Gulag prisoners
© Mikhail Sokolov/RFE/RL
A photo of Gulag prisoners in Perm (undated).
I'm currently reading a new book by Russian-American military expert Andrei Martyanov, Losing Military Supremacy: The Myopia of American Strategic Planning. It's a great book. The writing is clunky at times and could have used an editor to smooth out the text, but its content more than makes up for the deficiencies in presentation. We carried a few reviews of the book at these links: It's an eye-opening and maddening book to read. As Martyanov argues, Americans have never experienced a real war - where their citizens faced starvation, mass atrocities and casualties, and a life-or-death struggle for survival, as the Soviet Union did in World War II. This has led to a range of negative consequences for the collective USA: a profound arrogance, a romantic fantasy about the nature of warfare, an overestimation of American military capabilities, an underestimation of Soviet and Russian capabilities and achievements, a stereotyped prejudice against everything Russian, and the rise of incompetent civilian policymakers who only make things worse.

The book is definitely worth reading, so don't let the following criticism stop you from checking it out. Despite Martyanov's injection of some much-needed nuance in understanding the realities of the Soviet Union and the West's hubris-based miscalculations of its actual abilities and achievements, the author traps himself in his own black-and-white thinking on a few points, notably in his treatment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his statements about the Stalinist repressions.

For example, he writes this on page 108:
Even at the height of what are called Stalin's purges, not to mention throughout the whole period of Stalin's rule, the average annual number of people inside Soviet penal system, including a majority of those being actual criminals, was around 1.7 million with the total number of those sentenced for political reasons from 1921 through 1953 - a 32-year-long period - being around 4 million people. One can better grasp those numbers when one compares them with the peak of US incarceration in 2010 at 2,270,000 and for 2016 numbering 2,217,000 total for a nation of around 310 million. While the American number of incarcerations is the highest in the world, including being highest in the per capita category for decades, there are very few, if any, signs of fear gripping the United States and its citizens of being taken off the streets and thrown into prison.
This paragraph is nested within his overall argument that the American elite and public have minimized Soviet achievements, adopting a one-sided, negative view of Soviet society that doesn't correspond to reality, and which has contributed to overall Russophobia and the inability to predict Russia's resurgence, specifically in the field of military capability. He's right about that. The USA's Cold War propaganda was, and continues to be, one-sided, anti-Russian (as opposed to anti-Communist) and inaccurate in many regards. But Martyanov's ability to inject nuance into his thinking is sorely lacking in the above characterization of the Soviet gulag system and other systems of repression.

First, let's look at the numbers he provides. Are they accurate? The numbers are based primarily on NKVD documents released in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the picture they paint is not complete. In chapter 7 of his book The History of the Gulag, Oleg Khlevniuk writes:
Contrary to expectations, Soviet archives do not contain systematic, complete, ready-to-use information on the number of those convicted and imprisoned. ... Some documents were lost ... while access to other is still restricted ... Many events were never registered and remain known only to their participants.
Khlevniuk includes full translations of the relevant documents, adding that "they reflect a significant part, but not the entire scope, of the Stalinist repressions. Using only the data available, Khlevniuk writes:
Even considering repeat convictions, it is safe to say that Soviet courts, tribunals, and nonjudicial organs convicted about 12,000,000 people altogether in 1930-36. [HK: That might account for the 1.7 million figure Martyanov cites. But later, Khlevniuk writes, "Altogether, the number of convictions in 1930-40 probably approaches 20,000,000", for an average of 1.8 million per year.] Most of them were sentenced to corrective labor (but not imprisoned) or received suspended sentences. In addition, about 2,500,000 "kulaks" and "socially harmful elements" were exiled to special settlements and labor outposts ...

The number of victims of the regime who were not formally convicted but who were actually repressed is completely unknown. For example, during the famine years in the Ukraine, the so-called vagrant elements (starving peasants who roamed the country in search of food) were rounded up to form labor brigades that performed hard labor under the supervision of special commandants.

... in the early 1930s, about one-sixth of the adults in the population were subject to various repressions and persecutions.
Unlike many anti-Stalin writers, Khlevniuk doesn't inflate his figures. He extrapolates only based on known data, and when that is unavailable, he simply states his conclusion that the currently available numbers should be augmented in the future as new data comes to light filling in the holes. The source Martyanov provides for the 4,000,000 political prisoners in 1921-1953 is in Russian, so I can't check it. Khlevniuk doesn't provide an estimated figure, explaining that the division between political and criminal convictions was not always clear. The incomplete NKVD documents provide a figure of 3,553,065 convicted for "counterrevolutionary crimes" in the years 1921-1941. But that only applied to NKVD convictions, not convictions by the regular police, and didn't include such "crimes" as the following:
... the starving peasants who were sentenced to death or ten years in prison for taking ears of grain from the kolkhoz fields under the 7 August 1932 law. It is difficult to consider criminal all those millions convicted under the prewar decrees for being late to work or absent from work without leave. The same can be said for the victims of the economic campaigns who were sentenced for a failure to fulfill the plan. We still do not know the identities of those hundreds of thousands convicted by the troikas during the "cleansing of the cities" in 1935-36 ... and during similar actions in other periods.
Even though some of the actual numbers are certainly bigger than those culled from the Soviet documents so far declassified, let's assume they are perfect in their current form - no mistakes, omissions, or obscure factors to consider.

Take the average number of people incarcerated in the Soviet Union as given by Martyanov: 1.7 million per year. Martyanov suggests that the number of Americans incarcerated can better put the Soviet numbers into perspective (in the Soviets' favor). But note how he doesn't give the total population of the Soviet Union for the years in question. The statistics actually refute his own implied point.

