‘Death Camps’ of the USSR: Putin’s nostalgia bodes ill for ex-Soviet nations

'Chemists' - functionaries of the 'Cheka' or 'Extraordinary Commission' - in the 1920s. The Chekists implemented the terror decreed by Moscow throughout the Soviet Union.

‘Chekists’ – functionaries of the ‘Cheka’ or ‘Extraordinary Commission’ – in the 1920s. The Chekists implemented the terror decreed by Moscow throughout the Soviet Union. The Cheka was the original name of the Soviet KGB, in which Vladimir Putin once worked.

In light of the Russian regime’s current affinity for glorifying the Soviet past, it seems right and just for some of us who have not forgotten that era to bring some of its less glorious aspects to light. This is for the benefit of those who may view Vladimir Putin as a great statesmen, or who may simply have chosen to conveniently forget the tyranny and terror of the USSR. The Internet features several interesting pieces of historical research into the Soviet period by Russians using materials from the State Archives of the Russian Federation (SARF), many of which have not been translated into English. These include detailed, footnoted accounts of Soviet atrocities, including the Red Terror and the terror-famine of 1932-33 (known in Ukraine as the ‘Holdomor’).

One such report, published in November 2011 by Corporatelle on the Livejournal blog platform and republished on the argumentua.com website, is entitled, ‘How they killed our grandfathers: Compared to the Chekists, the SS were angels.’ The author cites data from the documents of the Nuremberg Tribunal and materials from the BundesArchiv in Germany, the State Archives of the Russian Federation, and data corresponding to 19th century prisons from the Pan-European Prison Congresses and other sources.

The report is a comparative analysis of two concentration camps – one Nazi, the other Soviet – and examines a simple, generally overlooked phenomenon: the mortality rates in labor camps in the USSR, which, in peacetime, exceeded those in Nazi German labor camps – often even during wartime. The author is quick to note that, while Buchenwald is often labeled a ‘death camp,’ it was not technically of this category. The ‘death camps’ included Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, and others, and these were involved in systematic extermination of inmates. In other words, they reached mortality rates of 100% during WWII. Buchenwald, by contrast, was a forced labor camp. Though administered by the SS [Schutzstaffel or ‘Protection Squadron,’ the political police of the Third Reich and paramilitary ‘praetorian guard’ of the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler – Ed.] like the other camps, and inmates died at horrific rates from a variety of terrible causes there (including execution), Buchenwald was first and foremost a slave labor camp.

The author chooses to compare Buchenwald with a little-known Soviet concentration camp called ‘Sazlag,’ short for Central Asian Correctional-Labor Camp. The author says that he/she could have chosen any number of other camps in the Soviet GULAG (Main Administration of Camps) system to compare with Buchenwald, but Sazlag’s obscurity in the historical record made it particularly illustrative. Levels of mortality at Sazlag were so ‘phantasmagorical’ [sic] that the very anonymity of the camp made it more interesting as a subject of study. Furthermore, Sazlag was not the worst of the Soviet camps, but more ‘middle of the road’ in terms of conditions and number of victims.

As the author notes:

The German Buchenwald camp was a “mid-level monstrosity” in terms of mortality, i.e., conditionally better than the spooky Mauthausen. There are no statistics on Mauthausen, and it is really only known that the mortality rate there reached 50% during the war. By contrast, in the Soviet Union, only two camps were roughly comparable to Mauthausen in mortality rate: Ryblag [located in Rybinsk, Yaroslavl region – Ed.] and Kotlaslag [in Kotlas, Arkhangelsk region – Ed.] in 1942-1943, and these were significantly worse than the ordinary prisons of the Third Reich.

In other words, Buchenwald and Sazlag both represented a ‘median’ in their respective systems, but while Buchenwald is notorious in world history (and deservedly so), Sazlag is unknown and not associated with any great evil.

