Bamlag’s lingering shadow

BY DR. MIKHAIL NAKONECHNYI

At the beginning of March 2021, Mikhail Mishustin, Russian Prime Minister, declared that the government intends to invest 780 billion rubles into the development of transport infrastructure, including the audacious modernization of the Baikal-Amur Railway, popularly known by its acronym BAM (Baikalo-Amurskaia Magistral’). In a new blog post, Dr. Mikhail Nakonechnyi analyses the implications of this news from a historical perspective.

To appreciate the degree of governmental ambition, one has to realize the daunting magnitude of the task. The present-day BAM permeates a huge swathe of the country’s territory. Starting at the town of Taishet in Irkustskaia oblast’, Eastern Siberia, the railroad meanders for 4,287 kilometres through Irkutskaia, Chitinskaia, Amurskaia oblasts’, Buryatia, and Yakutia, until it finally reaches the final destination – the town of Sovet’skaia Gavan’ in Khabarovskii krai, in the Russian Far East.  Constructed in extremely inhospitable terrain and climatic zones, crossing the great Siberian Rivers of Lena and Angara and having to create a series of tunnels through permanently frozen rock, the railroad artery was the most expensive construction project of the Soviet Era.

Map of Baikal-Amur Railway

On April 26 2021, closely following Prime Minister Mishustin’s declaration, several major news outlets reported an additional detail – the government discussed the possibility of employing a prisoner workforce in railroad’s renovations. The underlying rationale was pragmatic. The state mused over the idea to deploy soldiers of railroad troops and prisoners due to severe labour shortages – out of the required 15,000 workers, the Russian Railroads managed to mobilize only 5,000 ‘freely hired’ personnel. To those who knew the full history of the BAM’s inception this detail carried a rather ominous and uncanny connotation. The prospect of using prisoner labour to rebuild and expand the BAM inadvertently evoked the unquiet shadows of the country’s recent contentious past, notably the legacies of Bamlag camp. This blog post provides a succinct overview of Bamlag’s history to contextualize the government’s sudden initiative.

Komsomol members at the BAM construction, the 1970s

In the popular imagination, the birth of Baikal-Amur Railway is traditionally associated with the 1970s, the epoch of ‘developed socialism’, the hit song ‘Stroim BAM’ by the Soviet band Samot’svety, and young, enthusiastic Komsomol (Young Communist League) members, volunteering to participate in the “the construction project of the century” (as it was poetically qualified by Leonid Brezhnev himself). To unsuspecting Soviet citizens and Western observers ‘the BAM endeavour’ for many years was officially presented as predominantly ‘civilian’, voluntary enterprise. For most Russians it remains a poignant symbol of industrial ingenuity, youth, selfless dedication for the common good, and resilience of the indomitable human spirit in the epic struggle with nature.

Dilapidated ruins of Bamlag’s infrastructure in the Far East, the 1990s

However, what remains less known is that the 1970s construction was actually BAM-2, a second iteration and continuation of the older project, harking back to the early 1930s, growing tensions with the Empire of Japan, and frantic industrialization drive of the first Five Year Plan. 42 years before decree of USSR Council of Ministers, initiating the building of the BAM in the 1970s, in April 1932 the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, the Soviet government, promulgated another decree with identical name – ‘On the construction of the Baikar-Amur Railway’. The state, enamoured by the idea of building a strategic railroad in the Soviet Far East after the loss of Manchuria to Japan, initially intended to use civilian workers under the auspices of the Ministry of Transport (NKPS). However, in a fascinating, yet slightly eerie parallel to 2021, the recruitment plan of free labour failed, barely reaching 50% by September 1932. Free Soviet citizens simply lacked the incentive to travel unto the underdeveloped fringe of the country to work in arduous, often extreme conditions, notwithstanding higher ‘northern’ salaries and other promised benefits. As a result, commensurate with the Great Break zeitgeist, the government resorted to forced labour.  Yet another decree of Council of People’s Commissars from 1932 stipulated ‘to entrust the OGPU with the construction of the Baikal-Amur railway using for this construction the prisoners of the OGPU corrective-labour camps.’

This move precipitated the fundamental change of jurisdiction from civilian NKPS to the OGPU-NKVD, the odious secret police. At the time, the agency already ruled over a burgeoning empire of forced labour institutions via its sub-division – the GULAG, the Main Administration of Camps. GULAG’s labour reservoir of prisoners and special settlers (deported peasants) accounted for more than a million by the autumn of 1932. From a government standpoint, it did not matter that prisoners, often emaciated and unmotivated, demonstrated less productivity than ‘civilian’ workers. In the camps, shirkers were harshly prosecuted, whereas the dead and the ailing could always be replenished by seemingly limitless new transports of convicts. Even unproductive, the camp ‘contingent’, in euphemistic GULAG-speak, suited perfectly for the government’s utilitarian need to deploy mobile, relatively ‘cheap’ and docile workforce in a record-short time to the wild borderlands of the USSR. The initial plan estimated the 2000 km of the railroad to be finished at a back-breaking, blatantly unrealistic pace: 3.5 years. In 1937 the secret police received new orders to build a 5,000 km railroad from Taishet to Sovgavan’.

