simply had to do to convince the Maoists to end their decade-long `people's war'. But for many, and probably the majority, the slogan of a democratically elected Constituent Assembly was instinctively appealing, precisely because it was seen as the key which could open the door to a more inclusive and equitable society. Stubbornly turning the worn-out tyres of his wheelchair until he was as close to the Singhadurbar as the police would let him get, Rukmangat Neopani, a disabled rights activist, declared that it was now or never. "Throughout the world people are talking of the rights of the disabled. We are here to make sure Nepal's new Constitution is inclusive in every sense of the word."

Two days later, on the eve of May Day, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution calling for elections to a Constituent Assembly. And the Koirala government has followed that vote up with the announcement that it was reciprocating the three-month ceasefire announced by the Maoists in the wake of King Gyanendra's proclamation restoring Parliament, as well as revoking the terrorist tag from the party and its front organisations.


Anti-Monarchi Slogans and party flags on a statue of former King Prithvi Narayan Shah outside the gates of the Parliament building on April 28.

There is one last gesture of goodwill left for the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) government to make before the road map for peace and genuine democracy in Nepal starts getting implemented in earnest. This is the decision to release top Maoist leaders from jail and to ask India - which is holding nearly 25 leading cadres of the Nepalese party without charge - also to do the same. To say that the peace road map will soon be implemented, however, is not to minimise the hurdles that lie ahead in any way. The obstacles are legion, both domestic and international, and how they are overcome will depend to a large extent on the maturity and statesmanship that the SPA and Maoist leaderships display in the difficult months that lie ahead.

Obstacle one

In order to insulate the proposed election for a Constituent Assembly from any motivated or frivolous legal challenge, the SPA government needs to amend the preamble to the existing 1990 Constitution. The preamble, akin to the basic structure of the Constitution, specifies the four walls within which amendments are to be made, and this includes constitutional monarchy. In order to ensure that the Supreme Court of Nepal - which has shown itself beholden to King Gyanendra in a variety of ways - does not stay the election, the preamble itself has to be amended to take cognisance of the sovereign people's right to decide the nature of the political system they wish to live under. "Once this is done," says Shambhu Thapa, president of the Nepal Bar Association, "there is no principle of jurisprudence that can be invoked by any court to derail the process of elections to a Constituent Assembly."

But amending the 1990 Constitution's preamble is not a simple matter. King Gyanendra's Royal proclamation did not reconvene the Upper House of Parliament, the National Assembly. Either he will have to be prevailed upon to do so or the government, invoking the doctrine of necessity, can summon the Upper House. There are also nearly 20 vacancies that have to be filled, an additional headache that someone will have to attend to.

Obstacle two

General Pyar Jung Thapa, chief of the Royal Nepal Army, played a key role in persuading King Gyanendra to step back from the brink and agree, in his proclamation of April 24, to the recall of Parliament and the implementation of a political road map that includes constitutional change. As part of the last-minute negotiations leading up to the King's announcement, Gen. Thapa sent a message to the parties that the Army would report to them once they formed a government. How true Gen. Thapa will be to that assurance, however, remains to be seen, especially since his second-in-command, Lt.-Gen. Rukmangat Katuwal, is someone especially beholden to the Palace.

Prime Minister Koirala has announced a ceasefire but must ensure that the RNA scrupulously abides by whatever `code of conduct' his government develops with the Maoists. This is where the international community has a crucial role to play. A clear message must be sent out to the RNA brass that any deviation from the principle of civilian command will be taken serious note of. If it is part of a sustained pattern of indiscipline, the RNA should be told that its future participation in United Nations peace-keeping operations would be put on hold. For such an approach to work, the international community needs to speak in one voice.

Obstacle three

Elections to a Constituent Assembly cannot be treated as just any other election. There are complex issues of representation which have to be sorted out to ensure that every major community and collective in Nepal - the ethno-linguistic groups, the backward regions, the Madhesis, the religious minorities, Dalits, women and youth, not to speak of the disabled - either win direct representation in the Assembly or have confidence that their interests will be protected there. Engineering a balanced and representative composition of the Assembly, without falling into the trap of creating ethnic or communal electorates, will be a major challenge for the SPA, the Maoists and the professional sociologists and political scientists who will no doubt be involved in the process.

