Life and Human Right, 1997, No.2

Concentration Camps in the USSR

- Their Destructive Social Impact -



Tetsuro Kato
Professor, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo
Slave Labor under the name of Political Prisoners

Concentration camps are commonly known for detaining political prisoners. Therefore, people would normally think that prisoners were detained there for political reasons. For example, people have generally assumed that many of those Koreans and Japanese wives, who were repatriated from Japan to North Korea, were sent to concentration camps because they were opposed to or they criticized Kim Il Sung. Judging from the gulag experience, that assumption appears incorrect. It is generally believed that, in the USSR, at least ten million people were executed but the number of those who were executed because of their political opposition to Stalin was fewer than one million, less than ten percent. Ten percent may be an over estimation and five percent may be more realistic. Today we know only the names of those communist leaders who were executed. No information, however, is available for the many others who were executed. This is the case with the Japanese communist leaders in Russia including Kenzo Yamamoto and Teido Kunizaki who introduced "1932 Marxism Theses of Commintern" to Japan and who appeared to have been purged as followers of Trotsky for their opposition to the Stalin leadership. Who then were the majority of the people actually arrested and executed in Russia? I can give examples.

One day in a food factory in Russia, a Japanese worker complained to his Russian colleague, "Only a piece of potato again for lunch today? What a miserable country Russia is." His Russian colleague informed the authorities and the Japanese was arrested the next day for treason.

The criminal code of the former USSR, article 58, item 6, defines treason and lists some 20 specific offenses. A person will violate article 58, item 6, if he or she fails to report to the police any complaints made by others about the USSR state or the USSR leadership. We are quite certain that many people were arrested for this kind of violation of law. A criminal offender who was arrested for stealing a piece of bread found himself as a political prisoner. The accusation read: "When all the people are working hard to construct socialism, stealing bread which is the property of the people, therefore, is treason." This is only one of many examples. More can be found in Solzhenitsyn's the Gulag Archipelago, and further evidence verifying his statements continues to come to light bit by bit as time passes.

Who then were the political prisoners in the USSR? Some political leaders were obviously arrested for political reasons. But it is now very clear that the majority of the other prisoners were arrested with a view to obtaining free and hard labor. The concentration camp, in Japanese parlance, is an important government branch designed to obtain free labor for the construction of social infrastructure. For example, slave labor was used in construction of roads and harbors and in the operation of coal mines for energy supply. This was the reality of the USSR in the thirties.

As mentioned earlier, there were concentration camps in the Russian monarchy. The camps at that time served the genuine purpose of detaining political prisoners. The concentration camps right after the Russian revolution remained a place for political prisoners, holding former Social Revolutionary Party members and so-called former Bourgeoisie.

The whole situation changed, however, when new camps were established and integrated into the framework of the planned socialist economy. For urgent construction projects, the prisoners in the camps were considered a handy source of free labor. An economy based on such a system, once started, will later on run by itself. As told by Solzhenitsyn, concentration camps began to play such a vital role in the USSR economy that the economy became no longer able to operate without them. The reality was that the socialists, in fact, constructed an economic system that could not sustain itself without the free labor from concentration camps.

For example, let's assume that an instruction was received from Stalin to construct a canal in three months. Where would you find the necessary labor force? To mobilize the labor in the normal local labor market, there is a series of prior legal procedures that must be followed. What would you do under such circumstances? If prisoners are available, you need not worry about such procedures. Where are prisoners? They are already in the concentration camps. Wherever they are, in Siberia or anywhere else, just bring them here and make them work hard. It is as simple as this. What if prisoners die as a result of over- work under severe conditions to meet the deadline of the urgent work? It's simple. Just bury them in the dike of the canal. Projects progressed under such arrangements. It was the reality of those days in the USSR that those who died were permanently buried in silence leaving only their names on a piece of paper.

Therefore, the statement that a concentration camp is for the purpose of detaining political prisoners applies only to its first stage. The society becomes a slave society when concentration camp labor is integrated into the government system. In recent years in academic circles, a new term "a society accommodating slavery" began to be used. For example, "A Society Accommodating Slavery - from a Historic Perspective" was the thesis of the meeting of the Society of Japanese Historians in 1994. Socialist textbooks state that slavery existed in ancient days. In fact, there were slave systems in medieval Europe and in modern capitalist societies. Slaves are overworked today in the large farms of Pakistan, South Africa and Middle and South Americas. Perhaps, the salary earners in Japan are a kind of slave. In other words, slavery may have survived in all ages. The slavery system, however, in case of the modern socialist states, was an essential part of the economy. This is the point at issue.