It is well known that the commandant of the Third Reich’s Buchenwald ‘death camp’ was sentenced to death by hanging. But the heads of the Soviet Union’s ‘Sazlag’ – a ‘Russian-style Buchenwald’ – lived and worked quite successfully, going on vacations to relax at the public’s expense, buying sausage in the special shops of the OGPU [Joint State Political Directorate, or Soviet secret police from 1933-34 – Ed.], receiving salaries and bonuses, and rising through the ranks.

Buchenwald supplied labor for the defense industry of the Third Reich – companies such as DAW, BMW, I. G. Farben, Ford, Cologne Fordwerke, and others. Some of the prisoners were used to test vaccines, and many for experiments. It is estimated that 154 prisoners died from being used in medical experiments at Buchenwald. By reputation, it seems as though Buchenwald was a place where a concerted effort was made by the SS to kill inmates.

The author supplies charts of the number and rate of death of Buchenwald prisoners over a period of several years. They are divided into 7 columns representing several months in the years 1937, 1943 and 1944. Each month an increase in the number of prisoners is visible in the second column, followed by four columns representing the decrease from discharge, transit, and death. The column on the far right shows the total number of prisoners for the given month.


From this data, the author concludes a relatively low mortality rate for 1937 (2%), which he describes as ‘significantly lower than in most of the Soviet camps of the peaceful 1930s,’ and adding that the ‘most ferocious horror and nightmare in the German concentration camps began during the war.’ The author includes a couple of photos of the Buchenwald camp facilities:

This is the way the barracks for prisoners at Buchenwald appeared in the relatively vegetarian year of 1937:

Barracks at Buchenwald

Point of delivery of clothing for prisoners:


In 1939, Buchenwald’s mortality rate was 14.7%. In 1940, it rose to 21.4%, then fell in 1941 to 19.7%. In 1942, a typhus epidemic generated a mortality coefficient of 33%.

In 1943, a catastrophically high mortality rate was observed at Buchenwald: 3,516 people dead (17-18% of the average annual number). In 1944, the death rate decreased in relative terms to 15%, but increased in absolute terms due to the overflow of the camp, continuing to be monstrously high. Towards 1945, after the final chaos of logistics and supply, hell reigned in the camp.

Here’s what the prisoners liberated from Buchenwald looked like in the spring of 1945:


US soldiers around the pile of corpses of Buchenwald prisoners (spring 1945):


Next, the author turns his/her attention to Sazlag (also known as Sazulon), which existed from 1930-1943. Sazlag was set up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to fulfill a Soviet government resolution to use convict labor in colonizing remote areas of the USSR and exploiting their natural resources. Sazlag inmates worked on Soviet state farms (sovkhozy), mostly cotton, and in land reclamation, Aral Sea water transport and consumer goods production. The camp was initially subordinate to the OGPU, until that state organ was absorbed by the NKVD in 1934. The camp commandant, D. I. Litvin, was seconded in 1930 to the OGPU for the post of ‘Chief of the Re-organized Central Asian Camps of the OGPU.’

As the author points out, there are no photos available of Sazlag, a fact he explains by saying: ‘They greatly disliked cameras in the GULAG, and this was even more the case in the Sazlag.’ As such, only a photograph of the so-called ‘NKVD Commandant Firing Squad’ – who directly carried out sentences – is available (below). The person in the center is quite possibly Litvin.

07-NKVD Firing Squad

The ‘NKVD Commandant Firing Squad’ at Sazlag

The population of Sazlag grew from 2,660 people in June 1930. It reached is peak in October 1938 with 36,601 (7,739 of whom had been convicted of ‘counterrevolutionary crimes,’ and 12,904 as ‘socially dangerous and socially harmful elements’). In January 1940, the camp had 31,807 prisoners according to the official data of the accounting and distribution department of the GULAG). This number had fallen to 12,034 by January 1941 but grew steadily until 36,125 inmates populated the prison in January 1943.

The below chart from SARF indicates mortality rates at Sazlag. The second column represents the absolute number of deaths in each year, while the third column shows both the percentage and the number per thousand prisoners:


As the author writes:

As we can see quite clearly recorded by statistics, Sazlag was a camp of permanent disaster as concerned the mortality rate of prisoners for a representative period of 10 (!) years, with indicators sometimes far worse than the colonial prisons of Vietnam or Guyana. I repeat: 10 years.

