How regions close to Stalin’s gulag today benefit from his victims
“T IT BEDS infested the plank bunks like grasshoppers … in the fall typhus came … We crawled to the fence and begged, “Give us some medicine.” And the guards fired a salvo from the watchtowers. In “The Gulag Archipelago”, Alexander Solzhenitsyn recounted the crushing torments of Soviet prisoners. Imprisoned for having criticized the government, Solzhenitsyn was one of the 2.65 million people arrested in 1921-1959 for “counter-revolutionary activities” and labeled “enemies of the people” (EOTP).
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Not all EOTP were dissidents: the mere fact of belonging to the petty bourgeoisie often entailed a trip to the gulag. Therefore, EOTP tended to be well educated. In 1939, 1% of census respondents and 2% of gulag inmates had a university degree. Among EOTP in 1927-53 the rate was 15%. Incarceration EOTP therefore involved the displacement of a large part of the Soviet intelligentsia. And a new article by Gerhard Toews of the New Economic School in Moscow and Pierre-Louis Vézina of King’s College London shows that the regions where EOTP were imprisoned still derive economic benefits from this forced migration.
The study began with data on the share of inmates in each of the 79 prisons in 1952 that were EOTP. Save for nine specials EOTP camps, political prisoners were mixed with common criminals. Apart from a few models— EOTP tended to congregate in large prisons in sparsely populated areas with poor transport links – the choice of camps they were sent to seemed uncertain.
Next, the article measured the current levels of economic development within a 30 km radius of the penitentiary sites. He found that the larger the share of a EOTP in 1952, the wealthiest and best-educated people living nearby are today, even after accounting for regional differences and factors that affected where EOTP have been sent. A ten percentage point increase in the proportion of inmates who have been EOTP corresponds to gains of 8% of wages; 23% profit per worker; 23 percentage points from companies where the average worker went to college; and 21% of the light intensity emitted at night per person, a measure of economic output. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the number of registered businesses also increased at an unusually rapid rate near former camps with many EOTP.
To explain this trend, the authors studied where EOTP went after being released. Until 1959 EOTP were not allowed to return home. Their “wolf passports” prevented them from living in the big cities. As prisons evolved into corporate towns, state enterprise managers recruited former inmates, who often stayed where they had new friends or families.
No data was available on post-prison locations of EOTP. But a survey in 2016 found that people living near camp sites with high shares of EOTP were particularly likely to have parents who were political prisoners. In addition, 42% of respondents whose grandparents were EOTP had attended university, compared to 31% for all others. These data imply a cause behind the correlation. A lot of EOTP settled near their prisons and had well-educated children, who stayed in the same areas and fathered another wealthy and educated generation.
Joseph Stalin did his best to eliminate perceived enemies. it may have comforted EOTP know that their human capital has survived the six-decade gulag. ■
Source: “Enemies of the People”, by Gerhard Toews and Pierre-Louis Vézina, working document, 2021
This article appeared in the Graphic Detail section of the print edition under the headline “” Upgrade at gunpoint “