The Daily Bork

June 13, 2005

40 million, but it's just a statistic

R.J. Rummel has an essay up at Democratic Peace detailing the true gulag and questioning the motives of Amnesty International in the Guantanmo beat-up of late.

He ascribes a probable estimate of deaths in or on the way to the gulag of 40 million. 40 million...

The Real Gulag

The history of this sewage system [labor camps] is the history of an endless swallow and flow; flood alternating with ebb and ebb again with flood; waves pouring in, some big, some small; brooks and rivulets flowing in from all sides; trickles oozing in through gutters; and then just plain individually scooped-up droplets.
---- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

The forced labor camp system that ultimately became known as Gulag (from the Russian acronym Gulag for the Main Directorate of Corrective Labor Camps, a department of the Soviet secret police, originally the Cheka; subsequently the GPU, OGPU, NKVD, MVD, and finally the KGB) were legally sanctioned in July, 1918, with the decree that inmates capable of labor must be compelled to do physical work. This was the beginning of the deadly, Soviet forced labor, what could as well be called, slave labor, system. In the next year decrees established forced labor camps in each provincial capitol and a lower limit of 300 prisoners in each camp. The first large camps were established on the far north Solovetsky Islands. In August, 1919, Lenin made the Party view clear in a telegram: “Lock up all the doubtful ones in a concentration camp outside the city.” As Solzhenitsyn notes, these people are not even “guilty” ones, but only “doubtful”.

From the beginning, the conditions in some of these camps were so atrocious, often calculatingly so, that prisoners could not expect to survive for more than several years. One at Kholmogori near Archangel became known as a death camp, it was so perilous to prisoners that were often sent to these camps to die, not after a court trial, but by a simple administrative decision.

By the end of 1920, official figures admitted to 84 camps in 43 provinces of the Russian Republic alone, with almost 50,000 inmates (including Civil War POWs). By October, 1922, there were 132 camps with about 60,000 inmates. I prudently estimate that among all these prisoners during this whole period, 34,000 died. That this may be an underestimate and the toll may be as high as 72,000 can be seen in the light of the frequent camp executions; the not uncommon deaths or prisoners from beatings, disease, exposure, and fatigue; the occasional emptying of camps by loading inmates on barges and then sinking them (such as on the River Dvina, near the two camps Kholmogory and Pertominsk in Archangel Province)

The camps had not yet morphed into the killing system every Soviet citizen and official feared. This occurred during the collectivization period in the early 1930s. But, during the NEP (Lenin's New Economic Policy) period from 1923 to 1928, the Party laid the legal framework for expanding the camps beyond imagination. Among other decrees, a new criminal code provided for forced labor for political crimes and for political opponents. The camps system then multiplied rapidly and by the end of 1928, prisoner totals reached 240,000, of which at least 140,000 may have been in camps. However, there is one difficulty in comprehending such numbers, even during this immature stage in this “sewage disposal system” that in a decade would be a multi-million prisoner, slave-empire. The number of prisoners at any one time was a dynamic, a snapshot of this swirling “sewage” as new "refuse" poured in from various pipes and old "waste" was flushed out the bottom.

In his three-volume, The Gulag Archipelago , Solzhenitsyn has made vivid, stark, the life among these prisoners of Gulag, as the labor camp system now became known. As dictated by Lenin, the Party had made clear that these camps were not simply to isolate enemies of the people and criminals, but to work them for the Revolution. As the Communisit Party developed this imperative, it was work at least cost. The prisoners were expendable; other state resources were not. They were forced to labor usually 12, 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, in excavating mines, felling timber, digging canals. They were worked in snow and ice, at temperatures sometimes at -30 or -40 degrees Fahrenheit, often without adequate clothing and sometimes in the clothes they wore when arrested. They were fed a diet hardly adequate in calories to maintain the life of an inactive person, and surely deficient in those nutrients required to avoid scurvy and other such diseases.

For example, in the 1937 regulations of the Ukhta-Pechora Labor Camp located above the Arctic Circle (the only such regulations known outside the USSR), the daily allotment of calories for hard labor was 1,292 (American standards call for 3,000 for similar work). By the time the rations reached the prisoner, however, much of his allotment had been taken (by cooks, porters, guards, etc.). Moreover, including an allotted 400 grams of meat (that seldom reached the prisoner), the guard dogs were fed better. But the resulting hunger was not sheer brutality or bureaucratic malfeasance. Hunger became planned, and for the prisoners, the master of their thoughts, their desires, and their work. The would do anything for a rotten morsel of food

This, not to mention the beatings, arbitrary shootings, disciplinary starvation and exposure in solitary cells, and permitted violence and atrocities of the true criminals against the far more numerous political prisoners.