Currently, the U.S. incarcerates approximately 0.7% of its population. Yes, that is the highest rate in the world. The Russian Federation incarcerates 0.4% of its population (the 14th highest in the world). By contrast, Japan incarcerates only 0.045% of its population (it ranks 206th).

The population of the USSR grew from 149 to 182 million in the period from 1926 to 1951 (roughly corresponding to the time Stalin was in power). Using the average of 1.7 million incarcerated per year, that means the Soviet Union incarcerated between 0.9% and 1.1% of its population. If the Soviet Union of the 1930s were still around today, it would top the list. In fact, the number of incarcerated Soviet citizens peaked in 1950, at approximately 2.5 million inmates. The total population was then around 182 million, meaning that 1.4% of the population were incarcerated, double the current percentage in the U.S.

And that's not to paint a rosy picture of incarceration in the U.S. Clearly something is wrong with American society. There are probably far too many people incarcerated for non-violent drug-related offenses, for example (and not enough incarcerated for white-collar crime and political corruption). But the fact is, the U.S. does have a lot of criminals (as did the Soviet Union). According to DOJ statistics, 5.1% of Americans will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. A staggering 76.6% of those convicts will be rearrested within 5 years of their release.

How many of those are, or have been, political prisoners? It's hard to say. Officially, the U.S. doesn't have any political prisoners, but social activists beg to differ. It's hard to find precise sources, but even then most sources I could find online apparently had enough space to list the political prisoners by name (one example here). In WWII, the U.S. interned 1,800 Italian Americans, 11,000 German Americans and 120,000 Japanese Americans (1,862 of whom died in the camps). Even a generous estimate of 200,000 political prisoners in the 20th century is a far cry from 4,000,000 over 32 years of Soviet history. (If anyone can find more precise data, let me know.) How many Americans have been arrested simply for "spreading counterrevolutionary slander against party policy or party and government leaders"? Maybe this is why, as Martyanov notes, "there are very few, if any, signs of fear gripping the United States and its citizens of being taken off the streets and thrown into prison." They are free to criticize their government, as you can see everyday on Twitter (as long as they haven't been 'shadow-banned').

There's one inconvenient set of statistics Martyanov skips over: executions. The U.S., unlike most civilized countries (including Russia), still practices capital punishment. From 1608 to 2018, a period of 410 years, the U.S. executed a total of 15,970 people who were sentenced to death. The highest number per year peaked in the early 1930s, almost reaching 200.

Compare this to the Soviet Union, which officially executed 799,455 citizens from 1921 to 1953 - a period of 32 years. That's an average of 24,226 people per year, more than the U.S. has executed in its entire existence. At the height of "what are called Stalin's purges", as Martyanov puts it, in 1937, the various "organs" of the Soviet justice system sentenced 353,074 people to death, 22 times the number of people executed in the United States over a period of 410 years.

And that's just death by execution. While there is no complete data on the total number of people who died in the gulag, the minimum death rate in the 1930s ranged anywhere from 4.8% to 15.2% (not counting intentional or unintentional misreporting by camps as well as those who died in transit to the camps). A minimum of 500,000 are known to have died in the camps, colonies and prisons in 1930-1941 - a greater number died in exile. Again, this number excludes those who died en route, outside medical facilities (including extrajudicial killings), and in certain camps for which data isn't available. Wikipedia gives a conservative estimate by scholars using the Soviet documents that 1.5-1.7 million deaths in the gulag, about 10% of those who passed through the system.

As far as I can tell, around 4,400 American inmates die in prison every year. Of course, conditions today are better than they were 80 years ago, and conditions in the U.S. are and were better than they were in the Soviet Union at the time, so the comparison can only go so far. But that's still a death rate of approximately 0.2%.

Martyanov is right to criticize the numbers Solzhenitsyn and other anti-Communists use to criticize Soviet repressions. I think Solzhenitsyn and others writing in his time can be forgiven for their inflated numbers: they had no real documentation on which to base their estimates. Scholars today don't have that excuse. But even then, I don't believe for a second that the official Soviet numbers capture the scope of repression. And even if the Soviets didn't imprison or kill as many as Western propagandists say they did, there's no excuse for making excuses for the gulag system, or the wider range of Orwellian repressions meted out by the Soviets. It's not an either-or choice.

Yes, the Soviets achieved some remarkable things, especially in education, science, technology, and their defeat of Nazism in WWII, as Martyanov documents. But the political leadership was also evil. The two are not mutually exclusive. Soviet society wasn't entirely backward, but its leaders were almost totally backward. How can the two coexist? For that, you'll have to read Lobaczewski's Political Ponerology. To sum it up in only a few words would be to do it a disservice, but here goes: the bosses have personality disorders and nothing but disdain for the regular people. Certain individuals learn to act as middlemen between the two, steering the leadership in the right direction when it can. That accounts for the successes in the midst of incompetence and malevolence.

The Russian people not only won WWII, they maneuvered within a system that was anti-human, they made the best of it that they could, and accomplished much by doing so. The American establishment is wrong to demonize all things Russian. As far as I'm concerned they can demonize Stalin to their hearts' content. But expanding that demonization to the Russian people as a whole goes too far.

To repeat what I said above, my criticism of this single paragraph of Martyanov's book should not be taken as a criticism of the book as a whole. If anything, I felt the need to criticize it because the rest of the book is so good. So do check it out. Just don't turn off your critical thinking.