The Veil of Secrecy: How did the Soviet government quell epidemics in prisons?


In a new blog post, historian Mikhail Nakonechnyi discusses the Soviet legacies that still plague Russia’s contemporary penitentiary services. He analyses the secretiveness of penal system officials, and compares how the USSR handled epidemics with how Russia is handling the current COVID-19 pandemic. He shows that current practices of secrecy about epidemiological data resemble not the Stalinist GULAG era, but rather Soviet prisons of the 1920s.


On 25 June 2020, Aleksandr Khabarov, deputy director of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) of the Russian Federation, debriefed journalist on the COVID-19 epidemic in the country’s penal institutions. He ostentatiously lauded the efforts of his subordinates in combating the threat of infection. Khabarov touted how his agency managed to avert full-scale disaster. To substantiate his point, he provided data on infections among both prisoners and prison personnel. The disclosure of official data comprised the most recent instance in a series of similar press releases on the unfolding of the epidemic behind bars.

The present blog post does not attempt to question the putative veracity of Khabarov’s figures (hypothetically, they may be true). Rather, it concerns the framing context, namely, the mode of Khabarov’s presentation of the data and historical roots of this mode. In fact, the interview’s underlying modus operandi is a typical way of informing the public about the sickness and mortality in Russian prisons in the last decades. FSIN occasionally issues succinct, patchy, non-transparent chunks of descriptive summary data without any detailed regional distributions or other statistical data in irregular press releases. The agency itself decides when, how often and with what level of detail it should inform society about epidemiological emergencies behind bars (COVID-19 being only one example out of many, the other recent pertinent case is the considerably more lethal TB epidemic).

The fundamental contention of this piece is that the origins of the relative lack of transparency concerning epidemics in contemporaneous Russian prisons stem from the country’s tumultuous past. One can at least tenuously explain FSIN’s parsimonious information policy through the inertia of the Soviet penal system and the manner in which it historically managed epidemics and information flows surrounding them. The related second argument is that the ubiquitous reticence of prison authorities, exemplified by the reluctance to publish more elaborate epidemiological data, harkens back, rather unexpectedly, to the prisons of the 1920s rather than to the era of the Stalinist GULAG, as one might assume.

To corroborate these claims, first I sketch out the evolution of Soviet state censorship around the issue of epidemics in prisons. Next, I briefly examine two most conspicuous epidemiological cases of the 1930s: the typhus epidemics of 1932-1933 and 1937-1938.  I conclude with some observations on the continuities and discontinuities between the COVID-19 crisis and Soviet legacies in confronting epidemics in prisons.

Regime of secrecy around epidemics and mortality statistics in early Soviet prisons and the GULAG

In the 1880s, investigative journalist George Kennan decided to include staggering death rates of Russian Imperial prisons in his famous condemnation of Siberian tsarist exile. He did not bribe any bureaucrat to get them. Kennan simply extracted the necessary figures from openly published, easily accessible official reports. Ironically, no potential critic of Soviet prisons could follow Kennan’s footsteps and do the same already by the mid-1920s.

Previous blog posts elucidated how the tsarist autocracy, albeit grudgingly, regularly published meticulously detailed quantitative data on epidemics in Russian prisons, often to its own political detriment. The oppositional press, civil society and even the international community vociferously debated these figures. As a result, the Imperial state received caustic (and well-deserved) criticism for mismanagement and resulting prisoner mortality due to typhus and cholera. After October 1917, the attitudes of the newly created republic towards unrestricted publication of data on epidemics in prisons experienced a radical metamorphosis and paradigmatic shift.

