The Scale, Structure and Trends of Development
By Oleg Khlevnyuk
The amount of economic research that
has been done on issues of forced labor in the
Our time frame (1930-1953) covers the period in which the Stalinist version of the forced-labor economy took shape and proliferated. While prisoner labor was used on a fairly wide scale both in pre-revolutionary Russia and during the early post-revolutionary years, the fundamentally new system of the Gulag economy did not emerge until the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, as a result of the policy of the great industrial leap forward, forced collectivization and the mass repressions that accompanied them. The Gulag economy was typified by large-scale projects whose construction and operation required massive use of unskilled workers, as a rule, in regions that were hard to reach and had an extremely unfavorable climate and a lack of basic infrastructure. Relentless exploitation of prisoners in hard physical work, primarily in construction, mining and logging, was the essence of the Stalinist version of the forced-labor economy.
Immediately following Stalin’s death in 1953, the Gulag economy began to be dismantled (if not completely, then at least substantially). On the one hand, a mass amnesty and subsequent rehabilitations significantly reduced the number of prisoners. On the other, many costly projects that were under construction by prisoners were scrapped, and the MVD itself lost a large portion of its production functions as it transferred most of its enterprises to economic ministries. While this process was erratic and was marked by a great deal of backsliding, the overall trend of dismantling the MVD economy in its Stalinist form continued. A gradual transition was under way from a system of camps that served as a source of unskilled workers to a system of correctional labor colonies that had their own production base. This stage of the evolution of the camp economy after Stalin’s death remains to be studied with care.
This paper, based on the available
and mostly archives, will attempt to examine two key questions. First, to sketch a general picture of the development of the
OGPU-NKVD-MVD economy and its quantitative parameters. Second, to
outline several approaches to studying the important but extremely complex
problem of the efficiency of the Gulag economy and the role of forced labor in
the industrial development of the
To some degree we can say that the
starting point of the Stalinist Gulag and its economy to the Politburo
The OGPU leadership now faced the problem of making economic use of these several hundred thousand inmates and special settlers. Initially there were no coherent plans in this regard. Exiled peasants were turned over to work at other ministries’ enterprises, mostly for logging. Camp inmates were used for various construction projects and in the timber industry. In many cases camps entered into their own agreements with various enterprises and supplied them with manpower.
The development of the OGPU economy
was strongly influenced by the decision to build the White Sea-Baltic Canal
(see chapter by Morukov). Construction of this transportation system, which
started in the second half of 1930, was completed in the record time of two
years. At certain times more than 100,000 prisoners were being used in the
construction. It was the first time the camp economy demonstrated its
“advantages” in practice: rapid deployment of large worker contingents at a
needed site and the capacity to exploit prisoners in any conditions, regardless
of casualties. Methods of organizing the Gulag’s major economic projects were
refined in the course of
These decisions shaped the structure
of the Gulag’s economy, which existed and developed right up until the
mid-1950s. The nucleus of this system was large construction projects and
mining complexes that required massive use of unskilled labor in extreme
conditions. By the beginning of 1935 more than 150,000 camp inmates were
building the BAM, and 196,000 were working on the Moskva-Volga canal. The White
Sea-Baltic project—the system of transport and
industrial enterprises concentrated in the
The situation on the
successful development of the forced-labor economy was interrupted by the Great
Terror—the mass repressions of 1937-1938. Between
The negative impact of the Great Terror on the Gulag showed that the political motives for the Terror took absolute priority over economic ones. The critical condition of the camps and the impossibility of making economic use of hundreds of thousands of additional prisoners were an important reason for the unprecedented number of death sentences—between August 1937 and November 1938, according to official data, almost 700,000 people were executed. A significant portion of them, a list of those executed shows, were able-bodied men, highly qualified specialists and workers, who were constantly in short supply at NKVD projects. The main purpose of the Great Terror was declared at the very outset to be the physical annihilation of “enemies” rather than their use as “cheap” labor.
