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Origins Of The Gulag

Origins Of The Gulag: The Soviet Prison Camp System, 1917-1934

Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Origins Of The Gulag
    Book Description:

    A vast network of prison camps was an essential part of the Stalinist system. Conditions in the camps were brutal, life expectancy short. At their peak, they housed millions, and hardly an individual in the Soviet Union remained untouched by their tentacles. Michael Jakobson's is the first study to examine the most crucial period in the history of the camps: from the October Revolution of 1917, when the tsarist prison system was destroyed to October 1934, when all places of confinement were consolidated under one agency -- the infamous GULAG.

    The prison camps served the Soviet government in many ways: to isolate opponents and frighten the population into submission, to increase labor productivity through the arrest of "inefficient" workers, and to provide labor for factories, mines, lumbering, and construction projects.

    Jakobson focuses on the structure and interrelations of prison agencies, the Bolshevik views of crime and punishment and inmate reeducation, and prison self-sufficiency. He also describes how political conditions and competition among prison agencies contributed to an unprecedented expansion of the system. Finally, he disputes the official claim of 1931 that the system was profitable -- a claim long accepted by former inmates and Western researchers and used to explain the proliferation of the camps and their population.

    Did Marxism or the Bolshevik Revolution or Leninism inexorably lead to the GULAG system? Were its origins truly evil or merely banal? Jakobson's important book probes the official record to cast new light on a system that for a time supported but ultimately helped destroy the now fallen Soviet colossus.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6138-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Abbreviations and Acronyms
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    The collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union encourages a reexamination of the origins of the system that emerged under Stalin’s rule. The places of confinement were the distinguishing feature of the Stalinist system. These include all the institutions that housed inmates—prisons, transit prisons, concentration camps, forced labor camps, and corrective labor camps. Almost no other subject in Russian and Soviet history has attracted so much public and so little scholarly attention. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles, pamphlets, and leaflets have appeared, yet few scholars have attempted to describe systematically the structure and activities ofthe agencies that...

  7. 1 The Imperial Russian Prison System
    (pp. 10-17)

    Before the 1917 October Revolution, the rate of increase in the Russian prison population soared beyond the rate of natural population growth. The average daily Russian prison population more than doubled between 1900 and 1914. During the same period (before Russia lost territory in World War I), the total Russian population grew 18 percent, from 138 million to 168 million.¹ The prison population increased from 85,000 in 1900 to 184,000 in 1912, decreased to 169,000 in 1913, then increased again to 177,000 in 1914. It fell to 157,000 in 1915, and even further, to 142,000, in 1916.²

    Soviet scholars have...

  8. 2 The Bolshevik Judicial System, 1917-1922
    (pp. 18-26)

    During the July 1917 uprising instigated by the Bolsheviks against the Provisional Government, a Petrograd publisher received an order for a leaflet. It frantically announced that thekatorzhniks(high-security convicts) had seized power in Russia.¹ Its author’s fears were premature, but his description of the Bolsheviks as convicts was entirely correct. Most ofthe future leaders of Soviet Russia had attended the Sixth Congress ofthe Bolshevik Party on 26 July 1917, and Leon Trotsky commented on its composition: “Of 171 delegates who filled out a questionnaire, no had spent 245 years in prison; 10 delegates were in katorga prisons for 41...

  9. 3 The NKIU’s Rise to Power
    (pp. 27-52)

    While struggling to take power before the October Revolution, Lenin insisted that the Bolsheviks already had their own unique form of government: the soviet, or revolutionary council.¹ After the Bolsheviks seized power, Lenin gave the local soviets substantial powers in the provinces. This tactic led to problems for the Bolshevik government in Petrograd. The soviets were elected locally and acted independently during the first months after the Revolution. Several proclaimed that their provinces had become independent republics. In its effort to control these regions, the central government established new agencies to carry out its orders.

    The Bolshevik judicial system offered...

  10. 4 Reeducation versus Financial Self-Sufficiency
    (pp. 53-69)

    While it monopolized control of the Soviet places of confinement between November 1917 and July 1918, the People’s Commissariat of Justice (NKIU) introduced four new ideas. It declared that (1) all able-bodied inmates must work; (2) courts could sentence suspects to forced labor without deprivation of freedom; (3) inmates must pay their own upkeep by deductions from their salaries or savings; and (4) the administrations of all penal institutions should reeducate prisoners.

