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‘Archival counterrevolution’: why are GULAG regional archives so important?

Mikhail Nakonechnyi


For decades, an impenetrable veil of secrecy surrounded the GULAG - an acronym for the system of forced labour institutions in the Soviet Union between 1930 and 1960. Nothing was known for certain and no official figures on the system’s magnitude were ever published. The inaccessibility of penal archives before 1991 provoked a politicized scholarly debate (an outright ‘war of numbers’) as part of even larger discussion on the scope, nature and consequences of Soviet repression[1]. The extremely limited source base forced scholars to postulate wildly contradictory estimates of the size of the penal population, inmate mortality, and the overall role of the camps in the USSR’s economy. But without archival knowledge, an objective view of the controversy could not reach any meaningful conclusion, and therefore dragged on in a vicious circle.


A momentous change occurred at the end of the 1980s. With the initiation of glasnost' and perestroika, a political decision was made between 1989 and 1990 to declassify vast amounts of penal records. Specifically, a gigantic archive of the GULAG central apparatus, holding millions of files and located in Moscow, became available to scholars and the wider public (with some sections still being kept classified). This ground-breaking event was an integral part of an even bigger process, which historians have labelled the ‘archival revolution’, involving a partial opening of the Soviet archives after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. It profoundly changed GULAG studies, taking them to a new empirical level.


Building upon these central records, extremely valuable scholarship has been produced and extensive document collections have been published.[2] The ample scholarship from the 1990s ostensibly ended the ‘war of numbers’ among historians. To a superficial observer it seemed that new archival-based GULAG histories have addressed and resolved almost all of the major contentious issues regarding the system’s size, mortality statistics, and its integration into the Soviet economy. But has this post-Soviet scholarship indeed filled all the gaps using the available source base?


In this post, I explicate that alongside the ‘archival revolution’ for the top tier records of the penal system, GULAG studies is suffering from an ‘archival counterrevolution’ on the peripheral level of individual localities. This phenomenon has largely been eclipsed by the advent of archival scholarship from the 1990s, but, as this post shows, it is equally important to the discipline due to its far-reaching consequences. I show that, as of 2018, this ‘counterrevolution’ has led to a slow stagnation in the field of GULAG studies, despite seemingly free access to the central records of the Soviet system of incarceration.



Alexander Pavlovich Lepilov - deputy GULAG director (in office from 22.09.1939 until August 1940)


A fundamental reason behind the decline can be explained as such: there has never been systematic scholarly inquiry into the localities to double-check the summary records of the administrative Centre. Hundreds of camps, colonies, and prisons existed under Stalin. According to an often-quoted report of deputy GULAG director Alexander Pavlovich Lepilov dated 1 March 1940, the GULAG included 53 camps, 425 corrective-labour colonies, and 50 colonies for minors.[3] Additionally, the system operated a network of so-called ‘special settlements’ for deported dekulakized peasants, ethnic minorities, and social outcasts. On 1 January 1940, it consisted of 1690 special settlements, governed by 150 district and 800 settlement commandant's offices.[4] Finally, a separate main prison administration of NKVD-MVD (GTU NKVD-MVD USSR, technically not a part of the GULAG structures) encompassed 622 prisons in 1939[5]. It should be noted that this is a ‘stock’ number of ‘penal establishments’ at a fixed date in time. In reality, camps, prisons, special settlements and colonies were closed, merged with one another, changed jurisdiction and re-opened on an almost annual basis. For example, from 1941 up until the end of 1944, 40 new camps and 26 regional colonies’ administrations were established, while 69 camps and 16 regional colonies’ administrations were liquidated as administrative entities.[6] Judging from these dynamics, the total number of separate penal locations’ archives between 1930 and 1960 can be estimated as in the thousands.[7] Each of these archives, in turn, contains hundreds to tens of thousands of case files, depending on a set of variables. Additionally, regional camp collections hold card indexes and case files of individual prisoners that number millions.[8]




