Monday, June 05, 2006

Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water: The Labor Army

During World War II, the Stalin regime mobilized nearly 400,000 Soviet citizens belonging to suspect nationalities into forced labor detachments. The majority of these men and women, 220,000 in total, worked in corrective labor camps under conditions almost identical to Gulag inmates. The NKVD assigned the remaining 180,000 conscripts to civilian commissariats. This second category of workers lived in guarded barracks and worked under NKVD supervision. This system of work colonies and brigades received the appellation of labor army (trudarmiia) from the men and women involuntarily pressed into its ranks.

Unlike Gulag prisoners, forced laborers in the labor army received no trials or sentences. Their only crime consisted in being able-bodied members of nationalities declared unreliable by the Stalin regime. These nationalities included Russian-Germans, Russian-Finns, Russian-Koreans, Russian-Bulgarians, Russian-Greeks, Kalmyks and Crimean Tatars. The vast majority of the labor army consisted of Russian-Germans. The Soviet government mobilized an estimated 350,000 Russian-Germans into the labor army. The incomplete Soviet archival record shows more than 315,000 Russian-Germans, 14,000 Russian-Koreans and 5,000 Crimean Tatars conscripted to serve in the labor army. Over 182,000 of the Russian-German inductees performed their obligatory labor service in Gulag camps. The remaining 133,000 Russian-German draftees worked in civilian run mines, oil fields and factories. The labor army constituted a form of forced labor in the USSR uniquely reserved for certain stigmatized nationalities.

The Soviet government conscripted the men and women in the labor army in a manner similar to military induction. It then transported them by overcrowded cattle cars to their new living quarters nearby their assigned work sites. Labor army conscripts built factories, constructed hydro-electric stations, laid railways, felled timber, mined coal, extracted oil and manufactured munitions in the Urals, Kazakhstan and Siberia during the 1940s. They worked long hours in unsafe conditions, lived in unhygienic barracks and suffered severe shortages of food and winter clothing. These poor material conditions took a huge toll in lives among the men and women of the labor army. Disease, malnutrition, exposure and accidents killed a large portion of the labor army. Scholars estimate that the deaths among the Russian-Germans alone due to inhumane conditions in the labor army exceed 100,000 people. Starting in January 1946, the Soviet government began to disband the labor army and send its surviving members into internal exile. This process took some time. The last labor army conscripts left the confines of the Gulag camps only in 1958. Unlike soldiers in the Red Army, veterans of the labor army received no recognition or compensation for their wartime sacrifices until after the collapse of the USSR.


J. Otto Pohl said...

Thanks alot for stopping by. I am glad you appreciate my posts. I try and have about one scholarly post a week. Although this month I am over in California so it may be less.

Anonymous said...

You probably know this already, but there was an earlier labor army established in 1920, though not ethnically specific as it became later on.