In Gulag’s maturity, over 30 percent of new inmates might die in a year from exposure, disease, malnutrition, and overwork, especially in the 1930s. Among miners in the infamous death camps of Kolyma, 30 to 35 percent died per year. Prisoners calculated that in the mines generally there were “two dead men for every yard dug underground.” Among Poles sent to these camps in 1940 and 1941, the toll was 75 to 80 percent in less than two years. But over the whole camp system and up to the death of Stalin, the death rate was most likely between 10 and 28 percent a year, most probably 20 percent. This means that even those sentenced to a lucky five years would probably not survive; those sentenced to the numerous tenners or, in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, commonplace 25 years, in effect received a sentence of death by hard labor. Survivors were usually those who were transferred to less deadly work, especially an administrative job in a camp, and in a position to make “deals” for life preserving food and clothing.

But survival was even more an individual odyssey, a bet of one’s life on a long series of sevens on the dice, than so far appears. Camp was only the final stage of a three-stage, deadly obstacle course life had to run.

First, a person was arrested, secretly or otherwise. And for those common folk who lived during the first 42 years of Soviet history, the chances were very high of undergoing at least one arrest. In fact, just during the Great Terror of 1936 to 1938, 5 to 10 percent of the population probably was arrested. Some lucky ones were released after an initial interrogation, perhaps after promising to spy on their associates or neighbors. But tens of millions were subjected to a savage interrogation, and often torture, of which the invariable aim was a written confession of guilt and the naming of accomplices. Since arrest was prima facie evidence of guilt, screaming claims of innocence only provoked the interrogator. One fingered others, signed the confession, or died.

Most prisoners probably signed almost immediately. Yes, they were plotting to kill Lenin or Stalin or to provide maps for German paratroopers to drop on the Kremlin. Better to die quickly with a bullet in the back of the head, than slowly under the interrogator’s twisting knife. The problem was that they also had to incriminate others. It was no good just to contrive some plot involving, say, top communists, for there had to be plausible evidence (meetings, letters, etc.) of a relationship. Often, the interrogator suggested the names of associates or friends that they were after and one only needed to fill in some details (“Yes, we did meet and we talked about...”).

How many died in interrogation, and how many were subsequently executed overall, can only be a wild guess; I can find no overall estimates. Surely, over the thirty years during which this system was developed and functioned to chew up tens of millions of people, several million must have died in interrogation or by execution. While no general figures are available, we can estimate for one period, that of the Great Terror (1936-1938), that from 500,000 to 2,000,000 were executed, most likely 1,000,000. A report that the Politburo requested of its Organs in 1956 claimed that 7,000,000 were shot in prison from 1935 to 1940. Some credibility is given this figure in considering that of those who escaped execution at this stage, the pipeline would carry at least 32,600,000 to their death in the camps. Some experts say 60,000,000. A Soviet scientist gives a research estimate of 52,000,000 to 54,000,000 for just the 1930s to 1950s. Solzhenitsyn claims 70,000,000. I calculate a most probable estimate of 39,464,000 killed in the camps and in transit to or between them.

If one managed to survive interrogation, then came the dangerous second stage: transportation to one’s final camp. Although there was some variation in means, transport, and mortality between the transportation of prisoners and that of deportees, which highlighted subsequent periods, there were important similarities.

Prisoners (or deportees) were crowded, even sometimes stacked without room to all lie down or sit, in cattle cars or cars converted and partitioned for the purpose, and possibly for some of their transport, in the holds of ships and barges (or even on rafts, as when conveyed by river to some desolate spot where prisoners were told to build their new camp). Generally, the cars were unheated and often unventilated; toilet facilities were hardly adequate and sometimes were simply holes in the floorboards. Some food and water might have been given; sometimes just water; sometimes nothing at all; but never enough. For political prisoners being transported to camps, there was an added danger from the criminals being transported with them. In gangs, these criminals robbed the politicals, beat and even killed them on a bet or for the joy of it, if not for the best places in the cars, or for the political’s food and water.

