The new meaning of GULAG

Russia’s policy of historical memory has gradually led to the rehabilitation of Soviet communism. Motivated by the creation of the idea of a strong Russia, the Soviet Union’s role as a world power and “victor over fascism” has been rehabilitated, leaving aside all the suffering endured by the peoples who lived under real socialism, including Russians. This historical memory has prevented the disappearance of the thousands of streets and squares dedicated to Soviet leaders or statues of Lenin, and has subsequently seen the erection of statues and busts of Stalin and disappearance of plaques or monuments to his victims. Statues, temporary ones, have been erected even to Stalin’s most sinister lackey, Lavrenty Beria . If Stalin was a great moderniser and statesman, the Holodomor was the fault of a bad harvest, and the Red Army committed no crimes during World War II, it was only a matter of time before crimes committed in the GULAG began to be questioned. And that time has now come.

Since 1 January, a new Russian law, approved by President Vladimir Putin, has come into force authorising the use of prisoners as labour and providing for the creation of two types of labour camps: entire colonies where prisoners will work for the state or for contract companies, and special “correctional centres” attached to commercial sites. Predictably, Putin’s opposition has criticised this measure and compared this prison system to the GULAG. This, of course, has caused logical outrage among Kremlin supporters, however, some media outlets have not dismissed these claims as exaggerated, but have countered by pointing out that the GULAG system devised by Stalin was not as we have been told.

For example, Viktoriya Nikiforova of the state news agency Novosti published an article on news portals such as and “The Federal Criminal System’s initiative to use the labour of imprisoned citizens in construction work has provoked a predictable outpouring of hatred from ‘democratic society’. In their opinion, this will be a new GULAG or even worse”. For this journalist, rather than believing these hatemongers, Russians should inform themselves about the real conditions in these camps and not accept the widespread myths about Stalin’s camps spread by Russophobes inside and outside Russia, but consider the real conditions in the camps at that time.

“The ‘Archipelago (Gulag)’, despite the myths, was vast and varied. There were camps with horrible conditions, but there were also ‘model’ camps for the time and place. One should not forget the general standard of living in Soviet Russia after the Civil War. For the intellectuals of the capital, for the former merchants and for the kulaks, conditions in the countryside were often nightmarish. But for the poor peasant, for the urban lumpen and for the homeless children, people who had literally starved all their lives, the labour camp offered three meals a day, warm housing and some medical help”. In other words, the negative perception of the camp was only held by the “rich”, the enemies of the people who were forced to live like those they had “oppressed”.

“It was a more or less normal life compared to the more difficult circumstances of the poor at that time. An important part of it was work”. According to the journalist, the slave labour to which the inmates were subjected was in fact a training that enabled them to move up the economic ladder in the future. “The main means of socialisation after the end of punishment was the specialisation of the workers. This was a real ‘path in life’. It allowed the former criminal element to join the ranks of law-abiding citizens”. Yes, there were excesses, but, “the country had to care about its citizens”.

These statements have caused outrage among many Russians, especially other journalists, but they are also increasingly accepted by broad sections of the population who have become accustomed to the mythologising of the Soviet dictatorship. If Stalin is praised in textbooks, it is logical to regard his opponents as “enemies of the people” and to justify repressions they suffered. From there, it is only a matter of time, and the unveiling of more museums, statues and memorial plaques, before Stalin and his whole gang of criminals are elevated to the altars and the millions of dead are just a statistic in some history book. Nikiforova’s views are on their way to becoming official truth.

Alvaro Peñas

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