Weber (Jacobs) Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Jack Weber

Stalin’s Slave Laborers

The Extent and Significance of a Modern Phenomenon

(April 1947)

From New International, Vol. XII No. 5, July 1947, pp. 131–134.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

History records no greater crime than that of the Stalinist regime in its treatment of the victims in the concentration camps. Hitler’s methods were not original. They ran parallel with, if they were not mere copies of those utilized by Stalin. If Hitler sent millions of people, primarily the Jews, into the gas chambers, the Russian camps have crushed, dehumanized and done to death more victims than all other concentration camps combined. For a time the war brought a decrease in the slave labor population of the lagiers, as Stalin’s hell-holes are called. But this was only because the Kremlin found it necessary to use many of the male prisoners as a stopgap in the front lines, where they were quickly mowed down. This was part of the price paid by Russia for Stalin’s being taken by surprise despite all the warnings that the Nazis would invade Russia. The end of the war once again reversed the trend. The far-away Siberian wastes are filling up anew. The slave labor enterprises of the MVD (the GPU) are operating full blast. There is, nevertheless, a distinct difference so far as the outside world is concerned.

The Iron Curtain has been definitively pierced. The war broke down the frontiers so zealously watched by the Stalinist border guards. Masses of people were hurled across the boundaries, first one way, then the other. Hundreds of thousands of Poles, among others, more than half of whom were Jews, fled before Hitler’s armies in 1939 into Stalin’s share of Poland. The Russian criminal code forbade entry into Soviet territory without proper credentials. What did it matter that the boundaries had been shifted arbitrarily overnight! That irony was only deepened by the clause in the “most democratic of all Constitutions,” Stalin’s own, which specifically set aside any punishment in case anyone was forced to flee across the borders as the result of political or religious persecution. The Polish refugees were arrested, imprisoned for months, then sent to hard labor in Siberia for three to eight years. This applied to old and young, the feeble and the strong, worker and bourgeois. The invasion of Russia in 1941 paved the way for the agreement with the Polish government in exile headed by Sikorski to build a Polish army on Russian soil. This made it possible for those who had survived – and they were a minority – to return ultimately to Western Europe. The testimony of these people concerning the lagiers and slave labor in Russia has only begun to be poured out to the world. There are in addition many Russians, some who had been prisoners of war, some slave laborers for the Germans, others Red Army deserters, who resist all attempts to force their return to the “Fatherland.” The experiences of these Russians under Stalinism are destined to make a deep imprint on world opinion in the coming period. Humanity has, to all appearances, remained quite indifferent over a period of years to the stifled cry of slave laborers of the GPU. The evidence of the frightful conditions maintained in the lagiers came out before the outbreak of the war in a thin trickle only. But the fog created by Stalinist propaganda is being dissipated by the quantitative weight of unimpeachable testimony. Hitler and Mussolini have disappeared from the scene, leaving behind only the despicable Franco. Now the workers of the world will be brought face to face with the Soviet dictator Stalin and his methods.

The change in attitude bound to come in world opinion will be due only in part to the wider evidence of the truth concerning Russian concentration camps. It will also be due to the chilling of the political atmosphere which has already begun. There is a certain similarity in this sense with the attitude shown toward Hitler. The brutalities practiced by the Nazis first of all on the German workers, later more horribly on the Jews, were known to the diplomats and to the molders of opinion in the capitalist world. That world accepted the sacrifice of the Jewish masses in its stride so long as Hitler was carrying through the counter-revolution in Germany. It was only when Hitler turned his attention outward against the rival imperialists that the latter developed humanitarian feeling about Nazi atrocities. These “feelings,” having served their temporary political purpose, have long since been discarded. There is somewhat of an analogy, within limits, in the attitude toward Stalin. The ruling strata of the rest of the world viewed with undisguised satisfaction the bloody annihilation of the older Russian revolutionary generation by the Kremlin bureaucracy. Stalin was laying the ghost of the revolution; the sympathies of the capitalist world were with him, not with his victims. But Stalin is now pressing outward and the feelings of the great power politicians are being ruffled. Soon these imperialist spokesmen will begin to discover the awful plight of the starved and beaten victims in the Russian lagiers. The tone of disinterestedness, even of equanimity, with which the previous revelations were received, will give way to another wave of humanitarianism.

