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Putin’s Gulag-Based Empire of Abduction, Deportation, and Modern Slavery

Brad Blitz and Alexandra Lewis explain how Russia’s mass deportation of Ukrainians is not an accident, but central to the ‘Ru.Lag’ – the Kremlin’s new form of political and economic control

Displaced children evacuating from Ukrainian cities besieged by the Russian army. Photo: Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press Wire

Putin’s Gulag-Based Empire Of Abduction, Deportation, & Modern Slavery

Brad Blitz and Alexandra Lewis explain how Russia’s mass deportation of Ukrainians is not an accident, but central to the ‘Ru.Lag’ – the Kremlin’s new form of political and economic control

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The abduction and deportation of up to 402,000 Ukrainians to Russia, including some 15,000 people from the besieged city of Mariupol, sends a chilling reminder of the region’s Soviet past. 

While Russia claims that this constitutes an “evacuation”, human rights monitors report that deportees have been stripped of their passports and forced to sign papers saying they will remain in Russia in the districts they are moved to for two years to work without payment, rendering them as slaves. 

According to Ukraine’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Lyudmyla Denisova, some 84,000 children are among the abducted, who may be used as “hostages” to pressure Kyiv to surrender in what has been labelled a “kidnapping” by the US Embassy in Kyiv. This forms only the latest chapter of a long history of forced population transfers by Russia, which, we argue, serves both economic and political ends.

Putin’s venture into modern slavery brings Russia closer to China, where deported Uighurs have been sent to camps in Xinjiang, to harvest cotton, and produce fashion goods, as well as PPE for export to British market

Comparisons to Soviet “Corrective Labour Camps” or “Gulags” are natural. Established by Lenin in 1919 and then famously massified under Stalin, Gulags served as institutions of repression for seemingly random sections of society, accused of political crimes and corruption, who were sent to work in Siberia under the harshest of conditions. 

The practice of forced labour, however, dates back further still to feudal times, when landlords would buy swathes of uncultivated territory far from the centre of Russia and arbitrarily transport peasants there, often without forewarning, at a time when mass domestic slavery was rampant. That we should return to these practices today, just as members of the Russian Duma (Parliament) call openly for Putin to set aside the title of President to pick up the mantle of Tsar or Emperor, is telling.

Quasi Serfdom 

Featured in both the historic and present system of quasi-serfdom is an absolute loss of freedom and self-determination. Then, as now, forced labour has chiefly served a political goal. The long view of Russian history records a multigenerational relationship with forced labour, in which the needs of the elite few superseded the needs of the many. 

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union drove the expansion of the state right into the lives of workers. Obedience was the cardinal virtue. Rural workers toiled under military supervision; urban workers were encouraged to weed out traitors for themselves alongside Stalinist purges that followed.  While there is no agreement on the numbers who were sent to and perished in the Gulag camps so vividly captured by Solzhenitsyn, thanks to the detailed analysis of historians like Robert Conquest, we now have a range of estimates suggesting that between 1928–53 approximately 14 million prisoners passed through the Gulags. Millions of others were sent to satellite camps, labour settlements, and prisons.

In 2022, satellite imagery confirms both the pace and pattern of abductions, as Mariupol has been subject to mass deportations by the invading army. For more than a week the UK press including the Daily Mail and the Mirror, in addition to a host of international sources have republished reports that thousands have been sent by force to filtration camps in Taganrog, 100km from Mariupol for the purpose of enslavement.  

From there, civilians are being sent on to distant locations in Russia, as part of a programme that seeks to rob them of their rights and identities as Ukrainian citizens and to help with the recultivation of economically depressed Russian cities, where their children will be re-educated as Russians. This system had also previously been used against Chechens and other marginalised groups within Russia.

Yet, while there are undoubtedly echoes of both Tsarist and Soviet experiments in the use of forced labour, recent reports from Ukraine that this is happening again also signal something disturbingly new. 