The new Soviet government classified morbidity, mortality and general epidemiological statistics in prisons already in the 1920s – long before the inception of GULAG per se and the advent of the Stalinist dictatorship. It deliberately removed prison epidemics from public discussion in their entirety. Thus, in September 1925 the Glavlit (Main Administration for Literary and Publishing Affairs, a newly established censorship agency) issued a top secret ‘List of Information considered secret and not subject to distribution in order to protect political and economic interests of the USSR’. Among other things, it unequivocally stipulated that any data or facts on the ‘sanitary state of the places of confinement’ could not be published. Another instruction from 1930 (the year of GULAG creation) explicitly forbade newspapers to publish ‘negative information on conditions in places of detention’. Henceforth, any mentions of ‘OGPU concentration camps’ (as the Instruction put it), even the most innocuous ones, were supposed to be coordinated with and approved by the secret police. Scurvy, emaciation, typhus and dysentery, a hidden underside of prison life in the 1920s and early 1930s, now turned into a carefully guarded ‘state secret’. Journalists, state functionaries and former prisoners faced prosecution for even an inadvertent, carelessly uttered intimation in the public sphere on mass epidemics in penal institutions.

The truth of the matter is that acute infectious diseases raged in camps and prisons. For instance, a particularly devastating typhus epidemic hit notorious Solovetskii camp in the Russian European North in 1927-1929. A quote from a classified report of the governmental commission of  Alexander Mikhailovich Shanin, which inspected the camp in spring of 1930, offers a snapshot of its scale and demographic corollaries:

To a large extent, as a result of the cruel regime and harsh material conditions for the prisoners, one has to consider the extremely high morbidity and mortality of the latter. For two quarters of 1929/30 25,552 people fell ill in hospitals, i.e. 44.6% of the population.<…> 3,583 people died in the same six months, i.e. 6.8% of the population, or 14% of inpatients; out of this number, 1004 people, or 26%, died of typhus and 396, or 11%, from emaciation and anemia.

Unsurprisingly, not a single figure from this memorandum ever leaked in wider Soviet society until after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the partial opening of the secret police archives in the 1990s.

The authorities fastidiously constructed the public image of ‘corrective labour’ in the GULAG as arduous, but nevertheless fair, humane and rehabilitative. Extreme death rates and epidemic diseases were simply incommensurate with this sanitised fictitious reality.

During a short period in the early 1930s, the corrective-labor camps (such as BelBaltLag, which undertook the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal, or Dmitlag, responsible for building the Moscow-Volga canal) found themselves in the spotlight of public and even international attention. The government employed these ambitious industrial projects in state-sponsored international propaganda campaign. It was accompanied by official publications, glorifying the achievements of socialist economy via ‘reforging’ delinquents into productive Soviet citizens. ‘Belomor: An Account of the Construction of the New Canal Between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea’ represents the most famous example from this era. However, the book featured only one death of a prisoner from an accident and not a single mention of deadly epidemics (which, in fact, severely affected prisoner population during canal construction).  In the mid-to-late 1930s, when authorities gradually removed GULAG from the public view, even such publications stopped. As David Dallin and Boris Nikolaevskii presciently noted in their classic monograph: ‘The more forced labour has developed since 1930, the denser has become the official fog that shrouded this institution in mystery’.

Another remarkable aspect that merits discussion is the multi-layered nature of GULAG secrecy. It makes the study of epidemics in the Soviet case difficult and occasionally insuperable. Not only did camp officials keep sensitive data on epidemics hidden from the public, but they also erected additional and often insurmountable barriers of secrecy in internal documents for their own personnel. Archives reveal how penal functionaries further camouflaged incidents of illness and mortality under various opaque euphemisms in already classified documents of the system.

Figure 1. Addendum №6. Codes for telegrams of echelon commanders during transportation of the prisoners into the camps, 1935

Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation. Published and scanned by Sergei Prudovskii.

For example, on 29 April 1935, the NKVD (i.,e the secret police, which administered the camps) issued order № 045. It listed sophisticated set of ciphers for telegrams to be used by commanders of the convoy troops, tasked with transportation of the newly convicted prisoners from pre-trial detention into the GULAG camps. In top-secret addendum №6 the typhoid fever acquired the cryptic label of the ‘the first number’. The typhus was euphemistically called ‘the second number’, smallpox ‘the third’, cholera ‘the fourth’, sсurvy ‘the fifth’, recurring fever ‘the sixth’ (see Figure 1). The Moscow headquarters provided instructions to the localities on how to interpret the coded maladies, supplementing the guidelines with concrete examples for the local officials’ convenience. One read: ’25 may Sverdlovsk three are resting number one Seleznev’. The deciphered version meant: ‘25 May three sick with typhus fever were offloaded in Sverdlovsk’.  ‘27 February Samara sent 3 with the second number. Nikitin’. In reality it denoted ‘3 prisoners died from typhus in Samara’.  Sometimes ‘GULAG-speak’ circumlocutions acquired rather bizarre forms to a contemporary superficial observer. A case in point, in Privolzhlag camp in the 1940s doctors hided prisoners’ deaths under somewhat sinister collocation ‘black cases’ (chernye sluchai).

