Vladislav Staf: “We know Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Ginzburg, but there are too few memories of Gulag”

Teacher of the School of History of HSE NRU Vladislav Staf on terrors of camps for political prisoners

The victims of political repressions were remembered in Russia on 30 October. The memorable campaign Return of Names organised by Memorial international community in Moscow and dedicated to this date gathered thousands of people. Participants read the names of the dead in detention by NKVD, in labour camps and on execution sites on the microphone. The audience paid tribute to the memory of the repressed people and laid flowers to the Solovetsky Stone in Lubyanka. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, teacher of the School of History of HSE NRU Vladislav Staf talked about the political prisoners’ thorny destinies and the terrors of Gulag.

“Anybody could go to the camp because the ideology constantly changed

Vladislav, what preceded the sad lot of the millions of repressed people? What wrongdoings did people often end up in a camp for?

The answer is very simple: for any wrongdoings. In addition, besides those people who really were Trotskyist (Mensheviks, Anarchists, etc.), there were a lot of stories about how a person could end up in a camp as Trotskyist but even didn’t understand who Trotsky was. There is such a story in a museum in Yakutia I have in my research. A Russian language and literature teacher in a school in the village of Tomtor (near Oymyakon village) told me that her father was an illiterate Yakut hunter who went to the camp for Trotskyism for 25 years. He left the camp in 1960 and died in the same year never knowing who Trotsky was. Anybody could go to the camp because the ideology constantly changed. And even those who can be called criminals by laws of that time often aren’t criminals in today’s understanding. If a person stole a morsel of food because of hunger, it is a very complicated juridical and ethical problem if we can call him a real criminal.

Some people went to the camp for no reason, for instance, on racial or ethnic grounds. For instance, there were Volga Germans who were deported to Siberia, and they also ended up in the camp. There were both Jews and other minorities. There was religious persecution too. One just could have an unusual last name, and this already suggested that a person was a foreign spy, he could be sent to the camp. Even a Boer (a South African of Dutch descent) who inexplicably turned out in the Soviet Union was executed on the Butovo firing range near Moscow. Nevertheless, he was anyway tracked down. The Boer certainly wasn’t going to spy against the Soviet Union or do something similar. There is a camp in Kazakhstan that was called ALZHIR (the Russian initials for ‘Akmola Camp for the Wives of Betrayers of the Homeland’). Innocent people were sent there at first, it was the women whose husbands were arrested. Women went there as wives of betrayers of the homeland, and they all knew that they didn’t commit any crime. They went to another camp after their husbands, that’s to say, a husband was sent to Siberia, while they went to the camp to Kazakhstan.

Children of the repressed went to the orphanage. There were children’s camps too, not as many as adults’ camps because children labour wasn’t as productive as adult prisoners’ labour. Often, children who left the camp alive didn’t manage to find their parents.

Photo: russian7.ru
There is a camp in Kazakhstan that was called ALZHIR (the Russian initials for ‘Akmola Camp for the Wives of Betrayers of the Homeland’). Innocent people were sent there at first, it was the women whose husbands were arrested. Women went there as wives of betrayers of the homeland, and they all knew that they didn’t commit any crime

What’s the sense in creating children’s camps? Why did the state need it?

It is a good question now. It is hard to answer. They were mainly designed to re-educate children because of some offence of their parents, though the parents themselves often didn’t know why they went to the camp. In other words, not all Gulag prisoners were innocent, there were both criminals and murderers who really sit for real crimes. On the other hand, together with political prisoners, they were used as free labour force, which is, in fact, slave labour.

Does it mean that the children from camps also worked on construction sites or in plants?

I know an example — a juvenile prison near Arkhangelsk. The name Conveyor still exists there because children sewed clothes there. There were other ideas when children could be sent on a short expedition so that they would help collect something to build factories and so on. If parents were sent to the camp, children needed to go somewhere too. And this is why children’s camp often opened.

“Some Russian cities appeared first as camps, only then they became cities”

What do you think motivated the decision to create Gulag? Was there a need for cheap labour force for construction projects in the north and east of the country?

