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The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag

The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag

by Paul R. Gregory, Valery Lazarev


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Until now, there has been little scholarly analysis of the Soviet Gulag as an economic, social, and political institution, primarily owing to a lack of data. This collection presents the results of years of research by Western and Russian scholars. The authors provide both broad overviews and specific case studies.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817939427
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 10/01/2003
Pages: 212
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Paul R. Gregory, a Hoover Institution research fellow, holds an endowed professorship in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, Texas, and is a research professor at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. The holder of a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, he is the author or coauthor of twelve books and many articles on economic history, the Soviet economy, transition economies, comparative economics, and economic demography including Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives (Hoover Institution Press, 2008), The Political Economy of Stalinism (2004), Before Command: The Russian Economy from Emancipation to Stalin (1994), Restructuring the Soviet Economic Bureaucracy (1990, reissued 2006), and Russian National Income, 1885–1913 (1982, reissued 2005). He has edited Behind the Façade of Stalin's Command Economy (2001) and The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag (2003), both published by Hoover Institution Press and summarizing his research group's work on the Soviet state and party archives. His publications based on work in the Hoover Institution Archives have been awarded the Hewett Book Prize and the J.M. Montias Prize for the best article in the Journal of Comparative Economics. The research of his Hoover Soviet Archives Research Project team is summarized in part in "Allocation under Dictatorship: Research in Stalin's Archive" (coauthored with Hoover fellow Mark Harrison), published in the Journal of Economic Literature.

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Economics of Forced Labor

The Soviet Gulag

By Paul R. Gregory, Valery Lazarev

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-3943-4


An Introduction to the Economics of the Gulag

Paul Gregory

THE ACRONYM "GULAG" translates as the "Main Administration of Camps," an agency that was subordinate to the USSR Ministry of Interior. The interior ministry operated under four acronyms from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution to Stalin's death in March of 1953. It was first known as the Cheka, under its first minister, Feliks Dzherzhinsky. It was renamed the OGPU in 1922. The OGPU was merged into the NKVD in 1934. The NKVD was headed by G. G. Yagoda (from 1934 to 1936), N. I. Yezhov (from 1936 to 1938), and L. P. Beria (from 1938 to 1945). It was renamed the MVD in 1946. Although the interior ministry had three other ministers before Stalin's death, the bloody history of the Cheka-OGPU-NKVD-MVD is associated with these four leaders, of whom only Dzerzhinsky escaped execution and died of natural causes. The Great Purges of 1937–38 are usually referred to as the "Yezhovschina" after the zealous NKVD minister who spearheaded them.

The generic term "Gulag" refers to the vast system of prisons, camps, psychiatric hospitals, and special laboratories that housed the millions of prisoners, or zeks. Although Soviet propaganda at times praised the Gulag's rehabilitation of anti-Soviet elements through honest labor, there were no Soviet studies of the Gulag. The interior ministry had to turn to studies written in the West, which have been carefully preserved in its archives. Broad public understanding of the magnitude and brutality of the Gulag was generated by the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. Since Russian independence many historical and political works have been published in Russia along with the memoirs of former prisoners. Former camp administrators have remained silent, so we have no accounts from the perspective of the camps' bosses.


This book is a collection of studies of forced labor in the Soviet Union until the time of Stalin's death and its immediate aftermath. These studies focus mainly on the most extreme form of coercion — penal labor, but they also describe the application of force in the everyday workplace, a practice prominent from the late 1930s through the end of World War II. The extensive political and social literature that exists today on the Gulag has chronicled the suffering and loss of life it caused, establishing beyond a doubt the Gulag's brutality and criminality. Our focus is on the Gulag as an institution of coercive power in a totalitarian state. We are interested in its functions and operations, both formal and informal, and its contributions to the goals of the dictator. We are interested in whether the Gulag was created to serve the economic interests of the totalitarian state or whether it was a by-product of the dictator's consolidation of power.

The Soviet administrative-command system was the most important experiment of the twentieth century. Its true operation, hidden behind a vast veil of secrecy, was exposed by the opening of formerly secret archives. Studies using these archives reveal that the system's working arrangements were more complex and subtle than had been imagined. We must examine the institution of the Soviet Gulag in a similar light to determine its true working arrangements.

The chapters in this book are based mainly on research in the archives of the Gulag, in its central, regional, and local archives. Three chapters examine the general institutions of force and coercion as applied to labor (Chapters 2, 3, and 4). Four chapters are devoted to case studies of three major Gulag projects (The White Sea-Baltic Canal in Chapter 8, Magadan in Chapter 6, the Karelia region in Chapter 9, and the Norilsk Metallurgy Complex in Chapter 7). Chapter 5 examines the use of penal labor in Norilsk. The case studies use both central and local archives, while the studies of central institutions use the central archives of the Gulag and the relevant central archives of the Soviet state and party. These archives are located in Moscow and in the regions themselves. The Gulag archives are also located in the collections of the Hoover Institution.

