Under the growing pressures of war, the Russian military-industrial complex is experiencing acute shortages in manpower. With so many workers mobilized and with casualties rising (now estimated to be “significantly, well over” 100,000), the authorities are beginning to look at another, time-honored source of cheap labor — the prison population.
Convicts have rarely been so sought after in Russia, at least since Stalin’s time. The notorious Wagner mercenary group, a Kremlin-authorized private army, has already been recruiting convicted criminals with the offer of get-out-of-jail-free cards for those able to survive six months on the Ukrainian frontlines.
Those dubious about Wagner’s deal will now be steered towards the manufacture of tanks and other weaponry.
Russian demand for industrial workers has increased dramatically since the war in Ukraine started, and there is apparently no other way to satisfy it.
It’s hardly a secret that the country has been experiencing a shortage of locksmiths, welders, and turners for a very long time. And now Russia just doesn’t have enough workers to manufacture missiles and tanks for Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Uralvagonzavod, the largest tank manufacturer in the country, failed to hire enough workers, even the unskilled, and has no choice but to use convicts to fill the gap. Hundreds of prisoners from a penal colony in the Sverdlovsk region will soon be sent to Uralvagonzavod.
According to the Russian government, the shortage of workers in the military-industrial complex will soon reach 400,000 people, including 120,000 professionals with higher education. Given that the industry employs two million workers and engineers, this is a very significant number. To begin with, factories tried to make up for shortages by poaching personnel from private industry — after mobilization, military industries could offer protection against the call-up — and from the retired. The leading manufacturer of armored personnel carriers, the Kurgan factory, even promised to provide housing and guarantee the employment of family members.
But it didn’t solve the problem: in September alone, the month of mobilization, manpower shortages in the military sector increased by 7%. Thus the need for convicts.
The tradition of using prison labor to satisfy the state’s needs originated in Stalin’s times, when millions of prisoners in Gulag labor camps, notorious for inhuman conditions, were mercilessly exploited to build roads and factories, dig channels and extract minerals.
The Kremlin is not embarrassed by this loud historical echo. Even before the war, in 2021, the government supported a plan developed by the Russian railway behemoth RZD along with the prison service to use convicts to build a new section of the Baikal-Amur Mainline track (BAM) in Siberia, a railway running from Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia to the Sea of Japan in the Far East.
Launched by Stalin in the 1930s, that project claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Gulag prisoners, but the Kremlin accepted the idea of using free prison labor. The war has simply provided a justification to return to the old methods.
Since Putin’s plan to win a short military war in Ukraine has visibly failed, Russia is getting ready to wage a long and devastating war in Ukraine. To do so, it must adjust the economy to the new conditions and increase weapons production. Many military plants and manufacturers have been working around the clock for months now, but still cannot satisfy the growing demand without new supplies of workers. Russia’s prison population of 450,000 provides a potentially large number of unskilled workers.
But the Stalinist labor tradition was equally ruthless toward scientists and the highly skilled. When his security services needed to conduct secret research, they just arrested scientists and engineers and sent them to special installations, the sharashkas, which were closed off from the outside and heavily guarded. The motivation was provided through threats that scientists and engineers filing to provide quick results would be sent to the (even worse) labor camps. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was the most famous guest of one such facility, a sharashka in Marfino, east of Moscow. The facility still exists and is now one of the most successful Russian surveillance research centers, a world leader in biometric recognition technologies which identify a speaker by his or her voice on the phone.
Some members of the State Duma, including a vice-speaker, Boris Chernyshov, had voiced the idea “of resurrecting mobilization-type design bureaus” as early as October. “We together — scientists, government, military — must return the good old Soviet traditions. Scientists will be called upon to solve not only military but also state problems,” Chernyshov said.
Putin’s Russia, never deterred by comparisons to the country’s bloody Soviet past, gives every indication that it will rummage still deeper into Stalin’s repressive toolkit.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.