Not only for this purpose. All this is quite a complicated process because, at first, the goal of Soviet camps was to isolate political opponents. In other words, if we look at the Solovki camp, the prisoners didn’t produce anything there. But they were forced to work at times. There is a document that reads that the prisoners were forced to break ice in the White Sea and carry water from one ice hole to another, it was senseless very hard work.

1929 is considered to be the year of birth of Gulag when a person named Naftaly Frenkel, who was a prisoner at first and consequently became an inspector in the Solovki camp, offered to use the prisoners’ labour to build some facilities. Thus they were re-educated, and they compensated for their offence against the Soviet authorities with their work. Then the system of labour camps aimed at exploration of northern territories began to rapidly develop. It was in the 1920-1930s, during the industrialisation of the country. The country needed new resources, exploration of new coal fields, first of all in the north, gold, uranium and many other fields were added after the war. It was mainly the Far North regions where nobody lived. Though it was already proved economically that Gulag was ineffective. The prisoners were thrown into these remote regions so that they would produce minerals in the Far North, cut down trees and thus build a new Soviet economy. And now, it is seen on the map of Russia and post-Soviet countries that even the railway infrastructure was built by camp prisoners. New cities in the Gulag era were often built by prisoners. I haven’t found any experience of building such cities in the world practice that is similar to the Soviet one. Some Russian cities appeared first as camps, only then they became cities. One of them is even a regional centre — it is the city of Magadan. I haven’t seen anything like that in any country of the world, except Australia where prisoners built new towns, but it was much earlier.

Photo: antisovetsky.livejournal.com
1929 is considered to be the year of birth of Gulag when a person named Naftaly Frenkel, who was a prisoner at first and consequently became an inspector in the Solovki camp, offered to use the prisoners’ labour to build some facilities

How economically effective was camp labour?

It is hard to talk about the situation in general because the camps were a bit different because of the huge territory of the Soviet Union. But it is obvious that when a person lives and works as a civilian, his work is more effective. And when he is poorly fed and he is, in fact, a last-legger, he can’t work effectively no matter how ethical the idea to send a person to the camp so that he won’t come back in general is. In addition, economically, any camp required a lot of security guards so that the prisoners wouldn’t rise in rebellion so that the prisoners would work, to keep discipline. Security was also needed to be paid, they needed to eat. And it turned out that camp productivity was lower than if some enterprises with ordinary wage labour had been built.

“There wasn’t any response around the world because people didn’t believe”

Approximately in one five families in the USSR faced the repressions. Why did the people tolerate it?

Here there are several answers too because every citizen of the Soviet Union had his own answer to this question. Firstly, now we know about Gulag much more and understand the whole system and the tragedy of the situation. Not every even NKVD worker understood how the entire network of camps worked. In addition, when a person works in the penitentiary system himself, he is explained that it is felons and criminals, and the attitude to them is corresponding. On the other hand, why do people keep silent? Firstly, it is fear, undoubtedly. Also, many still remembered the terrors of the civil war when there was hunger. And a lot of people didn’t understand how they should behave and whom they should turn to. The first publication on the camp system appeared in the world in the 20s already. And people didn’t believe in these publications, in these memories. One of the books was printed in 1926 when a prisoner, Sozerko Malgasov, managed to escape from Solovki and write a book about this camp printed in London. And there wasn’t any response around the world because people didn’t believe him that such a thing could be real in general.

The Second World War influenced the USSR people very much. Soviet people who were already tired of repressions, were in the thick of the Second World War when the Soviet Union lost tens of millions of people. The formulation “if only there were no war” often helped people accept poverty, the fact that they didn’t know anything about their relatives, what happened to them, if only they hadn’t seen the terrors of the war in the 1940s. Despite common beliefs, the peak of Gulag was in the late 40s and early 50s, the number of prisoners was the highest then.

Soviet propaganda worked well — it was necessary to watch the borders and so on. Of course, not everybody believed in this system. When a person was arrested at night and taken somewhere without the right to correspondence, nobody could know if he was executed or sent to the camp. And after the eradication of Gulag when a lot of prisoners were released in the 1950s, everyone tried not to talk about their dramatic experience of the stay in the camp when they were back with their family.