    The All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VISIK) decree of17 May 1919 authorized the Department of Forced Labor-Main Administration of Forced Labor (OPR-GUPR) to implement all these ideas except the...

  11. 5 The NKVD Monopoly, 1922-1930
    (pp. 70-90)

    NKVD control of the places of confinement occurred in two phases. The first phase (1922-27) corresponded to the New Economic Policy, when the government permitted limited private enterprise. The second phase (1928-30) was connected with the collectivization of agriculture and the end of the NEP.

    During the first phase, the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) prison agency, known as the Main Administration of Places of Confinement (GUMZ), attempted to destroy the revolutionary legacy of 1917-21, when prisons had been controlled by the Central Corrective Labor Department (TSITO) of the People’s Commissariat of Justice (NKIU) and the Main Administration of...

  12. 6 The NKIU’S Last Chance, 1930-1932
    (pp. 91-102)

    During the early 1930s, the main efforts of officials of the People’s Commissariat of Justice (NKIU), like those of officials everywhere in the Soviet Union, went toward fulfilling the Five-Year Plans. Most NKIU places of confinement failed to meet their targets, whereas the Unified State Political Administration (OGPU)—whose share of prison facilities gradually increased—created the impression that it was doing better than other prison agencies. The government decided in October 1934 to transfer the NKIU camps and prisons to the new All-Union People’s Commissariat of International Affairs (NKVD), which was set up in July 1934 and had absorbed...

  13. 7 The GUITU under Siege, 1932-1934
    (pp. 103-110)

    Soviet penologists, including Petr Stuchka and Boris Utevskiĭ, accepted the Marxist theory that the number of crimes increased under the influence of capitalism. Conversely, as capitalism waned in the Soviet Union, crime should have decreased. Yet at the beginning of 1932 the number of inmates had probably reached a record two million.¹ The maximum number of prisoners before the Revolution had totaled less than 184,000. Now there were ten times as many. To shift the blame, the Soviets argued that crime increased under the “remnants of capitalism” from habits acquired before the October Revolution.² This was face-shaving, if not convincing....

  14. 8 GPU-OGPU Places of Confinement, 1922-1928
    (pp. 111-118)

    In 1922 the government tried to reduce the powers of the secret police. The Cheka, which had been directly subordinate to the RSFSR Council of People’s Commissars (SNK), was disbanded in February. Its successor, the State Political Administration (GPU), was put under the supervision of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD). An enactment of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTSIK), passed between February and 2 May 1922, allowed the GPU to retain only two places of confinement—one in Moscow, the other in Petrograd—and transferred some 300 Cheka camps and prisons to the People’s Commissariat of Justice (NKFU)....

  15. 9 The OGPU during Collectivization & Industrialization
    (pp. 119-138)

    During the collectivization and industrialization phase of the Soviet Union, the number of inmates in OGPU facilities increased from thousands to millions. Most worked in the lumber industry during 1929-30, the first two years of the expansion of the prison population. Thousands were conscripted for such massive construction projects as the White Sea—Baltic Sea and Moscow Volga canals, and to work in gold mines in the Kolyma region.

    Theory was adjusted to suit practice. The idea prevailed in 1929 that inmate participation in the Five-Year Plan would have beneficial reeducational effects. This notion was modified to suggest that the...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 139-145)

    By 1934 the Soviet government had reversed its views on crime and punishment and on the self-sufficiency of the places of confinement. It had modified its position on the reeducation of inmates and on their employment. It had fully implemented its notion of the subordination of the places of confinement to a single agency.

    Prior to the October Revolution of 1917, Bolsheviks had believed that crime arose from the injustices of the capitalist system. They denied individual guilt and held society responsible for individual crimes. They thought crime would decrease if the capitalist order were destroyed and disappear completely under...

  17. Appendix. The Major Agencies in Brief
    (pp. 146-151)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 152-168)
  19. Index
    (pp. 169-176)