Although not on the scale of those that disappeared during the Stalin era, the purpose was the same; as well as criminals, enemies of the State such as aristocrats, businessmen, and political opponents were incarcerated, often summarily.
In July 1921, the Council of People’s Commissars (SOVNARKOM) issued a secret decree defining the use, and the purpose, of “corrective forced labour”. It had already been acknowledged by the state that the camps were of little use in terms of rehabilitation of prisoners, but were merely a means of obtaining very cheap labour. The decree of 1929 effectively institutionalised the concept of slave labour in the Soviet Union, and laid the ground for the subsequent Stalinist atrocities. By April 1930 the system was officially established, and in November that year the word Gulag was first used.
During the early 1930s the camp network grew rapidly, and the numbers of prisoners rose as new “offences” were dreamt up by Stalin and his cabal. Article 58 of the Soviet penal code (1927), intended to criminalise political opposition, was updated in 1934 to include a number of new crimes, including “contact with foreigners” (article 58-3). After the Second World War, this article was used to imprison released Soviet PoWs, on the grounds that their failure to fight to the death was an “anti-Soviet” act. In July 1937, the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, issued special order No. 00447, under which tens of thousands of inmates of the Gulag were executed for “continued anti-Soviet activity”. This category of offence included such treasonous acts as becoming ill, or failing to work hard enough.
Following a decline in the camp populations during the Second World War due to high mortality rates – 25% of inmates died of starvation in 1941 alone – numbers swelled to almost 2.5 million by the time Stalin died in 1953.
Many of the new inmates were from territories newly annexed by the Soviet Union, and many more were former citizens who were forcibly repatriated after fleeing in the pre-war years. A tightening of property ownership laws also created a whole new range of offences, and new categories of “enemies of the state”.
An amnesty followed Stalin’s death, and the camps went into numerical decline. In January 1960, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) issued an order officially liquidating the Gulag.
The former Soviet Union is now littered with mass graves. At Kurapaty, near Minsk, as many as 30,000 citizens were executed by the NKVD between 1937-41. At Bykivnia, on the outskirts of Kyiv, as many as 225,000 “enemies of the state” were buried in at least 210 mass graves. At Butovo, in the Moscow region, at least 20,000 political prisoners were shot, and buried near the village of Drozhino.
The Gulag, although somewhat different to the Nazi concentration camp system, was equally heinous, and although it’s primary raison d’être was not extermination, the results were too often the same, and the penal system killed millions.
WW1: Allied troops taken into Soviet captivity.
What is little known – or conveniently forgotten – is the fact that thousands of Allied servicemen disappeared into the system, many of them having been captured during WW1.
In 1918, 5,000 U.S. and a number of French soldiers were placed under British command and tasked with taking and holding Russian territory around the northern Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel, where tons of Allied war material were being stored in order to deny the munitions and the ports to the new Bolshevik regime.
“According to declassified U.S. cables and other documents in the National Archives and to eyewitness accounts, in 1919, Lenin’s new Bolshevik regime used hundreds of secretly held American, British and French POW-MIAs (members of a force sent to suppress the regime) as hostages in a demand for U.S. diplomatic recognition,” Washington Post, July 4, 1991.
THE U.S. recognised the Soviet Union in 1933 – no prisoners were ever returned, although 19 sets of skeletal remains were handed over with the names of missing soldiers ascribed to them.
WW2: even more Allied PoWs taken as slave labour in the Gulag.
The transfer of Soviet PoWs to the penal system following their release from Nazi prison camps is well known, what is rather less talked about, however, is the fate of tens of thousands of Allied servicemen who were to disappear into the system.
As many as 30,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, “liberated” by the Soviets from German POW camps ended their days in the Gulag.
Occasionally one did manage to return home: for example Frank Kelly, a medic attached to the 5th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry, and who hailed from Lewisham in South-East London, was captured by the Germans at Arnhem and subsequently ‘liberated’ from Stalag 4B by Soviet soldiers only to be incarcerated in a labour camp until his release eight years later in 1953.
On his return to the UK he was initially arrested for being AWOL, but was not charged. His brother, speaking to The Sunday Times (Nov. 29, 1953) said that Frank had been forbidden by British military police to talk about his experiences in the Gulag.
The book Soldiers of Misfortune: Washington’s Secret Betrayal of American POWs in the Soviet Union by James D. Sanders, Mark A. Sauter, and R. Cort Kirkwood (1992) claimed that 20,000 US servicemen were also taken by the Soviets, and that “Starting in 1945, the Soviet Union became the second-largest employer of American servicemen in the world.”
