Prisoners at war: Soviet forced labor and the Second World War



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“Prisoners at War: Soviet Forced Labor and the Second World War” examines the history of forced labor during the wartime period in the Soviet Union. World War II was a landmark period in both the history of the Soviet Union and the Gulag, a system of forced labor camps, colonies, special settlements, and prisons. The chaos and upheaval of the war in the Soviet Union resulted in the loss of vital territory and millions of lives, effectively increasing the Soviets’ reliance on the rapidly expanding system of forced labor, which infiltrated nearly every aspect of daily life during the war. The thesis traces widespread developments in the Gulag labor camps, at the administrative and ground levels, while viewing the forced labor system as a vital component of the Soviet war effort. The war resulted in the creation of numerous administrations within the Gulag system, often with overlapping jurisdictions and functions. As direct result of the war, camp administrators also tightened discipline within the camps. The Gulag also underwent major demographic changes in terms of both prisoners and employees and experienced the highest mortality rates in the history of the system. The thesis also explores two relatively understudied phenomena: the extremely secretive Soviet prison science system and Soviet penal military units composed of Gulag inmates “released” into the Red Army. In analyzing these two phenomena, this thesis reintroduces the notion of human capital into studies of forced labor in an attempt to provide a more complete portrait of the operations and functions of the Soviet forced labor system, as well as the place of the system within the broader war effort. Viewing the harnessing and manipulation of the collective skills and knowledge of scientists, specialists, and military servicemen through imprisonment and forced labor sheds new light on the implications of forced labor in regards to modernization, science and technology, and military operations. The thesis draws extensively on sources from two major archives in Moscow, as well as published memoirs and interviews, document collections, and autobiographical literature and fiction. Many of these sources are under-utilized, including memoirs and interviews from former incarcerated scientists and specialists, as well as interviews and memoirs from Red Army servicemen and Soviet administrators.

This thesis won 1st Place in the Texas Tech University Outstanding Thesis and Dissertation Award, Humanities/Fine Arts, 2017.

Embargo status: Restricted until June 2022. To request an access exception from the author, click on the PDF link to the left.



Gulag, World War II, Second World War, Soviet Union, Forced Labor, Sharashka, Sharashki, Penal Units, Shtrafbat, Punishment units