The archive documents tell the complicated story of how the forced labor system was created and operated partly by design and partly by learning from experience. Internal reports on the state of the Gulag reveal a high level of introspection by top Gulag administrators and give a valuable insider's view of the Gulag's strengths and weaknesses.

Internal Gulag documents reveal three constants of Gulag administration. First, the Gulag's structure and development were dictated by the political strategy of the dictatorship. As noted by a Gulag administrator: "Organizational changes within the Gulag are normally caused by external political and/or economic decisions of the state." The Gulag was populated as a consequence of the exogenous state policies of collectivization, the Great Terror, the harsh labor laws, and the imprisonment of returning POWs. From 1934 on, the Gulag had to manage the "unplanned" rise in the number of prisoners and the simultaneous expansion of the prison camp network. The Gulag's attempts at advance planning grossly underestimated the influx of prisoners. Its planners consistently expected a diminishing number of prisoners. The third Five-Year Plan (1938–42), which was drawn up during the Great Purges, remarkably projected fewer prisoners just as the first victims of the Great Terror began flooding in.

The second constant was the economic raison d'être of the Gulag: the exploration and industrial colonization of remote resource-rich regions at a low cost of society's resources. As noted by an internal Gulag document: "The history of the Gulag is the history of the colonization and industrial exploitation of the remote regions of the state." Although prison labor was used throughout the USSR, Gulag labor was principally concentrated in remote regions that had difficult climates and that would have been costly to settle with free labor. The use of penal labor in remote regions was supposed to achieve economic "surpluses" (similar to Marx's surplus value) by paying unfree labor only subsistence wages (or paying well below the rate for free labor) to produce products that had substantial economic value. Penal labor was supposed to be more mobile than hired labor because prisoners could be shifted in large numbers from one project to another. Penal labor was also supposed to provide surpluses and resource mobility without the loss of labor productivity. Close supervision and monitoring, it was hoped, would render penal labor as productive as free labor.

The third constant was the conflict between the economic function of the Gulag and its function of isolating prisoners from the general population and preventing escapes. The more prisoners were used for construction and production, which required their movement from job to job or from task to task, the weaker the security regime. Prisoners contracted out to civilian enterprises and institutions were particularly difficult to guard, to isolate from the general population, and to prevent from escaping. To a degree, the Gulag attempted to reduce the friction between its isolation and economic functions by locating production facilities close to the place of confinement, but this was an expensive solution. All the economic tasks that inmates were supposed to carry out could not be located within the confines of camps. As the Gulag's economic system became more complicated and its economic obligations heavier, "its priority function of protection and isolation was negatively affected," as remarked one Gulag chronicler.

The chapters in this book show the struggle within the dictatorship and within the Gulag between the notion that productive labor can be extracted by coercion and the realization that people must be offered "carrots" as well as "sticks" if they are to work well. Chapter 2 shows that the Soviet leadership sought in vain the right balance between carrots and sticks in the "civilian" labor force and often combined extreme coercion with extreme material incentives. Chapters 3, 5, 6, and 9 show that material incentives played an ever larger role in motivating penal labor, and Chapter 4 shows that in the last few years of the Gulag, distinctions between free and penal labor were blurred. Chapter 5 shows that eventually prisoners had to be offered material incentives that were distributed among prisoners much as they were distributed among civilian workers. Although prison bosses had an arsenal of tools to motivate prisoners to fulfill their plans — punishment, sentence reductions for good work, moral incentives, and material incentives — they learned that coercion alone was not sufficient. There were, moreover, complicated tradeoffs: prisoners placed on reduced rations for failing to meet their quotas were no longer able to work effectively because of their weakened state. One of the most effective incentive systems — reduced sentences as a reward for exemplary work — deprived the Gulag of its best workers through their early release.


In the chapters that follow, there are references to many organizations related to the Gulag — the OGPU, NKVD, MVD, Gulag main administrations, economic administrations, and regional organizations. We have already explained that the OGPU, MKVD, and MVD were, in effect, different names for the Soviet interior ministry, or the state security ministry, which was the superior of the Gulag administration. To simplify the discussion that follows, we shall use the best-known designation of the interior ministry of the Stalin era — the NKVD. As Figure 1.1 shows, the NKVD received its orders from the highest political and party authority, the Council of People's Commissars (the highest state body) and the Politburo (the highest body of the Communist Party). Like industrial ministries, the NKVD was broken down into main administrations, called glavki, which were responsible for carrying out the functions of state security. This book is about the NKVD's most notorious main administration, the Main Administration of Camps, or Gulag.

Figure 1.1 illustrates the structure and relationships of the Gulag. The Gulag received its orders from the NKVD, that is, from the minister of interior, such as Yezhov or Beria. The head of Gulag administration was responsible for carrying out these orders and directives. The supply of prisoners was delivered by the courts and justice ministries to the NKVD, and delivered by the NKVD to the Gulag. The Gulag served as a "labor intermediary" by distributing penal labor to its own main industrial administrations, or Gulag glavki, or to the economic administrations that it administered directly. The Gulag could also contract penal labor out to other construction and industrial production ministries. Because it had its own construction and production responsibilities and because Gulag glavki, although quasi-independent, had to meet their plan goals, the Gulag had to weigh the financial benefit of contracting labor to third parties against the need for prisoners in its own production structure.