Another Stalag 4B prisoner was U.S. serviceman Martin Siegel, who escaped and reported many Americans left behind, but was instructed to remain silent and told the matter was being “investigated.”
It is interesting to note that a US Senate Select Committee found that whilst 76,854 Americans were estimated to be in German PoW camps as of March 15, 1945, the actual number of Americans recovered from German PoW camps was 91,252. This suggests that amongst the numbers of those who were missing in action (MIA) and were subsequently presumed killed, were many thousands who were in captivity, but whose status had not been reported by the Germans to the International Red Cross.
The Soviet & Chinese proxy war in Korea.
In August 1953, Gen. James Van Fleet, retired commander of the U.S. 8th Army in Korea, said: “A large percentage of the 8,000 American soldiers listed as missing in action in Korea are still alive.”
According to declassified CIA and other sources, an estimated 2,000 or more U.S. POW-MIAs were reported transferred to the Soviet Union from secret Soviet-run camps in China.
The Vietnam War.
A US Department of Defence press release, dated 09 Dec 2003, revealed that Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Jerry Jennings had visited Moscow as part of the work of a joint U.S.-Russia commission set up in 1992 to explore the question of whether Americans were held in, or transported through, the former Soviet Union during WWII, the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
The cases of more than 200 airmen who went missing during the Korean War were discussed. It is widely held that downed American fliers, especially electronic warfare officers, were routinely sent to Moscow for interrogation and execution. On November 4th 1991, the Moscow-based journal Kommersant carried an interview with KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin (Retd.), who confirmed that after preliminary interrogations in theatre by Russian and Chinese personnel, PoWs were flown to Russia. The article concluded that the eventual fate of the servicemen was “unknown”.
It should be pointed out that during the period of the Yeltsin government, Moscow began to open its files, and US investigators were given access to these documents, and also to Russian veterans. In fact, whilst the US Joint Staff stated that they “found no evidence that any previously unacknowledged Americans had been captured and imprisoned during the Cold War period by the Soviet Union, China or Korea”, Yeltsin openly admitted in 1992 that a number of US airmen “lost” during the Cold War period had in fact been captured and imprisoned in the Soviet Union.
Electronic warfare and weapons operators – the back seaters in such aircraft as the F-4 Phantom -were particularly prized.
In the same year, it was confirmed to investigators by officials in Kyiv that 10 files concerning US servicemen, including at least one who went missing on Ukrainian territory, were turned over to Moscow. There is no suggestion that these personnel were moved to labour camps, although American PoWs taken in Vietnam are reported to have undergone forced labour in China.
The “Gulag” in the 21st Century.
Although the Gulag was officially disbanded in the 1960s, so-called free-labour camps remain in operation in Siberia to this day, as a part of the Russian penal system, accommodating up to one million inmates. The Russians have a word – “etapirovanie” – which means “transport in stages”. In 2005, Valerii Abramkin, head of the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform, was quoted in the Moscow Times as saying the time during which prisoners are in transit is used to “shock them and break their spirit.”
Unable to communicate with the outside world, with up to 20 prisoners in a six-berth compartment, they are at the mercy of their guards. Abramkin told the newspaper that during stops, prisoners are often pulled out and made to lie down or kneel in the snow or dirt for hours while being beaten.
A Labour camp in the far northern Siberian Yamal Peninsula, near the Arctic Circle, also remains in service. Mikhail Khordokovsky, the oligarch who fell out with the Kremlin after he sponsored pro-democratic political parties, was himself confined to a Russian labour camp until German Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Relatives have the right to know where loved ones are incarcerated, but there is no time-frame laid down within which this information must be imparted, so in reality many prisoners simply disappear into the system. Traditionally, NGOs would fight for the rights of such individuals, but Vladimir Putin has shut most of these down, of course….
As recently as 2001, the St Petersburg Times reported that North Korea was sending prisoners to Siberian Labour camps as a means of paying off its Soviet-era debt to Russia.
Authors note: During the Medvedev Presidency, the Russian government introduced a freedom of information initiative, open to non-Russians, and accessible via the Kremlin website. Using this I asked for files concerning the 30,000 Commonwealth prisoners to be re-opened. I received a prompt response, delivered to my office in the European Parliament, stating that on receipt of a formal request from the British government, the files would be re-opened. Despite my efforts, no request was ever forthcoming – indeed, nobody wanted to even discuss the matter with me.
Gary Cartwright is the author of ‘Putin’s War: Russian Policy and the New Arms race’ (2009) https://books.google.de/books/about/Putin_s_Legacy.html?id=lbGbQwAACAAJ&redir_esc=y