GULAG - Propaganda
Kolyma: The white crematorium
Propaganda: A historical necessity
The underdeveloped Russia of the Czars

The favourite topic for Red propaganda was the underdeveloped state of Czarist Russia and the country's exploitation of the working classes. Surprisingly, Nikita Krushchev, leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin, was a striking example of the opposite. In regard to progress, 1913 was the year when economic development advanced faster then ever in the history of Russia.

As for Nikita Krushchev, he was the son of an extremely poor father who was an alcoholic. They could not even afford shoes or boots and had to make do with sandals made of birch bark. But little Nikita got a job in an engine works where his father worked. He was trained as an apprentice and became a metal worker who maintained mining machinery.

With his wages, he supported his family and was able to keep his first wife at home. He also provided support for his mother. He could take Sundays off and participated in literature meetings in a revolutionary group. He learnt to read and write and studied in his free time. He was even able to get a motorcycle which he put together from parts he had bought. Even compared with the most advanced countries in 1913, conditions like that were anything but backward! Out in the country, things were very different but even here there was considerable progress.

A country's “backwardness” is a concept which can be difficult to repudiate with any precision. “Orthodox” communists also cunningly avoided admitting that it was difficult to make up for.

Lies and claims

Propaganda was energetically applied to telling of the Soviet Union's qualities and resolve. In the love story “Cement”, a young couple lived at each end of the huge country. When they met and were lying in bed, they naturally ... talked about productivity standards!

The novel “How the steel was tempered” is a great read. It is a literary masterpiece but the content is outrageous. It was the Soviet Union's most popular novel and was published in a multitude of languages. Here you can read how the communists “conquer” the “fuel front” by finding wood to heat Kiev through the winter. The victory consisted in finding the absolute minimum of firewood for a city that had been well supplied for hundreds of years without the need for a “fuel front”.

Relevance to the Gulag

Propaganda was not directly linked to the Gulag but it is important to understand in order to appreciate the background for life in the camps, not least in connection with the propaganda brigades in the individual camp.

US Vice President Henry Wallace in Seimchan/Kolyma, june 1944
During the months immediately following the October revolution, Lenin expected there would be a worldwide revolution. The time was ripe. Revolution was also feared by many Western leaders, especially in the United States and Great Britain, and not without good reason. The beginning of the 20th century was a difficult period for the man on the shop floor and the middle classes were a relatively small exclusive community. Their status was not stable but, but in the end, whenever there were elections people chose social democrats or - in the case of the Americans - the New Deal rather than revolution and communism.

At the time, even Lenin did not believe Russia was ready for socialism as it was not properly industrialised. That explains why Germany, in particular, should have a revolution with the result that the brothers in well developed Germany sought to modernise the Soviet Union on its path towards socialism and communism. To cover the costs to promote these foreign revolutions, the bolsheviks sold many of Russia's art treasures – treasures which today's billionaires are in the process of buying back.

There was no worldwide revolution and Lenin decided to move to NEP which was a kind of state-controlled capitalism liable to create a market economy, the basis for the next step, socialism, which in turn was the final step towards communism. It was an evolutionary doctrine which many on the left accepted as an indisputable law of nature.

Agitation brigade at Belomor Canal labour camp, ca. 1928
US vice-president Henry Wallace on a tour of Kolyma in 1944 as an official guest. The objective was to establish good relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and to show how equipment provided under the Lend-Lease Agreement had been put into operation. Here he is in Seimchan in the midst of the camps (No 3 from the left in the bottom row). The book about his trip published in 1948 was a whitewash in which he explained that the United States could learn a lot from Ivan Nikishov (head of the Kolyma camps). Did he not know any better? Apparently not, but Churchill had sent Washington very clear reports about Kolyma. Churchill's information came from Poles who, on his initiative, had left Kolyma and who had intimate knowledge of the camps.
A propaganda squad in action during the construction of the White Sea Canal. Brigades like this existed all over the Gulag, including Kolyma. Prisoners, in all their misery, were forced to glorify the new society. Even so, working in propaganda squads was popular as it meant better rations and better work. In other words, it meant survival and with these odds, it was not so difficult to come up with a few good words for Comrade Stalin.
How Steel Was Tempered, Danish front page
"How the steel was tempered” is a fantastic novel in more than one way. First it is a wonderful story, inducing great sympathy for its characters. There is just one problem. The novel distorts history, defending terrible atrocities either by misrepresenting them or by minimising them. “In some cases mistakes were made” is a typical misrepresentation of the systematic destruction of entire villages in the 1917-23 civil war. The cover is of the Danish version.