Prisoners at a Soviet GULAG forced-labor camp awaiting commands from the top guard (Image: thegulag.org)
Given all the changes Vladimir Putin is making in these days in the Russian constitutional order, ones that legalize the presidentialist dictatorship he has already created, many may have failed to notice that a law he signed restoring a key feature of the GULAG, the use of convicts as slave laborers, went into effect on January 1.
And while some may be inclined to dismiss this as nothing more than the nearly universal practice of using prisoners to produce things like license plates and road signs as in the United States, it is already taking shape as something worse and more ominous with Russian businessmen calling for setting up forced labor camps in parts of the country.
The law discussed, passed and signed by Putin last year calls for creating two kinds of labor camps: entire colonies where inmates will be put to work either for the state or for businesses on a contract basis and special “correction centers” attached to business sites.
As the editors of Censoru.net point out, “comparisons with the GULAG are no accident: in Soviet times, those who landed behind bars were put in a position equivalent to slavery, with the loss of all human rights and facing an extremely high probability of rapid death.” Now, there is a great danger that Putin’s move will have similar consequences.
What makes this possibility so distressing, the portal continues, is that “in present-day Russia, just as in Stalinist times, many inmates are serving sentence not so much for real crimes as for poorly concealed dissent.” The total numbers of both real criminals and political prisoners are in the thousands or even more.
Worse, this new arrangement will give the Russian powers that be an additional incentive to put people behind bars whether they deserve it or not.
Already since the law went into force, businesses and officials are calling on the federal penal system to create “industrial clusters” very much like “labor camps” where inmates are to be held and put to work as a cheap labor force, Finanz.ru reports.
Several corporations have made quite specific suggestions as to how many prisoners they would like to use as workers, arguing that both business and society will benefit, the former by keeping costs down and the latter by having the convicts “re-socialized” by active labor.
According to reports, the Russian prison authorities view such proposals in a positive light; but human rights activists are anything but happy. They note that such use of prison labor is how the GULAG arose in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and they point out that most prison workers are low skilled and that the system is anything but economically efficient.
But of course, the real purpose of the GULAG in the past and likely of its recrudescence now is not efficiency but rather the use of slave labor for tasks the state could not otherwise afford and the spread of fear of the authorities throughout the population to allow the dictatorship to act as it wants.
- GULAG was not something far away in Siberia: it was all around, even in Moscow
- A new GULAG is emerging just as Stalin’s did slowly and insidiously, Gudkov warns
- The Kremlin and the GULAG: Deliberate amnesia
- Moscow secretly destroyed GULAG victims records in 2014
- Russia’s penal reforms point to return of ‘renewed’ GULAG, Novaya Gazeta says