Stalin's Slave Laborers. The Extent and Significance of a Modern Phenomenon (1947)

Author: 

Jack WEBER. (Louis Jacobs)

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 origi-
nal. They ran parallel with, if they were not mere copies of
those utilized by Stalin. If Hitler sent millions of people, pri-
marily 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 be-
cause 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 Rus-
sia 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) arc operating full blast. There is, nevertheless, a dis-
tinct 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 Stalin-
ist border guards. Masses of people were hurled across the
boundaries, first one way, then the other. Hundreds of thou-
sands 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 So-
viet 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 dem-
ocratic 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 perse-
cution. 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 tes-
timony 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 Sta-
linism are destined to make a deep imprint on world opinion
in the coming period. Humanity has, to all appearances, re-
mained quite indifferent over a period of years to the stifled
cry of slave laborers oF the GPU. The evidence of the fright-
ful 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 quantita-
tive weight of unimpeachable testimony. Hitler and Musso-
lini 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 atti-
tude 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 moldcrs
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 feel-
ing 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 atti-
tude 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 feel-
ings 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 lagters. The
tone of disinterestedness, even of equanimity, with which the
previous revelations were received, will give way to another
wave of humanitarian ism.

How is it that the working class has not lifted its voice
against the inhuman cruelties of the terror regime in the Rus-
sian slave camps? The answer would have to include a full
history of the confusion introduced into the ranks of the work-
ers 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 men-
tion 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 tele-
scope." 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 ex-
pression. 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 Rus-
sia. Every single document of the unfortunate Poles, and they
come from all walks of life, makes clear that what they en-
dured 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 Hit-
ler had in common. Their armies carried with them in their
conquests lists of "undesirables" who were to be arrested im-
mediately. It is hardly surprising that both lists were headed
by revolutionists. First on Stalin's lists were Trotskyists, mem-
bers 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 in-
cluded 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 Rus-
sia, for it takes not individuals who arc 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
GPU 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 parlies 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 deal-
ings whatsoever directly with the Red Army, all known Com-
munists, 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 parti-
san 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 com-
ing 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 them-
selves as foreigners, but that the whole system and the insti-
tutions 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 in-
ward 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 de-training 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 in-
credible, a country-wide practice of the black hole of Calcutta.

Is it surprising that in prisons also the terms used by the war-
dens 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 no-
body 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 pris-
oners 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 com-
mission 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 morn-
ing by a Russian orchestral The prisoners sing to its accom-
paniment 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 bri-
gade 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 adminis-
tration. "From this first-hand evidence it is known that vast
regions about Kuibyshev, in northern Siberia and in Kazak-
stan, 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 terri-
tory 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, facto-
ries, 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 de-
velopment 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 glar-
ing gaps due to failures in the bureaucratic five-year plans. The
interstices of these plans, based on the most intense exploita-
tion 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 Eng-
lish 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 thou-
sand of them, survivors of over half a million, to emigrate.

The loss to the camps in this process was made up with Ger-
man, 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 out-
right 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 impe-
rialists who seek in time to wage war on Russia. There is no
better weapon with which to arm these imperialists than work-
ing 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 par-
ticipate 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 campsl"

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 Sovietique, 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 to-
gether, "decided to eternalize the people's memory of them
by a last manifestation of their inflexible will, and thus re-
main victorious even if condemned to hard labor." They pre-
sented 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 suc-
cess or death, a hunger strike lasting for 120 days without in-
terruption! 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 sec-
tions (states within a state) of "nationalized property." This
nationalized property—mines, factories, forests, railroads—is
completely in the hands of the GPU. Such nationalized prop-
erty 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 con-
crete analysis is dangerous and misleading. Nationalized prop-
erty 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 op-
pressed masses. We defend them, their welfare, their con-
quests, 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 Wallaces, fearful of any new revo-
lution 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 so-
cialist revolution by protesting in one mighty voice against
the retention of the concentration camps for slave labor in
Russia.
April 27, 1947.

THE NEW INTERNATIONAL
A Monthly Organ of Revolutionary Marxism
VOL XIII JULY, 1947 NO. 5