The killing fields. Once shrouded in secrecy, the history of the Soviet concentration camps is now well known. But why did these open-air prisons really exist? Richard Overy on the chilling vision behind Stalinist injustice

The History of the Gulag: from collectivisation to the Great Terror

Oleg V Khlevniuk <em>Yale Univ

Nothing better symbolises the brutality and arbitrariness of the Soviet system than the network of concentration camps and forced labour settlements that sprang up under Stalin in the 1930s and which lingered, in some cases, until the very end of communism. The body responsible for administering the camps was called the GULAG, which became the name by which these fearful prisons were known. Between 1930 and the outbreak of war with Germany in 1941, roughly 3.7 million Soviet citizens spent time in the camps.

The story of their creation and early operation is now well known, yet for years it remained shrouded in secrecy, the stuff of rumour and impression rather than fact. Oleg Khlevniuk, a researcher at the Russian State Archive in Moscow and one of a new generation of post-Soviet historians working on Stalin's Russia, has done as much as anyone to get at the truth. His study confirms much of what Anne Applebaum exposed in her acclaimed book Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps (2003). What Khlevniuk adds is a wealth of archival material. We now understand this system, whose history used to be veiled in half-truths, better than the network of camps set up under Adolf Hitler.

Khlevniuk tells only part of the story. He is interested in the 1930s, when the rise of the Gulag was, in his view, a "direct reflection" of the establishment of Stalin's dictatorship and the shaping of the modern Soviet state. The book ends in 1941, with the dictatorship established and forced labour part of the lives of millions of Soviets. During the 1930s, the Soviet penal system solidified, policing became more brutal and extensive, and a culture of conspiracy and unmasking became entrenched. These trends deepened in 1937 and 1938 during what became known as the Great Terror, when roughly 700,000 people were shot for a variety of alleged anti-Soviet crimes. The killings subsided suddenly and sharply late in 1938, but the camps remained, their swelling populations evidence of the vigilance and paranoia of the Soviet system.

Khlevniuk reproduces 106 documents in all at intervals throughout his text. These paint a vivid picture of the Gulag - from occasional efforts by officials to ensure that at least the minimum conditions laid down for the prison regime were being met to Stalin's telegram of January 1939 encouraging the security system to use torture because the "bourgeois intelligence services" did so, too. Some of the documents reveal features of the camp system that have been overlooked. The Gulag was not just for political dissidents; most of the inmates were ordinary criminals, so-called "socially dangerous" individuals (bandits, drunks, street urchins, and so on) and those, such as "well-off" peasants, who were rounded up not because of anything they had done, but simply because of who they were. The camp system was not merely a means to crush political opposition; it became a tool for the purification of the new utopia.

The documents expose the gap between the official rhetoric of reform and rehabilitation (which was generally believed by gullible communists and fellow-travellers abroad) and the terrible reality of neglect, hunger and brutality. In 1931 the Soviet premier Vyacheslav Molotov told delegates at a Communist Party congress that the unemployed in capitalist countries would "envy the work and living conditions" in the Soviet camps. According to Khlevniuk's calculations, roughly half a million people died in the Gulag in the 1930s. Those who survived were often physically disabled or permanently weakened. The infamous tortures (which included tying naked prisoners to trees in summer to be eaten alive by mosquitoes and, in winter, forcing poorly clad prisoners to sit for hours on a tree stump without moving) appear in the reports of officials who tried in vain to get commandants and guards to conform with the guidelines from the centre.

The camp system has usually been regarded as a way of extracting compulsory labour for a rapidly industrialising Soviet economy, but Khlevniuk insists this was not its primary motivation. The camps were the product of a bizarre shift in the Soviet penal system in the early 1930s, when trivial infractions became state crimes. As a result, the conventional prison system became swamped. In effect, the camps were open-air prisons, easily assembled and cheap to run, and capable of accommodating millions. The labour extracted was unproductive, and many of the projects on which prisoners worked had little economic value. Free labour would have been more productive. And the slaughter of 700,000 in the Great Terror makes no sense if the regime's objective was the extraction of forced labour. The camps existed, rather, because of the regime's vision of a classless, productive and cultured communist society - a vision that required the violent exclusion of all those deemed by behaviour, social origin or ethnicity to be a threat to its achievement. Khlevniuk is surely right to insist that the camps were the product of a unique political culture rather than a response to economic necessity.

Khlevniuk suggests that the experience of Stalinist injustice left an indelible mark on Russia. Hostility towards the state and distrust of officials and policemen date back, he writes, to the Stalin era - though it would be just as easy to see them as originating in hatred of the tsarist state apparatus and its enforcers. Circumventing the law, Khlevniuk argues, became a natural response to decrees that were seen as illegitimate intrusions.

In today's Russia, as a result, criminals are seen not as social deviants but as outlaws defying arbitrary authority. If this is so, then President Putin's task is not an easy one.

Richard Overy's most recent book is The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press)