These transports may have lasted many weeks as cars were pulled from one siding to another, in fits and lurches to finally reach some dispersal camp (with its own dangers and mortality). And then again another transport, this time to some remote camp in, say, Siberia.

How many died on these trips? The only hard estimates we have are from deportations. In some cases the death rate reached 50 percent, especially for those crowded in cattle cars for several weeks during winter. In the February, 1940, deportations of Poles, the number who died reached 10 percent. In many other deportations, it may have been between 15 and 30 percent. Those in the camps calculated one death per railway sleeper. A prudent overall estimate is probably 17 percent for deportees, and 5 percent for prisoners transported to camp (who were generally males in the early or middle years). Working backwards from the most likely maximum camp population of the NEP Period, which was 200,000, the number that died in transit was likely around 9,000. For the 42 years to Stalin’s death in 1953, the transit toll among those being sent to camp alone was likely about 1,798,000; possibly as high as 5,895,000.

If these figures seem irresponsibly exaggerated, then also consider some of the historic death tolls en route or otherwise in transit between camps. In 1933, the transit ship Dzhurma sailed too late in the season and was caught in the ice near Wrangle Island—all prisoners died, perhaps as many as 12,000. In 1949, a transit ship carrying prisoners northward to the Kolyma camps from Vladivostok in 1949 was wrecked, killing 5,000 prisoners. Compare these virtually unknown fatalities (not even Ripley had recorded them) to the immortalized sinking of the Titanic, which cost 1,503 lives.

During the collectivization period 1928-1935 the camps were flooded with "evil" landowners and ordinary and well-off peasants. Hundreds of new camps were built, usually by prisoners in some grim, undeveloped area. By 1935, the Communisst Party possibly ensalved as many as 6,700,000 people in the camps; probably no fewer than 5,000,000. Most of these people were chained to some form of life endangering hard labor. For example, they were forced to build the Belomor Canal under such life-consuming conditions that at least 100,000 prisoners died. (Praised as a monument to the achievements of socialist labor, the canal was little used afterwards.)

This forced labor, camp system -- Gulag -- was fully developed during this period. It became, in effect, a slave-labor system, with prisoners bought and sold, and contracted for, as though commodities. They were treated with the same consideration: they had absolutely no rights, no individuality, and could be and were killed at the whim of the owner (especially, nonessential intelligentsia—scientists, engineers, doctors, teachers—who were weeded out for killing physical labor). Ponder the impressions of the manager of a Trust who was sent to Kem, the administration center for the Solovetzki camp, to purchase a squad of forced laborers.

Can you imagine that there . . . .the following expressions are freely used: “We sell!” -- “We discount for quantity!” -- “First class merchandise!” -- “The city of Archangel offers 800 roubles [sic] a month for X. and you offer only 600! . . . .What merchandise! He gave a course in a university, is the author of a number of scientific works, was director of a large factory, in pre-war time was considered an outstanding engineer; now he’s serving a ten-year sentence at hard labor for ‘wrecking’; that means that he'll do any kind of work required of him, and yet you quibble over 200 roubles!” Nevertheless, I bargained and they finally agreed to reduce the price, because we purchased at wholesale fifteen engineers.

A contract was signed, a lawyer checked and approved it, and the chief of the camp signed it.

As the collectivization and dekulakization campaigns concluded, the rivers of prisoners emptying into Gulag began to dry up. In 1934 a shortage of slave-labor developed, affecting NKVD production. Obviously, something had to be done and in a year plans for a new intake of prisoners were worked out. The NKVD subsequently assigned local agencies a fixed quota of arrests. Perhaps this partially explains why NKVD agents were then going out of their way to entrap citizens into showing dissatisfaction or making negative comments on the USSR or Party. The camps had to be filled.

The camps continued to eat up people by the millions in the following years to become even more deadly during World War II. For example, out of 50,000 prisoners at the railroad camp of Pechorlag in the Fall of 1941, there were 10,000 left alive the following Spring; out of 50 people in the central sector barracks of Burepolom Camp in February, 1943, at least four died a night, and one night 12 died (in the morning the dead would be replaced). Moreover, special categories of enemies were massacred periodically throughout the camps, such as the shooting in every camp of all former and actual Trotskyites in 1942. Moreover, camp administrators and guards were constantly on watch for ways to justify their exemption from duty at the front—“plots” and “conspiracies” among prisoners were regularly “discovered," usually resulting in batches of prisoners being shot.