Front cover of a case file from Bezymanlag corrective-labour camp archive, 1941


These sources are essential for a more sophisticated perception of the Soviet forced labour system, but scholars have not used files from 95% of these archives until this very day. An overwhelming majority of peripheral records are still kept in the ‘internal’ archive system of security agencies: so-called information centres of the contemporary Russian MVD (Ministry of Interior) and departments within FSIN (Federal Prison Service). In contrast to ordinary state archives, this sub-system is de facto outside Russian federal law and extremely hard to work with, even when records are technically and legally declassified. A few case studies of individual camps, conducted in the more liberal 1990s and early 2000s, used these sources and produced fruitful results[9]. But the level of access to ‘internal’ archives significantly decreased in the last 10-15 years. A case in point, documents of the Vyatlag forestry camp in Kirovskaya oblast, which allowed Viktor Berdinskih to write his regional history of the camp in 1998, are not available anymore for civilian historians. Furthermore, the archive of the biggest forced labour camp outside of Russia proper - Karlag (Northern Kazakhstan), a case study for Steven Barnes’ monograph, is not accessible at the moment as well. This gradual closure of previously available materials has largely remained unnoticed by the public or even academic community. Therefore, it is imperative to raise public awareness of the situation.

To be sure, some historians tried to circumvent this artificially imposed limitation. They work with the archives of the former Soviet republics or focus on several rare instances of transfers of local records to the state system.[10] However, these strategies do not and cannot rectify a salient divergence between levels of access to central and peripheral corpora of camp documents.


What is the most pressing result of this imbalance? For years, scholars (myself included) have been writing histories of the GULAG through the prism of its central apparatus, while local case studies are scarce and become even more so as the time passes. We neglect an entire plethora of contradictory factors that influenced lower ranking bureaucrats during their collection, processing and presentation of the data to the central authority. All-Union regulations of the system are well known, but we have a poor understanding of their implementation on the ground as well as of interplay between centre and periphery. As Steven Barnes correctly points out: ‘if one limited their study of the Gulag to the directives emanating from Moscow, a key part of the story would be lost, as these directives were frequently altered, ignored, or undermined at the local level.’[11] I argue that without factoring in the peripheral level of the system (at the archives of the individual places of confinement) we overlook and possibly oversimplify numerous crucial aspects of the Soviet GULAG’s operation. The focus on local archives, if they become available one day, may lead to another full-blown ‘archival revolution’ with discoveries that could possibly be comparable in importance to the revelations of the 1990s, which were based on central All-Union reports.



Mikhail Nakonechnyi is a DPhil student at St.Peter's College, History Faculty, University of Oxford. Over the past several years he has conducted comparative statistical research on mortality in the late Imperial Russian penitentiary system under Alexander III and Nicholas II (1885-1917) and the Soviet GULAG (1930-1953) in a global international context. His other project is concerned with the reliability of official GULAG mortality statistics. He aims to clarify V. N. Zemskov's (with J. Arch Getty and G. Rittersporn) work on prisoner mortality in Soviet camps through an analysis of the practice of 'early release on medical grounds', which allowed camp administration to artificially reduce death rates.

[1] The increasingly personal polemics on numbers between the so-called totalitarian school and revisionists, influenced by the Cold War, can be followed here: S. G. Wheatcroft, ‘On Assessing the Size of Forced Concentration Camp Labour in the Soviet Union, 1929–56’, Soviet Studies 33, no. 2 (1981), pp. 265-295; Ibidem. ‘Towards a Thorough Analysis of Soviet Forced Labour Statistics.’ Soviet Studies 35, no. 2 (1983), pp. 223-237; S. Rosefielde, ‘The First ‘Great Leap Forward’ Reconsidered: Lessons of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.’ Slavic Review 39, no. 4 (1980), pp. 559-587; Ibidem. An assessment of the sources and uses of gulag forced labour 1929–56. Soviet Studies, (1981) 33, no. 1 (1981), pp. 51-87; Ibidem. ‘Incriminating Evidence: Excess Deaths and Forced Labour under Stalin: A Final Reply to Critics.’ Soviet Studies 39, no. 2 (1987), pp. 292-313; R. Conquest, ‘Forced Labour Statistics: Some Comments’, Soviet Studies, 34, no.3 (1982), pp. 434-439; Ibidem.; Excess Deaths and Camp Numbers: Some Comments.’ Soviet Studies 43, no. 5 (1991), pp. 949-952.


