How regions near Stalin’s gulag benefit today from his victims
“T HE BEDBUGS infested the board bunks like locusts…in autumn the typhus arrived…We crawled to the fence and begged: ‘Give us medicine.’ And the guards fired a volley from the watchtowers.” In “The Gulag Archipelago” Alexander Solzhenitsyn chronicled the soul-crushing torment of Soviet prisoners. Jailed for criticising the government, Solzhenitsyn was one of the 2.65m people in 1921-59 arrested for “counter-revolutionary activities” and labelled “enemies of the people” (EOTP).
Not all EOTP were dissidents: simply belonging to the petite bourgeoisie often led to a trip to the gulag. As a result, EOTP tended to be well-educated. In 1939, 1% of census respondents and 2% of gulag inmates had university degrees. Among EOTP in 1927-53, the rate was 15%. Incarcerating EOTP thus entailed relocating much of the Soviet intelligentsia. And a new paper by Gerhard Toews of the New Economic School in Moscow and Pierre-Louis Vézina of King’s College London shows that regions where EOTP were jailed still reap economic benefits from this forced migration.
The study began with data on the share of inmates in each of 79 prisons in 1952 who were EOTP. Save for nine special EOTP camps, political prisoners were mixed in with common criminals. Aside from a few patterns— EOTP tended to cluster in big prisons in thinly populated areas with weak transport links—the choice of camps where they were sent appeared random.
Next, the paper measured current levels of economic development within 30km of prison sites. It found that the greater a camp’s share of EOTP in 1952, the richer and better-educated people living nearby are today—even after accounting for regional differences and factors that affected where EOTP were sent. A ten-percentage-point increase in the share of inmates who were EOTP corresponded to gains of 8% in wages; 23% in profits per worker; 23 percentage points in the share of firms at which the average worker went to university; and 21% in the strength of light emitted at night per person, a measure of economic output. After the Soviet Union broke up, the number of registered firms also grew unusually fast near former camps with lots of EOTP.
To explain this trend, the authors studied where EOTP went after being freed. Until 1959 EOTP were not allowed to go home. Their “wolves’ passports” stopped them from living in big cities. As prisons became company towns, managers at state enterprises recruited ex-cons, who often stayed where they had new friends or families.
No data were available on the post-prison locations of EOTP. But a poll in 2016 found that people living near the sites of camps with high shares of EOTP were especially likely to have relatives who were political prisoners. Moreover, 42% of respondents whose grandparents were EOTP had attended university, compared with 31% for everyone else. These data imply a cause behind the correlation. Lots of EOTP settled near their jails and had well-educated kids, who stayed in the same areas and spawned another educated, rich generation.
Joseph Stalin did his best to wipe out perceived enemies. It might have comforted EOTP to know that their human capital has outlived the gulag by six decades. ■
Source: “Enemies of the people”, by Gerhard Toews and Pierre-Louis Vézina, working paper, 2021
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline ““Levelling up” at gunpoint”