How is it that the working class has not lifted its voice against the inhuman cruelties of the terror regime in the Russian slave camps? The answer would have to include a full history of the confusion introduced into the ranks of the workers everywhere by Stalinism. Those who come out of Russia to live abroad after suffering the tortures of the damned in the lagiers express utter astonishment at the inability of people to comprehend what is taking place under Stalin’s rule. T.S. Eliot speaks in his introduction to the powerful book, The Dark Side of the Moon, of the power of planned ignorance. This is indeed the role of Stalinism. But Eliot fails to mention that, with all the cunning disinformation created by the Kremlin, with all the aid from the Communist Parties and their fellow travelers abroad, there had to be also a certain amount of connivance on the part of the capitalist world across the frontiers to maintain the Iron Curtain.

The title of the book itself gives part of the explanation of the difficulty for the truth to find its way to the masses. It was Arthur Koestler who referred to the vastness of Siberia with its exiled millions as being as “remote from the Western observer as the dark side of the moon from the star-gazer’s telescope.” The anonymous Polish woman who has condensed thousands of documents written by the Poles released from the Russian concentration camps, adopted her title from this expression. The sympathies of the writer, an adherent of the former London exiled Polish government, point in a direction not palatable to the radical of whatever shade. But the facts she presents are absolutely incontrovertible. She writes with utmost objectivity and with surprising restraint. This book must be read by every person who wishes to know about Russia. Every single document of the unfortunate Poles, and they come from all walks of life, makes clear that what they endured was not something unique or special. They participated in the common experience of the millions upon millions of Russians in the same camps. The Poles could at least sustain themselves on the faintest of hopes that some day they would again return to civilization. But the Russians were sunk in complete, unrelieved despair, for so long as the Stalin regime endured there was not the slightest hope that any of them would ever again return from exile. The stark fate of these lost souls beggars all the horrors that one can imagine, all that have ever been imagined in literature. Stalin practices cannibalism not in its literal sense, but just as surely in the sense of devouring the flesh and bones of living humanity in the form of slave labor.

There was one practice among others that Stalin and Hitler had in common. Their armies carried with them in their conquests lists of “undesirables” who were to be arrested immediately. It is hardly surprising that both lists were headed by revolutionists. First on Stalin’s lists were Trotskyists, members of pre-revolutionary parties such as the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries and anarchists. One such list that fell into foreign hands had fourteen categories. The eighth included refugees and political emigres from other countries; the tenth any persons who had traveled abroad. Last of all came aristocrats, landowners, wealthy merchants, bankers and industrialists. Stalinism reintroduced Asiatic justice into Russia, for it takes not individuals who are wanted but their entire families. It goes even further. In the course of raids on some house or other in search of an individual, frequently enough the GPU arrested everybody in the house for whatever reason. The mass deportations from Poland were planned by the CPU in four great waves: in February, April and June of 1940, and again in June, 1941. The first waves caught in the net representatives of all political parties of whatever shade of opinion, including the leaders of all Polish, White Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish socialist organizations and of socialist trade unions, members of working-class committees, organizers of working class, peasant and other youth institutions. The utter cynicism of these “purges” is summed up in that which took place in June 1941. Up to that time the GPU had utilized local committees of Communists and sympathizers, and even workers’ militias. These local Communists had often enough helped choose those to be deported to Siberia. Their own turn came last! All those who had had any kind of dealings whatsoever directly with the Red Army, all known Communists, were shipped off in the fourth series of raids. What a curious light (let us say it mildly) this throws on the policy advocated by some Trotskyists to have Polish workers in partisan militias place themselves under the direct command of the Red Army generals! That policy certainly facilitated the task of the GPU of uprooting every vestige of working-class independence.

The description of the deportation trains is poignant and tragic beyond words. The utter indifference to considerations of common humanity evinced by the Red Army guards is a measure of the dehumanizing effects of life under Stalinism. The Poles thought first that this was due to the Russian hatred of Poland. Not at all!

“It was still very difficult for people coming from outside the Union to understand that such things could be everyday sights; that members of these people’s own families, their fellow workers or neighbors, might as easily have been transported in similar trains to similar destinations ... It was still some time before they understood that all this was not some otherwise unheard-of proceeding against themselves as foreigners, but that the whole system and the institutions to which they were being taken had, in fact, come into existence and continued to exist as a normal part of life for Soviet citizens.”

All Russian literature of Czarist times – it is the profound contribution of that literature to the world – is permeated with the deepest feelings of humanity, to the very point of inward torture. Stalinism has, at least outwardly, registered its greatest success in creating the complete atomizing of society in place of solidarity. Each is intent on his own salvation and is trained by terror to show utter lack of any concern for the suffering of his neighbor. This is true of ordinary life. It is trebly so in the lagiers where the sheer problem of survival brutalizes every living soul. A survivor gives this description of the long march from the detraining center to the camp:

“A nineteen-year-old boy with blood pouring from his lungs, fell for the last time and was so savagely beaten with rifles that, in the words of the witness reporting it, ‘he was beaten into the ground.’”