The deportation is now a means of re-stocking the labour force, and enabling the export-orientated regime to survive under crushing sanctions.  In this context, Putin’s venture into modern slavery brings Russia closer to China, where deported Uighurs have been sent to camps in Xinjiang, to harvest cotton, and produce fashion goods, as well as PPE for export to British markets.  While politicians in European states including Belgium and the UK are seeking to introduce laws that will criminalise ‘slave labour’, Russia’s current abuses have so far escaped their attention.

In contrast to previous repressive instruments, however, the scale of the state apparatus that is currently being marshalled against Ukrainians is harder to define. It is also is strikingly different from the Gulag system dissolved by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 when most of the prison camps in Siberia were emptied and prisoners were released.

 The Gulag has been replaced in favour of a dispersed system of Kremlin dominance that functions across the global economy and where power concentrated in the hands of remarkably few individuals. Unlike the Gulag of Soviet times, this is a form of governance characterised by a set of restrictive laws, policies, and practices that can be introduced at will through presidential decrees. In short, we see this as a Ru.Lag – a prison system writ large that touches every facet of Russian society. 

The Ru.Lag

Central to the Ru.Lag is the threat of arrest, imprisonment, forced conscription, and deportation, followed by forced labour. Once in Russia, abductees are encouraged to accept “voluntary naturalisation“. Meanwhile, in contested regions ‘passportization’ is a popular tool, whereas in Georgia and in the Donbas and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, presidential decrees are introduced to create Russian citizens, who may then become the pretext for military intervention. 

As in Soviet times, Russians themselves are simultaneously encouraged to acquiesce to the system at home by practicing what Putin terms “self-cleansing“. They are induced to report on their neighbours to eliminate dissent and feed the machine. Thus, the Ru.Lag is built into the Russian social fabric.

While there are countless situations where individuals may toil against their will in state and private facilities, there has been remarkably little attempt by scholars of modern slavery to connect the governance of exploitation beyond systemic explanations of global capitalist processes. How abuse is enabled and legitimatized by non-democratic political regimes, in particular, remains a minority interest.  Hence, the ways in which Beijing and now the Kremlin are seeking to extend their dominance over populations under their control has only recently reached public attention and, tragically, after mass human rights abuses have been revealed. 

One common failing is the assumption that export-based, state-managed economies operate like demand-driven market systems and that exploitative slavery type labour practices are therefore comparable to those that emerged from colonialism and imperialism, including in regions where today’s global production centres are located.  

While there is a trend to group populist leaders – Putin, Orban, Modi, for example – the organization of Russia’s oligarchic economy is by definition so deeply interconnected with the state, that the nature of labour abuse requires a different ontological lens that can capture the relationship between the ownership of mineral and petro-state industries and the Kremlin. 

In Putin’s Russia of 2022, labour is not simply central to the means of production, but the means of political control. 

The mass deportation of foreign nationals is prohibited under international humanitarian law. Article 49 of Geneva Convention IV prohibits the deportation of ‘protected persons’, and as the legal scholar, Michael N. Schmitt argues, most of the individuals Russia allegedly deported certainly qualify as ‘protected persons’, especially the thousands of children.  

One fear now is that as Putin turns to mass naturalisation as a means of repopulating a demographically challenged Russian workforce, debates over the status of recently deported Ukrainians may frustrate the possibility of their return.

Most academic writings on the practice of forced labour focus either on the history of repressive experiments, above all the Nazi concentration camp system and the Stalin era Gulag, or on the permissive abuses of capitalism post-emancipation, especially in the Global South.  Yet, this is only part of the story. 

Decades after the Gulag, we find in the Ru.Lag yet another example of an authority-based system where forced labour is central to its political legitimacy, alongside demonstrations of absolute loyalty, under the threat of imprisonment, occupation, deportation, and enslavement.  

Brad Blitz is Professor of International Politics and Policy at UCL

Alexandra Lewis is Lecturer in Education, Conflict and International Development at UCL

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