Interview with Fontanka: On the GULAG and its “Labour Reserve”

June 20, 2012

The following is a translation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s interview with the Russian publication “Fontanka” published on June 20, 2012.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky – to “Fontanka”: About the GULAG and its “labour reserve”

One of the most successful entrepreneurs before 2003, and after – the most famous prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is convinced: the domestic system of executing punishments could work in such a way that zeks would return less often to colonies. It could – but it does not want to. He recounted to “Fontanka” about how the everyday work of the Russian “GULAG”, which continues to be as densely populated as before, could be organised.

– It is considered that it is even harder to get work in a colony than at liberty. In actuality do many manage to do this?

– According to statistics, 650 thousand prisoners are being held in Russian correctional colonies, more is being spent on the upkeep of each one than the average income of a “free” Russian citizen. But only 10 – 15 percent of the denizens of colonies have jobs, even the most wretched ones. The result – nearly half a million factual unemployed. A potential source of supply for criminal recidivism! And this with all of our demographic problems, with our shortage of working hands, with the endless flow of Gastarbeiters…

– And just what are these hundreds of thousands of our imprisoned and unemployed fellow citizens engaged in in the colonies?

– Why, something that is well known to anyone who has been through compulsory military service. Formation, roll call, cleanup, mess hall and – cleanup once again. During the breaks – smoking and aimless walking around in circles. These people are not working, are not setting themselves aside any money for the initial time. They don’t get accustomed to labour, to a specialty, they don’t engage in what they would be able to earn bread for themselves with once they’re at liberty. And that is how hundreds of thousands of non-drinking, even if it is only temporarily, physical healthy people suffer from forced idleness.

– But the administration of a colony can not but see the shortage of work and understand what this is leading to. What measures can it undertake? And how interested in this is it in general?

– Production – this is an additional headache for the chief of a colony no matter what: possible injuries, a possible additional way for bringing prohibited items into the zone, a burden on the accounting department, liability for non-execution of contracts and dozens of other questions. Yes, it will be more peaceful in the zone, after all a large part of the problems are – from idleness. But they somehow manage to deal with these problems. Yes, a “working” zone – is better fed, but even so nobody is really going hungry these days. And if someone feels he doesn’t have enough of something – well, “this is no holiday resort, you know”. And besides, they’ll take away the profit from the colony anyway. Nobody’s going to give a bonus to the chief himself. As for the problems of former jailbirds that will arise beyond the fence already, they usually worry the “comrade chief” little.`

– But if such an enthusiast is found nevertheless, then what specific production would it make sense to improve so that this would be not only for educative objectives, but would also bring benefit? What is needed for this?

– All this requires the development and strengthening of a colony’s mutual relations with local industry, with the public-utilities sphere, enterprises for the repair and construction of objects of regional infrastructure, with agroproduction. It is precisely here, as a rule, that there aren’t enough working hands, it is precisely these professions that are in demand on the market. And a person who possesses such professions is not going to remain without a piece of bread and a roof over his head.

– Among prisoners there are people who possess perfectly concrete professions. What stands in the way of organising the system in such a way that they could make use of themselves in their specialty? A doctor, for example, could see patients for a fee…

– There are no entrepreneurs who could organise all this and would want to. But the unwillingness of entrepreneurs to get involved with this all – this is an effect. And there is a cause. The fact of the matter is that the unit cost of production in a zone is exorbitantly high. The security requirements for places of detention are very tough, they are comparable with the requirements for enterprises in the nuclear industry.

– According to statistics, only 3 percent of prisoners are considered truly dangerous, and among them half – are “economic”. Why then such tough requirements?

– Indeed, there are maybe ten or so escapes per year for the entire system, not counting colonies-settlements. The majority of the “go-boys” are caught. Or they themselves, after they’ve had their fun, come back. People plain and simple don’t want to run. The majority have got no place to go and no reason to leave. Against the background of the annual quantity sent off to jails, and this is hundreds of thousands, some ten fugitives – is less than a drop in the ocean. It turns out that the waste of gigantic funds on “protection and security” for the sake of ten “go-boys” – is an ordinary bureaucratic “hang-up”. “Checkmarks”, the reporting of GULAG times. Well and, of course, the vulgar “assimilation” of budget money.

– Does a connection exist between the opportunity to work on the zone and the prospect of not returning there any more or, on the contrary, of returning quickly?

– The “exit bell” is going to sound sooner or later for everyone. Then the gates open wide, and the person finds himself on the threshold of a new, free life. Without money, without family, without a specialty. Without the habit of daily productive labour, often without a roof over his head and with a rumbling stomach. So half “swing on by” back into the zone already soon after release.

– And what needs to be changed in the system in order to avoid recidivists? Perhaps the FSIN could somehow participate in the future job placement of zeks?

– In principle, the conception for the development of the correctional system indirectly gives and answer to this question. Jails – for the dangerous ones, colonies-settlements – for the rest. In this case a significant part of prisoners are going to get moved to colonies-settlements, and there it’s simpler with work. In actuality it’s simpler with work only today: when the numerical strength of such colonies is not great, and many of them are working for the needs of the correctional system itself. You’re not going to be able to employ another 300 – 400 thousand people in work that way. Production must be independent. The same thing with prison medicine. While the camp administration must be motivated towards the end result – the quickest possible and as maximally full as possible correction of people. So that people, getting out of jail, would not return there any more. For this they’ve got to come out to liberty with a specialty, with labour financial accumulations, with the habit of working. And preferably – also with a real invitation to work in their profession or a newly mastered one.

Irina Tumakova, “”