The Gulag

The Gulag, as the Metaphor of Soviet Type Communism

„To keep it and to mend it at the same time – this is a different task… If carefulness is important when we work with the lifeless material, it becomes more essential, a holy duty, where the subject of our destruction and creation is not stone, but feeling beings. Whom we can ruin with our quick and thoughtless decisions…” Edmund Burke (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790)

The existence of the GULAG (The Central Committee of lagers) became well known in the1970s, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian writer, who himself was the inhabitant of these camps for a long time, smuggled his documentary novel to the West and published it under the title The Gulag Archipelago. The novelist was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1973, he was accused of lying and with the aim to drag him through the mire. However, the book, which depicted the world of soviet work camps with an epic power, managed to undermine the authority of the Soviet Union even in the left wing circles. The secret came to light; the terror was not an easily correctable fault, rather it was such an essential feature without which the Soviet Union – or any regime based on communist principals – could not exist even for a moment.

The history of the Gulag and the Soviet Union was intertwined from the beginning. The nightmare of the First World War consumed all the resources of the tsarian regime and broke its main supporter, the army. In the March of 1917 the tsar was made to renounce the throne. The Provisional Government and its quick reforms were not able to pacify the utterly dissatisfied and divided Russian society and to end the bloody and by this time obviously meaningless war. Using the opportunities provided by the overwrought situation and the incapability of the government Lenin and his followers, the Bolsheviks committed a coup d'état on the 7th of November 1917 (or on the 25th of October according to the Russian calendar.) Civil war broke out soon after, in which the “red” Bolsheviks were fighting against the “whites.” Few would have thought that the Bolsheviks, who initially enjoyed the support of only the minor part of the population, would be able to keep their power and to create the first communist dictatorship of the world; however, in the end the ideologically divided party The application of the cruelly efficient „red” terror played a great role in the preservation of the leading position of the Bolsheviks. On the 16th November, 1917 on the suggestion of Felix E. Dzerzhinsky the Cheka (Soviet State Security) was founded as one of the sub departments of the Home Affair committee. The task of the new organisation was to act as the “fist of the party”, by destroying the opposition of the party and breaking the non-communist resistance. The “exceptional committee”, which name was also used, is a bit misleading: terror for Lenin and the small group of communist intellectuals was not an exceptional method used in exceptional times; it was the necessary tool for the transformation of society. Their relation to violence strongly reminds one to that of the French Jacobins, Robespierre, who regarded terror as the purging fire of virtue, which could help in the solidifying the republican spirit in the French. The Bolsheviks treated people`s rights in accordance with this. The soviet axiom on the rights was best summarised by public prosecutor of the 30es, A. Visinsky: penal law was a tool of the class struggle, for brainwashing the enemies of the class struggle.