Since law meant nothing at all, the GPU being a law unto itself, everything was arbitrary. The crowding of prisoners in trains, then in prison cells, was something incredible, a country-wide practice of the black hole of Calcutta. Is it surprising that in prisons also the terms used by the wardens have become once again identical with those used in Czarist times? A well-known Socialist sums up the treatment of prisoners as follows: “The prisoner is to get it into his head as soon as possible that he is nothing but a thing and that nobody has any reason to be particular about the way he treats him.”

Stalinism is shown at its “purest” in the slave labor camps. Here is the final outcome of the GPU system. The Russian prisoners have a saying: “Nobody leaves lagier behind. Lagier is forever!” Yet occasionally a medical commission makes the rounds and releases from labor the total wrecks who have not yet died.

“In September and October 1941, a medical commission from Magadan visited some of the Kolyma mining and lumber camps. A long procession of human phantoms appeared in the town and were put into ships. Those who saw them go aboard could hardly believe they were human. It was a procession not of human beings, but of corpses and trunks. The majority had neither noses, lips nor ears; very many were armless and legless. Among these was a handful only of Poles. The rest were all Soviet citizens. The Magadan commission had recognized them as being unfit for work! In Magadan it was said that, once aboard ship, they were taken out to sea and drowned, but there is not any proof of this.”

There is a Soviet “opera” unknown to the rest of the world. It is just the kind of grotesque and gruesome occurrence that one would expect under the rule of Stalin. In many of the camps the slave laborers are accompanied to work each morning by a Russian orchestra! The prisoners sing to its accompaniment a mournful dirge:

”And if you don’t accomplish the norm
They give you only three hundred grams of bread.”

Food is distributed by “Kettle,” of which four or more categories are prescribed, from the punishment kettle up to the special kettle of the trustee. The kettle depends upon the amount of work accomplished, the unit being an impossible norm rarely if ever achieved. The slaves must put in twelve hours of hard labor besides the hours of exhausting marching to and from the places of work. After the invasion of Russia by the Nazis, there were never any free days. No political prisoners were allowed to hold any sort of administrative posts, even the most minor. Such posts when held by prisoners were given to the common criminals of the underworld. These brigade leaders became bestial slave drivers in order to protect their own few privileges, above all those connected with food. One survived, under a system bound to be corrupt from top to bottom, only through “blat,” inadequately translated as graft.

It is the extent of the slave labor camps that freezes one’s blood as much as the unmitigated blackness of their administration.

“From this first-hand evidence it is known that vast regions about Kuibyshev, in northern Siberia and in Kazakstan, with, to the north, the whole of the Komi Republic up to Archangel, with Novaya Zemlya, have camps of this kind along almost every kilometer.”

In all this territory the MVD holds complete sway. There exist only guards and guarded! This tremendous GPU state is divided into zones, each territory enclosed within barbed wire, patrolled by armed guards and their dogs, and made doubly secure by lookout towers and storks’ nests containing sentries. The population of these camps has never been divulged but is estimated anywhere from ten to twenty millions of souls. All these slaves are engaged in the building of canals, railroads, roads and bridges, factories, towns, ports, mining, forest clearing, or in cultivating gigantic state farms of ten to twenty thousand hectares.

The concentration camps of Stalin, euphemistically called “corrective labor camps,” are the index of the fear in the hearts of the Russian rulers, and of the terror required to hold down the Russian population. A regime built on measures of this kind and on so vast a scale is inevitably one of profound crisis. But like all such phenomena, it takes on an independent development of its own with its own “vested interests.” It is a source of vast profit to the state rulers and to the GPU. The Gulag, the labor camp administration, tries to fill in the glaring gaps due to failures in the bureaucratic five-year plans. The interstices of these plans, based on the most intense exploitation of the Russian proletariat, are cemented with slave labor outright. The turnover of labor in the giant clusters of camps is an important factor to be reckoned with in its effects on Russian life. Twenty to thirty per cent of deaths each year in the mines of the Far East and the Far North are common. Those who are released after serving their terms, are required to stay put in the places of exile, but are still counted as “lost” to the GPU. Replacements are ordered by the Gulag from the country-wide collection centers. Kravchenko showed how these demands from above influence arrests and rearrests on any available pretext or none at all. In colonial days the English resorted to impressment for their navy or for colonizing of the New World. But never in all history has there been outright enslavement in any country on such a scale. Uncle Tom’s Cabin made a great appeal against the separation of families under slavery. This is a commonplace of Soviet life. In fact there is a special camp in the Karaganda cluster in Central Asia known as the “Wives’ Camp” and used for the wives and widows of former Soviet leaders.

