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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 hundred footnotes.

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 number executed.

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 voice.

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