The Work Camps Before The Gulags

The Russian Empire and the Tsar first invented the exile in Siberia as a punishment within the judicial system: Katorga, a category of punishment within the judicial system of the Russian Empire, had many of the features associated with labor-camp imprisonment: confinement, simplified facilities (as opposed to prisons), and forced labor, usually involving hard, unskilled or semi-skilled work. Katorga camps were established in the 17th century in underpopulated areas of Siberia and the Russian Far East – regions that had few towns or food sources and lacked any organized transportation systems. Despite the isolated conditions, a few prisoners successfully escaped to populated areas. After the change in Russian penal law in 1847, exile and katorga became common punishment for participants in national uprisings within the Russian Empire. This led to increasing numbers of Poles sent to Siberia for katorga. From these times, Siberia gained its fearful connotation of punishment, which was further enhanced by the Soviet gulag system.

During 1920–50, the leaders of the Communist Party and the Soviet state considered repression to be a tool that was to be used for securing the normal functioning of the Soviet state system, as well as for preserving and strengthening the positions within their social base, the working class (when the Bolsheviks took power, peasants represented 80% of the population). The gulag system was introduced in order to isolate and eliminate class-alien, socially dangerous, disruptive, suspicious, and other disloyal elements, whose deeds and thoughts were not contributing to the strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Forced labor as a “method of reeducation” was applied in Solovki prison camp as early as the 1920s, based on Trotsky’s experiments with forced labor camps for Czech war prisoners from 1918 and his proposals to introduce “compulsory labor service” voiced in Terrorism and Communism.

According to journalist Anne Applebaum, approximately 6,000 katorga convicts were serving sentences in 1906 and 28,600 in 1916. From 1918, camp-type detention facilities were set up, as a reformed analogy of the earlier system of kartogas, operated in Siberia in Imperial Russia. The two main types were “Vecheka Special-purpose Camps” and forced labor camps. Various categories of prisoners were defined: petty criminals, POWs of the Russian Civil War, officials accused of corruption, sabotage and embezzlement, political enemies, dissidents and other people deemed dangerous for the state. In 1928 there were 30,000 individuals interned; the authorities were opposed to compelled labour. In 1927 the official in charge of prison administration wrote:

The exploitation of prison labor, the system of squeezing “golden sweat” from them, the organization of production in places of confinement, which while profitable from a commercial point of view is fundamentally lacking in corrective significance – these are entirely inadmissible in Soviet places of confinement.The legal base and the guidance for the creation of the system of “corrective labor camps”, the backbone of what is commonly referred to as the “Gulag”, was a secret decree of Sovnarkom of July 11, 1929, about the use of penal labor that duplicated the corresponding appendix to the minutes of Politburo meeting of June 27, 1929.

After having appeared as an instrument and place for isolating counterrevolutionary and criminal elements, the gulag, because of its principle of “correction by forced labor”, quickly became, in fact, an independent branch of the national economy secured on the cheap labor force presented by prisoners. Hence it is followed by one more important reason for the constancy of the repressive policy, namely, the state’s interest in unremitting rates of receiving a cheap labor force that was forcibly used, mainly in the extreme conditions of the east and north. The gulag possessed both punitive and economic functions.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

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