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The Gulag's Legacy
A report from Siberia.

Wednesday, June 12, 2002 12:01 a.m. EDT

PETROPAVLOVSK, Russia--The red flag of the old Soviet Union still flies over the soccer stadium here, and statues of Lenin still dominate the public squares of Siberian cities. Only Stalin has vanished from Russia's past and with him any idea of reconciliation with the walking shadows of the country's history.

Five hundred miles to the northwest lies Magadan, the administrative center of the former Soviet Gulag. For prisoners it was the end of a long journey from western Russia and the beginning of a descent into death. They were forced to come here from across the Soviet Union by railroad cattle car, without much food and minimal water (there was to be no coddling of enemies of the state). They unloaded at the coast and were crammed into the holds of ships and taken to Magadan to build the roads to the Kolyma gold fields and some 90 Gulag camps.

One purpose of the Gulag was to mine gold and ore; another was to starve and beat and freeze the prisoners until they died. Robert Conquest's "Kolyma, the Arctic Death Camps" quotes a Soviet doctor's statement to a prisoner: "You are not brought here to live but to suffer and die. . . . If you live . . . it means you are guilty of one of two things: either you worked less than was assigned you or you ate more than was your proper due."

Between 1936 and 1946 the yearly death rate in the camps was about 20%; all told about 15 million prisoners died in the Kolyma camps alone. Of the 10,000 to 12,000 Polish prisoners of war who were sent to Siberia in 1940-41, only 583 survived to return to fight against Germany under Stalin's 1942 war amnesty.

So how to explain this Soviet cruelty; were Communists just madmen, lusting to kill for whatever reason? Felix Dzerzhinsky, Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov and Lavrenti Beria, who successively headed the NKVD (secret police), may have been, but it is more complex than that.

It begins with Ivan the Terrible, who replaced the hereditary aristocracy with one owing its allegiance to the czar, and in 1565 created Russia's first secret police--the Oprichniki. Every subsequent czar--including Peter, Catherine and finally Nicholas II--continued the practice. So assassination, exile and forced labor were the norm long before Lenin's Cheka began massive execution of political opponents in 1918. Authoritarianism and brutality were an integral part of Russian history and culture.

Second, it was an essential tenet of communism that individualism is forbidden--be it economic individualism or political thought in opposition to the state. The communists took power vowing to eliminate private property, money and the market economy; all industrial and agricultural products were to be produced and distributed by the state. By 1929 Stalin had decided to liquidate kulaks as a class, and a kulak was defined as any independently successful person--a farmer who had three cows instead of two, for example--or any person who opposed collectivization or the government.

Finally, when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 one of their first acts was to repudiate all of Russia's foreign debt. How was a nation with little money of its own to invest, and unable to borrow abroad, going to build an industrialized society? Stalin's solution was to invest human lives instead of money to modernize his nation, and thus the slave-labor economy was born.

The first project was the Baltic-White Sea Canal, with slave labor doing the digging and pile driving that in the rest of the world was done by steam power; 60,000 people died building it. When huge deposits of copper, nickel and cobalt were discovered near Norilsk in northern Siberia, where the climate was far too severe for comfortable living, the NKVD simply arrested the necessary engineers and technical people, charged them with sabotage, sentenced them to 10 years and moved them to the site along with an initial 5,000 convicts to do the heavy lifting. At the height of Stalin's slave-labor program, 20% of the national workforce was prisoner labor. Just up the road from Magadan one kilogram of gold mined from the Kolyma fields cost one human life.

So in a sense the Gulag was a product of Russian tradition, the collective philosophy of communism and financial necessity since the war. A communism economy was an impossible concept from the start. Recognition of the rights of the individual, or democratic values, or even a hint of compassion, might have nullified this permanent stain on Russia's reputation. But it was not to be, and the result was the human catastrophe of the arctic death camps.

What did the West think about all this? Life magazine declared Lenin "perhaps the greatest man of modern times." The New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Walter Duranty ("I put my money on Stalin") intentionally falsified his reporting about Soviet-induced famines and abuses, writing in 1933 that yes, there might be a few deaths, but "you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs." In France, philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote that "accounts of the Soviet labor system should be suppressed even if true, since otherwise the French working class might become anti-Soviet."

Within the Soviet Union, even long after the terror and the camps were gone, there was a deafening silence about its appalling past. Krushchev's famous 1956 speech to a Communist Party conference denouncing Stalin's abuses was not published within the U.S.S.R. for more than 30 years (perhaps because Krushchev issued exile decrees of his own).

For the older generation, guilt by association and fear of the consequences of honesty were too overwhelming to allow any discussion of the truth. Even today, here in the towns of the Siberian east only a few miles from Magadan and the camps, memorials to the heroes of the Revolution are featured in museums and the hammer and sickle are still inlaid in the brick walls of apartment buildings.

Among younger people the uneasiness is still there, but the attitude is one of moving on, and never mind about the past. While the walking shadows of the Soviet Union may be out of sight, just beyond the mountains and up what the prisoners called "the road of death," they are not gone from Russia, and won't be for a long while.

Mr. du Pont, a former governor of Delaware, is policy chairman of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis. His column appears Wednesdays.