Gradually the internal ciphers for various epidemic diseases become so convoluted and abstruse that they start to perplex even GULAG administrators themselves. The chaotic confusion with various evasive labels and designations elicited their centralised standardization reform.  On 7 June 1942 major of state security Georgii Prokop’evich Dobrynin, Deputy GULAG Director, issued a circular № 42/234984, which established a new iteration of the codes (see Table 1).

Table 1. Codes for infectious diseases from GULAG directive № 42/234984, 7 June 1942

Infectious diseases
The first Yellow fever
The second Anthrax
The third Epidemic encephalitis
The fourth Smallpox
The fifth Typhus
The sixth Tularemia
The seventh Plague
The eighth Recurring fever
The ninth Glanders
The tenth Typhoid fever
The eleventh Japanese encephalitis
The twelfth Taiga encephalitis
Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation.

However, the most widespread GULAG ‘epidemic’ (metaphorically speaking) were not acute infectious diseases, but starvation. Statistically, at least in the 1930s or 1940s, it was far more probable to die from lack of food than typhus (which camp authorities learned to quell quite effectively by the end of 1940s). Hence, GULAG officials went to considerable lengths to vitiate and conceal the fact of mass death from hunger in their penal institutions from the civilian Soviet population.  To achieve this goal, the secret police administrators resorted to outright machinations with diagnosis, directly sanctioned by central GULAG authorities.

Figure 2. Top-secret directive №31/593372 to all camps and colonies commanders, signed by GULAG Director Nasedkin, 28 May 1941

Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation.

On 28 May 1941, Viktor Grigorievich Nasedkin, the GULAG Director, telegraphed directive №31/593372 to all camp commanders and local NKVD chiefs. It read:

There is evidence that some Sanitary departments of camps and colonies (OITK) quite often put “emaciation” (istoszhenie) as the cause of death in the death certificates. Such documents end up not only in the courts, who sentenced the prisoner, but also come into possession of prisoners’ relatives, which in turn provokes undesirable judgements about the actual reason of death.

It is necessary:

    1. When recording death, caused by emaciation, provide not only the main diagnosis, but also concomitant one (paralysis of the heart, weakening of cardiac activity, pulmonary TB etc.)

    2. When issuing any kind of notices, sent by the camp into different external organizations or the civil registration system (OAGS-ZAGS NKVD-UNKVD), state only concomitant death diagnosis.

    3. In medical reports sent from localities into the central Sanitary Department of GULAG NKVD leave the main death diagnosis intact.

Remarkably, Nasedkin signed this spurious directive in May 1941, roughly a month before the Nazi invasion and related well-known food deficit in the GULAG. Among other things, it proves that Soviet inmates died from emaciation even in ‘peaceful’ temporal periods. However, the GULAG top command clandestinely censored this fact, alongside with all the potentially sensitive information on disease generally and epidemics particularly.

To conclude, this surreptitious policy pertaining epidemics persisted well into Khrushchev’s, Brezhnev’s and even Gorbachev’s eras. Omnipresent state censorship for decades obfuscated, supressed and outright denied the mere fact of epidemiological emergencies in the Soviet prisons. Unsurprisingly, archives prove that they did habitually occur, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, but in later periods as well. Probably the most egregious case was the typhus epidemic in the GULAG, which correlated with the catastrophic famine of 1932-1933.

