The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag (review)
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Reviewed by
Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev, eds., The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2004. xviii + 212 pp.

Since the early 1990s, when most of the former Soviet archives became at least partly accessible, a vast literature has appeared in both Russian and English about the gulag system. Detailed time series are now available about the number of prisoners (including those who were able-bodied), their social and educational origins, and their occupations in the gulag, as well as many details about death and morbidity rates, the number who escaped, and the number recaptured. Hundreds of memoirs by former prisoners have presented the "view from below" of the harrowing conditions under which they lived and the way they coped with them.

Thus far, however, little information or analysis has appeared about the economics of the gulag system. This informative volume with essays by Russian and Western scholars is a pioneering work. Chapters by Paul Gregory, Andrei Sokolov, and Oleg Khlevnyuk consider the economics of the system as a whole. These chapters have now been supplemented by Khlevnyuk's monograph on the subject, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). (Khlevnyuk is also a co-editor of the Russian edition of the volume under review.) The Economics of Forced Labor provides case studies of major gulag projects, including a chapter by Mikhael Morukov on the White Sea–Baltic Canal, the first substantial construction undertaken by forced labor; a chapter by Simon Ertz and Leonid Borodkin on Noril'sk, a major center for non-ferrous metals; and a chapter by David Nordlander on Dal'stroi in the Far East, noted for its gold production. A further chapter by Christopher Joyce examines the role of the gulag in the Soviet republic of Karelia.

The translations of the Russian chapters read well, but some minor errors have crept in during the translation. The historian John D. Barber appears as John J. Barber (p. 29), the historian Elena Zubkova as Zubkov (p. 34), and the camp administrator A. P. Zavenyagin as Zaveryagin (p. 97, though his surname appears correctly on pp. 141–143). The footnotes frequently give the source as "Ukaz. soch.," which should be translated as "Op. cit." or "Ibid." The most important slip is the statement that workers sentenced to corrective labor at their place of work "were reduced to one-quarter pay" (p. 28). In fact their pay was reduced by one quarter, that is, to three-quarters of the previous level.

This book successfully covers a great deal of ground, but it is not a comprehensive survey of the forced labor system. The authors deal with labor in the camps and colonies and with "forced labor at the place of work," a penalty introduced on the eve of the war and continued until 1951 for anyone charged with flitting, absenteeism, or lateness. The book has little to say about "special settlers," a rubric encompassing the "kulak" peasants exiled in 1930–1931 and the nationalities that were deported en masse during and immediately after the war for alleged disloyalty.

The authors reach important and convincing conclusions. First, they reject the [End Page 165] widely held view that the gulag system was launched for economic reasons and was a necessary part of Soviet industrialization. They show that both in the early 1930s and during the "Great Purge" of 1937–1938 and later the repressions were carried out for political not economic reasons. Having incarcerated people for political reasons, "Stalin and his political allies regarded the resulting pool of inmates as a remarkable [economic] opportunity" (p. 21).

Second, the book shows that although the gulag system played a significant role in Soviet industrialization, this role was not major or essential. The contrary view, advocated before the archives were opened by economists such as Steven Rosefielde (who appears here as "Rosenfield"), was based on greatly exaggerated estimates of the number of prisoners. To be sure, the gulag system was extremely important for certain economic activities, especially production of non-ferrous metals (the gulag accounted for up to one-quarter of all nickel production), precious...