Two Eras

Saturday, January 30, 1999

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “No one who has not sat in prison knows what the State is like.” The prison camps of the Soviet Gulag, as much as any other aspect of Russian life, defined the Soviet system. Witness the following:

  • Ten percent of the entire population of the Soviet Union lived in the camps.
  • The Gulag administration was the largest single employer in all of Europe.
  • The average life expectancy of a camp prisoner was one winter.
  • At least twenty million people perished in the labor camps during Stalin’s rule.
  • The camps dehumanized life and instituted a reign of terror throughout Soviet society.

In so many ways, the history of the Gulag is the history of Soviet communism.

In June 1998, the Hoover Institution signed an agreement with the State Archives of the Russian Federation to publish the records of the Soviet Gulag. A microfilm edition will include 1.5 million pages of documentation from the Soviet Archives, covering the entire history of the Gulag from 1922 to 1960. In addition, key documents selected from the Gulag Archives will be published in six volumes. The project will take about three years to complete.

The records include files from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which ratified the Gulag policies; the Ministry of Justice, which tried the cases and sent millions of innocent people to the camps; and, most important, the Main Directorate for Places of Detention, the state agency that operated the camps. Gulag—the Russian acronym for the Main Directorate for Places of Detention—was a branch of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. The Gulag Archives include

  • Internal policy memoranda and minutes of meetings
  • Regulations and instructions on camp administration and operations
  • Lists of prisoners
  • Budgets and personnel data
  • Reports on the vast industrial and agricultural enterprises operated by the Gulag
  • Data on hunger strikes, escapes, executions, and mass rebellions
  • Documents on cultural, educational, and even Communist Party activities in the camps
  • Records on health, disease, and death rates

This microfilm project, then, will give us a full picture of the slave labor system in the Soviet Union and will establish once and for all the historical record of one of the most criminal episodes in human history.

"The Work Brigade"

The artist Thomas Sgovio created a series of drawings and paintings, based on memories of his life as a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag, that are now in the Hoover Archives. In this illustration, a group of prisoners returns to the compound after a twelve-hour shift in the gold fields of the Kolyma forced-labor camp in northern Siberia. The sign over the camp gate reads Labor in the USSR Is a Matter of Honor, Courage, and Heroism.

Sgovio’s father, an Italian radical who had immigrated to the United States but faced deportation for his radical activities, moved his family to the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s. Shortly after their arrival, both father and son were put in the Gulag, where Sgovio's father died after ten years. Thomas Sgovio was arrested in 1938 by Stalin's secret police as he was leaving the U.S. embassy in Moscow, where he had applied to return to the United States. He spent the intervening years in the Kolyma camps and in exile in the Soviet Far East; he did not succeed in leaving the Soviet Union until 1960.

A ten-member editorial board will oversee the project—five representing the Russian side and five representing the Hoover Institution. The five Hoover members are Robert Conquest, who more than any other scholar in the West exposed the truth about the Soviet Gulag; Hoover senior fellow John Dunlop; Professors Terence Emmons and Amir Weiner of the Department of History at Stanford University; and Charles Palm, deputy director of the Hoover Institution. The project is directed by Charles Palm and Sergei V. Mironenko, director of the State Archives of the Russian Federation. When completed, the entire set of microfilm produced by the project will be available for research at the Hoover Institution Archives.

The Gulag project illustrates one of the two collecting priorities of the Hoover Institution Library and Archives: The first is the history of communism in the twentieth century.

In addition to the Gulag project, the collecting program on the history of communism has brought in many new materials for the Hoover Archives.

  • From 1992 to 1996, a joint project between Hoover and the Russian State Archives microfilmed more than eleven million pages from the Soviet Communist Party Archives relating to the history of the Soviet Communist Party from its founding in 1898 to its collapse in 1991.
  • The archives has also acquired the diaries of Tatiana Litvinov, the daughter of Maxim Litvinov. These diaries date from 1941, when her famous father was Stalin’s ambassador to the United States during World War II, and continue into the 1950s, when Tatiana became involved in the post-Stalin dissident movement.
  • The papers of Andrei Siniavski, the Russian writer and human rights activist whose trial for allegedly publishing anti-Soviet slander in foreign countries was a key factor in mobilizing the human rights movement that helped discredit and topple the Soviet system, have been acquired by the archives.
  • Finally, a very important acquisition on the subject of communism are the papers of Morris Childs, who was a leading figure in the American Communist Party. At the same time, he was a secret informant for the FBI. From the mid-1950s through the Nixon administration, Childs was probably the most important human intelligence asset of the U.S. government. Childs frequently visited Moscow to consult with Soviet leaders, who greatly valued his advice. Because of his contacts there, he was able to provide the United States with the first news of the Sino-Soviet split. He also happened to be in Moscow at a Politburo meeting on the day that Kennedy was shot. He witnessed firsthand the reaction of the Politburo to the news of the assassination. On his return from Moscow, Childs was able to inform the FBI, and as a consequence the U.S. government knew early on that the Soviet Union had probably not conspired to murder a U.S. president.

The second subject area in our collecting program is the end of the Cold War and the transition to democracy and freedom. Whether free institutions will take root where they never existed before is one of the most important questions of our times. The Hoover Library and Archives has been equally successful in collecting the documentation on this subject.

  • Last fall the archives acquired the papers of Imre Pozsgay, known as the Hungarian Gorbachev. Pozsgay was deputy prime minister of Hungary from 1989 to 1990—the period when Hungary was undergoing its transformation from communism to democratic rule. Pozsgay’s papers occupy some seventy boxes and are a rich source of documentation on reform efforts within the Hungarian Communist Party, the eventual collapse of communist rule, and the process by which communism gave way to democracy.
  • In cooperation with the Gorbachev Foundation, the Hoover Institution is undertaking an oral history project on the end of the Cold War. Fifty leading figures in the Gorbachev presidency, including President Gorbachev, will be interviewed on how, from their perspective, the Cold War came to an end.
  • In China, the Hoover Institution is making a determined effort to collect documentation on the stresses and challenges of economic and political transition in that country. During the past several years, Hoover curators have assembled the most significant collection outside China on the transition in Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule. The subject of human rights in China is also an important collecting focus. For example, last year the Hoover Archives acquired a set of 110 volumes of internal regulations of the Chinese government’s Security Bureau, which oversees the prison system—a system that has been widely criticized for human rights abuses.
  • In Latin America, the collecting program is focused on Argentina and Chile, and many significant materials on the economic reform efforts that are under way in these two countries have been acquired.
  • Finally, in an especially noteworthy development, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, secretary general of the United Nations during the period when the transition to democracy began to unfold around the world, donated his papers to the Hoover Archives.

These few examples illustrate the current acquisitions program of the Hoover Library and Archives. This energetic and imaginative program will provide scholars with a rich resource for understanding the tragic history of Soviet communism and the problems and challenges of a world in transition to democracy and freedom.