The gulags that supplied the project with a seemingly-endless source of disposable labour – effectively slavery – were internment camps to which the Soviet regime banished any ‘undesirables’ – political prisoners, radicals, criminals, or persons who spoke out about (or even told jokes about) the government. Many gulags in remote places contributed to the Russian timber industry, or served as mining colonies.
The Soviets were masters of propaganda, and cared deeply about how they represented themselves to the rest of the world. When a book of letters written by former gulag prisoners was published in the West in 1924, there was a worldwide demand for a boycott on Russian timber. Two reporters for the British Timber Federation were sent to Kotlas, where they were given a specially-commissioned tour of the facilities. The glowing report the two produced afterwards indicates that they were shown only what the authorities wished them to see, and no more. This practise is known as the ‘Potemkin village’ trick, as the earlier Tzarist regime supposedly constructed entire false villages to convince visitors that their system was just and fair.
Image: Tomasz Kizny
It was only after the fall of the Soviet regime that many people within Russia and other countries learned of the sheer number of atrocities committed in the gulags and along the Road of Bones. For many people who still regarded Stalin as a great leader, this new relative freedom of information brought many uncomfortable facts to light.