June 01, 2005

The Gulag Archipelego vs. Amnesty International's 'Gulags'

Work Will Make You Free
Sign over the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Labor in the USSR Is a Matter of Honor, Courage, and Heroism
Sign over the gulag camps gates.

[Right: A group of exiles prepares for mass deportation to Siberia]

Last week Amnesty International called the Guantanomo Bay, Cuba, detention facility (also knows as Camp X-Ray) where so-called 'enemy combatants' in the Global War on Terror are being held 'the gulag of our times.'

By invoking the term gulag, Amnesty International wishes to convey the notion that what is happening to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is somehow comparable to the Soviet labor camp prison system of the Stalinist era. By using the term gulag, Amnesty International wishes to convey images of political terrorism, repression, and harsh prison conditions.

Comparing Guantanomo to a gulag is a serious accusation.

This post explores three questions: What exactly is a gulag and how widespread was the gulag system? What were the Soviet gulags like? And how do the worst and yet unproven allegations of abuse at Guantanomo Bay compare to what happened in Soviet gulags?

None of these questions are fully answered here, but hopefully the reader will come away with a better understanding of the gulag system and the political motivations of Amnesty International in using the term.

Let's begin with the last question first.

What have the Guantanomo Bay prisoners alleged?

[Right: Gulag workers]

According to Amnesty International, there were about 520 prisoners altogether at Guantamo, of which 234 have been released or tranfered out. Many have claimed 'abuse' ranging from humiliating name-calling to guards punching the prisoners.

A videotape of alleged abuse is said to reveal:

the guards punching some detainees, tying one to a gurney for questioning and forcing a dozen to strip from the waist down [in front of female guards].
Al Jazeera calls this one of the 'worst cases' of abuse, presumably because it was allegedly done by a female FBI agent:
One document describes how an FBI special agent (SA) observed a female interrogator caress a shackled prisoner, whisper in his ear and then cause him to grimace in pain.

"SA [name deleted] asked what had happened to cause the detainee to grimace up in pain," the document said.

"The marine said [she] had grabbed the detainees thumbs and bent them backwards and indicated that she also grabbed his genitals."

The document showed that the marine also implied that her treatment of that detainee was less harsh than her treatment of others.

He said he had seen her cause other detainees to curl up into a foetal position on the floor and cry in pain.

An FBI memo cited by Al Jazeera reported the whopping number of:
26 agents at Guantanamo said they had observed some form of mistreatment, although not by FBI personnel.
Only 9 of these were deemed serious enough to investigate.

Cageprisoners.com, an openly pro-jihadist website cloaked in a civil-libertarian dressing, documents the alleged abuses of 6 Bahraini prisoners of Camp X-Ray in this PDF document. Most of the allegations are nothing more than common prison horror stories, much worse could be seen in any prison inspired movie, but some of them do include the allegations of abuse by interrogators (including death threats), mishandling of the Koran, and the story of a guard who overeacted to one of the prisoners for religious reasons.

There are no allegations of out and out murder nor are there allegations that prisoners have been starved to death.

If all the allegations were to prove correct we would have the story of several hundred victims of being at the wrong place (mostly foreigners in Afghanistan their for 'religious studies') at the wrong time (captured within Taliban lines or at al Qaeda camps), taken to a far-off prison with little recourse to due process, and who find that while their lives are in no danger, the conditions at their new home are abusive and less than ideal.

If all of the above is true then Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is a blemish on America's good name and a national shame which needs correcting.

I do not believe for a moment that the majority of the abuse stories at Camp X-Ray are true, especially in light of the recent revelation that al Qaeda trains its operatives to make abuse allegations. However, it is probable that some of the stories are true, even if the majority of those stories turn out to be the kind of routine behavior accepted at most US detention facilities. Abuse happens in prisons, and such abuse should be rooted out. But if you cannot accept any level of abuse at a prison then you cannot accept any penal system.

So then how do the abuses at Camp X-Ray compare to the Soviet gulags? Are such comparisons fair?

What is a gulag?

From the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office's Gulag study which investigates and seeks the return of the bodies of US soldiers held in the Soviet gulags:

The word “gulag” became a familiar term in the West with the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s epic novel, The Gulag Archipelag, in 1973. A Russian acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerey (Main Administration of Camps), “Gulag,” is often used to mean any oppressive penal system.
The problem with calling any penal system which is 'oppressive' a gulag is that it minimizes the enormity of the crimes committed in the Soviet gulag system. Still, the term is lightly thrown around among polemicists wishing to make a point.

It is important to recognize three distinguishing characteristics of the gulags that seperate them from other prison systems.

[Right: Graves of victims at Kolyma gulag]

First, the gulags were a form of political terrorism. These massive prisons were used to weed out those that were even remotely suspected of having all but the most enthusiastic of feelings toward the Soviet system. Solzhenitsyn, for instance, found himself in a Siberian gulag for making the mistake of making a joke about Stalin in a letter.

Can a single prison holding less than 500 people be considered a widespread tool of political terrorism?