To put these numbers in perspective, a chart on mortality in the colonial prisons of French Guyana, known for their abominable conditions, compares favorably to its Soviet counterpart:


By contrast with the colonial prisons of French Guyana, Sazlag records mortality rates much higher – at 10.5%, 26%, 27% and 8% in 1937, and 14% in 1938.

It is striking that even in peaceful Sazlag during a period when there was no famine, a catastrophically high mortality rate is observed – roughly at the level of statistical indices of Japanese camps for civilians during the war of 1941-1945.


And in the prisons of colonial Guyana in 1924-1926 – absolutely catastrophic and negative places of detention by world standards – it was almost comparable with the level of Buchenwald from 1934-1944.

The most terrible and unprecedented mortality in Sazlag was in the famine years of 1932-1933, when all the camps exhibited plainly repulsive rates of mortality. Throughout the Soviet Union, as the death rate rose to 115 per thousand, almost every sixth person in the Soviet Union died behind bars.

During these years, Sazlag ‘surpasses’ Buchenwald in a bad sense by almost doubling the wartime sample of 1943-1944 in relative terms. Of course, the death rate in the German camp is completely monstrous. But what then can we say about the death rate in Sazlag in 1932-1933, which in relative terms was almost twice as bad as Buchenwald during the most terrible, typhoid-stricken years of 1943-1944, when logistics started to become serious for the Germans, and supply of the camps began to develop slowly into total chaos?

In the peaceful, non-starving Sazlag of 1934, an extremely high, catastrophic mortality rate of 8% continued (the level of the colonial prison barbarically operated by Vietnam), and only in 1935 did mortality decrease to 6.5% (the level of colonial prisons in Guyana), and up to 1938 it held at about the 5% mark. In fact, a 5% mortality rate in the 1930s looked quite horrible even by the standards of GULAG. In peaceful non-starving 1938, another catastrophe occurs: mortality jumps to 14%. Almost every sixth prisoner in Sazlag dies (!).

Let me remind you that it was this mortality level that the odious Buchenwald reached during its worst period, during the Second World War in 1944… Think for a second: in 1938, there was no hunger or war, but on Soviet soil there was a camp which knocked out the world anti-leaders in terms of mortality rate, i.e., the mortality at Sazlag was worse than the average death rate in colonial prisons, and corresponded to the level of mortality of Buchenwald during the war…

In 1939-1940 (the last period for which data are available), mortality again falls to the level of 5%, remaining abnormally high. Undoubtedly, during the war Sazlag’s mortality continued to be high.

At first glance, these swings of the annual mortality between 27% and 5% may give the wrong impression – that in Sazlag there were relatively positive period in terms of mortality. Unfortunately, this is an illusion that occurs due to an uncritical acceptance of relative magnitudes.

After all, what is a 5% mortality rate for prison systems of the 1930s? How is it right to interpret this seemingly small specific value? Here a comparative approach will help.

Firstly, it is pointless to compare Sazlag with prisons of the modern industrialized countries. Suffice to say that, in the US prisons in 1930s and 1940s, relative mortality rates fluctuated at around 1%. (See US Department of Justice data). You can do the simple math yourself.

The author then goes on to compare mortality at Sazlag in the 1930s and 1940s with various 19th century prison regimes in Europe – Prussia in the 1860s, and Denmark, Belgium, France and Sweden in the 1880s – and finds mortality rates in the low single digits.

Findings and Conclusions

The chart compares the two individual camps (Sazlag and Buchenwald) with average coefficients of prison systems. The red line represents mortality per thousand inmates at Sazlag. The dark blue line is Buchenwald. Purple is French Guyana. Green is the Japanese concentration camps of WWII. Light blue is US prisons, and orange represents a prison in the Russian Empire (1895-1914).


