Gulag Press, 1920 - 1937
Editor: Leo van Rossum In December 1917, Lenin already made forced labour a tool in the struggle of the Bolshevik State against its real or imagined opponents. The Soviet system of forced labour camps, which sprang up in the twenties, was relatively small, and still had some features of political re-education and socialization. But from 1930 on, GULAG or the Main Directorate for Corrective Labour Camps changed in scope as well as in character. In several "waves", a huge system developed, forming a secret world mirroring visible Soviet society. The first wave was based on collectivization. In 1930 there were approximately 600.000 prisoners (‘zeks’ in inmate's slang), and 2 million in 1931/32. The second wave followed the political trials of 1936-38. After the Nazi-Soviet pact of non-aggression, foreign residents and victims in newly taken areas like Eastern Poland (1 million Poles) and Balts (200.000) were sent to the camps. In 1942 it is estimated that between 8 and 15 million prisoners were interned. The last wave occurred between 1945-1950 as Stalin's leadership became increasingly paranoid. Estimates of total camp population over the entire period vary between 40 and 50 million people. The death toll in the years 1919 to 1956 is estimated at approximately 15 to 30 million. At the high point of Stalinist terror, the GULAG was a system of thousands of camps and clusters of camps located mainly in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North. The soviet economy was dependent on forced labour to a large degree. Prisoners worked in the mines, dug canals and lumbered the forested North. They constructed the White Sea- Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga canal, and the Baikal-Amur railroad line, numerous strategic roads and industrial enterprises, and the Moscow subway. Extra secret camps were involved in arms development. In the micro-cosmos of a camp there were medical services, housing for staff, punishment blocks, and a ‘Cultural and Educational Section’. This section was responsible for the press in the camps, amongst other things.
Origins of the GULAG Press
Publishing within penitentiary institutions has a long tradition in Russia. The idea behind it was that editorial participation of the inmates would stimulate their re-education. During the twenties the internally published prison journal was quite a familiar phenomenon in young Soviet Russia. The journals circulated outside the prisons as well. Paid subscriptions and commercial advertisements were eagerly accepted. The foundation of the GULAG Press towards 1930 made an abrupt end to this liberal approach. From that time onward, all publications within penitentiary institutions came under strict centralized supervision, the aim of re-education was subverted to that of increased labour productivity, and an explicit ban was put on circulation outside the camps.
From the years 1930/32, almost all camps in the GULAG Arkhipelago published "news" bulletins through the central Kul'turno-Vospitatel'nyi Otdel (KVO) of the camp in question. (Sub)divisions of a camp sometimes had their own bulletins, published by the divisional Kul'turno-Vospitatel'naia Chast' (KVCh.) Smaller units occasionally published posters, which have, in most cases, not been preserved.
In bigger camps (Belbaltlag, Bamlag, Dmitlag), the KVO's published monthly cultural-literary journals, in which inmates could publish contributions. Parallel to these monthlies, the KVOs published series of booklets containing poems, short stories, placards, and even music. Most bulletins were issued in A3 format, each issue normally had 4 pages. The printing quality of both the bulletins and the cultural editions was generally quite acceptable, and pictorial material equalled that of the daily soviet press, as most camps had their own, more or less well-equipped, printing shops. The bulletin printing frequency ran at one to three times a week. The pressrun varied between 3,000-2,5000 for a central bulletin, 300-1000 for a divisional bulletin. Pressruns for a non-serial publication averaged 3,000-5,000 copies. Most bulletins were in Russian, two or three in Ukrainian, and there was one each in Uzbek, Kazakh and Tatar.
Although all publications served primarily as propaganda instruments aimed at inciting the inmates to work ever harder, this does not imply that all that is printed in the GULAG Press is unreliable or false as a consequence. In applying traditional, professional source criticism, it is possible to differentiate, in many cases, between propaganda and reliable information. News coverage in the bulletins used to be rather broad in the early thirties, at least as far as the developments inside the camps were concerned. An overkill of statistical data concerning planned targets, norms and fulfilment at camp level, sections, brigades (15-35 people), and even individual inmates were presented. Substantial information about how work was organized was also presented, and this went down to the micro-level of the brigada. Every now and then reports were published on diverse subjects: the state of spring sowing at camp sovkhozy during different intervals, the results of an inquiry on preferences in camp library use, data on timber cutting and its transport down the rivers, detailed technical information about sluice works, the best method to tend tomato plants in winter, etc.
A substantial part of the bulletins focused on contributions by the lagkory (lagernye korrespondenty). The institution of camp correspondent implies, by definition, writing for the camp press according to camp authorities policy. Reports written by the lagkory were therefore always suspect in the eyes of other inmates, and most later historians. Nevertheless, some of the critical notes published under the lagkory name had a ring of authenticity, in that they refer to real wrongs in work organization, or personal abuses. In sum, the GULAG Press contains a lot of historically relevant data unexplored by researchers so far.
Leo van Rossum †,
International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam
In memoriam Leo van Rossum
Leo van Rossum had almost finished writing the introductory text above, when he died unexpectedly on June 15th, 1999. The catalogue was compiled under his supervision by Jim Verhoeff. It is a sad loss for his family, his colleagues and the larger scientific community, as he was known for his knowledge of Soviet history and his warm and humorous personality. Huub Sanders, also IISH, took care of final details for the project.