The first punishing camps were founded during the civil war. In accordance with the orders of Lenin, the camps had to be created with at least a hundred people. However, these lagers did not form a unified organisation yet and the captives did not have to do hard labour regularly. After 1922 most of the surviving captives were released. Yet the foundations of the GULAG were laid then. In 1922 all the punishing institutions and camps were placed under the rule of the successor of the Cheka. ( We can use the term Gulag from now on, but this name was only in use between 1930 and 1960.) In 1923 the first real work camp of the soviet era was created among the walls of the famous orthodox monastery of the Solovki-island by the White sea. This camp was called the „alma mater” of the lagers by the Nobel- prise winner Russian poet, Josif Brodsky. The first inhabitants of the lager were priests and monks. The existence of Solovski was engraved in the soviet literary minds, as well. In Mikhail Bulgakov`s – the famous writer of the soviet era – „The Master and Marguerite” the uneducated protagonist wants to send the more than a hundred years ago deceased Kant to Solovki because of his theorems proving the existence of God. However, some years had to pass until the heyday of the labour camps. In the middle of the 20es it seemed that the Soviet Union managed to be solidified. The communist leadership apprehended that the communist ideal which was based on total equality cannot be realised in the country which was exhausted by the civil war. In 1921 NEP (New Economic Policy) was introduced and the peasants were allowed to take their goods freely to the market and the factory owners returned to the leading of the factories. The living standard got better and by 1927 the production reached the level before the war. Literary and artistic life also got freer. However, the vigilance of the Party did not diminish as it is shown by the order which was given by Lenin to the inner security. “The banishment of anti-Soviet intellectuals should continue unceasingly. Lists have to be made and strictly checked. Literary experts must be found and they must write criticism. The whole literature should be divided between them. Lists have to be made about those who are hostile towards us.” By the end of the 20es social and political tensions increased. Despite the economical progress the atmosphere got worse both in the party and in the society. The average salary was as low as in the tzarian era. Although provisioning became better, social differences grew wider. Some peasants and the owners of the factories became richer; the life standard of local party leaders was visibly higher than that of the average workers. It became clear that the communalisation of production had not brought a real change, and that the “heaven on earth” and the communist society which is based on total equality in wealth cannot be created as fast as was suggested by the communist leadership and that in the society of equals there are some who are more equal than others. There were doubts about the “communist future” even in the soviet party. The doubtful atmosphere was worsened by the crop crisis in 1927, when the peasants could not sell their crops to the state because of the low buying prices. It was the time when the plan for the industrialisation of the Soviet Union was born. The first five year plan (1928-32) aimed at the fast development of the heavy industry. However, the realization of big investments was hindered by the severe lack of financial resources. Therefore, the Stalinist leadership decided to detract the necessary resources from agriculture, thus they practically gave up on the augmentation of the living standard. Stalin knew that it would be easier to take the crops from the peasantry if they were forced into kolkhozes instead of letting them to carry out private production. It was obvious for the communist leadership also ideologically because private production was contrary to the most important axiom of the communist society, namely that the producing equipment should be a common property. During collectivisation peasant were forced to join the kolkhozes. The desperate peasants often resisted or they killed their own animals. In certain parts, for example in Ukraine, a famine broke out, which killed millions of people, because the state exported the crops, even after the famine started.

The first five year plan brought impressive results in the heavy industry, but its prise was the suffering of the bigger part of society. There were a lot of mistakes and malpractices during the forced industrialisation, which were blamed upon the “saboteurs” who were supposed to thrive for the thwart the socialist developments. The low living standard was contrary to the previous promises of communists. However, the party did not have to take into consideration any democratic control; propaganda and terror had managed to veil the critical voices. In 1934 the opposition in the party attempted to relay Stalin. In the XIV. Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, the envoys wanted to elect Kirov as the First Secretary instead of Stalin. Kirov got much more votes than Stalin, but he did not dare to accept the task of leading the “Stalinian” party bureaucracy. During the following year Kirov was murdered. The Great Terror began (1934-38), the still living members of the leninian group were accused of the murder of Kirov and a conspiracy against Stalin, and they were killed. The organisations in the countryside which followed the party`s policy faithfully accused thousands of their people in the manner of the trials in Moscow. The thriving of the Gulag started with the first five year plan. The name itself was born in 1930, as well. The Gulag archipelago (Solzhenitsyn) soon webbed the whole Soviet Union. The peasants who resisted collectivisation or committed stealth in their hunger, the priests and monks, who were held the ideological enemy of the system, the unlucky or too conscious workers and the party members of the opposition were sent into the lagers. The social makeup of the Gulag mirrored the political aim of the Stalinian party leadership and also the layers of society who became the aim of the terror.

The population of Gulags according to Zamskov`s data

1934 – 510 307 1944 – 1 179 819
1935 – 965 742 1945 – 1 460 677
1935 – 1. 296 494 1946 – 1 703 095
1936 – 1 196 369 1947 – 1 721 543
1938 – 1 881 570 1948 – 2 199 535
1939 – 1 672 438 1949 – 2 356 685
1940 – 1 659 992 1950 – 2 561 351
1941 – 1 929 729 1951 – 2 528 146
1942 – 1 777 043 1952 – 2 504 514
1943 – 1 484 182 1953 – 2 468 524

During the Second World War the victims of the imperial expansion appeared in the world of GULAG, as well. In the September of 1939 the Soviet Union invaded East Poland, then the three Baltic states. The purges began at the invaded territories. Hundred thousands of the “anti soviet individuals”, patriotic Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Latvians and Lithuanians and Estonians were deported to the East. (As the numbers show, it was in 1941, when the number of the captives in the Gulag was one of the highest.) After the June of 1941 a decline started which lasted until 1944.