The author concludes that, in relative terms, for a period of ten years there was no respite in mortality for prisoners in the Sazlag concentration camp:

In other words, it was disastrous (1931-1934, 1938) or just very bad (1935-1936, 1937, 1939-1940). Thus, we can more likely characterize Sazlag as a camp of permanent disaster in the mortality of prisoners with varying intensity.

Undoubtedly, in the Soviet Union there were far more prosperous places of detention (Norillag, Dallag) but Sazlag was not the only one – Svirlag, Solovki, Sevvostlag, Kuloylag, Kargopollag, Temlag, and many others have shown themselves to be comparable in some years to Sazlag in their terrible mortality.

The essential conclusion of the study is disbelief that so few people in the Russian Federation or anywhere in the world know the details of the Soviet camps of Central Asia, which could easily be labeled ‘death camps’ to the extent that Buchenwald can (and is). The author also highlights the tendency of people to assume that, if such excesses and atrocity did occur in the GULAG, it would have been punished by the Stalinist leadership (especially today, when most Russians view Stalin favorably).

Well, where is the punishing hand of Moscow? Where are the pillories of shame in the squares with the words: ‘Lt. of State Security Levin achieved the mortality rate of a Nazi camp in Sazlag?’ …

Here is a picture of the commandant of Buchenwald – SS Standartenführer Hermann Pister. He was sentenced to death by hanging, and died in prison shortly before the execution. Anyone who has studied Buchenwald and seen the faces of the prisoners understands the validity of this sentence.

SS Standartenführer Hermann Pister, Commandant of Buchenwald

SS Standartenführer Hermann Pister, Commandant of Buchenwald

But, for contrast, study the fate of a colleague of Pister and ‘talented administrator,’ effective manager, employee of the OGPU-NKVD Nikolai Alexandrovich Grotov – exactly when there was a completely unprecedented monstrous mortality rate in Sazlag, at the level of Buchenwald.

Grotov, writes the author, went on to serve in leadership positions in the Soviet NKVD after leaving Sazlag, and served without significant risk to his life in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (WWII), where he will have received several medals before retiring in 1946. Similarly, another commandant of Sazlag, A. E. Solonitsyn, was consumed by the Stalinist Great Purge in 1938, but prior ot tha the became the Deputy Commissar of Internal Affairs for Karelia – an autonomous republic of the USSR – and held leading positions in the NKVD for 7 years.

OGPU functionaries (1932)

OGPU functionaries (1932)

Never, not even in the far-from-ideal Tsarist prisons starting in the 1880s, did prisoners die in such absolute terms and in such percentages. Yes, there were terrible Siberian transit prisons for 200-300 people in the 1880s, and it was by no means a perfect servitude with its 2-3-4% annual mortality rate for the interval of 15 years and 6% mortality for 1912. But never anywhere in a place of detention during the reign of the Russian emperors did 3,000 people die with 230 per thousand as died some years in Sazlag in the 1930s…

The camp stands in a cohort that is completely analogous to the level of mortality in wartime Buchenwald and Dachau.

Those of us in the West who have studied the Stalin era – including its murder, terror, famine and mass repression – can feel touched by the exasperated tone of a Russian writing about the results of his/her research into the Soviet GULAG system. The horror has been known to many of us outside Russia for a long time. But inside Russia, it is either unknown to members of the public, or else rationalized by the authorities – who today serve as apologists for the Stalin era – as an evil that was necessary in the course of building a better future. In light of the Putin regime’s overt nostalgia for the Soviet era and the consequent rise in the popularity of Stalin, Western observers of today’s Russia would do well to remember the tragedy of the GULAG, and inconvenient details such as those featured in this study. This is especially true given that the current Russian regime has seen fit to conceal the deaths of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine from the general Russian public. Ukrainians have good cause to resist Moscow’s aggression, and Putin’s attempt to rebuild the USSR by force.