It is clear why Stalin needs an Iron Curtain. He has much to hide. Not all that he would like to keep hidden has to do with military secrets. When the Poles began their trek back after their belated release – the big majority of them remain buried in Russian earth – Stalin did his best to force them to become Soviet citizens in order not to let them out with the information they possessed. Stalin claimed that the Jews taken from Poland were Soviet citizens (as in the case of Ehrlich and Alter). He finally permitted the one hundred and fifty thousand of them, survivors of over half a million, to emigrate. The loss to the camps in this process was made up with German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war. It was also made up with those Russian prisoners of war who were repatriated from Western Europe, those of them who were not shot outright for having committed the crime of seeing too much of the outside world. Stalin is fearful concerning the Russians who have fled abroad, including a large number of Red Army deserters. They may become the new centers of resistance, just as did the exiles under the Czar.

The challenge to humanity that exists in such glaring form in the Russian slave labor camps cannot be ignored without extreme peril to the working class of the entire world. If it is the workers everywhere who must free themselves and all the oppressed, it is certainly the workers of all other countries who must come to the aid of the workers ground into the dust in Russia. There are those who would remain silent on this question because they fear that any agitation against Russian slave labor will become a weapon in the hands of the imperialists who seek in time to wage war on Russia. There is no better weapon with which to arm these imperialists than working class silence on this life-and-death matter. If the vanguard of the workers is unable to rally the working class in fierce protest against such inhumanity, then reaction will seize on the issue for its own purposes at a suitable time. To fail to raise this issue without let-up because of a fear that reaction will profit from it means only that one does not know how to make use of the issue in Marxist fashion. Silence means to participate in the worst crime in all history. It is hard to believe that the working class, with the facts already known, can allow another May Day to pass without the cry: “Down with Stalin’s slave labor camps!”

We Trotskyists owe a special duty to those comrades who gave so heroic an example to the world (it is now revealed in the testimony gathered by S. Mora and P. Zwierniak in La Justice Soviétique, as quoted by the Menshevik Dallin, whose factual gathering of material is most praiseworthy, though his motives fall under the shadow of imperialism) at the camp in Vorkuta. Several dozen of them, while they were still together, “decided to eternalize the people’s memory of them by a last manifestation of their inflexible will, and thus remain victorious even if condemned to hard labor.” They presented demands claiming the right of political prisoners to be separated from the criminals, the right to be employed only for work corresponding to their professions, and the right not to be separated. They then started a hunger strike until success or death, a hunger strike lasting for 120 days without interruption! Many died despite forced feeding.

“When all the efforts to break their spirit proved ineffective, the Trotskyites were separated with the help of a pack of fierce dogs unleashed in their barracks.”

All were certainly shot later. The memory of these brave ones is surely eternal! Their challenge to us must be met.

The Russian phenomenon of slave labor is a challenge also to our theories. Never forget that the camps control vast sections (states within a state) of “nationalized property.” This nationalized property – mines, factories, forests, railroads – is completely in the hands of the GPU. Such nationalized property has become completely identified with direct state slave labor. It is a kind of “pure form” of the tendency that exists under completely reactionary Stalinism. It is the most urgent warning that the mere words “nationalized property” or any formula using these mere words without complete and concrete analysis is dangerous and misleading. Nationalized property under Stalinism, in or out of the concentration camps, is permitted to serve the masses not in the slightest degree. Our deepest sympathies go everywhere to the exploited and oppressed masses. We defend them, their welfare, their conquests, not those of the privileged and exploiting minority. The concentration camps in Russia with their millions of forced laborers, are an important part of the evidence that the nationalized property taken by the masses in the October Revolution, has been wrested completely from the hands of the working class. That property today serves the interests of the rulers completely. The Wall aces, fearful of any new revolution inside Russia because such a revolution will endanger the entire capitalist system which they defend, shut their eyes to the existence of bestial slave labor in Russia. But only such a revolution can free the millions of political prisoners from the lagiers and prisons. Only such a revolution can restore the nationalized property to the masses from whom it was usurped. The American working class can help their suffering Russian brothers and sisters along the path to the renewal of the socialist revolution by protesting in one mighty voice against the retention of the concentration camps for slave labor in Russia.

April 27, 1947

Weber (Jacobs) Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 8 June 2017