Typhus epidemic (1932-1933)

On 1 January 1932 the GULAG housed 266,000 prisoners. The following years witnessed the meteoric rise of prisoner population at a scale and tempo unprecedented before that moment in time. As a result of massive surge of extrajudicial and judicial convictions during collectivization of agriculture, by the end of 1932 the camps held 342,000 prisoners (28,4% growth). In the first months of the 1933 this figure swelled further extraordinarily fast up to 501,000 (188% growth in comparison to 1 January 1932).

The spate of newly sentenced detainees completely overwhelmed the capacity of the penitentiary system. By May 1933, camps, colonies, prisons and police jails accumulated 800,000 prisoners. The overcrowding in some localities reached 800% above the normal level. Famine, overcrowding and typhus traditionally go hand in hand. 1932-1933 were no exception. With such a critical degree of congestion typhus epidemic was ineluctable.

As in the pre-revolutionary times, the perpetual relocation of prisoners via railroads between myriad of the GULAG localities served both as a conduit and as catalyst for the spread of the contagion.

Figure 3. Griadinskii’s telegram to Molotov, 5 April 1933

Source: State Archive of Novosibirskaia oblast’.

The panicked telegram by the chair of the Siberian krai executive committee Fedor Pavlovich Griadinskii, sent on 5 April 1933 to Viacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov and Council of People’s Commissars (Soviet government) in Moscow, can serve as example (see Figure 3). Griadinskii reported:

In the echelons of prisoners, passing via Novosibirsk GULAG contingent twenty percent have body lice. There are cases of typhus. Part is seriously emaciated which hinders sanitary processing. 2, 3 April 29 ill with and suspect of typhus and 14 corpses were offloaded from the three train echelons

From echelon № 500 Bataisk over the course of transportation 43 dead bodies had been offloaded …There is a danger of dissemination of the diseases alongside the route.’

The impending prospect of mass typhus-induced deaths imbued highest echelons of the state machinery with a sense of unease. To be sure, the reason for this concern was not humanitarian, but pragmatic. Emaciated and diseased prisoners hardly could be productive in forced-labour camps during a frenzied industrialization drive, whereas extreme rates of morbidity and mortality inhibited the fulfilment of Five Year Plan, of which GULAG was an integral part.

Consequently, top Soviet officials personally supervised and directed the nationwide efforts of stopping the disease in the camp system.

Genrikh Grigor’evich Iagoda (1891-1938),
People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs,
Head of the OGPU-NKVD (secret police).

Genrikh Iagoda, the chief of the OGPU, Soviet secret police, gave a direct order to quell the typhus epidemic in the GULAG already in winter 1933. In April 1933 he informed Joseph Stalin on the operation of the camp economy in the 1932 and the first quarter of 1933.

The head of the secret police audaciously boasted:

There were no epidemic diseases, in particular typhus, in the OGPU camps, with the exception of single cases, although the camps were encircled by conspicuous typhus epidemics among the local population. The arrival of replenishments to the camps containing extremely depleted and incapacitated prisoners from the prisons of the Ministry of Justice in the very first months of 1933 sharply exacerbated the sanitary conditions of the camps. During the first quarter of 1933, 14,369 people died in the camps, compared to 13,926 for the whole of 1932.  The growing mortality rate in March 1933 reached 1.49%, against 0.4% on average in 1932. Since there are large typhus epidemics in the detention houses of almost all the regions of the USSR, typhus was brought into the OGPU camps with the new replenishment, which we managed to stop everywhere, preventing it from spreading to the camp prisoners.

Iagoda’s memo can serve as a trenchant example of institutional self-aggrandizement coupled with rather tendentious attempt to deflect blame. OGPU chief apparently relegated the responsibility for the typhus epidemic from secret police unto the competing bureaucracy (Ministry of Justice). However, Iagoda’s anodyne claims about the purportedly insignificant proliferation of the epidemic under OGPU’s purview should not be taken at face value. As alternative sources suggest, the typhus epidemic, did, in fact, reached flagrant scale in the camps (See Figure 4 and Table 3).

Figure 4. Number of typhus cases in GULAG camps, 1932

Source: State archive of the Russian Federation.


