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Corruption in the Gulag: Dilemmas of Officials and Prisoners

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Abstract

Based on research in the archives of the Soviet penal camp system, this article addresses the phenomenon of corruption among officials of the Gulag in the period between 1945 and 1953. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, which oversaw the camp system, treated corruption as a harmful and dangerous phenomenon that was unacceptably pervasive. The article investigates the varieties and frequency of corrupt activities among camp officials, including bribery, theft of state property, participation in illegal markets and speculation, and embezzlement Gulag authorities' anti-corruption efforts included inspections, audits, and a large network of prisoner–informants. These anti-corruption campaigns were largely ineffective. The article concludes that corruption existed in significant quantities inside the camp system, and that the forms it took were largely the same as in the wider Soviet society.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For a recent history that fruitfully uses this memoir literature, see Applebaum (2003), especially. pp. 344–360.

  2. 2.

    On the 1930s, see, for example, Shearer (1996) and Shearer (1995). See also E Belova on economic crime and ‘unofficial’ behaviour among industrial managers investigated by the party's Komitet partiinogo kontrolia in the 1930s, in Gregory (2001); and Harris (1999).

  3. 3.

    On the black market and theft by employees in the 1930s, see Osokina (1993). On the ‘informal’ but legal private sector between 1945 and 1953, see Hessler (1998).

  4. 4.

    GARF (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii), f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 111, l. 336.

  5. 5.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 662, l1. 27–29.

  6. 6.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 111, ll. 57–58 and 202.

  7. 7.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 111, l. 56.

  8. 8.

    See, for example, the circular forbidding this in GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 97, ll. 51–54.

  9. 9.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 111, l. 242.

  10. 10.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 324, l. 47 ob.

  11. 11.

    In the first quarter of 1949, 2519 people were charged, including 90 bookkeepers and cashiers; of them 517 were free and 2002 were prisoners. 1873 proceedings were instituted; of those 407 were group cases. 4018 people were removed from their jobs, including 824 free workers. GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 362, ll. 4–5.

  12. 12.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 338, l. 228.

  13. 13.

    These data are not complete, as it includes only the 76 subdivisions that submitted annual reports.

  14. 14.

    The report also states that methods for retrieving stolen money and valuables had improved. GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 345, l. 94

  15. 15.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 507, l. 12.

  16. 16.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 508, l1, 290–294.

  17. 17.

    Dallin and Nicolaevsky, 245. Anne Applebaum briefly mentions that archives contain reports by inspectors detailing large-scale theft by administrators, pp. 344–360. In Gulag v sisteme totalitarnogo gosudarstva, GM Ivanova also asserts that officials (especially party members) were rarely punished for abuse of office. The exceptions were ‘especially significant cases’ or if ‘nachal'nik komu-to ne ugodil, i ego nuzhno bylo ubrat’’ (p. 170).

  18. 18.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 112, l. 214. See the report by the Norilsk ITL in late 1953, which stated that unannounced inspections had served to eliminate large-scale theft and embezzlement. GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 729, l. 55.

  19. 19.

    For 1949, see GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 363, l. 194, citing MVD instruction 554–549g; see also circular of August 6, 1952: GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 507, ll. 36–37.

  20. 20.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 345, l. 93.

  21. 21.

    The summary report for 1947 noted that prophylactic measures (meaning informants’ information) had prevented thefts of material valuables and money worth a total of 3.9 million rubles. Nearly 1.4 million rubles were reclaimed from thieves during arrests and searches. These figures were typical for the postwar years: for the first 9 months of 1947, 3.7 million rubles worth of theft was ‘prevented’; another 2.8 million rubles were seized during arrests and searches. GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 349, l. 17. Another source notes that during the first half of 1952, 966 prisoners were charged with theft of state property and handed over for prosecution, while 562 civilian employees were similarly charged. GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 507, ll. 12–13.

  22. 22.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 662, ll. 125–126.

  23. 23.

    See also Ivanova, Gulag v sisteme, 140 ff; Applebaum, Gulag, 258–261.

  24. 24.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 356, l. 230.

  25. 25.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 507, l. 13.

  26. 26.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 116, l. 12 (Sept. 1952).

  27. 27.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 506, l. 210.

  28. 28.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 507, l. 37.

  29. 29.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 1398, ll. 9–10; f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 118, l. 96.

