The glasnost political reforms in the late 1980s and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR led to the release of a large amount of formerly classified archival documents, including new demographic and NKVD data. Analysis of the official GULAG statistics by Western scholars immediately demonstrated that, despite their inconsistency, they do not support previously published higher estimates. Importantly, the released documents made possible to clarify terminology used to describe different categories of forced labor population, because the use of the terms “forced labor”, “GULAG”, “camps” interchangeably by early researchers led to significant confusion and resulted in significant inconsistencies in the earlier estimates. Archival studies revealed several components of the NKVD penal system in the Stalinist USSR: prisons, labor camps, labor colonies, as well as various “settlements” (exile) and of non-custodial forced labor.
Although most of them fit the definition of forced labor, only labor camps, and labor colonies were associated with punitive forced labor in detention. Forced labor camps (“GULAG camps”) were hard regime camps, whose inmates were serving more than three-year terms. As a rule, they were situated in remote parts of the USSR, and labor conditions were extremely hard there. They formed a core of the GULAG system. The inmates of “corrective labor colonies” served shorter terms; these colonies were located in less remote parts of the USSR, and they were run by local NKVD administration. Preliminary analysis of the GULAG camps and colonies statistics (see the chart on the right) demonstrated that the population reached the maximum before the World War II, then dropped sharply, partially due to massive releases, partially due to wartime high mortality, and then was gradually increasing until the end of Stalin era, reaching the global maximum in 1953, when the combined population of GULAG camps and labor colonies amounted to 2,625,000.
The results of these archival studies convinced many scholars, including Robert Conquest or Stephen Wheatcroft to reconsider their earlier estimates of the size of the GULAG population, although the ‘high numbers’ of arrested and deaths are not radically different from earlier estimates. Although such scholars as Rosefielde or Vishnevsky point at several inconsistencies in archival data with Rosefielde pointing out the archival figure of 1,196,369 for the population of the Gulag and labor colonies combined on December 31, 1936 is less than half the 2.75 million labor camp population given to the Census Board by the NKVD for the 1937 census, it is generally believed that these data provide more reliable and detailed information that the indirect data and literary sources available for the scholars during the Cold War era. Although Conquest cited Beria’s report to the Politburo of the labor camp numbers at the end of 1938 stating there were almost 7 million prisoners in the labor camps, more than three times the archival figure for 1938 and an official report to Stalin by the Soviet minister of State Security in 1952 stating there were 12 million prisoners in the labor camps.
These data allowed scholars to conclude that during the period of 1928–53, about 14 million prisoners passed through the system of GULAG labor camps and 4-5 million passed through the labor colonies. Thus, these figures reflect the number of convicted persons, and do not take into account the fact that a significant part of Gulag inmates had been convicted more than one time, so the actual number of convicted is somewhat overstated by these statistics. From other hand, during some periods of Gulag history the official figures of GULAG population reflected the camps’ capacity, not the actual amount of inmates, so the actual figures were 15% higher in, e.g. 1946.
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