Second, the gulags were a source of slave labor. It is not a coincidence that the massive increase in the number of prisoners in the gulags is timed precisely with the announcement of Stalin's first Five Year Plan. Although most of our knowledge of the gulag system comes from the intellectual class that survived them, such as the memories of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelego, most of the victims were simple peasants. The gulags were not prisons in the Western sense of the word. The gulags were massive industrial complexes of forced labor.

No prisoner at Guantanomo or at any other detention facility for war prisoners has alleged forced labor.

Third, while the purpose of the gulags was not necessarily to torture or kill prisoners, the gulags were a place where humiliation, torture, and genocide scale mass deaths occured. Unlike survivors of the holocaust, though, who have found voice in the state of Israel, in US based interest-groups, or who have captured the fascination of Hollywood, the story of the gulags remains largely unheard of for the vast majority of the American public. While we understand that the gulags were bad places in the Soviet Union, the horrors of the gulag do not seem to resonate with us in the same way.

Very few cases of death are alleged to have occured in any US war related detention facility, none at Guantanamo.

Just how widespread was the gulag phenomenon?

Only the crimes of the Holocaust can measure up to the sheer evil of the gulags of the Soviet empire.

Anne Applebaum in Capitalism Magazine:

As a result, between 1929, when they first became a mass phenomenon, and 1953, the year of Stalin's death, some 18 million people passed through them. In addition, a further 6 or 7 million people were deported, not to camps but to exile villages. In total, that means the number of people with some experience of imprisonment in Stalin's Soviet Union could have run as high as 25 million, about 15 percent of the population.
The Hoover Institute, which in 1999 began to publish their findings from newly opened original documents from the Lenin-Kruschev era, notes:
-Ten percent of the entire population of the Soviet Union lived in the camps.
-The Gulag administration was the largest single employer in all of Europe.
-The average life expectancy of a camp prisoner was one winter.
-At least twenty million people perished in the labor camps during Stalin’s rule.

-The camps dehumanized life and instituted a reign of terror throughout Soviet society.
A single gulag complex, Kolyma, killed 3 million people.
In total, between 1937 and 1953, as estimated by Robert Conquest, Kolyma consumed almost 3 million lives, mainly natives of the Soviet Union.
But foreigners were also victim. For instance, at the Chukhots camp?
No Polish prisoners at all returned of 3000 sent to Chukhots camps
The gulags, then, were a system of terror. When speaking of a single gulag, a person may be tempted to conjure up the image of German POW camp, perhaps Stalig 13 out of a 1960s WWII movie. Perhaps this is why European and American Leftists like to compare Camp X-Ray to the gulags. Such an image, though, would be far from the truth.

To understand the sheer enormity of a single gulag one would have to envision medium sized cities made up entirely of the victims of forced relocation campaigns surrounded by a series of smaller cities made up entirely of slave laborers. Some of the gulags were so massive in geographic scale that they are hard to imagine. For instance, the deadly Kolyma gulag was really a series of forced labor camps in and around the massive gold mine and not a single prison. Think the size of US states, and not just Rhode Island and Deleware--think Kansas.

The gulags were so enormous that they pervert the Russian economy to this day. Whenever the centralized government was forced to make the decision to invest in labor or capital, labor was chosen because it was nearly free and had certain advantageous political effects. To this day, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens live in communities founded by gulag slave-labor in arctic regions which have no business being there. Many of these arctic residents are the children of gulag survivors and exiles forced to the area.

[Right: Gulag slave laborers dig the Balamor canal]whiteseacanal1.jpg
Thousands of forced labor projects left millions dead. Here is just one example from the building of the Belamor Canal:

Over 100,000 prisoners equipped with pick-axes, wheelbarrows and hatchets - dug a 227-kilometre long canal linking the Baltic and the White Sea in 20 months between 1931 and 1933. Tens of thousands died in the process.
Guantanamo Bay's Camp X-Ray at its height had just over 500 prisoners. If Amnesty International is to be believed, then the maximum figure of total prisoners ever held by the US led Global War on Terror is around 70,000. But these figures include thousands that have been already released and thousands held by friendly governments. Further, the vast majority of those who were once detained were found on a field of battle either in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

Even if one were to compare the combined US War on Terror prisons to the gulag system one would be left with a drop of abuse next to a pool of horrors and mass murders. Such a comparison is unwarrented and immoraly minimizes the horrors of the gulags.

What were the Soviet gulags like?

While the prisoners at Guantanamo complain of periodic guard abuse, Koran flushings, and no judicial review by US civilian courts, the victims of the gulag were busy dying by the millions.

But what also needs to be remembered is that the gulags were not just a place for men, but for entire families.

