Methods of Control in Soviet Labor Camps

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Back in 1989, the last year for the Soviet Union, Rasma Karklins wrote an article in the journal Soviet Studies on the organization of the old Soviet forced labor camps. What made this important article worth reading is the fact that it details, using documentary evidence, the methods of control used to manipulate prisoners in the system.

For the most part, the old Soviet camp system was for political prisoners, those who disagreed with the goals and methods of Marxism. There were, of course, regular criminals, but a set of camps existed solely for the sake of “re-educating” those who refused to accept the Soviet system.

The camps, it should be noted, were a large part of the Soviet economic system, and like any other economic productive organization in that empire, it had quotas to meet. The result is that the camps could always step up their work in order to make up for any productive shortfalls. Therefore, not only were the camps used to control the dissidents, but also to assist the economy in meeting is planned targets.

Controlling people, especially in the conditions of a labor camp, demands something more than just the threat of sheer force and punishment. Psychological methods were used to keep prisoners in line, and this is where Dr. Karklins offers insights as chilling as they are relevant. Of course, this is not to say that violence was not used, but that it needed to be supplemented with other methods of mental manipulation.

The lack of privacy was a mode of control in the camps. It altered the mental state of the prisoners, and put them in a mode of uniformity. The use of uniforms and other forms of anonymity was a tactic used to destroy the prisoner’s self esteem and sense of individuality. Ultimately, the camp manipulated its prisoners by destroying any sense not only of individuality, but any sense of personal identity at all.

Once a person’s identity has been harmed, damaged or even removed, the prisoner becomes a robot, someone who exists to follow orders, to get through the day and to reach the camp’s production quota. If these methods failed, prisoners were deprived of food and sleep, both meant to break down any resistance on the part of the prisoner. While all of this is happening, propaganda is continually blaring from the camp loudspeaker system.

The point of the article is clear: while violence can be used, it is a clumsy tool for control. Dr. Karklins has shown that the most scientifically developed mode of human control ever devised, that of the Soviet concentration camp, uses the destruction of personal identity and personal space as a means of control. Those in modern societies should take note: personal identity and that sense of mission is part of the resistance to standardization and bureaucratization – those two painful hallmarks of modernity.


Karklins, Rasma. “The Organization of Power in Soviet Labor Camps.” Soviet Studies, 1989: 276-297


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