Radiating a False Picture: Focus on the Difference Between Soviet PR and Reality

George Schopflin,
The Times, UK,
July 11 1986

The Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachov is working hard at showing an image of reasonableness to the West. All the marks of modernity are wheeled out in the presentation of what the Soviet Union does, and there is more than a hint that the Gorbachov style is intended to be understood as proof of the existence of a Westernised elite with which the West can deal. This hides the persistence of a degree of coerciveness and brutality in the Soviet Union that no Western country can accept as reasonable.

Vivid evidence of this comes in a documentary,
The Nuclear Gulag, to be shown on Channel 4 on Saturday. It shows pictures, some taken from Soviet television, some shot clandestinely at considerable risk, of the Gulag as it is today. The image is not a pretty one. The unofficially shot film and the interviews with relatively recent survivors of the Soviet prison regime are both persuasive in shedding light on unknown aspects of the story.

The most remarkable part of the documentary deals with a highly sensitive and secret topic - uranium mining by prison labour. The Soviet system uses prisoners to mine uranium partly as a deferred death sentence and partly because it is cheap. The human cost is not regarded as a cost. According to the evidence of a Protestant pastor, who has spent 18 months at two such mines, uranium mining is carried out with no regard to safety provision. There is no machinery to extract toxic gases and dust and no special clothing is provided.

The death rate is high. So is the suicide rate - many prisoners preferring suicide to slow radiation poisoning. Medical support is worse then useless. There is tentative evidence that instead of offering treatment, some medical personnel regard the prisoners as guinea pigs and observe the progress of radiation sickness instead.

The upshot is that the Gulag is hardly changed from the death camps set up half a century ago. Brutality and appalling conditions are the norm. The guards appear to have an informal licence to kill prisoners. The prisoners are treated, as they have been for decades, merely as economic units from whom the maximum amount of work is to be extracted and are then to be discarded.

The cynicism of the system is reflected in the way that regulations are applied. Failure to meet a heavy work quota, often in appalling conditions, such as having to dig soil frozen three feet deep with a spade, results in solitary confinement and starvation rations. This further undermines the prisoner’s constitution and is, for all practical purposes, a death sentence. It is next to impossible to escape this vicious circle.

The punishment cells at Vladimir prison, east of Moscow, are specifically designed to break prisoners physically. They are too small to allow a man to lie down and are deliberately overheated or kept frozen. One former inmate describes how he was kept in such a cell for 15 days at 5 degrees C, after his warm clothing had been taken away. He shivered for the entire time he was there and afterwards had a stroke.

The medical staff are as much a part of the system as the guards. One doctor, to whom a prisoner appealed for help, declared, “First I am a Chekist, a KGB agent and then I am a doctor.” Brutality is not a monopoly of the guards. Some prisoners, common criminals, are permitted to kill politicals who come to be regarded as “awkward.”

The documentary also produces evidence that the total number of executions in the Soviet Union is far higher than the official figure of about 30 a year. The real figure, calculated on the basis of confidential information from Soviet district courts and appeal courts, is between 865 and 895. Gorbachov’s campaign against “speculators,” who can face the death penalty, could well raise this to an even higher level.

There is something to be said for the argument that any society can be judged by how it treats its prisoners. The emphasis is not on spectacular achievements but on the dark side, where state control is complete. The individual imprisoned is entirely at the mercy of the system, and the system is allowed its fullest expression. By this yardstick, the Soviet Union has a long way to go before it can be seriously regarded as Westernised.