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.


Klement said...

The article you posted is a good one. A more in-depth argument is well presented in Ludo Martens' book "Another View of Stalin." (You've probably read it...)

MIM is humorous sometimes. Their supporters were arguing that their model for socialism in the U.S. was OBG, short for "One Big Gulag." I certainly do not agree with that, though most people in the U.S. do need serious reeducation.

kommunistas said...

Hi, Ive just read Mario Sousa's article. This is a compelling article. nearly every western imperialist lie about the Soviet Union is refuted.