Forced Labor: USSR

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Forced Labor

USSR 1930s


The effects of the Russian Civil War and later miscalculations within the newly founded Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) government of Vladimir Lenin left Joseph Stalin, the new leader of the USSR, with an impending agricultural crisis and a crumbling Russian industrial economy. Instead of giving the peasants economic incentives to raise production, Stalin chose a policy in 1928 that forced them into state-owned collective farms. Stalin resorted to slave and forced labor in order to provide food and materials to the rapidly industrializing Soviet cities.

On 7 November 1929 Stalin formally unleashed a new revolution, the so-called Great Industrialization Drive, for the total collectivization of the Russian peasants. The country's grain-producing areas were to be collectivized at once. From then on, peasants and small landowners were not allowed to own the land or to profit from crop sales. The government dealt ruthlessly with those who resisted this policy. Some were executed, but millions of others were forced to labor on farms where all the produce was taken to cities; others were driven to the peripheries of the Soviet Empire to form an enormous, expendable slave labor force. Stalin's actions in the 1930s caused a depression and the suffering and death of millions of innocent people.


  • 1917: On 7 November (25 October old style), the Bolsheviks under V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky seize power in Russia. By 15 December they have removed Russia from the war by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany.
  • 1920: Bolsheviks eliminate the last of their opponents, bringing an end to the Russian Civil War. By then, foreign troops, representing a dozen nations that opposed the communists, have long since returned home.
  • 1924: V. I. Lenin dies, and thus begins a struggle for succession from which Josef Stalin will emerge five years later as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party and of the Soviet Union.
  • 1927: Stalin arranges to have Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party.
  • 1933: Even as Stalin's manmade famine rages in the Ukraine, the new administration of President Roosevelt formally recognizes the USSR.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1937: Stalin uses carefully staged show trials in Moscow to eliminate all rivals for leadership. These party purges, however, are only a small part of the death toll now being exacted in a country undergoing forced industrialization, much of it by means of slave labor.
  • 1937: Pablo Picasso paints his famous Guernica mural dramatizing the Nationalist bombing of a town in Spain. Thanks to artists and intellectuals such as Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, the Loyalists are winning the battle of hearts and minds, even if they are weaker militarily, and idealistic young men flock from America to join the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade." Yet as George Orwell later reveals in Homage to Catalonia, the lines between good and evil are not clear: with its Soviet backing, the Loyalist cause serves as proxy for a totalitarianism every bit as frightening as that of the Nationalists and their German and Italian supporters.
  • 1939: After years of loudly denouncing one another (and quietly cooperating), the Nazis and Soviets sign a nonaggression pact in August. This clears the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland and for Soviet action against Finland. (Stalin also helps himself to a large portion of Poland.)
  • 1941: In a move that takes Stalin by surprise, Hitler sends his troops into the Soviet Union on 22 June. Like his hero Napoleon, Hitler believes that by stunning Russia with a lightning series of brilliant maneuvers, it is possible to gain a quick and relatively painless victory. Early successes seem to prove him right, and he is so confident of victory that he refuses to equip his soldiers with winter clothing.
  • 1948: Stalin places a blockade on areas of Berlin controlled by the United States, Great Britain, and France. The Allies respond with an airlift of supplies, which, like the blockade itself, lasts into late 1949. Also in 1948, communists seize control of Czechoslovakia, adding yet another Soviet-aligned government to a growing sphere of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe.
  • 1953: Stalin dies.

Event and Its Context

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was followed by a massive peasant revolution in which the land ownership of Russia was divided into more than 24 million individual holdings. The system ran against the professed political aim of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and impeded any comprehensive industrialization. This soon changed. From the time of USSR leader Vladimir Lenin's death in 1924 until 1929, Stalin succeeded in eliminating his political opponents and established himself as the supreme leader of the USSR.