Was there such secrecy?

Yes, people were afraid and tried not to remember. Moreover, when a person himself considered he was innocent, there was a mistake, he didn’t want to experience the terror of the past again. Undoubtedly, there were published memories. But if we look at the number of people who were in Gulag, which is about 20 million people, it is a drop in the ocean. We know Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Ginzburg… But there are too few memories of Gulag compared to the number of people who went through the system of camps.

Photo: magadanmedia.ru
We know Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Ginzburg… But there are too few memories of Gulag compared to the number of people who went through the system of camps

“After some of the family members was arrested, many families tried to cut ties with him

So riots took place only in the camps, the prisoners’ relatives didn’t protest…

There weren’t mass protests. Riots took place directly in the camps, especially after Stalin’s death, it is the riots in Norilsk, Karlag and so on. Relatives sincerely believed that their family member would be sent back quickly. They couldn’t know where the relative was, what was happening to him. People couldn’t look for single-minded people and try to understand who had the same misfortune. In the late 1930s, during the Great Terror, after some of the family members was arrested, many families tried to cut ties with him, he was cut out of photos, they changed their names, last names so that God forbid they wouldn’t be taken away as a relative of the enemy of the people. In other words, first of all, it was fear.

Is it correct to blame Stalin for the repressions?

It is some simplification that Stalin is guilty of everything. Moreover, Khruschyov precisely began the policy of de-Stalinisation, he himself, for instance, chaired the Ukrainian SSR when there was hunger there in the early 30s. He just understood himself that this system was a huge burden on the Soviet economy and that it was impossible to create not only a better future but also a stable country this way. This is why after Stalin’s death, mass amnesty began, the construction of huge facilities was abandoned: the transpolar highway Chum — Salekhard — Igarka, the underground tunnel to Sakhalin. It became obvious that nobody needed these construction sites, they consumed so many resources and that the Gulag system was ineffective.

Many denounced to protect themselves”

What did political prisoners’ trials usually look like?

Firstly, especially in the late 30s, there was the so-called troika when three NKVD employees who didn’t see the person in person immediately imposed a sentence. Mainly it was the death penalty. 1,5 million people were repressed during the Great Terror, and about half of them was executed. During the Second World War, in the 40s, there already were fewer executions because there needed any people to send to the front. Prisoners could be sent to the front. In general court cases had more paperwork. But if we look at convictions, one doesn’t have to be an expert to understand these cases were fabricated.

When an illiterate person is blamed he is a Japanese spy. Here it is clear he can’t by a Japanese spy because he couldn’t transmit any data physically, no matter if he knows somebody from Japanese intelligence or not. There was a lot of such convictions. Especially in the 30s, many NKVD employees asked petitions to increase quotas and organise more arrests, thus trying to curry favour. Many of them did it not to work effectively from their perspective but to protect themselves because if you denounce and arrest more, the probability you will be arrested is much lower. But this didn’t save somebody.

What is the psych profile of an NKVD worker you would picture? Can a person see the torture of others, participate in it actively and then calmly go home, kiss his wife, play with his children?

It is a very good question. If we are talking about those who executed the arrested people directly, there were different stories. There were so-called record-holding executioners who killed tens of thousands of people. It is hard to imagine. A person came to work every day and executed several people firing a bullet in the back of their heads.

Many of them had big mental problems. Many of them took to drink. Many of them died because of liver cirrhosis because a human psyche can’t withstand such an amount of murders. Camp inspectors simply considered the prisoners as criminals, and they had such an attitude to them at first because nobody was going to check why a person ended up in the camp if it was the opponent’s denunciation, he stole something from the Soviet power or whether he really was a criminal. This is why for the inspectors all these people were equal.

A lot of NKVD employees who continued their service after the Gulag system closed tried not to remember and speak about this system. We’ve recently seen the latest situation when all archives of the Soviet era were opened in Ukraine. There was a petition of an NKVD employee who is 95 years, he asked to make his case classified until he was alive. He didn’t want everybody to discuss that he worked at NKVD in the Stalin era.