And in the 1941-1942 period the usual sources of death just intensified. Inmates fought for their lives against a starvation diet, and with food rations cut even below prewar levels, numerous camp complexes suffered from famine. Even then, already starvation level rations were cut when wholly unrealistic production quotas were not achieved. Add that in most camps there was no issue of cold weather clothing—wear what you came in—; that in the northern camps there was often a twice a day trek of three to over six miles between the work area and barracks for these hungry, ill-clothed prisoners, often in deep snow. And in 1941 to 1942, there was a dreadful winter, when in many camps the temperature was never above -31° Fahrenheit, but men worked anyway. Moreover, there was no day of rest; there were hordes of bedbugs and lice; and the barracks were unheated and freezing.

As if this were not enough, beginning in April, 1943, prisoners could be sentenced to Katorga (hard labor). This meant surviving under especially severe conditions, often working on 12 hour shifts with no days off and even less gruel and rotten potatoes than before. And the 12 work hours did not include the slow trek to and from the work site, nor the time spent being counted before and after the trek. Moreover, the prisoners may have been packed into nothing more than tents. The Vorkuta mines, one camp system to which Katorgans were sent, “were, undisguisedly, murder camps: but in the Gulag tradition murder was protracted, so that the doomed would suffer longer and put a little work in before they died.” Not one of the first group of 28,000 prisoners sent to this camp survived for a year.

In thinking about these abhorrent camp conditions during the war, whether Katorga or otherwise, also note that as the war progressed, fewer and fewer prisoners were released, even after miraculously surviving their sentence. They were just automatically resentenced. For the greater majority of prisoners this meant a sentence to camp was a sentence to death by hunger, malnutrition, hard labor, cold, disease, or at the hand of the criminals or camp guards, or by the teeth of guard dogs.

How many died under these wartime conditions in the camps? Some prisoners estimate that seven million were slaughtered in the first year of the war.” My more prudent estimate is that the total murdered in transit to or in the camps during the whole war period is 8,518,000 prisoners.

What irony, indeed. The democracies fought along side the Soviet Union to eradicate the horror of fascism from the world. And afterwards, the democracies shook their collective head over the documented mass, inhuman murder of Jews; and heaved a sigh of relief and thankfulness that this abominable Nazi system was utterly defeated. Yet, the democracies’ major ally and a victor sitting in judgment with them at the Nuremberg trials was, during that very war, murdering more innocent people just in their labor camps than the Nazis were machine gunning in the gullies and gassing in their concentration camps.

The camps continued their deadly purpose after the War, now bursting with German POWs, Poles, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Bulgarians, and émigrés, refugees, and escapees forced to return to the Soviet Union to face Stalin's justice. With Stalin's death in 1953, his successors slowly reformed the camps, emptied them of many of their prisoners, shut down the worst of them, and gradually improved their conditions. By the mid-1980s the camp population may have been reduced to about 4,000,000

Overall, from 1917 to 1987, Gulag, including transit deaths, probably killed about 39,464,000 Soviet citizens and foreigners. Compare this 6,228.5 mile stack of corpses (assuming each corpse has a width of 10 inches), each a loving, self-conscious human being like you and I, to these totals:

Gulag = 39,464,000 murdered (democide/genocide);
All American executions 1864-1982 = 5,753 killed;
All the Americans killed in all its wars up to the Gulf War = 1,177,936 killed;
The killed in battle in World War I = 9,000,000;
Of World War II = 15,000,000;
All 20th Century international and domestic wars = 35,654,000 killed;
And all major wars 1740-1997 = 20,000,000 killed.

Now tell me again, Irene Khan and William Schulz of AI, that Guantánamo is like Gulag


  • The story about Dzhurma being stuck in the Arctic in 1933/34 is incorrect. The ship was still in Dutch hands at the time and did not enter the NKVD fleet until mid 1935. It did not voyage into the Artic but instead ran prisoners from Vladivostok to Magadan. This is an oft-repeated story with no basis in fact and probably reflects confusion with another ship named Kharbarovsk (which had no prisoners on board at the time.)

    The larger issue of atrocities during the transport operations remains an important one. If you want a more complete description of the transport operations and the atrocities, see my book Stalin's Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet and the Role of the West (Praeger, 2003).

    By Blogger mjbollinger, at 1:49 pm  

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