MOSCOW -- It was an undertaking that endured as a symbol of Soviet brutality and flawed planning. Prisoners of the gulag forced labor camp system would die in their thousands toiling on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), a showpiece communist project that was never completed.
Now, decades later, Russian prisoners are set to help finish the task. Amid an exodus of Central Asian migrant workers who traditionally man construction sites across the country, the penitentiary service is moving to bring in convicts to replace them -- and spearhead the expansion of a track that now stretches from Lake Baikal to the Sea of Japan.
Under the initiative, approved by the prison service and several government bodies, the first 600 convicts will begin work on the BAM in mid-June as general laborers, concrete workers, and steel fixers. Prison authorities say that 188,000 inmates, more than a third of the 483,000 total and roughly equal to the peak BAM workforce in 1936, are eligible to exchange confinement for labor on major construction projects.
“This will not be the gulag,” said Aleksandr Kalashnikov, the penitentiary service head, as he announced the program at a meeting with officials on April 20. “These will be completely new, decent conditions.”
But for many human rights activists and government critics, the idea cuts too close to the bone. The very notion of sending prisoners for hard manual labor in remote, often inhospitable climes was meant to be a vestige of the Soviet past, of a time when dictator Josef Stalin purged the ranks of the political elite and the intelligentsia and many lived in fear of being the next perceived enemy to be exiled, shot, or carted away to camps in Siberia.
“Slowly but surely we’re returning to the gulag,” said Vladimir Milov, an aide to jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, in a video address posted to YouTube recently.
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The Russian authorities are trying to counter that view. The author of a highly controversial article published by state news agency RIA praised the initiative to deploy prisoner labor and defended the gulag system, arguing that Stalin-era camps were a “social lift” for millions of Soviet citizens who lacked skills and education rather than an inhumane archipelago of prisons that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Activists who have spent decades seeking to document the Soviet government’s crimes against its own people were astounded by such claims, and critics lambasted the article by columnist Viktoria Nikiforova.
“We’ve all lived to see it. The state news agency…is officially glorifying the GULAG,” blogger Roman Popkov wrote on Telegram. On Facebook, opposition politician Nikolai Lyaskin wrote that the article presented “the world turned absolutely upside down.”
Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran rights campaigner who heads the NGO In Defense Of Prisoners’ Rights, described the new prison labor plan as “complete stupidity.” He told RFE/RL: “The ultimate goal is to make money.”
In 2019 alone, Russia’s prison service signed contracts for the production of goods worth 7 billion rubles ($96 million) with private companies, according to official figures. Under Russian law, prisoners can be employed both inside and outside prisons in exchange for salaries, certain employee rights, and usually the promise of early release. They produce uniforms for state workers, souvenirs including swords and samovars, and a wide spectrum of goods ranging from car parts to agricultural equipment that is catalogued on the prison service website.
'Our Society Stigmatizes Prisoners'
Officially, no prisoner can be forced to work unless sentenced to community service. Work in the gulag camps of the Soviet Union, by comparison, was involuntary. Some 20 million people passed through the camps, whose total population reached a peak of 2.5 million in 1950, three years before Stalin’s death precipitated a radical downscaling of the network and a phasing out of its worst excesses. By then, hundreds of thousands of inmates had died, predominantly of neglect, starvation, and disease.
In Russia today, many prisoners apply for the right to work, hoping for better conditions and a reduction of their sentences. The penitentiary service, which operates more than 1,100 prisons across Russia, officially pays a modest income which nevertheless allows some inmates to send money home.
“Prisoners who aren’t working say that it’s terribly dull, that they have nothing to do, see the same faces every day and watch time pass at a painfully slow pace,” Ksenia Runova, a sociologist who studies the Russian penitentiary system, told RFE/RL. She described the promised work conditions for prisoners deployed on the BAM as favorable to life in most Russian prisons.
Among people outside the prison system, condemnation of the latest initiative is not a majority view, according to a recent survey by state-funded pollster VTSiOM, which found that 71 percent of Russians supported the idea of using prisoners to replace migrant labor. That includes another plan voiced in March by the penitentiary service, which plans to also send convicts to the Russian Arctic to help clean a contaminated zone following a massive diesel spill.
Attitudes toward both migrants and inmates may be factors behind such responses.
“Our society stigmatizes prisoners, so it’s not concerned whether labor rights will be protected,” Runova said. "There’s a common belief that they’re criminals, junkies, and alcoholics who don’t want to work and sit around living off tax money."
Alongside the RIA article whitewashing the gulag, the new plan to send prisoners east was jarring for many because it involved a project long associated with Soviet disregard for life. The BAM was envisioned as a way of connecting Far Eastern cities like Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, which would be cut off from the rest of Russia in case of a Japanese attack on the Trans-Siberian Railway. But only a small section of the line was completed by the time World War II broke out, and the project became one of the white elephants of Stalin’s rule.
When work recommenced in the early 1970s, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev called the railway the “construction project of the century,” billing it as a way to conquer the vast expanses of the east and its enormous deposits of natural resources. According to some estimates, the Soviet Union invested $20 billion in the construction project. But when the BAM finally opened in 1991, just months before the Soviet collapse, it represented the gulf between dream and reality that was a microcosm of the failed communist project itself. It had been touted as a joint effort by people from the 15 Soviet republics; after they became independent countries, people from some of them would soon travel in large numbers to seek work in Russia.
Those numbers have fallen significantly in recent years. In parallel with Russia’s broader demographic decline, the flow of migrants from former Soviet republics, first and foremost in Central Asia, has slowed as the Russian ruble has dropped in value against the backdrop of economic stagnation and travel restrictions have been introduced to curb the spread of coronavirus. Officials say the initiative to bolster the BAM workforce with convict labor is a necessary response to that migrant outflow.
Andrei Makarov, the deputy director of Russian Railways, the state enterprise that runs the country’s vast rail network and is Russia’s biggest employer, told the newspaper Kommersant that some 4,000 migrants working on the BAM have not returned for work after trips home. That left the BAM project with less than half its required workforce of 15,000, he said. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said that overall, some 1.5 million migrants employed in construction in Russia left in 2020 and didn’t return due to pandemic restrictions.
Use of convict labor to expand Russia’s railway system in the Far East is expected to ultimately aid its slated extension as part of an infrastructure upgrade program budgeted at more than 6 trillion rubles ($79 billion). Russia has already deployed conscripts along a Far Eastern segment of the BAM, which the government hopes will be a major conduit of coal and other natural resources to eastern ports ahead of their export to Asia.
Runova, the sociologist, said she can empathize with those who draw comparisons with the gulag, even if she thinks they are incorrect or poorly informed.
“The fear of the gulag is still there, for sure. And for me, as someone who knows history and has read [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, it’s there too,” she said, referring to the former gulag inmate and foremost chronicler of the camp network. But she added: “It’s our job as a society to monitor this and make sure nothing of the sort happens.”
But Ponomaryov, who is 79 and has spent decades as a human rights campaigner concerned primarily with conditions in Russia’s prison system, is skeptical that any such public oversight is possible. He was recently forced to shut down one of his civic organizations, For Human Rights, because it was branded a “foreign agent” by the Russian government, and says gaining access to reliable information is growing harder by the day.
“You should disbelieve everything they say,” he said of the prison authorities. “What happens in Russian prisons occurs behind the shadows -- we have no opportunity to monitor what’s really taking place.”