Declining Agricultural and Industrial Production

During this time, the Soviet economy had serious problems, most notably a declining rate of economic growth and an inadequate peasant-produced grain supply. Later, inflation and huge shortages, especially of food and raw industrial materials, began to plague the country. By the beginning of 1928, rationing was necessary as agricultural production and procurement failed to meet demand. At this time, Stalin decided that the country's New Economic Policy (NEP)—introduced in 1921 by Lenin to facilitate postwar economic recovery by encouraging limited private enterprise and peasant individualism—was not working. Prewar levels of industrial and agricultural production had been achieved with NEP, but further advancements in industry were hindered by a constant shortage of grain for the cities and for export. According to historian Anna M. Pankratova, the practice of small-scale peasant farming could not possibly reach the productivity levels that were needed for a highly industrialized country.

Stalin and his Communist Party followers wanted rapid industrial development and socialization of agriculture. Stalin realized that the Soviet economy was 50 to 100 years behind the industrialized countries of the world, and he was determined to make up this difference in 10 years. Stalin thus rejected the concept of individual farming and a prosperous peasantry and replaced it with collectivization: a coercive, controlling system of production and taxation. Stalin told his 15th Party Congress of December 1927, "The solution lies in the transition from small, divided peasant farms to large, united farms based on the social exploitation of the land, in the transition to the collective exploitation of the land on the basis of a new, higher technology. There is no other solution." This period, commonly called the Great Industrialization Drive, brought economic and social upheaval that became a major turning point in modern Soviet history.

Milovan Djilas, a wartime observer of Stalin, once said, "He was one of those rare and terrible dogmatists capable of destroying nine tenths of the human race to 'make happy' the remaining tenth." Unfortunately for millions of peasants of the Soviet Union, Djilas's prediction came true.


Stalin decided that "collectivization" was the solution. Collectivization was an attempt to modernize the Soviet industrial system rapidly by nationalizing all businesses and factories, forcing peasants off of private lands and into kolkhozes (agricultural communes operated by the government), eliminating the kulaks (well-off peasants) by mobilizing the middle-class and poor peasants against them, and fixing prices of all food and wages. The backbone of Stalin's philosophy was what he called "pumping" the peasantry but that quickly became "purging" the peasantry. By the fall of 1929, Stalin believed he had sufficient state power to overcome any peasant resistance. Rejecting capitalism, in the spring of 1929 Stalin proceeded with his policy of complete socialism with his first Five-Year Plan (FYP).

Stalin's objective was to unite Soviet agriculture and some 50 major Soviet industries. Stalin needed, first, to solve the grain crisis to provide the necessary agricultural products for the cities and for export. To achieve this objective, Stalin moved forward with a comprehensive 1,700-page document that detailed a program of rapid industrial development and agricultural control, which would run from 1 October 1928 to 31 December 1932. By mobilizing the entire Soviet nation in a military-style operation and bringing millions more people, especially women, into the workforce, Stalin planned to create a highly industrialized socialist country that could compete effectively with the developed nations of the world. This would require that all Soviet workers increase efficiency and restrict consumption, a plan that placed tremendous hardships on the working masses.

Stalin concentrated his efforts on heavy industries in specially constructed industrial manufacturing complexes, many of them in the mineral-rich Ural Mountains and the undeveloped Siberian wastelands. Each business or factory was assigned an annual goal. The government invested nearly all of its resources in the heavy industries, rather than the light industries such as consumption goods. Nearly 1,500 major industrial concerns were constructed during this period, including motor, aircraft, tank and tractor, machine tools, electrical, and chemical industries.

Soviet central planners assumed total control of production and distribution. All elements of competition were eliminated with the formation of a system of industrial ministries whose single responsibility was the production of certain groups of products. Most rights of industrial workers were removed. People could not leave their jobs to find better ones; internal passports limited relocation; unauthorized absenteeism was punished with dismissal; and unions (the ones that were not made illegal) became disciplinarians against the workers.

