Everything Wrong with the Goldsmiths LGBTQ Defence of Gulags │ Steve Harris
On September 11, Goldsmiths’ far-left LGBTQ society tweeted an extraordinary defence of the gulag, an institution which murdered more than a million people. They claimed, despite a wealth of historical evidence, that inmates were actually treated well and actually a compassionate, non-violent course of action.
You can read their twitter thread here, as it has been recently deleted by the account after universal and righteous outrage. It is worth reading purely out of shock. This article will go into precisely why what Goldsmiths LGBT Society has claimed is so utterly wrong.
“First myth to debunk: ‘u work until u die in gulags!!’”
In fact, it is exceptionally well documented that people would work for twelve or more hours a day at a time. Jacques Rossi wrote about his experience in the gulag, where people were worked to exhaustion doing jobs that animals or machines could do more efficiently and cheaply. The purpose of the work was to break the soul of each participant and reduce them to mindless bodies unable to resist Soviet demands. It would not be unfair to say the purpose of these camps were to work dissidents to death, as many autobiographies from survivors maintain.
Gulags produced a third of Soviet gold, much of its coal and timber, and a great deal of everything else throughout the camps. Workers were forced into almost every industry from mining and logging to designing aeroplanes and building artillery.
“The penal system was a rehabilitary [sic] one and self-supporting”
The dissidents in the camp had almost no value to those who ran them. They often died of cold, hunger, thirst, or labouring. Workers could easily be replaced by fresh dissidents, especially in the Stalin years. Even after the camps ‘officially’ shut in 1960, camps for political dissidents continued under Soviet leaders until the final years of the Soviet Union.
After imprisonment, one could apply for ‘rehabilitation’. The Soviet state would essentially admit wrongdoing and provide a certificate (spravka) saying one was pardoned, and compensation – two months’ pay.
To get rehabilitation, one needed to apply to the state for it, opening oneself up to further exposure to the totalitarian regime. Even if one received rehabilitation, communities still feared to work with or hire rehabilitated people, for fear they would be branded dissidents next, essentially exiling many who managed to leave the gulag.
Most applicants did not receive rehabilitation, and most who did received rehabilitation posthumously.
“The Soviets did away with life sentences and the longest sentence was 10 years.”
Jacques Rossi arrived in a Norilsk gulag in 1937, was sentenced to eight years, and emerged in 1958. What people were ‘sentenced’ to and what they served were rarely the same, as equality under the rule of law and knowledge of your sentence were not protected rights in the USSR.
Even with this in mind, the statement is unequivocally false. Alexander Dulgan was sentenced to twentyfive years; ____ was sentenced for ____. While many were ostensibly imprisoned for under ten years, many were imprisoned for longer.
“everyone who was *able* to work did so at a wage that was proportionate to those who weren’t incarcerated”
Put aside for the moment whether forcing someone to work is slavery, regardless of what you pay them. People were indeed paid for working in the camps – Sira Stepanovna Balashina was paid three rubles per cubic meter. In Gulag Voices, the worth of a day’s work at this rate is estimated at around 400g of bread a day. A manual worker would receive at least a kilo of free bread as part of their ration. Meat was not apparently in any of the gulags.
“There were regular classes, book clubs, newspaper editorial teams, sports, theatre & performance groups.”
This claim is laughable. Solzhenitsyn famously could not even access pen and paper when writing in the gulag. The Soviet states were famously censorious and did not allow anyone other than specially selected propagandists to write or edit newspapers.
Anne Applebaum does write about how there were sports and theatre troupes at the gulags. They were for staff only, and were incentives needed to make Soviet citizens willing to work in cold, dark, horrible conditions in far-flung areas of the world. Volunteers to work as jailors or guards earned typically a 50% higher salary, received annual leave of two months and after three years, an allowance corresponding to three months salary plus three months of vacation. Spas were even built in the Black Sea for employees, and gulag officers accessed high quality education in criminal law, Soviet history and more. In the famine and war and instability that plagued the USSR, gulag offered employees social ascension, security, and good pay.
As the wonderful scholar Applebaum says, LGBTQ Goldsmiths’ account of the gulags are not even close to accurate. We need to be on guard against this propagandist approach to the horrors in humanity’s collective past. In a world where Putin has began to recreate the gulag in Russia, this lesson is especially pertinent.