To a certain extent, the regional dispersal of ethnic diversities suggests the mission could be accomplished by a fresh delimitation of constituencies based on an increase in the number of seats. Managing this within a reasonable timeframe so that the elections do not get inordinately delayed will be a key challenge.

Obstacle four

Once the modalities for the election are worked out, the SPA and the Maoists will have to turn their attention to establishing a mechanism for the sequestering of all armed men and women for the duration of the elections. The Maoists have said they are prepared to confine their fighters to fixed locations under international supervision provided the RNA is similarly bound down. But who or what will ensure this supervision? Ideally, a job of this magnitude and complexity should be handled by the U.N. In Angola, Cambodia and East Timor, as well as in Afghanistan, the U.N. has had varied experience in holding elections in a variety of military environments.

As long there is no big-power involvement, there is no reason why the U.N. cannot accomplish the task of supervising the confinement of soldiers to their barracks, if not the actual polls to a Constituent Assembly in Nepal. The only other alternative is for the SPA, the Maoists and the RNA to work out domestic arrangements, but this seems unlikely at the moment. If not the U.N., it is possible some `contact group' of European countries might volunteer for the job but their involvement is likely to come with far greater strings than the U.N.

Obstacle five

As elections approach, cleavages between political forces that are working together will possibly increase. And there is every chance that King Gyanendra will try and take advantage of these either to derail the elections or to ensure an outcome more favourable to the monarchy.

The first cleavage is between the Right and the Left. The Nepali Congress may apprehend the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and the Maoists forging common ground on certain constitutional questions and this may lead it to forge an alliance with either the Palace or the Army. But the Nepali Congress support base, and especially its youth wing, is increasingly republican and this may weaken the leadership's hold on the party.

A second source of tension could be between the Maoists and the CPN(UML), with the latter apprehending the desertion of some of its support base to the former.

A third source of tension could be within the Maoists themselves. Historically, no insurgency has drawn down without more violent factions emerging and denouncing the mainstream as turncoats. Will the Nepalese Maoists produce their equivalent of the `Real IRA,' which in turn provokes the RNA into ending the ceasefire?

Maoist leader Prachanda has said the doctrinal divisions within the party on the need for `competitive democracy' ended at the Rolpa plenum in 2005. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The history of the Maoist movement in South Asia - with its numerous `ideologically pure' factions, most at loggerheads with each other - does not provide grounds for optimism. And yet the Nepalese Maoists have so far proved to be far more disciplined and cohesive a force than any of their naxalite counterparts in India.

Perhaps one factor that might help to dampen any incipient divisions between parties is the plan to have an interim all-party government - with the participation of the Maoists - running the country during and after the Constituent Assembly elections and until the new Constitution is adopted and fresh elections are held.

Obstacle six

Assuming that elections take place and a representative Constituent Assembly meets sometime in 2007, its members are likely to find the task of creating a new Constitution to be an extremely challenging one.

The Indian Constituent Assembly was created on the basis of a partial franchise - by and large, only tax assessees, graduates or property owners were eligible to vote - and had as a constitutional guide the 1935 Government of India Act. Still, this fairly homogeneous, largely elite body took nearly four years to craft a Constitution. In contrast, the Nepalese Constituent Assembly will be far more heterogeneous. They will have the 1990 Constitution as a reference point but that document is so riddled with discriminatory clauses on grounds of religion, gender, ethnicity, language and caste that the temptation will be to go in for a wholesale revision. Especially if the Maoists and the ethno-linguistic groups insist on a robust federalism based on maximum devolution to the country's regions. However, the longer the Assembly deliberates, the greater the danger that the old order will regroup and consolidate itself. The people of Nepal are alert and conscious but they cannot remain in a state of active political mobilisation for an endless amount of time.

But if there is a political imperative to act swiftly, there are many good reasons for the representatives not to hurriedly draw up a new Constitution. Apart from ridding itself of the monarchy, Nepal has the chance of pioneering new forms of inclusive political participation. It can develop political institutions that genuinely empower citizens rather than elites and enact enabling laws to guarantee economic and social rights that elite-driven democracies such as India and the United States ignore - for instance, education, employment, health care and housing. It would be a pity if in the rush to checkmate King Gyanendra, these objectives are sidelined or forgotten.