The goals developed by communist planners were not based on realistic values and prices but on material balances. FYP goals were regularly increased irrespective of economic realities. The workforce labored to the limits of it physical capabilities and was expected to produce more as goals were increased. By the end of 1932, the wage level was down about 49 percent from 1928, and the standard of living had eroded severely in just four years.

From the start of his rule, Stalin thought that the allegedly richer class of peasants, the kulaks, constituted a threat to his plans. Kulak means a wealthy peasant (literally "fist" in Russian, but when applied to peasants it means "grasping peasant"). Because kulaks were profiting from their better farming techniques, Stalin felt they might develop into a political force that might try to take control of the food supply and resist his political monopoly. When Stalin began his drive for "collectivization" in 1929, he deliberately tried to eliminate the kulaks as a class, confiscating their lands and property and transporting millions of them to slave labor camps all over Russia. Stalin targeted any peasant who even slightly resembled a well-to-do kulak.

Kulaks were usually prominent members of the Russian villages (such as landowners, political leaders, and clergy) who owned their own livestock and homes and often employed hired hands. Kulaks comprised about 4 percent of the population and produced the majority of surplus agricultural products. Poorer peasants comprised more than 65 percent of the population but seldom produced any surplus. Stalinist dekulakization became a common term for the annihilation of the kulaks. If the kulaks were unwilling to join the collective process, then they were subjected to arrest from the state police. By the end of 1929, nearly all peasants labeled kulaks were killed or relocated to Siberian slave labor camps with their families.

Altering the First FYP

The first FYP was designed as a gradual transformation to collective farming in which the state would produce materials and food in parallel with strictly controlled private production. Party leaders and Stalin believed that the system would produce sufficient agricultural products to sustain a major industrialization program. The wealthier and more productive kulaks would be forced to contribute over half of the national agricultural quota. In addition, the several million acres of large-scale state farms (sovkhozy) and voluntary collective farms (kolkhozy) worked by the poorer peasants would provide the other half of the quota. By June 1929 one million peasant households had joined 57,000 collectives, representing less than 4 percent of the total population. Continuing grain shortfalls necessitated the import of about 250,000 tons of grain that year.

With a rapid build-up of industrialization in the cities, the success of the first FYP was in jeopardy as cities faced food shortages, rationing, and a breakdown of discipline. As the Soviet economy worsened in late 1929, the authorities relied increasingly on force to cope with the crisis. Penalties spurred the peasants to increase production. Some resisted with violence such as rioting, starting fires, and shooting officials.

Forced Collectivization

Stalin's reaction to the poor results in 1929 was to make a momentous decision that would affect the lives of millions of Soviet citizens: he ordered the acceleration of the collectivization of the peasants. To help speed industrialization, Stalin wanted greater production of food from the peasants, who formed approximately 75 percent of the Russian population. Stalin sent armed government officials to seize the peasants' produce. Those peasants who resisted were labeled kulaks and convicted of terrorist acts. Hundreds of thousands of previously law-abiding people were taken off their land, an act that crippled Soviet agriculture for many decades to come.

Pressure increased from Stalin as he forced more than 20 percent of the peasants to join the collective farms by January 1930. Stalin had declared that the most important areas of Soviet grain production, such as Russia's traditional breadbasket, the Ukraine, along with the North Caucasus and the Lower and Middle Volga, would be turned over to collective farms within two years. Stalin also reiterated that no kulaks would be allowed to join the collectives, as their presence would be a negative influence on the socializing objectives of the collectives. The kulaks were divided into three groups: (1) the most militant members would be arrested and either shot or sent to the Gulag and their families deported; (2) the less violent resistors would be deported to hostile regions where the land was unproductive; and (3) the poorer kulaks would be dumped, after confiscation of their property, onto less productive land outside the collective farms.