Naftalii Aronovich Frenkel (1883-1960), the Bamlag director

Specifically for the task, on November 11 1932 the OGPU issued order №1020/s that established Bamlag (Baikalo-Amurskii lager’), a new camp administration with an operational centre in town Svobodnyi (then Dal’nevostochyii krai, now Amurskaia region of the Far East). From 1934 onwards,  Naftalii Aronovich Frenkel’, a former conman, chief engineer of White-Sea Canal and a convicted criminal himself, served as permanent Bamlag director. Frenkel’ made an impressive career in the GULAG, attained the rank of Lieutenant-General of engineering and technical service and died peacefully in Moscow in 1960.

By GULAG standards, Bamlag was certainly an atypical camp, with a plethora of unique particularities. The first idiosyncrasy was its mammoth size. The camp jurisdiction encompassed a huge landmass, exceeding several European countries taken together and spanning for thousands of miles. By the end of the 1930s, the camp grew exceptionally large not only in terms of mere territory but also in terms of the number of prisoners, incarcerated there. If by December 1932 Bamlag housed only 9,608 workers (3652 of whom were inmates), in February 1933 the number swelled to 11,330 (including 7,009 convicts), increasing further, as of May 1933, to 31,415 workers, overwhelmingly prisoners.  The prisoner count jumped to 180,067 in January 1936, and exceeded staggering 200,907 inmates in January 1938, roughly 20% of all GULAG prisoners. In 1938 Bamlag occupied the undisputable leading position as the largest GULAG camp, superseding all other administrations. Never before in the history of Russian or Soviet criminal justice, had the single construction project, which relied on prisoner labour, reached such a pharaonic magnitude. To put things into perspective, the entire prison system of the Russian Empire in December 1913 (including Poland) held record-high 190,067 prisoners. The Amur railway in 1915, the biggest railroad construction of the Ancien Regime, using prisoner workforce, at its peak employed only 3,518 hard-labour convicts. Bamlag became so massive and under-managed, that the government decided to subdivide it in May 1938 into several independent camps, Amurskii, Bureiskii, Vostochnii, Zapadnyi, Nizhne-Amurskii, Primorskii, Iugo-Vostochnii and Iuzhnii. Some of these camps formed the bulk of a new Main Production Administration of Railroad Construction (GULZHDS) in 1940, with industrious and ruthless Frenkel’ at its helm.

The propaganda book ‘Putearmeitsy’ (‘soldiers of the way’), published by the Сultural-Educational Department (KVO) of Bamlag, 1935

The second distinctive characteristic of Bamlag constituted its ‘prioritized’ status in the hierarchy of supply and perceived overall ‘importance’ in comparison to other camps. After the end of the White-Sea Canal construction in 1933, both Politburo and OGPU-NKVD paid inordinate attention to the BAM, a project of ‘All-Union’ importance. The government supplied Bamlag on a preferential basis, often at the expense of less ‘vital’ camps.  In addition to extra material stocks, the singularity of Bamlag could be exemplified by the emergence of its own idiosyncratic vocabulary. If an average prisoner from BelBaltLag (White-Sea Canal) was known by infamous abbreviation ‘z/k’ (‘zakluchennii kanalo-armeets’, ‘soldier of the canal’), which later become an umbrella term for all GULAG prisoners, the Bamlag prisoners were labelled by another, less-known neologism, putearmeetz, ‘soldier of the way’. On the organizational level, Bamlag also differed from the rest of the camps. Whereas the majority at their lowest administrative levels had ‘camp divisions’ (lagotdelenia) and ‘camps points’ (lagpunkty), Bamlag used the term ‘falange’, derived from ancient Greek infantry formation, to designate its sections on the ground. This militarized terminology emphasised an army-like ethos of the Soviet penal system with its shock work and ostensible iron discipline.

The reality dramatically deviated from lofty propagandistic slogans. From a purely pragmatic vantage point, the results of Bamlag operation were mixed at best and disastrous at worst. Forced labour was intrinsically inefficient and needlessly wasteful. Millions of rubles were squandered, expensive machinery fell into disrepair without proper care, the tons of valuable materials were stolen or simply rotten due to neglect. The quality of the prisoners’ work, sacrificed for speed and fiscal restraint, remained sub-par and required perennial renovations, often from scratch. Crucially, the camp failed to deliver almost all of its main industrial objectives. The tenacious plan to build the road in three years’ time immediately went awry. First, the work on the BAM proper did not start until 1937. The railway was never finished. Second, Bamlag successor camps completed line Izvestkovaia – Ugral with major structural imperfections only in 1942, but in 1943 the line was dismantled due to vicissitudes of wartime. At the beginning of the war, the NKVD mothballed the construction of the BAM section from Urgal to Komsomolsk. By this time, impoverished prisoners managed to lay 123 km of rail. Construction on the Taishet-Padun section began in 1938, by 1941 70 km of track were built (instead of the planned 350 km), mothballed at the end of 1941. Construction on the Komsomolsk-Sovgavan section was also mothballed.