The NKVD economy stabilized somewhat
and then grew between 1939 and early 1941 as the Terror abated. This economic
growth was achieved through the “utilization of internal reserves”—intensified
exploitation of prisoners, and some adjustments in the management of camps. To
this end, the new
As World War II approached, the
Soviet government feverishly and hurriedly adopted numerous resolutions on the
construction of military enterprises and facilities. A large portion of these
plans was assigned to the NKVD. The most massive effort during this period was
the railroad construction in the
Prisoners set up a new oil
installation in the European North and built hydrolysis, sulfite-liquor and
aircraft plants, roads and many other facilities. In 1940 the NKVD’s capital
investments amounted to 14 percent of total centralized capital investments.
An intensive construction plan was approved for 1941 as well. The transfer of
new industrial enterprises and construction projects to the NKVD continued
right up to the German invasion in June 1941. The most significant NKVD assignment,
While many NKVD assignments during
the prewar period were already of value for military mobilization, the outbreak
of war caused substantial adjustments in its economic activities. The
development of the NKVD economy during the war was influenced by several
important factors. There were quantitative and qualitative changes in the
worker contingents managed by the NKVD. Because some camps and colonies had to
be evacuated and conditions in the Gulag deteriorated in 1941, 420,000 inmates
were given early releases. In 1942-1943 157,000 inmates who had been convicted
of minor offenses were given early releases and turned over to the army.
The mortality rate in the Gulag during the war was extremely high. From 1941
through 1945, according to ministry statistics, 1,005,000 inmates died in camps
and colonies. As a
result, despite an influx of new inmates, the total number of inmates declined
The limited number of able-bodied workers, along with such factors as the mass evacuation of many facilities and war-mobilization restructuring, had an impact on the scale and structure of the NKVD’s economic activities. Although the NKVD remained one of the most important construction agencies, its capital construction activity (at least in cost terms) declined significantly. At the same time there was a substantial change in the overall structure of capital investments. The share of railroad, road and especially hydraulic-engineering construction declined from the prewar period. Meanwhile there was an increase in the NKVD’s role of the people’s commissariat in the construction of enterprises for the steel industry and nonferrous metallurgy, the fuel industry and in airfield construction. Military needs necessitated the conversion of many NKVD industrial enterprises to the production of ammunition, uniforms, and other war materials.
The reduced number of inmates during the war, the postwar amnesty and the release of various categories of prisoners who had been detained at NKVD facilities until the war ended, substantially reduced the capabilities of the NKVD economy. According to estimates by the NKVD itself, the total worker shortfall at its enterprises for the second half of 1945 was 750,000 men. In addition, the NKVD leadership took a rather skeptical view in late 1945 and early 1946 of its economic prospects. This skepticism fully manifested itself when the NKVD apparatus drew up plan targets for the fourth Five-Year Plan (1946-1950), which provided for a decrease in prisoner manpower and a commensurate reduction in the plans.
An increase in repressions, however, actually caused the number of prisoners to rise after the war. As a result, the MVD not only could allocate a large number of prisoner workers to other ministries, but also continued to build up its own economic activities throughout the postwar period up to the death of Stalin.
The MVD remained the largest
construction ministry during this period. The structure of MVD capital projects
that was typical of the NKVD during the prewar years was largely restored after
the war. This was caused, on the one hand, by a halt to the construction of
steel-industry enterprises and airfields that was being done during the war,
and on the other hand, by the MVD’s active participation in the increased
railroad and especially hydraulic-engineering construction. Beginning in 1950,
prisoners built numerous hydraulic facilities, which official propaganda dubbed
“Stalin’s construction projects of communism”: the Volga-Don, Volga-Baltic and
Turkmen canals and the
The amount of capital construction performed by the MVD roughly doubled from 1949 to 1952, reaching about 9 percent of total state capital investments in 1952. In large measure this rapid pace was a result of the overall economic policy, which was marked during the last years of Stalin’s life by an acceleration of investment in heavy industry, primarily military sectors. The substantial jump in capital projects overheated the economy, immobilized resources in unfinished construction, exacerbated budget problems, and contributed to the further decline of agriculture and the social sector. The estimated cost of construction projects included in MVD plans for 1953 was 105 billion rubles, whereas only 13 billion rubles were allotted. The only solution was to scrap a number of projects and reduce capital investments.