Obstacle seven

One of the issues the Constituent Assembly will surely settle is what kind of Army Nepal should have. Shyam Shreshta, editor of the weekly Mulyankan, says Nepal should have an Army like that of Switzerland, a purely defensive but well-trained force that relies more on the involvement of citizens rather than on professional soldiers. There will likely be other views. Once this debate is settled, the task of integrating the People's Liberation Army with the RNA to create a new national Army will have to be undertaken.

If enough political confidence has been established, elements of the PLA might even conceivably get demobilised in the interim and be integrated into, say, a new national police force or militia. Integrating Army units is one thing but resolving the status of commanders and officers will be an entirely different ball game, with the Maoists opposed to those senior officers with strong connections to the monarchy.

If the people of Nepal are successfully to negotiate these obstacles, they will need the unstinting support of the government and people of India. At each stage, the choices India makes can help or hinder the implementation of the road map, beginning with the question of the release of Nepalese Maoist leaders incarcerated in Indian jails. So far, the Indian government has done the right thing, though the process by which it ultimately came out in favour of democracy might have been a little muddled.

Let it not be found wanting in the months that lie ahead.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The issue of Gulags

Statements involving the topic of gulags have taken a very strange place in the polemics on this discussion forum. On and off, one gets to read the remark, "would I be sent Gulag for that"? The question is nothing but a product of ignorance, as well as exploitation of ignorance by the imperialist propaganda over decades of information war, of the penal system working in USSR. In this is the case, the behavior of aforesaid members is understandable, keeping in mind the dimensions of the reactionary propaganda.

Although this question has been discuss over and over again on this platform, it is important to deal with the issue as it is becoming a hindrance for the progression of various debates.

Firstly, the meaning of the word gulag must be clear. In Socialism, the focus of the penal system is to provide reformative punishments, or corrective punishments, rather than extending retributive sentences, as prescribed in Islam, for example. The word `Gulag' is an abbreviation of the term used for the corrective prisons. It is an imperative that in present times no legal system in the world can exist without prisons. Gulag was the word used in the Soviet Union as a substitute for the word prison.

I am attaching the very relevant portion of the article by Mario Sausa -- `Lies Concerning the History of the Soviet Union' – that would, hopefully, clarify certain misconceptions in the arguments of some members of this email list.
Please Read the complete article here:

What the Russian research shows

The research on the Soviet penal system is set out in a report nearly 9,000 pages long. The authors of this report are many, but the best-known of them are the Russian historians V.N. Zemskov, A.N. Dougin and O.V. Xlevnjuk. Their work began to be published in 1990 and by 1993 had nearly been finished and published almost in its entirety. The reports came to the knowledge of the West as a result of collaboration between researchers of different Western countries. The two works with which the present author is familiar are: the one which appeared in the French journal l'Histoire in September 1993, written by Nicholas Werth, the chief researcher of the French scientific research centre, CNRS (Centre National de Ia Recherche Scientifique), and the work published in the US journal American Historical Review by J. Arch Getty, a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, in collaboration with G.T. Rettersporn, a CNRS researcher, and the Russian researcher, V.A.N. Zemskov, from the Institute of Russian History (part of the Russian Academy of Science). Today books have appeared on the matter written by the above-named researchers or by others from the same research team. Before going any further, I want to make clear, so that no confusion arises in the future, that none of the scientists involved in this research has a socialist world outlook. On the contrary their outlook is bourgeois and anti-socialist. Indeed many of them are quite reactionary. This is said so that the reader should not imagine that what is to be set out below is the product of some 'communist conspiracy'. What has happened is that the above-named researchers have thoroughly exposed the lies of Conquest, Solzhenitsyn, Medvedev and others, which they have done purely by reason of the fact that they place their professional integrity in first place and will not allow themselves to be bought for propaganda purposes.