[2] J. Getty, G. Rittersporn, V. Zemskov, ‘Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence’, The American Historical Review 98, no. 4 (1993), pp. 1017-1049; For document collections see IU. N. Afanasʹev and V. P. Kozlov. Istoriia Stalinskogo Gulaga : Konets 1920-kh--pervaia Polovina 1950-kh Godov : Sobranie Dokumentov v Semi Tomakh (Moskva, ROSSPEN, 2004), Vol.1-7; Stalinkie Stroiki GULAGa : 1930-1953. Rossii͡a. XX Vek. Dokumenty. Moskva: MFD : Materik, 2000; A. Kokurin, N. V. Petrov and V. Shostakovskii, GULAG : Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, 1917-1960 (MDF, M, 2000); O. V. Khlevni͡uk, V. A. Kozlov and S. V. Mironenko, Zakliuchennye Na Stroikakh Kommunizma : GULAG I Obekty energetiki v SSSR : Sobranie Dokumentov (M, ROSSPEN, 2008).


[3] State Archive of Russian Federation (GARF), f. R-9414. op. 1. D. 28. l.2 Published in N. V. Petrov, and V. N. Shostakovskiĭ. GULAG : Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, 1917-1960, (MFD, M, 2000)


[4] V. Shashkov Specpereselency v istorii Murmanskoj oblasti: K 65-letiju Murmanskoj oblasti , Murmansk: Izd-vo «Maksimum», 2004, p. 128


[5] M. Detkov, Tjur'my, lagerja i kolonii Rossii, Verdikt, M, (1999), p. 225


[6] See the report of the GULAG director V. G. Nasedkin to the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs L. P. Beria on GULAG operation during the war from 17.08.1944 , GARF f. R-9414. op. 1. d. 66. ll. 1–61. Published in Istoricheskij arhiv. № 3. (1994), pp. 60-86


[7] For one the most comprehensive, although somewhat obsolete, database of individual camp archives’ locations, see M. B. Smirnov, Sistema Ispravitel'no-trudovykh Lagerei v SSSR : 1923 – 1960, (M, 1998).


[8] For instance, the archive of a single and, by far, not the biggest forestry camp Vyatlag in Kirovskaya oblast of Russia contains 90, 000 case-files of prisoners. See I. V. Berdinskih, ‘Problemy istorii arhivov GULAGa (ob arhive Vjatlaga NKVD-MVD SSSR)’, Vestnik Vjatskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, no. 16, (2007), pp. 129-134


[9] Excellent examples in the western scholarship are A. Barenberg Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and Its Legacy in Vorkuta (New Haven, 2014); S. Barnes, Death and Redemption : The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society (Princeton and Oxford, 2011). For Russian-language scholarship see A. B. Suslov Spetskontingent v Permskom krae v kontse 20-kh - nachale 50-kh gg. XX v. PhD dissertation (Ekaterinburg, 2004); A. N. Kustyshev, Podnevolʹnyi trud v Ukhto-Izhemskom lagere NKVD-MVD SSSR pri osvoenii nedr Komi ASSR v 1938 - 1955 gg. PhD dissertation (Syktyvkar, 2000); V. A. Berdinskikh. Istoriia odnogo lageria (Viatlag). – M.: Agraf, 2001; Kornilova O.V. Kak stroili avtomagistralʹ Moskva – Minsk (1936–1941 gg.) (Smolensk, 2014); A. V. Zakharchenko, A. I. Repinetskii, Strogo sekretno. Osobstroi-Bezymianlag. 1940-1946 : (iz istorii sistemy lagerei NKVD SSSR v Kuibyshevskoi oblasti), Samara, 2008).


[10] For a comprehensive example of such approach see J. Hardy, The Gulag after Stalin : Redefining Punishment in Khrushchev's Soviet Union, 1953-1964, (Ithaca and London, 2016) and W. Bell Stalin’s Gulag at War: Forced Labour, Mass Death, and Soviet Victory in World War II (Toronto, 2018).


[11] Barnes, Death and Redemption, p. 2

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