Shortly after Stalin’s death, on
The overextension of the capital-projects front was only one component (albeit an important one) of the 1953 decisions. The political component of the crisis consisted of unrest in the camps, rebellions, and increases in “camp banditry.” Beria’s arrest and execution constituted only a temporary interruption in the dismantling of the Gulag system, which came to a conclusive end in October of 1959 (see chapter by Sokolov).
There is also evidence indicating that the inefficiency of forced labor was already obvious while Stalin was alive and that the leadership of the MVD and the government realized it. The issue of incentives for prisoner labor was contentious. Despite the fact that there was a strict legislative ban on the use of “work-day credits,” which had been eliminated in 1939, the Gulag leadership claimed that credits were the most effective way of rewarding prisoner labor, and it sought after the war to reinstate credits for certain projects. As a result, by September 1950, “work-day credits” were in use at camps housing more than 27 percent of all prisoners and the process was on the upswing. Although the proliferation of “credits” intensified the shortage of manpower (due to its effect on early releases), the Gulag leaders preferred this course, acknowledging, in effect, the inefficiency of administrative punitive measures.
Readiness for gradual change in the
Gulag was evidenced by the active support in the MVD for campaigns of early
release of prisoners followed by their assignment to outside enterprises as
free workers. In August 1950, the
One reason for the gradual reorientation of the MVD economy toward skilled free workers was the change in the nature of the work at the ministry’s projects. For example, mechanized timber haulage under the NKVD-MVD made up 24 percent in 1939, 41 percent in 1947, and 54 percent in 1950. The share of mechanized timber cutting (with power saws) rose from 20 to 42 percent. The number of excavators at NKVD-MVD construction projects was 158 at the beginning of 1940, and 955 at the end of 1952. The mechanization of earth-moving operations increased between 1946 and 1952 from 52 to 88 percent.
With a view to raising the labor productivity of prisoners, the MVD leadership also sought, starting at the end of 1940, to convert certain camps to a wage system, thereby violating one of the key principles of the forced-labor economy—the absence of remuneration. On March 13, 1950, yielding to the MVD’s persistent demands, the government adopted a resolution to introduce wages for prisoners at all correctional-labor camps and colonies, except special camps, which housed “especially dangerous” common and political criminals. Soon thereafter, wages were even introduced at special camps.
Economic expediency made it necessary to break the strict rules of prisoner confinement. The practice of so-called “raskonvoirovaniye” [removing escorts]—the release of prisoners from being watched by guards and relatively free movement outside camp zones—became widespread. Given the general shortage of guards, camp administrators either sought official permission for raskonvoirovaniye or introduced it without prior permission but with the center’s tacit acquiescence.
These and similar measures pointed to a postwar trend to transform prisoners into partly free employees—a kind of conversion of slaves to the category of serfs. Further development of this process inevitably had to result in a fundamental reorganization of the Gulag, especially since the MVD economy faced mounting problems on the eve of Stalin’s death, despite the above-mentioned attempts at limited “reforms.” The share of prisoners who were being used in production was declining. Labor productivity was falling (26 to 28 percent of the prisoners employed in piecework failed to meet production targets in 1951-1952). These problems made it easier to begin the dismantling of the Gulag in the spring of 1953.
The dismantling of the Stalinist forced-labor economy immediately after the dictator’s death provides some proof of its inexpediency and inefficiency, but does not answer the question about its real role in implementing Soviet industrialization. In terms of the moral and legal criteria applied in civilized societies, the Stalinist terror and its derivative, the forced-labor economy, can only be categorized as crimes. In the context of the overall trends of world development, which demonstrate the indisputable advantages of free labor, no forced-labor economy can be deemed efficient. The “historical” approach sets aside legal and moral issues and evaluates the Gulag economy in the context of the realities of its time.
