Forced labour played an increasingly important part in the post-war Soviet economy, according to a policy dictated by Stalin and his ‘kitchen cabinet’ of advisers. With the ending of the war the pool of unpaid labour available for exploitation by the state grew enormously. Apart from Gulag prisoners and labour army conscripts, there were 2 million German POWs, and about another million from other Axis nationalities, who were mostly used for timber-felling, mining and construction, although those with skills were employed occasionally in Soviet industry. In some factories German POWs were so integral to production that detention camps were built on the factory grounds and officials tried to block the prisoners’ repatriation to Germany. The Gulag population also grew, despite the release of many prisoners in the amnesty of 1945; the camps took in well over a million new prisoners between 1945 and 1950, largely as a result of the mass arrest of ‘nationalists’ (Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians) in territories captured or reoccupied by the Red Army but never really reconciled to Soviet power. The Gulag system expanded into a vast industrial empire, with 67 camp complexes, 10,000 individual camps and 1,700 colonies, employing a captive labour force of 2.4 million people by 1949 (compared with 1.7 million before the war). Overall, it is estimated that conscript labourers represented between 16 and 18 per cent of the Soviet industrial workforce between 1945 and 1948. They were especially important in the mining of precious metals in cold and remote regions where free labour was very expensive, if not impossible, to employ (hence their contribution to the Soviet economy was even more significant than the figures would suggest). Slave labour also made up the workforce in the big construction projects of the late 1940s which came to symbolize, officially at least, the post-war confidence and achievements of the Soviet system: the Volga–Don Canal; the Kuibyshev hydro-electric station; the Baikal-Amur and Arctic railways; the extensions to the Moscow Metro; and the Moscow University ensemble on the Lenin Hills, one of seven wedding-cake like structures (‘Stalin’s cathedrals’) in the ostentatious ‘Soviet Empire’ style which shot up around the capital in these years.
The post-war years saw a gradual merging between the Gulag and civilian economies. Every year about half a million Gulag labourers were contracted out to the civilian sector, mostly in construction, or wherever the civilian ministries complained of labour shortages; about the same number of free labourers, mostly specialists, were paid to work in Gulag industries. The Gulag system was increasingly compelled to resort to material incentives to motivate even its forced labourers. The population of the camps had become more unruly and difficult to control. With the amnesty of about a million prisoners in 1945, mainly criminals, who had their sentences either reduced or annulled, the camps were left with a high proportion of ‘politicals’ – not the intellectual types who filled the camps in the 1930s but strong young men who had fought as soldiers in the war, foreign POWs, Ukrainian and Baltic ‘nationalists’ – who were hostile to the Soviet regime and not afraid of violence. Without a system of rewards, these prisoners simply refused to meet the set targets. The cost of guarding the prisoners was also becoming astronomical. By 1953, the MVD was employing a quarter of a million guards within its camps, spending twice as much on the upkeep of the Gulag than it received in revenue from its output. Several senior MVD officials were seriously questioning the effectiveness of using forced labour at all. There were even mooted plans, supported by Beria and Malenkov, to dismantle sections of the Gulag and convert the prisoners into partially civilian workers, but since Stalin was a firm supporter of the Gulag system, none of these ideas was seriously proposed.