By Paul Goble
The Russian government is now thinking about reviving a practice associated with Stalinism: the use of prison labor to work on major construction sites in areas where free labor is scarce, such as the expansion of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway. Legal experts say Moscow can do so as long as it arranges to pay those who take part.
Vladimir Putin is pushing for the expansion of the BAM but has come up against a problem that earlier Russian rulers have faced: there are too few workers in the region through which it passes and attracting more free laborers would require spending more money than the government has or at least is willing to expend.
Earlier this year, Moscow decided to make use of military units to fill the gap (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/03/pandemic-crisis-demographic-shortfalls.html), but now, it is considering the more radical step of using prison labor, something that will strike many as a revival of the GULAG.
In today’s Kommersant, journalists Natalya Skordygina and Tatyana Dyatel note that the Russian government is only talking about reviving a practice it used in the 1930s when it dispatched thousands of GULAG prisoners to build much of the BAM in the first place (kommersant.ru/doc/4791351).
And they note that legal experts say that current Russian law will allow this without change as long as the authorities make provision for paying any prisoners sent to work there. Right now, the project is under discussion with the transportation ministry, the prison system and Russian rail charged with coming up with a plan by May 14.
Skordygina and Dyatel note that none of the agencies involved has been willing to confirm what is going on but say they have four independent sources in the government who have provided information about it, noting that if Putin’s plans for the BAM are to be met, more than 10,000 workers must be found quickly.
Even if all of them were to be prisoners, that would be far fewer than the hundreds of thousands of GULAG inmates who worked there in the 1930s and 1940s. But the image of prisoners working in the same place as GULAG inmates is one that the Kremlin is hardly likely to want to project.
There are compelling reasons to think that the government may back away from this project not because of any concern about image or morality but rather because the entire BAM project increasingly looks like a waste of time and money. It would support the export of Russian coal to China at a time when China is turning away from fossil fuels, economic analyst Denis Luzin says (nakanune.ru/articles/116909/).