The Stalinist Penal System
Book review by Ronald J. Vossler, Sr. Lecturer, University
of North Dakota, Grand
Forks, North Dakota
Pohl, J. Otto. The Stalinist Penal System. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1997.
This book --- whose subtitle is adequately descriptive of the
contents: A Statistical History of Soviet Repression, 1930-1953-provides
a glimpse, by means of statistics and brief commentary, into a quarter
century of the so-called Soviet "paradise," beginning
with the second year of Stalin's brutal collectivization Five Year
Plan in 1930, until the death of that despot in 1953.
Written lucidly, its topic an entire institutionalized penal system,
the Gulag, whose outlines were first delineated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
in 1973, Pohl's book includes 76 tables of statistics derived from
recently released official Soviet sources, along with almost nine
From these various tables and figures, a reader senses the human
toll, the cumulative fear, suspicion, arbitrary punishment and death
endemic in the Soviet Union during those times. The book not only
give locations of exiles, of labor camps, of "special settlements,"
within the vast Soviet Empire, but also offers year by year accounts
of the numbers of Soviet citizens sentenced to the Gulag, peaking
in 1953 with over 5 millions, with near twenty per cent of that
As Pohl indicates, the OGPU (secret police) created the Gulag penal
system of "Corrective Labor Camps" in 1930, under the
leadership of a person who some sources call "the Soviet Eichmann,"
Lazar Koganovitch. At the onset, inmates totaled under 200,000,
but over the next seven years, various purges raised that number
of Gulag inmates to almost 2 million, with the leaders of the secret
police, themselves subsequently executed, in charge of "the
largest slave labor projects in human history."
Divided into two parts, Incarceration, and Exile, the 27 succinct
chapters comprising this book are devoted to such issues, in the
first section, as "Sentence Lengths," "Deaths in
Captivity," and "Executions, " and, in the second
section, individual chapters for each of the "punished peoples,"
ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union. Few, if any minorities, escaped
the cauldron, including among others, Soviet Germans, Kalmyks, Chechens,
Ingush, Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Armenians,
Koreans, and Khemshils, many of whom were deported to regions where
it was known a high percentage would perish. It was according to
Pohl's figures, these minorities which bore much of the brunt of
Stalin's repression, and, in some cases, as with the peoples of
the North Caucasus, Crimean peninsula, and Kalmyk steppe, during
WW11, their deportation, or as Pohl calls it, an "ethnic cleansing"
amounted to "one of the greatest crimes against humanity in
the 20th century."
This slim volume, whose stated purpose "is to provide the
information unearthed by Russian scholars and others on the Stalinist
penal system in a single English language source," does just
that. It also contains a deep vein of related material---on "ethnic
cleansing," on the number of political victims of collectivization,
and even on the number of "Vlasovites," former Soviet
soldiers who during WW11 put on the German uniform-which will be
of much interest to a range of scholars, historians, and general
readers. This book will also be of direct interest to anyone wanting
to comprehend, by means of statistics, the sweep and reach of a
political ideology, i.e. Marxism/Stalinism, into the lives of, for
the most part, ordinary citizens. In addition, and more specifically,
this book will be valuable for anyone with ancestral ties to these
same ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union, such as the near 40%
of North Dakotans who can trace direct family members to former
German villages in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. From Pohl's
statistics it is possible to begin to understand the scope, if not
the degree, of suffering visited by the Soviet regime upon those
unfortunates who remained behind in the "old country."
For example, Table 45 of Pohl's book indicates that as of 1 January,
1949, there were some 393,000 German exiles living in Kazakhstan,
in central Asia. How did they get there? Over a matter of roughly
two decades-with some deported during the early and mid-1930's,
and with many others deported during WW11-Soviet Germans, many of
whom were loyal to the Soviet government, were forcibly relocated
primarily from the black earth regions of the Soviet Union, from
their home villages in Ukraine and the Volga. As this book makes
clear, the Soviet Germans were but one of a group of ethnic minorities
upon whom such suffering was inflicted by Stalin and his regime-a
staggering indictment against a failed political system.
Pohl's slim volume-which both extends, and belongs on the bookshelves
alongside, other important contributions to Sovietology, such as
Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow, and Samuel Sinner's
The Open Wound-is a statistical primer which might be read
alongside Solzhenitsyn's voluminous trilogy The Gulag Archipelago,
for this book's publication is the debut of an important new scholarly