Как убивали наших отцов и дедов: эссэсовцы в сравнении с чекистами были ангелами

NKVD functionaries (1935)

NKVD functionaries (1935)

NKVD functionaries (1940)

NKVD functionaries (1940)

Credit for photos of Chekists, and OGPU and NKVD functionaries is given to: http://humus.livejournal.com/2719955.html


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  1. Unfortunately your own data disproves your idiotic premise. You singled out one GULAG, when looked at the averages, the data is very different:

    J.A. Getty’s excellent research on GULAG shows very inconvenient truth, and that is the very fact that the mortality rate in GULAG steadily decreased to the point, in which GULAG in 1953 was safer to be in than a prison in Louisiana in the 21st century.
    1953’s death rate 3/1000 = 300/100k

    mortality rate in the American state of Louisiana is over 400/100k

    In fact capitalist Russia shows a higher mortality rate among inmates than GULAG in 1953.

    Imperial Russia’s mortality rate was around 20 to 50 per 1000 (depending on the year), which means 2,000 to 5,000 per 100k

    Thank you though for showing the death rate of the French prisons, which shows that even rich France delivered worse death rates than GULAG. I will save that picture.


    • It is a pity you chose to resort to childish hyperbole in the very first sentence of your message, as I am usually happy to post comments, even critical ones, as long as they are not spam or bot-originated. But in your case, you have chosen “idiotic,” which is the common language of Russian trolls in comments sections throughout the internet. Those defending Russia regularly call people “idiotic” and “stupid” as a means of bolstering their flimsy attacks against anyone criticizing Putin, and reveal themselves to be in the pay of the Russian government. I am not sure what your angle is, but you’re certainly suspect.

      It does not appear you are particularly sympathetic to Russia’s post-Soviet government, since you appear to maintain that mortality rates in post-Soviet prison camps are higher than their counterparts during the Soviet period. This is a rather strange assertion, since you appear to use the temporal landmark of 1953 (the year of Stalin’s death) to measure the barbarity of the Soviet penal system. You imply, thus, that Stalin became less and less murderous as he got older (and more tired), until by the year of his death he was just a “pussycat” who wanted a cuddle and no longer wanted to kill anybody. Very peculiar.

      But at heart you are obviously defensive of the Soviet criminal justice system, including its system of penitentiaries, since Louisiana in the 21st century is your yardstick. I must say this is most strange. The report which I posted in translation concerns a comparison between the mortality rates of (a) the Buchenwald concentration camp and (b) the Central Asian Correctional-Labor Camp (Sazlag) both during the period immediately before WWII and during it. The research is quite sound in its conclusion that Sazlag (a fairly typical Soviet prison camp during the Stalin era) was just as lethal as Buchenwald, albeit for different reasons.

      Note that “Death Camps” is placed in inverted commas in the title of the post. This is an acknowledgment that Sazlag was not intended to be a death camp (just as Buchenwald wasn’t), but only that an inordinate number of inmates committed to it died. Levels of contagious disease (particularly tuberculosis) in the GULAG were notoriously high throughout the Stalin era and beyond, as I hope you acknowledge. It is therefore not outrageous at all to compare death rates in Sazlag with Buchenwald. Quite the contrary, it is a great service, and the report is very impressive.

      Your anti-Western hatred of capitalism is revealed in the tone of your message, sadly, and you are clearly defensive of the Soviet Union and its legacy. I’m not sure whether you ever visited the USSR, but having visited it when it still went by that name, I can only assure you that it was far from a paradise, even compared with 21st-century Louisiana. In fact, there is a revealing fact about WWII that illustrates the point that the Soviet Union was a living, dysfunctional hell.

      During WWII, Soviet soldiers who were taken prisoner by the Germans assumed they would be killed. Instead, when they arrived at the German-controlled POW camps after long westward rail journeys, they did not believe they had reached their final destination, because conditions in the POW camps were superior to those in their Soviet military barracks back home. It is little wonder, therefore, that so many of these soldiers were executed or sent to the GULAG (where they died) after the war. Stalin could not allow their memories to permeate Soviet society too much. A genuine tragedy, and yet Stalin is still held in high regard in Russia.


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