GULAG - Storm projects
Kolyma: The white crematorium
Storm projects: A special group of labour camps
"Special camps”, “special units” and other terms with the word “special” sound particularly grim when used in connection with labour camps anywhere in the world. The Gulag was no exception even if everything “special” was not always equally bad. Storm projects were based on special camps.

White Sea Canal

The White Sea Canal was the regime's first “storm project” complete with an agenda for a project of national significance. That meant that all available resources should be invested to ensure the project was completed on time whatever the cost. For those in the White Sea Canal project, “unlimited resources” did not mean free access to modern equipment for constructing the canal from Leningrad (now St Petersburg) to the White Sea but rather sending the required number of prisoners to the camps so that the canal could be built with as little technology as possible. Everything was to be done by human hand, and I emphasize “human” because even animals were not used by the prisoners.

The number of dead has been put at half a million but care should be taken with such high figures. Recent research shows that earlier estimates were greatly exaggerated. There is no doubt there were enormous losses. But there is no precise information on exactly how enormous as the archives which could cast more light on the figures are no longer accessible.

"Belamor” ("The White Sea" [canal]) written by Maxim Gorky and a collection of other authors. They were all acclaimed, especially Gorky. The NKVD were acclaimed even more, apart from their leader Genrikh Yagoda. But Stalin himself received the highest acclamation. The picture looks anything but pleasant but it was intended to glorify “work” and as publicity for the Soviet system. When you learn the truth about this useless project which cost thousands of lives, it makes grim reading. Several of the authors were purged and Gorky himself is said to have been murdered. It is a fact that Yagoda was accused of his murder but that does not mean the murder took place. The motive behind the murder was claimed to have been revenge as Yagoda was not named in the book.
A fig leaf for atrocities

Later projects were more useful. The Moscow-Volga Canal and the Volga-Don Canal are both of great importance today. Moscow's university on the Sparrow Hills was useful as were the metro stations which were partly built by prisoners. These projects are often used as an excuse for Stalin's innumerable atrocities as they contributed to industrialising the Soviet Union and arming it to fight against the “fascists” (as the Nazis were often called). It is all far from the truth. The guards' contribution was completely unproductive. They did not achieve anything. The mass executions of engineers and specialists in the 1930s for alleged sabotage of completely unrealistic plans almost pulled the system apart and, combined with the purges in the Red Army, led to the Soviet Union's failure to win a war against Finland at the first attempt. And just imagine how unproductive the hungry prisoners must have been in comparison with free citizens who could have done something useful for their country.

However stupid it may seem, it is sometimes claimed that the Gulag protected the Soviet Union from Nazi Germany. Even President Putin supports this view which can be found in primary school history books for 2008/2009. In contrast to the Yeltsin years, today's petro dollars ensure these books reach schools even in the most remote corners of outer Siberia.

The public contribution

The storm projects were also used for propaganda purposes. For example, as not all the metro stations were built by prisoners, foreign journalists and tourists could see how work was progressing and talk to enthusiastic workers while prisoners were worked to death at neighbouring stations.

Similar techniques were used elsewhere. For example, Dalstroy was the official part of Kolyma which became famous in the Soviet media while Sevvostlag was the camp system in Kolyma. In fact, Sevvostlag had no independence whatsoever but was fully under Dalstroy's control. It was one and the same organisation.

Next: Propaganda

Breaking the rocks to the Belomor Canal - Soviet forced labour
The Arbat metro station, Moscow
The “Arbat” metro station. Many of the metro stations were built by prisoners and operated as work camps while construction continued. Others were built by normal workers and were put forward as examples for the future of the workers' state. Dividing projects into an official and an unofficial part was an approach widely used in many different scenarios. Photo: Jens Alstrup 2006.
The State University, Moscow
Moscow's central university was a Gulag camp while it was being constructed. Tourists could walk by on guided tours but in point of fact they were standing next to a labour camp. Sometimes, when things went wrong, tourists and others in the area got to see too much. But the communists were ready to respond. Critical social democrats, for example, were systematically labelled “social fascists” seeking to undermine the Soviet Union by treachery against the working classes. Photo: Jens Alstrup 2002.