In 1930 Stalin widened his elimination of all potential sources of local resistance by rounding up peasants from all over the USSR. Hundreds of thousands of peasant families resisted the military police. Though there was some open rebellion at first, most of the affected population eventually complied. The threat of slave labor became the primary mode of discipline. Many people simply refused to work in the collective farms. Stalin's response was to let them starve. The farmers reacted by destroying farm equipment, burning fields, and slaughtering livestock to prevent them from being used by Stalin's forces. By the end of 1930, Soviet farmers had slaughtered a quarter of the nation's cattle, sheep, and goats, and a third of the pigs (and by the end of 1933 had slaughtered nearly half of all livestock).

Stalin decided to stop peasant hostilities by setting impossible grain delivery quotas, especially in troublesome areas such as the Ukraine. In 1932 the Soviets increased the grain procurement quota by 44 percent. They were aware that this extraordinarily high quota would result in grain shortages for the Soviet citizens. Stalin—whose main goal was to force farmers to collectivize—instigated the famine that struck the Soviet Union in 1933, caused by low agricultural yields in 1932 and government seizures of scarce crops. Millions of people died from this man-made famine. Peasants who remained on their farms were forced to work for the state. Some 30 to 50 percent of all produce was turned over to the government in payment of rent and taxes.

Yields of the collectives continued to decline in 1933. Since the kulaks had been eliminated, Stalin had to blame others for agriculture problems. Stalin shifted the blame onto the technical personnel and supervisors of the collective farms. He accused them of sabotaging machines and grain harvests, squandering property, undermining labor discipline, and similar actions. The Soviet leadership began to persecute these people, precipitating a mass political purge during the second half of the 1930s.

By 1936, 90 percent of the peasantry had been collectivized and the centuries-old rural way of life had been destroyed. Crop failures caused continuing shortages. The four years from 1937 to 1940 were called "The Purge Era."


The idea of exploiting forced and slave labor for the industrialization drive developed at the beginning of the first FYP. Paralleling the Soviet plans for industrialization, the empire of slave labor camps later known as the Gulag became a major sector of the socialist economy. The word Gulag is an acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps, (Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitelno-tru-dovykh LAGerey). The Gulag was loosely defined as the network of Stalinist labor camps that stretched some 9,600 kilometers (6,000 miles) across the Soviet Union, from the Russian lands around Moscow to the east wastelands of Kolyma. In the strictest sense, the Gulag was the chief administrative body that oversaw the running of the system of corrective labor camps, detention centers, and prisons. For instance, a Gulag camp was set up at the ancient monastery on Solovetsky Island in the White Sea, where its slaves were used for logging.

The Gulag ruthlessly exploited the slave labor of political and other prisoners that basically industrialized the Soviet Union during this time. Most of the forced laborers were innocent Soviet citizens who were accused of crimes against the state. The need for a compulsory labor force seemed to be a contributing factor (although never officially recognized as such) in the number of arrests and deportations carried out by the security police. A law enacted on 7 August 1932 allowed children as young as 12 to be convicted of capital offenses and sent to a labor camp. By many estimates, the camps held between 100,000 and 200,000 prisoners in the early 1920s (less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the total population). Their numbers swelled starting with the first FYP in 1930, and by the end of the 1930s the population of the Gulag camps was near 10 million, with annual death rates of 10 to 30 percent.

In 1930 Stalin's mass deportations of kulaks provided a major influx of new slave labor. Between 1933 and 1935 peasants made up about 70 percent of the Gulag population. From 1936 to 1938 Gulag numbers swelled when victims of mass arrests were sent to the camps. People from all walks of life and religious persuasions were sent to the camps, from doctors and government officials to Baptists, one of the banned religious groups. No one in the Soviet Union was immune, regardless of ethnicity or nationality. Foreigners were also viewed as a threat. In 1940 Stalin seized the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Moldavia; many of the citizens of these areas were immediately deported to the Gulag.