The key reality of the period 1930-1953 was Soviet industrialization, which had the objective of catching up to more advanced neighbors. “Catching up” required the state to use coercive methods. A number of historians accordingly regard the Gulag economy as a necessary means of accelerating industrialization. Wide-scale use of “conventional” coercion and force (for example, of emergency laws governing labor activities) would have been insufficient. Hence, a forceful leader, such as Stalin, would be expected to create a large sector of absolutely forced labor, which by many parameters was slave labor. While forced began as a result of political factors (mass political repressions), it later mostly followed an economic logic of development, and, when it required new workers, it provoked further repressions itself. In the opinion of such historians, the forced-labor economy performed several functions, which could not have been achieved by “conventional” methods of coercion and labor incentives. First, it developed remote regions where attracting free workers required substantial resources. Second, it supplied extremely mobile manpower, which was easily transferred from project to project in accordance with the state’s needs. Third, this manpower could be exploited virtually without restriction, to the point of total exhaustion. Fourth, the threat of the Gulag served to “discipline” “free” workers. Fifth, the existence of a substantial population of prisoners and “special contingents” relieved pressure on the meager consumer-goods market, and made it easier to solve the most serious social problems, such as housing. The use of prisoners was characterized as “a type of labor mobilization that was fully in line with the stage of extensive industrialization that ended in the 1950s”.
arguments about the “historical necessity” of the Gulag are based upon
misconceptions. First, this view was
largely based on the notion that there were an extremely large number of
prisoners in the country. One researcher concluded, for example, that in 1940
and 1950 prisoners made up about 23 percent of all the workers in the
The archives, however, provide much lower figures for the camp population. For
example, in 1950 the camps, colonies and prisons held an average of about 2.7
million inmates, while about 2.5 million were probably in special exile.
A significant portion of these 5.2 million, however, were disabled. On
In order to comprehend the Gulag’s role in Soviet industrialization, we must, above all, ask how the prisoners were employed. At first glance, the Gulag clearly played a significant role in nonferrous metals (gold, platinum, nickel, etc.) and logging. But these industries employed only a small portion of the “special contingents”, and did not constitute large shares of output. Forced labor was of unique importance in large labor-intensive projects, such as prisoner-built production complexes, railroads, and canals. Hence, the Gulag’s contribution should be judged on the basis of these large-scale projects.
The Stalinist type of industrialization was extremely cost-intensive and inefficient. Huge investments were allocated to projects that eventually were either left unfinished or proved economically useless. Why this phenomenon was so widespread requires separate study. But one of the reasons was obviously that the state had available large contingents of the Gulag’s “cheap” and mobile manpower, which encouraged economic voluntarism and made it possible to undertake expensive but economically dubious projects without particular difficulty or hesitation.
first such project was the first significant OGPU project—the construction of
There are similar skeptical conclusions concerning another major OGPU-NKVD project—the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM). At the beginning of 1938, BAM camp housed more than 200,000 prisoners. Despite the considerable material and manpower resources invested in the railroad and the numerous casualties among prisoners, the results were meager. The individual sections were actually put into operation were of no substantial importance. The construction of many lines was suspended. “On the whole, the prewar phase of construction of the BAM, despite the large amount of work performed by 300,000 prisoners, ended as yet another unfinished project”.
The BAM (and railroad construction as a whole) were a typical example of the ruinous Stalinist system of forced-labor mobilization. The disorganized construction of many railroads without the necessary feasibility study resulted in the immobilization of enormous resources. By 1938, 5,000 km of track (excluding railroads that had been built but not used or only partially used because they weren’t needed) was suspended. The total increase in the rail system from 1933 through 1939 was only 4,500 km. A substantial portion of “dead roads” were built by prisoners. Similar examples during the postwar period are well known; the most striking one being the unfinished Chum-Salekhard-Igarka railroad, whose construction in the Arctic cost the lives of many prisoners, not to mention the pointlessly expended, huge material resources valued at 3.3 billion rubles.
similar fate befell other Gulag projects. In September 1940, the construction
of the Kuibyshev hydroelectric system was frozen after three years construction
due to “a lack of free manpower” to perform work at the Volga-Baltic and
Northern Dvina water system. By the time construction at the
There are no separate studies of the unfinished or useless construction by the OGPU, NKVD and MVD. These individual examples above at least show that the camp economy’s performance cannot be evaluated on the basis of the amount of capital expenditures. Many prisoner-built projects were indeed very difficult or almost impossible to build with free workers, but was there a need to build these projects altogether? The availability of large prisoner contingents made it relatively easy to adopt plans for major projects without serious economic or engineering calculations, scrap them, and transfer the prisoners to new ones.