The results of the Russian research answer a very large number of questions about the Soviet penal system. For us it is the Stalin era that is of greatest interest, and it is there we find cause for debate. We will pose a number of very specific questions and we will seek out our replies in the journals l'Histoire and the American Historical Review. This will be the best way of bringing into the debate some of the most important aspects of the Soviet penal system. The questions are the following:

What did the Soviet penal system consist of?
How many prisoners were there - both political and non-political?
How many people died in the labour camps?
How many people were condemned to death in the years before 1953, especially in the purges of 1937-38?
How long, on average, were the prison sentences?
After answering these five questions, we will discuss the punishments imposed on the two groups which are most frequently mentioned in connection with prisoners and deaths in the Soviet Union, namely the kulaks convicted in 1930 and the counter-revolutionaries convicted in 1936-38.

Labour camps in the penal system

Let us start with the question of the nature of the Soviet penal system. After 1930 the Soviet penal system included prisons, labour camps, the labour colonies of the gulag, special open zones and obligation to pay fines. Whoever was remanded into custody was generally sent to a normal prison while investigations took place to establish whether he might be innocent, and could thus be set free, or whether he should go on trial. An accused person on trial could either be found innocent (and set free) or guilty. If found guilty he could be sentenced to pay a fine, to a term of imprisonment or, more unusually, to face execution. A fine could be a given percentage of his wages for a given period of time. Those sentenced to prison terms could be put in different kinds of prison depending on the type of offence involved.

To the gulag labour camps were sent those who had committed serious offences (homicide, robbery, rape, economic crimes, etc.) as well as a large proportion of those convicted of counter-revolutionary activities. Other criminals sentenced to terms longer than 3 years could also be sent to labour camps. After spending some time in a labour camp, a prisoner might be moved to a labour colony or to a special open zone.

The labour camps were very large areas where the prisoners lived and worked under close supervision. For them to work and not to be a burden on society was obviously necessary. No healthy person got by without working. It is possible that these days people may think this was a terrible thing, but this is the way it was. The number of labour camps in existence in 1940 was 53.

There were 425 gulag labour colonies. These were much smaller units than the labour camps, with a freer regime and less supervision. To these were sent prisoners with shorter prison terms - people who had committed less serious criminal or political offences. They worked in freedom in factories or on the land and formed part of civil society. In most cases the whole of the wages he earned from his labour belonged to the prisoner, who in this respect was treated the same as any other worker.

The special open zones were generally agricultural areas for those who had been exiled, such as the kulaks who had been expropriated during collectivisation. Other people found guilty of minor criminal or political offences might also serve their terms in these areas.

454,000 is not 9 million

The second question concerned how many political prisoners there were, and how many common criminals. This question includes those imprisoned in labour camps, gulag colonies and the prisons (though it should be remembered that in the labour colonies there was, in the majority of cases, only partial loss of liberty). The Table below shows the data which appeared in the American Historical Review, data which encompass a period of 20 years beginning in 1934, when the penal system was unified under a central administration, until 1953, the year Stalin died.

Table - The American Historical Review
USSR Custodial Population 1934-1953

(Could not be posted due to format errors)

From the above Table, there are a series of conclusions which need to be drawn. To start with we can compare its data to those given by Robert Conquest. The latter claims that in 1939 there were 9 million political prisoners in the labour camps and that 3 million others had died in the period 1937-1939. Let the reader not forget that Conquest is here talking only about political prisoners! Apart from these, says Conquest, there were also common criminals who, according to him, were much greater in number than the political prisoners! In 1950 there were, according to Conquest, 12 million political prisoners! Armed with the true facts, we can readily see what a fraudster Conquest really is. Not one of his figures corresponds even remotely to the truth. In 1939 there was a total in all the camps, colonies and prisons of close to 2 million prisoners. Of these 454,000 had committed political crimes, not 9 million as Conquest asserts. Those who died in labour camps between 1937 and 1939 numbered about 160,000, not 3 million as Conquest asserts. In 1950 there were 578,000 political prisoners in labour camps, not 12 million. Let the reader not forget that Robert Conquest to this day remains one of the major sources for right-wing propaganda against communism. Among right-wing pseudo-intellectuals, Robert Conquest is a godlike figure. As for the figures cited by Alexander Solzhenitsyn - 60 million alleged to have died in labour camps - there is no need for comment. The absurdity of such an allegation is manifest. Only a sick mind could promote such delusions.