Almost all prisoners were confined either in Corrective Labor Camps, called ITLs, or in labor colonies, also known as general places of confinement. Henceforth we refer to the first as "camps" and the second as "colonies." Some prisoners were confined to mental institutions, high-security prisons, special research facilities (for elite scientists and engineers) or special camps. Camps provided traditional prisonlike confinement with guards and strict supervision of prisoners. Colonies were located in remote regions, and "colonists" were prevented from leaving by lack of transport and by internal passport rules. The term of custody was the decisive formal criterion for the kind of confinement: "In accordance with criminal laws (Article 28 of the Criminal Codex of the Russian Republic), the Corrective labor camps (ITL) are for those prisoners sentenced to terms of three years or more."

Before the control of forced labor was unified under the NKVD in 1934, camps and colonies were administered both by the USSR interior ministry and by republican organizations (republican justice ministries and republican NKVDs). The first and most famous prison camp, the Solovetsky Camp of Special Destination (SLON), was founded in 1920 on Dzherzhinsky's (the first head of the Cheka) initiative to isolate counterrevolutionaries. The systematic use of forced labor began in 1926 and was at first limited to forestry and fisheries in the local environs. Starting with the first Five-Year Plan (1928–33), the OGPU was the agency of colonization. On July 11, 1929, the Council of People's Commissars created the Administrative Authority of Northern Camps of Special Destination (USLON) of the OGPU for the exploitation of mineral resources in the northern territories. Such remote camps colonized undeveloped regions and isolated individuals posing threats to the socialist state. The emerging network of the prison camp administration was created independently of the existing territorial prison administration system operated by the justice ministry and territorial authorities. As a result, the administration of prison camps was in fact divided into two parts: the OGPU, which distributed the prisoners among the camps, and the territorial administrative organs, which were responsible for their utilization. Newly created camps, such as the notable camp complexes founded in 1932 (listed in Table 1.1), were subordinate to the OGPU.

The Gulag system was concentrated under the NKVD, in 1934, under its Gulag administration. Under this unified administration, inmate numbers soared, as did Gulag responsibilities. Many projects begun by civil administrations were shifted to the Gulag, eventually overwhelming its administrative capacities, as a 1940 report indicated: "The Gulag has 30 main building projects; none will be completed in 1940. All will continue for several years, with an overall labor budget of 14.7 million rubles. The Gulag is systematically charged with additional building projects, which result in a remarkable backlog. The large number of construction projects requires a fundamental reorganization, and the magnitude of these tasks complicates management in an extreme fashion, leading to a diversification of tasks and to bottlenecks in resource allocation."

To administer its increasingly complicated production and construction complexes, the Gulag created in 1941 the main economic administrations, also called glavki, to take responsibility for its economic activities. These newly founded administrations guided economic branches, except Dalstroi (Far Northern Construction), which administered 130 separate camp facilities in a territory covering 3 million square kilometers (see Chapter 6). The Gulag's complex structure gave observers the impression of several Gulags developing in the prewar USSR.

World War II reduced the number of prisoners because of transfers to the front and increased mortality, and the number of Gulag organizations declined (see Chapters 2 and 3). Although the Gulag administration expected a continued decline at the end of the war, there was a new influx of returning POWs, wartime collaborators, and inmates sentenced under new criminal codes. Both the number of inmates and the Gulag's economic activities expanded again after 1947. Inmate totals reached their peak at 2.5 million in the early 1950s. Table 1.2 presents a general picture of the Gulag on the eve of World War II, at the end of the war, and in the early 1950s. The increase in the Gulag bureaucracy appeared to outrun the increase in the number of prisoners. The ratio of guards to inmates rose after the war to almost one guard for every ten inmates. These ratios must be interpreted with caution because a high proportion of guards were themselves inmates (see Chapter 5).


Excerpted from Economics of Forced Labor by Paul R. Gregory, Valery Lazarev. Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents


Foreword Robert Conquest,
1 An Introduction to the Economics of the Gulag Paul Gregory,
2 Forced Labor in Soviet Industry: The End of the 1930s to the Mid-1950s: An Overview Andrei Sokolov,
3 The Economy of the OGPU, NKVD, and MVD of the USSR, 1930–1953: The Scale, Structure, and Trends of Development Oleg Khlevnyuk,
4 The End of the Gulag Aleksei Tikhonov,
5 Coercion versus Motivation: Forced Labor in Norilsk Leonid Borodkin and Simon Ertz,
6 Magadan and the Economic History of Dalstroi in the 1930s David Nordlander,
7 Building Norilsk Simon Ertz,
8 The White Sea-Baltic Canal Mikhail Morukov,
9 The Gulag in Karelia: 1929 to 1941 Christopher Joyce,
10 Conclusions Valery Lazarev,
List of Acronyms,

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