Gulag Criminals, Politicals, and Most Everybody Else

With their special slang, distinctive clothing, and rigid culture, the professional criminals were easy to identify, and are easy to describe. It is far harder to make generalizations about the rest of the prisoners, the people who formed the raw material of the Gulag’s workforce, since they came from every strata of Soviet society. Indeed, for too long, our understanding of who exactly the majority of the camps’ inmates were has been skewed by our forced reliance on memoirs, particularly memoirs published outside the Soviet Union. Their authors were usually intellectuals, often foreigners, and almost universally political prisoners.

Since Gorbachev’s glasnost in 1989, however, a wider variety of memoir material has become available, along with some archival data. According to the latter, which must be treated with a great deal of caution, it now appears that the vast majority of prisoners were not intellectuals at all–not people, that is, from Russia’s technical and academic intelligentsia, which was effectively a separate social class–but workers and peasants. Some figures for the 1930s, the years when the bulk of the Gulag’s inmates were kulaks, are particularly revealing. In 1934, only 0.7 percent of the camp population had higher education, while 39.1 percent were classified as having only primary education. At the same time, 42.6 percent were described as “semiliterate,” and 12 percent were completely illiterate. Even in 1938, the year the Great Terror raged among Moscow and Leningrad intellectuals, those with higher education in the camps still numbered only 1.1 percent while over half had primary education and a third were semiliterate.

Comparable figures on the social origins of prisoners do not seem to be available, but it is worth noting that in 1948, less than one quarter of prisoners were politicals–those sentenced, according to Article 58 of the Criminal Code, for “counter-revolutionary” crimes. This follows an earlier pattern. Politicals accounted for a mere 12 and 18 percent of prisoners in the terror years of 1937 and 1938; hovered around 30 to 40 percent during the war; rose in 1946 to nearly 60 percent, as a result of the amnesty given to criminal prisoners in the wake of victory; and then remained steady, accounting for between a quarter and a third of all prisoners, throughout the rest of Stalin’s reign. Given the higher turnover of nonpolitical prisoners–they often had shorter sentences and were more likely to meet requirements for early release–it is safe to say that the vast majority of the inmates who passed through the Gulag system in both the 1930s and 1940s were people with criminal sentences, and therefore more likely to be workers and peasants….

Nevertheless, of the hundreds of thousands of people referred to in the camps as political prisoners, the vast majority were not dissidents, or priests saying mass in secret, or even Party bigwigs. They were ordinary people, swept up in mass arrests, who did not necessarily have strong political views of any kind. Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, once an employee of one of the industrial ministries in Moscow, wrote, “Before my arrest, I led a very ordinary life, typical of a professional Soviet woman who didn’t belong to the Party. I worked hard but took no particular part in politics or public affairs. My real interests lay with home and family.”

If the politicals were not necessarily political, the vast majority of criminal prisoners were not necessarily criminals either. While there were some professional criminals and, during the war years, some genuine war criminals and Nazi collaborators in the camps, most of the others had been convicted of so-called “ordinary” or nonpolitical crimes that in other societies would not be considered crimes at all. The father of Alexander Lebed, the Russian general and politician, was twice ten minutes late to work for his factory job, for which he received a five-year camp sentence. At the largely criminal Polyansky camp near Krasnoyarsk-26, home of one of the Soviet Union’s nuclear reactors, archives record one “criminal” prisoner with a six-year sentence for stealing a single rubber boot in a bazaar, another with ten years for stealing ten loaves of bread, and another–a truck driver raising two children alone–with seven years for stealing three bottles of the wine he was delivering. Yet another got five years for “speculation,” meaning he had bought cigarettes in one place and sold them in another. Antoni Ekart tells the story of a woman who was arrested because she took a pencil from the office where she worked. It was for her son, who had been unable to do his schoolwork for lack of something to write with. In the upside-down world of the Gulag, criminal prisoners were no more likely to be real criminals than political prisoners were likely to be active opponents of the regime.

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 291-294

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