Photo: veterano.com.ua
A lot of NKVD employees who continued their service after the Gulag system closed tried not to remember and speak about this system. Photo: wikipedia.org

“Gulag documents are sealed until 2044”

Can you say as a teacher if the youth know enough about Gulag?

More people know about Gulag now, of course. On the other hand, there was such a situation that people started to talk about Gulag a lot in the USSR in the late 80s, during the last years of Perestroika. This theme was very topical. And then, after the dissolution of the Union because of the crisis and further problems, this theme was discussed less. Moreover, there were more opportunities to study materials, people just had other needs in the new economic reality. Now a part of the documents is still closed, some archives opened in the 90s closed again now. And today what was managed to be digitalised in the 90s is available in America but isn’t in Russia. The ban from many Gulag documents was to be lifted in 2014, but this date was postponed to 30 years, and now the documents are sealed until 2044. Now we know enough about Gulag and we’ve already found the most important things, but there is a class of documents that haven’t been studied at all.

This topic doesn’t arouse big interest in Russian consciousness because it is hard for a person to imagine who doesn’t deal with this topic how big the network of camps was, what it was. This happens because now the quality of life is quite low in Russian regions. And when a person tries to live on a low salary, he is not interested in the fact that there was Gulag or other terrible things happened, he has enough modern-time problems. One should understand it too. For instance, this topic is more discussed in Moscow than in the regions, especially in northern regions where there were much more camps. Plus, in Moscow, in a big city, this topic is discussed easier. When descendants of both inspectors and prisoners live in towns, of course, they try not to talk about it. Prisoners could often become inspectors, while inspectors could become prisoners.

Did your attitude to the USSR and Communist change when you began to study Gulag?

I began my research on Gulag in 2015, however, it wasn’t anything new to me because I had known about Stalinist repressions since my childhood. And this is why this wasn’t anything completely new. The only thing I didn’t know was such an amount of specific information, names, places. But I finally understood that I should deal with this topic in the spring of 2015 when I was in the Russian North and a local began to explain that there weren’t any camps besides Solovki. Then he started to explain that his girlfriend’s father escaped from a camp in Severodvinsk (then Molotovska) and reached Kargopol (in the south of Arkhangelsk Oblast) on the ice from the Northern Dvina River on foot. This distance is comparable with the length of such a country as France. And I can’t believe if this is a myth or not, but the information that Arkhangelsk Oblast didn’t have any other camps became a reason to study this theme.

I study more the issue of how the Gulag topic was discussed after the camps closed. My research is dedicated to the memorial Gulag museums. I study how this topic began to be discussed by both former prisoners and people who had nothing to do with the camps, how this topic of Gulag memory had developed in post-Soviet Russia until now.

Photo: tripadvisor.ru
My research is dedicated to the memorial Gulag museums. I study how this topic began to be discussed by both former prisoners and people who had nothing to do with the camps, how this topic of Gulag memory had developed in post-Soviet Russia until now

Will your book on the history of the creation of camps for political prisoners see the light?

I hope so. A dissertation first, the book then.

Why are Gulag museums are needed today? Why should they exist?

As a researcher, I ask a question about the necessity of such a museum and the correctness of this way to talk about the past. It is one of the examples of how one can talk about the past — through expositions, through projects, through artefacts, personal belongings of people who were in Gulag, some boards, fragments of barracks, wires, cups, bowls brought from the camp. A museum is a kind of institution of preservation and conservation of the past. In this case, humankind hasn’t invented anything better. There are formats of virtual museums, they haven’t spread as much as real museums so far where original things of that era lie. They do stress the historical authenticity — it is not just some forgery but real things of that era. I think no memorial museum has a correct or wrong strategy. First of all, they should conserve the material, they digitalise documents, interview those who were in Gulag. It is kind of historical and social institutions forming a civil society and showing that sometimes human rights are violated. It isn’t about Gulag museums only but also the Holocaust and other similar museums.

By Matvey Antropov