Let us now leave these fraudsters in order that we may ourselves concretely analyse the statistics relating to the gulag. The first question to be asked is what view we should take about the sheer quantity of people caught up in the penal system? What is the meaning of the figure of 2.5 million? Every person that is put in prison is living proof that society was still insufficiently developed to give every citizen everything he needed for a full life. From this point of view, the 2.5 million do represent a criticism of the society.

The internal and external threat

The number of people caught up in the penal system requires to be properly explained. The Soviet Union was a country which had only recently overthrown feudalism, and its social heritage in matters of human rights was often a burden on society. In an antiquated system like the tsardom, workers were condemned to live in deep poverty, and human life had little value. Robbery and violent crime was punished by unrestrained violence. Revolts against the monarchy usually ended in massacres, death sentences and extremely long prison sentences. These social relations, and the habits of mind associated with them, take a long time to change, a fact which influenced the development of society in the Soviet Union as well as attitudes towards criminals.

Another factor to be taken into account is that the Soviet Union, a country which in the 1930s had close to 160-170 million inhabitants, was seriously threatened by foreign powers. As a result of the great political changes which took place in Europe in the 1930s, there was a major threat of war from the direction of Nazi Germany, a threat to the survival of the Slav people, and the western bloc also harboured interventionist ambitions. This situation was summed up by Stalin in 1931 in the following words: "We are 50-100 years behind the advanced countries. We have to close that gap in 10 years. Either we do it or we will be wiped out." Ten years later, on 22 June 1941, the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany and its allies. Soviet society was forced to make great efforts in the decade from 1930-1940, when the major part of its resources was dedicated to its defence preparations for the forthcoming war against the Nazis. Because of this, people worked hard while producing little by way of personal benefits. The introduction of the 7-hour day was withdrawn in 1937, and in 1939 practically every Sunday was a work day. In a difficult period such as this, with a great war hanging over the development of society for two decades (the 1930s and 1940s), a war which was to cost the Soviet Union 25 million deaths with half the country burnt to a cinder, crime did tend to increase as people tried to help themselves to what life could not otherwise offer them.

During this very difficult time, the Soviet Union held a maximum number of 2.5 million people in its prison system, i.e., 2.4% of the adult population. How can we evaluate this figure? Is it a lot or a little? Let us compare.

More prisoners in the US

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!

An important factor - the lack of medicines

Let us now respond to the third question posed. How many people died in the labour camps? The number varied from year to year, from 5.2% in 1934 to 0.3% in 1953. Deaths in the labour camps were caused by the general shortage of resources in society as a whole, in particular the medicines necessary to fight epidemics. This problem was not confined to labour camps but was present throughout society, as well as in the great majority of countries of the world. Once antibiotics had been discovered and put into general use after the Second World War, the situation changed radically. In fact, the worst years were the war years when the Nazi barbarians imposed very harsh living conditions on all Soviet citizens. During those 4 years, more than half a million people died in the labour camps - half the total number dying throughout the 20-year period in question. Let us not forget that in the same period, the war years, 25 million people died among those who were free. In 1950, when conditions in the Soviet Union had improved and antibiotics had been introduced, the number of people dying while in prison fell to 0.3%.

Let us turn now to the fourth question posed. How many people were sentenced to death prior to 1953, especially during the purges of 1937-38? We have already noted Robert Conquest's claim that the Bolsheviks killed 12 million political prisoners in the labour camps between 1930 and 1953. Of these 1 million are supposed to have been killed between 1937 and 1938. Solzhenitsyn's figures run to tens of millions supposed to have died in the labour camps - 3 million in 1937-38 alone. Even higher figures have been quoted in the course of the dirty propaganda war against the Soviet Union. The Russian, Olga Shatunovskaya, for example, cites a figure of 7 million dead in the purges of 1937-38.