In 1941, after the Nazi attack, Stalin announced officially, the politics of “national unity”. Churches could be opened again and the non-political captives could join the Soviet army. After the war, the tide turned again. After the huge efforts in the war, “the Great Patriotic war” (as it was called by the contemporary propaganda) the consciousness of the Russian citizens became stronger. The NKVD; however, mercilessly stroke down to the free thinkers (or anybody who was supposed to be one). Solzhenitsyn also, who was fighting as an officer of the Soviet army, landed in the GULAG by the end of the war. The soldiers who became prisoners of war – who became prisoners exactly because of the failures of the Stalinian war management – were convicted in big numbers by the inner organisations. After the war, as a consequence of the labour force deficit, hundred thousands of people were taken into the Soviet Union from the occupied countries (ironically, the Hungarian fellow convict of Sozenicin, Rózsás János, was charged with high treason against the Soviet Union) In the camps of the GULAG – according to the official data- there were the most of convicgts in 1950. After the death of Stalin the remission began. The Soviet Party leadership realised that they have reached the breaking point of the society`s resilience. The major part of the inhabitants of the camps was released with amnesty and many were rehabilitated. During the XX. Congress in 1956 N. S. Hruscov – blaming the things mainly on Stalin – spoke openly about the issue.

The number of convicts diminished significantly in the Soviet Union and amongst the convicts the percentage of criminals decreased. The inner security organisations realised that the intensive application of terror was not necessary anymore – the roles of the communist dictatorship had been burnt into the consciousness of the citizens of the Soviet Union. The total number of the victims of the terror is debated. There are some – like mint R. Conquest – who calculated with more than ten million victims. This assumption is most probably a bit exaggerating. Zemskov counted according to the official data of the inner security offices (see above.) Some say that these data are unreliable, because the Soviet bureaucracy was not always thorough and reliable. One is for certain: the victims of the GULAG only mean a certain segment of the victims of the soviet communism. The Polish officers shot in the forests of Katyn, those who died during the relocations, those peasants who starved to death or were shot in Ukraine or elsewhere together also make millions of lost lives. We should not forget that the damage caused by the terror cannot really be expressed in numbers. Terror made it possible to rob the whole society from their souls.

The fear crushed the solid fundaments of trust in society and it had carved in the mind of more generations that independent thinking was dangerous and forbidden. It strengthened something which had been strongly present in Russian thinking that for the state, which was personified by a strong leader (the tsar, the First Secretary, the President) every means are allowed against the individual. No single answer can be given to the question that what made the horror of the GULAG possible. We cannot by any means accept the empty cliché that the “mad, paranoid Stalin” was responsible for everything, even though we know that in a dictatorship the person of the dictator influences the political decisions to a great extent. (This answer would be very comfortable for the communists or any radical intellectuals, who like to appear in the role of the “engineer of the society” since it absolves the communist ideology from the charges of the crimes committed inspired by the ideology. ) It is for sure that the notion of the power of the state has been present since the Mongolian conquest. The fast industrialisation of the end of the 19th century made the social differences more visible and it was pushed until the edge by the First World War. This society which was raised up in the tradition of Russian absolutism, was only superficially modernised and traumatized by the World War found itself under the rule of the Bolshevik “fore guard.” The Russian communist leaders – in accordance with the majority of the progressive left-wing intellectuals – all believed that one group, which is constituted from the representatives of the progress of humanity, has the right to represent the will of the unknowing masses, and to force at any cost the realisation of the communist society, free of exploitation and financial differences. The cost of this great social reform was paid by the Russian society.

Károly Vörös