  30. 30.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 79, ll. 42–43.

  31. 31.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 97, l. 52.

  32. 32.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 491, l. 203.

  33. 33.

    The Vtoroi otdel, or Sledstvennyi otdel (investigations department), of the First Administration also had responsibilities for directing efforts to combat the theft of socialist property. GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 507; and GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 374, ll. 7–8.

  34. 34.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 362, l. 5.

  35. 35.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 363, l. 194.

  36. 36.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 111.

  37. 37.

    The MVD issued other prikazy on this theme in 1949: no. 0842–1949 and no. 811–1949 – see GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 373, l. 132 for a frustrated discussion of the ineffectiveness of no. 811 in Saratov oblast’; and see GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 115, ll. 276–278 for the weak implementation of both prikazy in Siblag; see also the decisions of the soveshchanie of the leadership of MVD SSSR, no. 708–1950 g., on the need to preserve socialist property. A letter by the Gulag chief GP Dobrynin declares that the actions taken as a result of the 1949 instruction had made a positive impact on reducing corruption, although at present no other sources verify or challenge this claim. GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 363, l. 194.

  38. 38.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 490, ll. 363–364.

  39. 39.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 462, l. 97.

  40. 40.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 491, l. 9.

  41. 41.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 513, l. 151.

  42. 42.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 491, ll. 182–183; see also GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 490, ll. 363–376.

  43. 43.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 506, ll. 208–213.

  44. 44.

    Accusations along these lines were leveled at employees in Dal'stroi, among other camps. GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 491, ll. 8–9.

  45. 45.

    GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 513, ll. 155–156.

  46. 46.

    For the prikaz, see GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 139, ll. 162–165.

  47. 47.

    A Ministry of Justice prikaz of 25 June 1953 also expressed frustration over the unsatisfactory condition of informant work in the struggle with thieves of socialist property GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 139, l. 162.

  48. 48.

    The rezhimno-operativnye otdely had responsibilities for some investigations, but these moved very slowly, according to the prikaz, so that the criminals continued to work in their jobs. As defined in this document, a ‘slowly moving’ investigation took more than a month. Thus, in the first quarter of 1953 in just four camps 144 investigations had been going on more than a month, including 94 in the camps of Dal'stroi, 27 in Nizhne-Donskoi, 15 in Kraslag, and 8 in Kizellag.

  49. 49.

    See GULag (Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei), 1918–1960 gg., 786–793.

  50. 50.

    In a similar example of incentives working at cross purposes, the promise of early release for prisoners who overfulfilled work norms drained the camps of their best workers. Borodkin and Ertz (2003), in Gregory and Lazarer, the economics of forced labor (2003).

  51. 51.

    For a discussion of the complex relationship between incentives and punishment for the purpose of stimulating prison labor, see Borodkin and Ertz (2003).

  52. 52.

    See the facts of the ‘violation of revolutionary legality’ in camps in Leningrad oblast’, where employees Korotkevich and Piskarev took bribes to set up healthy prisoners in easy work intended for the sick. (GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 45, ll. 40–41. Letter to the Nachal’nik Upravlenie NKVD po Leningradskoi oblasti, st. maior Gosbezopasnosti tov. Lagunov. From zamestitel’ Narodnogo komissara vnutrennykh del soiuza SSR Komissar Gos. Bezopasnosti 3-ego ranga Kruglov. Dated June 6, 1941.) In the Ust’-Luzhskom lagpunkt in Kingisepskii region, the deputy chief of the Khitrikov camp point stole prisoners’ personal effects. Theft of food led to death in ten instances. Ibid.

  53. 53.

    For example, the Zam. MVD Kruglov wrote in 1941 that employees were being bribed to give prisoners light work. GARF, f. r-9414, op. 1, d. 45, ll. 40–41.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Paul Gregory, Mark Harrison, Andrei Sokolov and Leonid Borodkin for their comments on earlier drafts and also the Hoover Institution archivists for their assistance.

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Heinzen, J. Corruption in the Gulag: Dilemmas of Officials and Prisoners. Comp Econ Stud 47, 456–475 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.ces.8100114

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Keywords

  • corruption
  • Stalinism
  • official crime
  • postwar USSR
  • Gulag

JEL Classifications

  • N4
  • N6
  • D73
  • N44
  • K42