The documents now emerging from the Soviet archives, however, tell a different story. It is necessary to mention here at the start that the number of those sentenced to death has to be gleaned from different archives and that the researchers, in order to arrive at an approximate figure, have had to gather data from these various archives in a way which gives rise to a risk of double counting and thus of producing estimates higher than the reality. According to Dimitri Volkogonov, the person appointed by Yeltsin to take charge of the old Soviet archives, there were 30,514 persons condemned to death by military tribunals between 1 October 1936 and 30 September 1938. Another piece of information comes from the KGB: according to information released to the press in February 1990, there were 786,098 people condemned to death for crimes against the revolution during the 23 years from 1930-1953. Of those condemned, according to the KGB, 681,692 were condemned between 1937 and 1938. It is not possible to double check the KGB's figures but this last piece of information is open to doubt. It would be very odd for so many people to have been sentenced to death in only two years. Is it possible that the present-day pro-capitalist KGB would give us correct information from the pro-socialist KGB? Be that as it may, it remains to be verified whether the statistics which underlie the KGB information include among those said to have been condemned to death during the 23 years in question common criminals as well as counter-revolutionaries, rather than counter-revolutionaries alone as the pro-capitalist KGB has alleged in a press release of February 1990. The archives also tend to the conclusion that the number of common criminals and the number of counter-revolutionaries condemned to death was approximately equal.

The conclusion we can draw from this is that the number of those condemned to death in 1937-38 was close to 100,000, and not several million as has been claimed by Western propaganda.

It is also necessary to bear in mind that not all those sentenced to death in the Soviet Union were actually executed. A large proportion of death penalties were commuted to terms in labour camps. It is also important to distinguish between common criminals and counter-revolutionaries. Many of those sentenced to death had committed violent crimes such as murder or rape. 60 years ago this type of crime was punishable by death in a large number of countries.

Question 5: How long was the average prison sentence? The length of prison sentences has been the subject of the most scurrilous rumour-mongering in Western propaganda. The usual insinuation is that to be a convict in the Soviet Union involved endless years in prison - whoever went in never came out. This is completely untrue. The vast majority of those who went to prison in Stalin's time were in fact convicted to a term of 5 years at most.

The statistics reproduced in the American Historical Review show the actual facts. Common criminals in the Russian Federation in 1936 received the following sentences: up to 5 years: 82.4%; between 5-10 years: 17.6%. 10 years was the maximum possible prison term before 1937. Political prisoners convicted in the Soviet Union's civilian courts in 1936 received sentences as follows: up to 5 years: 44.2%; between 5-10 years 50.7%. As for those sentenced to terms in the gulag labour camps, where the longer sentences were served, the 1940 statistics show that those serving up to 5 years were 56.8% and those between 5-10 years 42.2%. Only 1% were sentenced to over 10 years.

For 1939 we have the statistics produced by Soviet courts. The distribution of prison terms is as follows: up to 5 years: 95.9%; from 5-10 years: 4%; over 10 years: 0.1%.

As we can see, the supposed eternity of prison sentences in the Soviet Union is another myth spread in the West to combat socialism.

The lies about the Soviet Union

A brief discussion as to the research reports.

The research conducted by the Russian historians shows a reality totally different from that taught in the schools and universities of the capitalist world over the last 50 years. During these 50 years of the cold war, several generations have learnt only lies about the Soviet Union, which have left a deep impression on many people. This fact is also substantiated in the reports made of the French and American research. In these reports are reproduced data, figures and tables enumerating those convicted and those who died, these figures being the subject of intense discussion. But the most important thing to note is that the crimes committed by the people who had been convicted is never a matter of any interest. Capitalist political propaganda has always presented Soviet prisoners as innocent victims and the researchers have taken up this assumption without questioning it. When the researchers go over from their columns of statistics to their commentaries on the events, their bourgeois ideology comes to the fore - with sometimes macabre results. Those who were convicted under the Soviet penal system are treated as innocent victims, but the fact of the matter is that most of them were thieves, murderers, rapists, etc. Criminals of this kind would never be considered to be innocent victims by the press if their crimes were committed in Europe or the US. But since the crimes were committed in the Soviet Union, it is different. To call a murderer, or a person who has raped more than once, an innocent victim is a very dirty game. Some common sense at least needs to be shown when commenting on Soviet justice, at least in relation to criminals convicted of violent crimes, even if it cannot be managed in relation to the nature of the punishment, then at least as regards the propriety of convicting people who have committed crimes of this kind.