Slave laborers cut timber, mined gold, and harvested many of the untapped resources of Siberia. Trees were felled in the upper reaches of the Ob in western Siberia, and coal mining was performed in Vorkuta and Karaganda in Central Asia. Construction work was the most common form of labor. Most of this labor was done by brute force and without mechanization in subzero temperatures that could last for eight months of the year. Gangs of laborers from the Gulag also built the Moscow subway and major industrial complexes such as the steel mills at Magnitogorsk. The White Sea-Baltic Canal was dug in only 20 months by forced laborers often using only their bare hands. Approximately 60,000 Gulag prisoners died during that project.

Probably the most notorious camp was Kolyma, located in eastern Siberia. Gold and other ores were mined there under horrendous conditions: for every ton of gold mined, as many as 1,000 prisoners died. Kolyma was one of the best-documented Gulag camps, with a high concentration of writers and intellectuals. Surrounded by trackless forests and mountains, escape was nearly impossible. Most of the year Kolyma was cut off from the rest of the country by the extreme temperatures, which often plummeted to minus 51°C (minus 60°F). Recent estimates put the number of people who died at Kolyma at a staggering 3 to 6 million.

The result of the ensuing war-like operation of the government against its citizens was an estimated 10 million men, women, and children gunned down, and 10 to 11 million more transported to North European Russia, Siberia, and Central Asia, where a third went into concentration camps, a third into internal exile, and a third were executed or died in transit.


Stalin believed that the Soviet Union had to industrialize rapidly to strengthen the communist regime and enable the country to defend itself against foreign enemies. Forced labor was common in old Russia, but the extent to which it was employed in the Stalin era has few parallels in human history. Stalin's plan achieved industrialization, but the price in worsened living conditions and lost lives was great. Independent analysts seem to concur that gross industrial output expanded from 1928 to 1950 by almost four times at United States prices and about 4.7 times at Soviet 1926-1927 prices. The expansion of the output of producers' goods increased about 8.8 times during the same period, and consumer goods approximately doubled. In contrast, farm output increased percentage-wise only about as much as did the population.

The Great Industrialization Drive, which was realized by exploiting millions of slaves and forced laborers throughout the countryside, resulted in the near collapse of Soviet agriculture and the deaths of millions of peasants from famine. As many as 10 million people were dispossessed and deported during the 1930s. Perhaps most of these people were not killed but instead imprisoned, exiled, or forced to work the land or the floors of the factories. Certainly millions starved or froze to death, or were shot inside and outside the labor camps.

The exact number of people intentionally killed during the 1930s within the Soviet Union may never be known. However, when Winston Churchill asked Stalin in 1945 at the Potsdam conference how many deaths and deportations had resulted from the collectivization process, Stalin showed Churchill his 10 fingers, indicating around 10 million people.

Key Players

Stalin, Joseph (1879-1953): The general secretary (1922-1953) of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Stalin established the USSR as a modern economic and military power that rivaled the United States during the cold war period. He helped repel Hitler's German armies in World War II but rivaled Hitler in the brutality of his genocidal policies. Stalin developed the features that characterized the Soviet regime and shaped the direction of eastern Europe after World War II ended in 1945. His chief theoretical work, Marxism and the National Question, was published in 1913.

See also: Five-Year Plan; Russian Revolutions.



Blackwell, William L. The Industrialization of Russia: An Historical Perspective. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1970.

Blackwell, William L., ed. Russian Economic Development from Peter the Great to Stalin. New York: New Viewpoints, 1974.

Blassingame, Wyatt. Joseph Stalin and Communist Russia.Champaign, IL: Garrard Publishing Company, 1971.

Conquest, Robert. Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps. New York: The Viking Press, 1978.

Filtzer, Donald. Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization: The Formation of Modern Soviet Production Relations, 1928-1941. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986.

Gregory, R., ed. Behind the Facade of Stalin's Command Economy: Evidence from the Soviet State and Party Archives. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2001.


Open Society Archives at Central European University."Forced Labor Camps Online Exhibition" [cited 5 December 2002]. <>.

—William Arthur Atkins