Susanna Pechuro retells the horrors of the gulags:

The most horrible thing I saw in a camp was how children were taken away from their mothers. Because it's something you can't live with. And there are some things I don't let myself remember, because if I do I get insomnia for several weeks remembering those screaming mothers after their children have been taken away from them, [screaming] because they will never know where these children are being taken, to what orphanages. I've never seen anything more horrible than that, even though I also saw people beaten up. But nothing more horrible than the separation of children and mothers. And this can never and should never be forgiven. No matter what communists say now, the social structure which made it possible will never be pardoned.
Melana Zyla Vickers relates the following story from Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History. It is reminiscent of the Holocaust:
...millions of children were either imprisoned with their mothers, or were born in the Gulag. Babies were taken from their mothers to be watched in batches of dozens by rough-mannered nurses. The nurses "took off their nightclothes and washed them in ice-cold water. The babies didn't even dare cry. They made little sniffing noises like old men and let out low hoots. This awful hooting noise would come from the cots for days at a time," wrote political dissident Hava Volovich. Of her own baby, Volovich wrote: "Little Eleanora, who was now fifteen months old, soon realized that her pleas for 'home' were in vain. She stopped reaching out for me when I visited her; she would turn away in silence. On the last day of her life, when I picked her up (they allowed me to breast-feed her) she stared wide-eyed somewhere off into the distance, then started to beat her weak little fists on my face. . . . Then she pointed down at her bed. In the evening, when I came back with my bundle of firewood, . . . I found her lying naked in the morgue among the corpses of the adult prisoners."
This story of the gulags reminds us of the periodic mass murders that took place. From Applebaum agian:
During the winter of 1937-38, "no hot food was given to the prisoners at all; the daily ration consisted of 400 grams of half-dried bread. [In March 1938], a new group of NKVD officers arrived from Moscow. The officers formed a 'special commission' and called out the prisoners in groups of forty. They were told they were going off on a transport. Each was given a piece of bread. The prisoners in the tent heard them being marched away --- and then [heard] the sounds of shooting."
Karol M.Nawalicki remembers the horrors of the Kolyma gulag:
"-It was easier to get accustomed to seeing the dead or dying, than to the scenes of stripping the dead bodies, sometimes even before they had died. The inmates did this themselves in order to have more clothes. There was no place for the majesty of death in the gulags of Kolyma. I could not get used to naked bodies being dragged by their legs to a special store, some considerable distance from the barracks. The mortuary was emptied depending on the season of the year."
Avraham Shifrin, the son of a gulag victim and gulag survivor himself, recounts his experience:
Until 1956, Shifrin and his fellow prisoners worked ten-hour days, seven days a week. Thereafter the work load was reduced to six days. Prisoners who attempted to escape, and were shot and killed some distance from the camp, were left to rot (though their index fingers were severed for purposes of fingerprint identification). The bodies of those shot close to camp were placed near the gate to terrorize and deter other inmates who might be contemplating escape....

Shifrin also recalled a grisly incident involving a prisoner who cut off his hand with an ax and asked a fellow inmate to place the severed appendage inside lumber that had been loaded for shipment. When Shifrin asked the amputee why he had done this, he replied that the lumber would go to other countries, where the hand might help people understand the conditions under which the lumber was cut.

Hopelessness, desperation, and fatigue from the exhausting work schedule led to many instances of self-mutilation. Some prisoners induced infections by pulling thread through the plaque between their teeth, then running the thread through a few inches of flesh with a needle. Serious infection would develop within minutes and justify their transport to a hospital for a "rest."

Krakowiecki on the mine workers at the Kolyma gulag:
From there, from the gold mine, came a procession of human phantoms. These people were driven hard to work, like animals, through the entire (summer) season. The animals would have revolted or died. The man endures more than they do. The men exploited through the season changed into skeletons. One cannot understand how these people are still alive? Only skin and bones, without exaggeration. These past people, physically completely destroyed, are not needed in the gold mine anymore, because their productivity is nil; therefore the half dead men are directed to the task of maintaining the roads."


Making any sort of comparison, even as a rhetorical device, between Camp X-Ray and the Soviet gulag system is problematic at best and grossly immoral at worst.

For Amnesty International to stoop to the low of making such a comparison reveals their ignorance of history and their political bias against the United States. While the US, like all nation-states, is not perfect, her flaws do not begin to compare to the oppression of Communist states in general and of the gulags in particular.

Shame on you Amnesty International, I will never take your accusations seriously again.


Perhaps the most complete account of the gulag system is Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, but the enormity of the work makes it difficult reading. An easy afternoon read, and a better piece of literature, is Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which recounts the humanity of a single victim on a single day under the oppression of the gulag system.

Another account of gulag stories see Applebaum's Gulag: A History, which is really a narrative history and very readable.

For a great e-bibliography, see The Soros Foundation funded Gulag link site.

Parenthetically, I spent some time studying in Russia during the mid-1990s. For about a year I studied the Soviet system. To this day the Russian people have still not come to terms with the horrors of Communism. Even survivors of the gulags prefer to blame them on Stalin, rather than the Marxist-Leninist system which Stalin was inspired by.

Roger L. Simon comes to a conclusion similar to my own here. Malkin also has a nice reaction to the Gitmo flack here along with blog reaction and Babalu Blog reminds us that the very real gulags of Cuba still operate to this day. Austin Bay fisks Amnesty here. John Henke does a good job discussing the accusation here and how the US is rightly investigating them. Villanous Company puts it into perspective here.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds is kind enough to link me and he has a good post of his own here. You might also want to check out the 'fatwas' issued below.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 01:00 PM | Comments |