From a humanitarian perspective, the sheer human cost of the Bamlag experiment was egregious.  Between 1933 and 1938 camp doctors registered almost 40,000 prisoner deaths, from starvation (istozhenie), TB and infectious diseases (typhus). The 1938, a peak of Great Terror, was particularly difficult for Bamlag. On the one hand, the camp turned into a mass execution site. During 7 days of August, 1937 alone, the local NKVD shot 837 Bamlag prisoners after simplified extrajudicial procedure. On the other hand, the gigantic torrent of newly convicted prisoners overcrowded the camp facilities, instigating a logistical collapse, mass starvation and a typhus epidemic. A report of camp procurator Dimakov offers a sombre insight into conditions at the time:

In the infirmary, there are prisoners lying naked on long bunks, literally packed like sardines in a barrel. They are not taken to the bathhouse for weeks owing to the lack of underwear and bedsheets. In some rooms, women are lying on the bunks in the same room as men. A syphilis patient lies side by side with a tubercular patient. In a common room, there are patients with erysipelas (infectious) packed with stomach patients. Tubercular patients, with surgical patients. They take people who froze to death off the arriving trains (Moscow train).

Those arriving have no underwear, nothing but rags. The terrible thing is that there is not a single change of underwear, boots, or clothes in the Bamlag. Their bodies are covered with scabs, but they do not take a bath, because they are not provided with underwear. Their tatters are full of hundreds of lice. There is no soap. Many have nothing to put on to go out to the bathroom. The so-called recovering team is in fact […] in a dark barrack. People there completely lack underwear and pea jackets and only have ragged light jackets. They resemble humans or, more likely, savages, or people of the Stone Age. And new trainloads of people without clothes keep coming, and people go on the road barefoot, unclothed, and we have minus twenty to minus fifty degrees Centigrade here. There are no houses. There is nothing to build houses with, no tools, no saws or axes. What is to be done? Typhoid patients arrive with the recent trainloads. Some-body—obviously hostile—is arranging for people to die en route and to die upon arrival.

In order not to hold up cars and in order to prevent a jam on the rail-road, zealous bosses of the fourteenth division decided to have the arriving people walk seventeen kilometres. As a result, in the first group of 750, five people died of cold, and ninety-two were frostbitten (mostly their feet). In the second group, forty-two people were frostbitten, and in the third, thirty. Fats are not supplied for long periods of time. Patients with weak stomachs eat from the common cauldron. There is no sugar in the infirmary (fourteenth division). The food situation is catastrophic. Now, 60,000–70,000 prisoners will be placed deep in the taiga in winter, with only one month’s worth of food. People may find themselves without food, separated from the rest of the world by impassable marshes until November. Hundreds of telegrams sent to the GULAG about the catastrophic situation in the camp go unanswered. People become brutalized, and some are nearly insane. There are no fresh vegetables. In two-three months, scurvy may start, but new prisoners keep coming and coming. In three and a half months, 75,000 arrived, and the same number on wheels.

When confronted with Bamlag’s morbid legacy, the present-day Russian Federal Prison Service (FSIN) staunchly denies parallels to the GULAG, which, of course, inevitably appeared in the mass media and public mind. The officials rebuke such comparisons as ideologically inspired, defamatory invectives. For example, Alexander Kalashnikov, recently appointed FSIN director, assured that ‘it will not be a Gulag, it will be absolutely new decent conditions because this person (a prisoner- M.N.) will work in a hostel or rent an apartment, if they want with their family, receive a decent salary’.  In another press release, FSIN insisted that the legal status of prisoners involved in the modernization of the BAM would be dramatically different from the GULAG era, promising mild and even lenient treatment.

Meal of Bamlag prisoners, 1933, Virtual Museum of the GULAG

In the final analysis, on the one hand, contemporary Russian prisons, however flawed and brutal, are indeed incomparably more ‘survivable’ than the camps of the 1930s. One should avoid facile false equivalences between the GULAG times and the present-day Russian penitentiary system. On the other hand, the sinister associations and ineluctable reputational loses, conjured up by the dubious idea of deploying prisoners to the territory of a former concentration camp, where 40,000 Soviet citizens met their untimely end due to relentless exploitation of forced labour, will certainly linger over the government initiative and guarantee bad publicity. The shadow of Bamlag is long indeed, and cannot dissipate that quickly.

Further reading

Elant’seva O.P. BAM: pervoe desiatiletie, Otechestvennaia istoriia. 1994. № 6, 89–103.

Elant’seva O.P. BAM: stranitsy trudnoi istorii, Karta. № 7/8., 13–22.

Elant’seva O.P. BAMlag v kontekste istorii i literatury: iz fondov dal’nevost. b-k / Dal’nevost. gos. un-t, Ros. gos. ist. arhiv Dal. Vostoka  (Vladivostok : Izd-vo Dal’nevost. un-ta, 2000)

Averkieva, K.V., Territorial’naia organizat’sia ispravitel’nikh uchrezhdenii Rossii, Izvestia Rossiiskoi akademii nauk, Seria Geograficheskaia, 3, 19-34

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