The Old Gulag Arbeitslager and Its New Korean Workforce

Work was the central function of most Soviet camps. It was the main occupation of prisoners, and the main preoccupation of the administration. Daily life was organized around work, and the prisoners’ well-being depended upon how successfully they worked. Nevertheless, it is difficult to generalize about what camp work was like: the image of the prisoner in the snowstorm, digging gold or coal with a pickax, is only a stereotype. There were many such prisoners–millions, as the figures for the camps of Kolyma and Vorkuta make clear–but there were also, we now know, camps in central Moscow where prisoners designed airplanes, camps in central Russia where prisoners built and ran nuclear power plants, fishing camps on the Pacific coast, collective farm camps in southern Uzbekistan. The archives of the Gulag in Moscow are chock-full of photographs of prisoners with their camels.

Without a doubt, the range of economic activity within the Gulag was as wide as the range of economic activity within the USSR itself. A glance through the Guide to the System of Corrective-Labor Camps in the USSR, the most comprehensive listing of camps to date, reveals the existence of camps organized around gold mines, coal mines, nickel mines; highway and railway construction; arms factories, chemical factories, metal-processing plants, electricity plants; the building of airports, apartment blocks, sewage systems; the digging of peat, the cutting of trees, and the canning of fish. The Gulag administrators themselves preserved a photo album solely dedicated to the goods that inmates produced. Among other things, there are pictures of mines, missiles, and other army equipment; car parts, door locks, buttons; logs floating down rivers; wooden furniture, including chairs, cabinets, telephone boxes, and barrels; shoes, baskets, and textiles (with samples attached); rugs, leather, fur hats, sheepskin coats; glass cups, lamps, and jars; soap and candles; even toys–wooden tanks, tiny windmills, and mechanical rabbits playing drums.

Work varied within individual camps as well as between them. True, many prisoners in forestry camps did nothing but fell trees. Prisoners with sentences of three years or less worked in “corrective-labor colonies,” light-regime camps which were usually organized around a single factory or occupation. Larger Gulag camps, by contrast, might contain a number of industries: mines, a brick factory, and a power plant, as well as housing or road construction sites. In such camps, prisoners unloaded the daily goods trains, drove trucks, picked vegetables, worked in kitchens, hospitals, and children’s nurseries. Unofficially, prisoners also worked as servants, nannies, and tailors for the camp commanders, guards, and their wives.

Prisoners with long sentences often held down a wide variety of jobs, changing work frequently as their luck rose and fell. In her nearly two-decade camp career, Evgeniya Ginzburg worked cutting trees, digging ditches, cleaning the camp guest house, washing dishes, tending chickens, doing laundry for camp commanders’ wives, and caring for prisoners’ children. Finally, she became a nurse. During the eleven years he spent in camps, another political prisoner, Leonid Sitko, worked as a welder, as a stonemason in a quarry, as a construction worker on a building brigade, as a porter in a railway depot, as a miner in a coal mine, and as a carpenter in a furniture factory, making tables and bookshelves.

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 217-218

NKZone‘s Andrei Lankov picks up the story of the Siberian Gulag after the death of Stalin.

For the last few decades a visitor to Eastern Siberia can sometimes come across unusual logging camps: fenced off with barbed wire, they spo[r]t the telltale portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. These are North Korean camps: from the late 1960s, the North Korean loggers have been working in Russia’s Far East.

In the 1960s, the timber shortage was felt both in North Korea and the USSR, but the reasons for this shortage were different. The Russians had plenty of forest, but lacked labour. When gulags were emptied after Stalin’s death, few people were willing to go to fell trees in remote corners of Siberia at their own will. The North Koreans had an abundance of cheap labour but almost no good timber. Thus, the idea of cooperation came naturally. In March 1967, when the relations between the two countries began to recover after a serious chill, a logging agreement was signed.

According to the agreement, the North Korean loggers were allowed to work at designated areas of the Russian Far East. They were housed in special labour camps, run by the North Korean administration. The produced timber was divided between the two sides: the Russians get 60 percent [property rights!] and Koreans 40 percent [labour!] of the total.

At their peak in the mid-1980s, the Far East joint logging projects employed over 20,000 North Korean workers. This means that some 0.5 percent of all North Korean able-bodied men laboured there.

This recalls one of the hoariest of Soviet-era jokes: “Under capitalism, man exploits man, while under socialism, it’s the other way round.”

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