Unfinished and useless construction was only one example of the negative impact of the Gulag economy on the country’s development. The extreme exploitation of prisoners, even if economically profitable from a short-term perspective, caused enormous damage in the long run. The untimely death of hundreds of thousands of people in the Gulag and the senseless waste at their labor and talents, such as the use of skilled workers for the wrong purpose, and in heavy physical work, a common complaint in NKVD and MVD documents substantially weakened the country’s human capital. In addition, tens of thousands of able-bodied persons guarding prisoners were not engaged in production.
Such endemic features of the Soviet economy as excessive bureaucratization and weak internal incentives reached their most extreme limits in the Gulag economy. Heightened secrecy and isolation promoted the wide proliferation at Gulag projects of padded statistics and false reports, especially since many NKVD-MVD construction projects were funded without designs and estimates, but according to actual expenditures. The reminiscences of former prisoners are full of testimony about how tenaciously and resourcefully people at the camps “pulled a tufta.” This term, which came into universal use in the Gulag, referred to the wide use of padded statistics, which not only prisoners (whose lives were often saved by tufta) but also their bosses had a stake in preserving.
mining industry of the NKVD and MVD was based on predatory exploitation of
resources. With enormous territories and a steady flow of manpower at their
disposal, the heads of NKVD enterprises preferred not to set up permanent
facilities that required substantial investment, but to obtain maximum
short-term yields from the most resource-rich sites. Short-term exploitation was the reason for
Dalstroi’s “economic miracle” in the second half of the 1930s and the nominal
The NKVD and the MVD became one of the largest economic ministries between the 1930s and the 1950s because of the absolute priority of politics over economics. The mass political repressions and the extremely brutal system of criminal penalties, which served as sources for expanding the forced-labor economy, aimed at fulfilling political objectives. Whether the use of the resulting forced labor was a “losing operation,” only a country rich in manpower and natural resources could have weathered the physical annihilation of hundreds of thousands of able-bodied citizens, the ruin of millions of peasant farms, and the maintenance of an enormous punitive apparatus. The state hoped to use the Gulag economy to minimize these enormous material losses. In practice, the exploitation of prisoners ultimately increased those losses. It promoted economic voluntarism and the mindless inflation of capital-construction plans, including ruinous (and in a number of cases useless) projects. When more detailed studies than those available today are done, they will most likely show that the role of forced labor in building up actual industrial capacity was far smaller, than the formal economic indicators of the NKVD and MVD show.
 Krasilnikov, S. A.
 Dallin, D. J., and
B. P. Nicolaevsky. Forced Labor in Soviet
 RGASPI, f. 17, op. 3, d. 746, ll. 2, 11.
 RGASPI, f. 17, op. 162, d. 11, l. 57.
 RGASPI, f. 17, op. 3, d. 902, l. 8; d. 904, ll. 6, 46-52.
 RGASPI, f. 17, op. 3, d. 904, l. 10; d. 906, ll. 40-44.
 GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 16a, d. 1310, ll. 13-14
 GA RF, f. R. 5446, op. 17, d. 278, l. 75; op. 20a, d. 949 b, l. 2; d. 984, l. 2; Shirokov, A. I. Dalstroi, p. 103
 GULAG (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerei), 1917-1960 gg., pp. 433.
 See numerous memorial books and martyrologies issued in recent years in almost every region of Russia, as well as: Ilic, M. “The Great Terror in Leningrad: A Quantitative Analysis,” in Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 52, No. 8, 2000, pp. 1515-1534.
 GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 23a, d. 76, ll. 6-9; d. 121, ll. 6-9; f. R-9414, op. 1, d. 1152, ll. 2-4.
 GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 25a, d. 7181, ll. 35-36.
 GULAG (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerei), 1917-1960 gg., pp. 275.
 Kokurin, A., and Yu. Morukov. “GULAG: struktura i kadry [The GULAG: Structure and Cadres],” in Svobodnaya mysl, 2000, No. 10, p. 118.
 GA RF, f. R-9414, op. 1, d. 330, ll. 56-61.
 GULAG (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerei), 1917-1960 gg., pp. 281.
 Calculation based on: GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 50a, d. 3888, ll. 83-85.
 GULAG (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerei), 1917-1960 gg., pp. 289-294.
 GA RF, f. R-9401, op. 1, d. 2204, l. 118.
 GA RF, f. R-9401, op. 1, d. 2209, ll. 106-109; f. R-5446, op. 48a, d. 2465, ll. 62-66.
 Calculation based on: GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 50a, d. 3888, ll. 83-85; f. R-9401, op. 2, d. 234, l. 15; f. R-5446, op. 80a, d. 7595, ll.8-9; f. R-9414, op. 1, d. 326, l. 30.
 RGAE, f. 1562, op. 33, d. 250, ll. 64-65; op. 41, d. 52, ll. 67, 94-95.
 GULAG (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerei), 1917-1960 gg., pp. 788-789.
 GULAG (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerei), 1917-1960 gg., pp. 786-793.
 GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 80, d. 7561, ll. 40-43.
 GA RF, f. R-9414, op. 1, d. 1363, l. 10.
 GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 86a, d. 7384, ll. 26-27.
 GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 81b, d. 6557, ll. 83-84, 124.
 GA RF, f. R-9401, op. 1, d. 3586, ll. 61-62.
 GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 24a, d. 2940, ll. 2-3; op. 50a, d. 4111, l. 159; op. 81b, d. 6512, l. 118.
 GULAG (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerei), 1917-1960 gg., pp. 778; RGAE, f. 1562, op. 33, d. 1531, ll. 101-102.
 GA RF, f. R-9401, op. 1, d. 2641, l. 384; RGAE, f. 1562, op. 33, d. 1531, l. 100.
 GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 80a, d. 7641, ll. 51-54.
 GA RF, f. R-9401, op. 1, d. 3821, l. 190.
 Van der Linden, M. “Forced Labour
and Non-Capitalist Industrialization: The Case of Stalinism (c. 1929-c. 1956),”
in Brass. T., and M. Van der
 Data from S. Rosenfield, quoted in the aforementioned paper by M. Van der Linden.
 Naseleniye Rossii v XX veke:
Istoricheskiye ocherki [
 GA RF, f. R-9414, op. 1, d. 326, ll. 25, 30.
 Raymond Powell, “The Labor Force,” in Abram Bergson and Simon Kuznits (eds.), Economic Trends in the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Mass: 1963), pp. 77, 82.
 Orlov, B. P. Razvitiye
transporta SSSR. 1917-1962 [The Development of Transportation
in the USSR. 1917-1962].
 GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 81b, d. 6645, ll. 51-53
 Kilin, Yu. Kareliya
v politike sovetskogo gosudarstva. 1920-1941
 Yelantseva, O. P. “BAM: pervoye desyatiletiye,” in Otechestvennaya istoriya, 1994, No. 6, pp. 89-103.
 Granberg, A. G., and V. V. Kuleshov
(eds.). Region BAM: kontseptsiya razvitiya na novom etape [The BAM Region: The Strategy for
Development at a New Stage].
 Yelantseva, O. P. “BAM: pervoye desyatiletiye,” p. 102.
 GULAG (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerei), 1917-1960 gg., pp. 182-184.
 RGASPI, f. 17, op. 3, d. 1027, l. 75.
 GA RF, f. R-5446, op. 81b, d. 6691, l. 69.
 Smirnov, B. M. (ed.).
Sistema ispravitelno-trudovykh lagerei v SSSR.
1923-1960. Spravochnik [The
System of Correctional-Labor Camps in the
 GULAG (Glavnoye upravleniye lagerei), 1917-1960 gg., pp. 789.