Table 2. The number of typhus cases in the GULAG camps, 1933-1934

Camps   Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec TOTAL
1.Bamlag 1933 0 45 69 26 153 73 7 1 31 8 6 17 436
  1934 8 4 6 7 2 3 1 2 6 2 5 22 68
2.Dmitlag 1933 8 5 13 39 80 16 6 0 11 17 2 9 206
  1934 9 9 8 11 10 4 0 4 4 0 0 1 60
3.BBK 1933 1 24 23 50 14 1 0 0 0 0 13 5 131
  1934 48 26 7 1 1 0 1 1 1 2 2 1 91
4.UkhtPechLag 1933 0 0 3 6 9 5 0 0 1 1 0 0 25
  1934 2 2
5.Svir’lag 1933 4 0 2 29 15 8 0 2 0 0 0 1 61
  1934 2 6 2 1 11
6.Temlag 1933 0 28 27 40 4 3 0 0 0 0 4 0 106
  1934 1 37
7.Slag 1933 0 15 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 16
8. Dal’lag 1933 1 72 54 61 48 19 13 3 0 2 17 2 292
  1934 6 20 5 17 4 3 1 8 0 64
9.Siblag 1933 36 16 63 80 345 166 33 5 10 43 13 56 866
  1934 63 67 9 9 11 4 3 1 1 8 41 217
10.Sazlag 1933 17 0 34 21 8 23 0 0 0 0 0 18
  1934 20 7 2 18 0 0
11.Karlag 1933 39 13 25 63 83 16 3 2 1 4 163 56 468
  1934 14 2 4 0 1 2 6 12 42
12.Vishlag 1933 2 29 15 78 55 59 14 0 0 0 9 1 262
  1934 1 1 1 0 0 3
13.Prorvlag 1933  
  1934 1 0 0 1 0 1 4
14.Balakhlag 1933 46
15.Sarlag 1933 1 1
TOTAL 1933 108 266 332 510 815 389 76 130 55 76 228 169 3,037
  1934 137 170 28 64 31 16 7 8 13 9 39 77 656

Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation.

One should certainly take these official figures with a healthy dose of scepticism.  Primitive diagnostics techniques and lack of qualified medical personnel in the camps make them imprecise and understated. Moreover, the presented statistics accounted only for typhus, not typhoid and other fevers. Nevertheless, even this imperfect data can serve as indication of a trend. If camp medics recorded ‘only’ 869 cases of typhus in 1932, the number of the ill ballooned to 3,037 in famine-stricken 1933. The agricultural Siblag in the Western Siberia exhibited the highest incidence of contamination (866 instances, 28,5% of the entire All-Union tally, closely followed by agricultural Karlag and gigantic Bamlag, tasked with railroad construction in the Far East). One can explain this imbalance with geographical location of Siblag and its role as a major hub in the transportation system. Siblag’s forwarding prisons ‘accepted’ the burgeoning influx of the emaciated and ill prisoners, relocated from the European parts of the country. The transports from Ukraine, Northern Caucuses and Kazakhstan, where typhus and typhoid ran rampant among the free population, exacerbated Siblag statistics as convoy troops ‘dumped’ many dead and infected prisoners into Siblag’s jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, localities attempted to fulfil Iagoda’s order to curb the epidemic. In January 1933, Deputy GULAG Director Semen Grigor’ievich Firin approved an instruction of measures against typhus, developed by GULAG doctors. Using typical OGPU-NKVD technocratic vocabulary and accusatory tone, Firin adamantly maintained that typhus must be stopped at all costs, whereas all negligent rank-and-file officials would be punished accordingly for not adhering to central demands. The instruction included 22 paragraphs. Because typhus in 1932-1933 continued to be intractable, all coping strategies involved preventive rather than therapeutic policies.

The most important measures can be summarised as follows:

  1. Increased sanitary processing of all arriving inmates, including disinfection of clothes.
  2. Institution of three-week quarantine for all new arrivals to any given camp.
  3. Isolation of all the captured escapees for 21 days after their re-capture.
  4. Reduction of external trips of camp personnel and internal relocations of prisoners within camp boundaries.
  5. Creation of special administrative boards (troikas and piaterkas) to oversee the implementation of these measures.

