The forced-labour system was developed on a mass scale in the early 1930s, and expanded remorselessly until Stalin’s death in 1953. At first the Soviet press gave it a certain amount of publicity—albeit very selective. In 1931–33 the construction of the White Sea canal by prison labour was extolled as a practical demonstration of the way in which a socialist system of justice would re-educate and rehabilitate criminals. But the dark side of the camps—the hunger and the brutality—was concealed. Later in the 1930s the press fell silent.

In 1956–64, as part of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign, many articles and fictionalized documentaries exposed the camp system to public scrutiny. This new openness culminated in the publication—on Khrushchev’s personal authority—of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the literary monthly Novyi Mir in November 1962. One Day describes the grim conditions in a typical Stalinist labour camp, engaged in constructing a power station after the Second World War. But in Khrushchev’s time nothing was published in the Soviet press about the total number of prisoners at any date since 1929, or about the amount of production for which they were responsible. And the authorities also banned the publication of any generalized information about death rates or sickness rates in the camps.

After the fall of Khrushchev in October 1964, even the modest openness of the Khrushchev decade attenuated, and then disappeared. The only exception was the continued publication, in a somewhat rosy glow, of accounts of the deportation of kulaks in the early 1930s and their ‘labour re-education’ in special settlements.footnote1 But virtually nothing else appeared in the press or other media about the labour-camp system, or about political repression under Stalin. When biographies appeared of prominent figures executed during the Great Purge of 1937–38, the cause of their deaths was ignored. In the case of lesser figures the problem of the date of their death was dealt with by a simple device—it was not mentioned at all.

This does not mean that in the 1970s and 1980s Soviet citizens were ignorant of the existence of the Gulag system under Stalin. Russians would refer in conversation to the rumours that ‘millions’ had been incarcerated or executed by Stalin. Every family had a relative, or at least an acquaintance, who had served a sentence, or died, in a camp or ‘special settlement’ in the Stalin years. Several hundred thousand peasant families were deported in the early 1930s, and millions of peasants died in the 1933 famine. Many people with professional training, from writers to engineers and army officers, were arrested in 1937–38; a high proportion were executed. Several million people from the national minorities were deported during the Second World War. Even the most favoured social class—the industrial working class—was hit by the severe labour legislation of the 1940s, which imposed fines or prison sentences for violating the laws on absenteeism and on leaving an occupation without permission. Every class of society was affected. But knowledge of the camp system was vague. Many families found it too painful—or too dangerous—to talk about relatives who had been sent to camps. And those who returned in the years after Stalin’s death often remained silent about their experiences.

Meanwhile, in the West, ever since the early 1930s Sovietologists had sought to find out how many people had been imprisoned in the camps, and how important they had been for the Soviet economic and military effort. All kinds of patchy Soviet data, together with émigré accounts, were used to try to reach the truth. Estimates varied wildly, as the following examples illustrate:footnote2

The Western discussions about camp numbers and excess deaths were pursued with particular ferocity in the early 1980s, on the eve of glasnost’ and perestroika, and spread over into general publications about Soviet affairs. Extreme (and untenable) figures often prevailed. Stephen Cohen stated that ‘prisons and remote concentration camps swelled to nine million inmates by late 1939 (compared to 30,000 in 1928 and five million in 1933–35)’; he cited Conquest as his authority.footnote5 He also reported that ‘twenty million is a conservative estimate’ for the ‘deaths that resulted from collectivization and police terror, particularly from 1929 to 1939’.footnote6 More recently, Martin Malia (with far less excuse in view of the information now available) has also cited Conquest’s very high figures for deaths from political causes under Stalin, claiming that ‘it is the largest single harvest of terror in history’.footnote7 The normally sober Alan Bullock cited approvingly Conquest’s figure for excess deaths in 1930–38.footnote8