 Graph 1. Mortality in the GULAG camps (relative), 1930-1933

Source: Istoria Stalinskogo GULAGa, Vol.4, 55.

These measures still could not prevent mass mortality of the GULAG inmates in 1932-1933. The death rate leaped from 4.8% per annum to 15% in 1933. Every six prisoner died in 12-month period. In 1934, the epidemic and famine ended. Only in 1933 together they caused premature deaths of at least 70,000 prisoners and 150,000 special settlers. Of course, these grim data were strictly classified and had been safely tucked away in the archives until 1989-1991. The same was true of another epidemic that affected Soviet penal system during crisis of 1937-1938, described in the next section.

The typhus epidemic in Bamlag (1937-1938)

1937 and 1938, known in the historiography as the Great Terror, saw the apex of political repression in the Stalinist epoch. From July 1937 to November 1938, the secret police, fulfilling orders of the Politburo and Stalin, murdered at least 700,000 people (this signifies a rate of roughly 1,000-1200 executions per day). Another 800,000 were convicted via simplified quasi-judicial procedure and sent to the labour camps. Similarly to the collectivisation years, the chaotic arrival of newly sentenced prisoners over such short period precipitated extreme overcrowding and another major epidemiological outbreak in the GULAG. The memoirs of former prisoner A. Shalganov can serve as window into the typhus and dysentery epidemic in Bamlag in the Far East at the height of the Great Terror 1937-1938:

In the dugout  …something horrid was going on. People lay crowded on the bunks, under the bunks, right in the corridors. It was impossible to take a step so as not to step on someone’s hand. The stench was terrible. People were afraid to go out, because their place was immediately taken by another (forty degrees’ frost was raging outside). Turkmens, Azerbaijanis, Tatars, Mordovians, and fellow countrymen — Muscovites, people from Leningrad — lay side by side … Turkmen gowns, the dilapidated clothes of prisoners, were all littered with louse, which resembled poppy seeds. There were no plates, spoons.

… in February, mass mortality began to occur in the camp. The potato was running out, but the water was not delivered at all. Thirsty people collected handfuls of snow covered in bloody stains and put it into their mouths. The weakened could not reach the latrine and sat right there, near the dugouts. Dysentery raged with might and main. At first, 18-20 people per day died. Then 50-70. I made coffins: for two, for eight people. Then we ran out of timber. We built a barn and put corpses there; the mountain grew and grew and soon rose two meters above the ground.

Officials managed to suppress typhus by 1939 at a great cost to human lives. According to the internal and probably understated NKVD data, almost 120,000 prisoners died in camps, colonies and prisons in 1938 alone due to starvation and diseases. The measures employed by the state at a the personal request of USSR Procurator Vyshinskii were reminiscent of those employed during 1932-1933, notably strident quarantine and mass disinfection. Once again, the simple fact of the existence of this particular epidemic remained unknown to broader Soviet society until 1991.


All prison bureaucracies are, to some extent, intransigent and resistant to external oversight. The degree of this recalcitrant attitude, however, considerably varies from country to country.  Historical continuities and socio-political legacies of the past often predetermine this variation. Russia is certainly no exception.

Soviet authorities kept data on epidemics classified for more than 60 years, and construed any publication of the data as a criminal act that breaches ‘state security’. This policy paradigm could not dissipate on a whim in the post-Soviet period. However, it would be a reductive oversimplification to bluntly equate contemporary FSIN policies to Soviet ones. While the Soviet public knew almost nothing of extraordinary massive epidemics behind barbed wire (e.g. the 1932-1933 and 1937-1938 typhus epidemics), contemporary Russian society is considerably more informed.  At very least, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service began to publish some limited data on epidemics, however irregularly. On the other hand, vestiges of deeply entrenched clandestine habits inherited from the Soviet era definitely linger on in the contemporary Russian penal apparatus. This is noticeable in the way the prison system handles public relations during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, exhibiting an idiosyncratic hybrid of secrecy and a more accountable, transparent approach.


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