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Enemies of the people

‘Enemies of the people’ were the millions of artists, engineers, managers, or professors who were thought to be a threat to the Soviet regime solely for being the educated elite. Along with millions of non-political prisoners, they were forcedly resettled to the Gulag, the system of labour camps across the Soviet Union. This column looks at the long-run consequences of this dark resettlement episode. It shows that areas around camps with a larger share of enemies of the people among camp prisoners are more prosperous today, as captured by firms’ wages and profits, as well as night lights per capita.

No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people! War to the death against the rich and their hangers-on, the bourgeois intellectuals; war on the rogues, the idlers and the rowdies!
Lenin, 1917

‘Enemies of the people’ were the millions of artists, engineers, managers, and professors who were thought to be a threat to the Soviet regime. Along with millions of other non-political criminals, they were sent to forced labour camps scattered across the Soviet Union, what Nobel-laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973) called the Gulag Archipelago. While this dark episode in human history has been brought to light by Solzhenitsyn and detailed by historians (e.g. Khlevniuk 2004, Applebaum 2012), little economic research has been devoted to understanding its consequences for development.

Recent research suggests that the Gulag system has had permanent effects on the distribution of city populations across the former USSR (Mikhailova 2012), and that it has affected political preferences (Kapelko and Markevich 2014) and trust levels (Nikolova et al. 2019) in the long run. Miho et al. (2020) also suggest that ethnic deportations in Stalin's era led to the diffusion of social norms. Yet the long-run development effects of the Gulag, and more precisely that of the resettlement of enemies of the people, have not been explored yet.

In our research (Toews and Vézina 2021), we look at the long-run effects of the forced resettlement of enemies of the people on development outcomes across Gulag localities in Russia. 

The Gulag and its legacy

Targeting the educated elite, collectively referring to them as ‘enemies of the people’, and advocating their imprisonment can be traced back to the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917. A decade later, Stalin launched the expansion of the Gulag system. From 1929 until Stalin's death in 1953, around 11.3 million prisoners (Wheatcroft 2013) passed through 474 camps devoted to various economic activities such as forestry, mining, manufacturing, or agriculture. Figure 1 shows the distribution of camps across the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1952, at the end and peak of the Gulag. 

Figure 1 Camps and prisoner numbers in the Soviet Gulag system


Notes: The circles are proportional to the prisoner population of camps. The data is from the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) and Memorial.

Enemies of the people accounted for about 30% of the prisoners. As a result, the Gulag had a more educated population than the rest of the USSR. In 1939, the share of Gulag prisoners with a college education was 1.8%, three times higher than in the Soviet Union as a whole, according to the Soviet Census of the same year. 

One such enemy of the people was the economist Nikolai Kondratiev, known for his contributions to business cycle theory. In 1930 he was sent to a Gulag camp in Suzdal, northeast of Moscow, as his economic theories did not fall into party line. For several years he managed to produce research while imprisoned, but he was eventually executed during the Great Terror of 1938. Just a year later, Joseph Schumpeter suggested referring to long economic cycles as Kondratiev waves.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the camps started closing but many ex-prisoners ended up settling down and continued working for the same industrial projects. In a 1983 report, Stephen Cohen, an influential historian of Russia, explains why most Gulag inmates remained once freed during the 1956-57 mass liberation: 

 “[M]illions of other survivors simply had nowhere to return. Years of imprisonment had destroyed everything associated with “home” - family, career, possessions, and their mental and physical health... Some exiles had already started new families with other exiles and free spouses, which tied them to their remote locales; and some zeks and exiles, deprived of alternatives, had developed a strong psychological attachment to their areas of long-time imprisonment. Millions of survivors thus chose to remain, now as free citizens and paid employees, in the vast region of the dismantled Gulag empire... Indeed, so many did so that their liberated presence dramatically changed the demographic, social, and political character of several former administrative centers of the Gulag...”

Since enemies of the people often ended up remaining in their camp's town after the fall of the Gulag, their forced resettlement might have had persistent effects, possibly via an intergenerational transmission of human capital.  We find that higher education levels indeed persisted across generations. Results from a recent household survey suggest that the grandchildren of enemies of the people are more likely than others to be college-educated today, and so were their parents (Figure 2). 

Figure 2 The descendants of enemies of the people are more educated, and so are their parents


Notes: The right bar chart shows the share of individuals with at least some college education among individuals who identify as the grandchildren of enemies of the people, and compares it to that among others. The sample consists of 19,341 individuals in ex-USSR countries in 2016. It shows that the grandchildren of enemies are more likely to have a college education. The bar charts on the left show the share of mothers and fathers, or the children of enemies of the people, with at least some college education. All bar charts are generated using sample survey weights. Data Source: Life in Transition Survey 2016.

A famous Russian stand-up comedian, Ruslan Bely, also explains in an interview  how the descendants of enemies of the people are different. He explains why, after tours that took him to all corners of the country, Magadan is his third favourite city. He first describes “A very well-mannered audience that laughs at the subtle jokes, those that people in ordinary cities do not really get", and goes on to explain that this is because Magadan was surrounded by Gulag camps where members of the intelligentsia were sent to. ”And after serving their sentence, they simply stayed in Magadan. Therefore, from the point of view of human resources, it turned out to be a very cool city".

The long-run effect of enemies of the people 

To investigate whether the resettlement of enemies of the people translated into better local development outcomes in the long run, we dived into the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow and collected data on the type of crimes committed by Gulag prisoners, allowing us to measure the share of enemies of the people in each of the 79 camps in Russia in 1952, at the end and peak of the Gulag. We then matched the location of camps to nearby firms using a dataset covering the universe of Russian firms in 2018, SPARK-Interfax.

In our paper, we show that in 2018, among firms located within a 30km radius of former Gulags, those near camps which were populated by a higher share of enemies of the people pay higher wages and make higher profits per employee. 

Figure 3 shows how this effect is also captured by night lights per capita, a proxy for economic development (Henderson et al., 2012). Moving from a town near a Gulag where enemies of the people accounted for 19% of prisoners, i.e. the average across camps in 1952, to one near a camp with 47%, or a one standard-deviation increase from the mean, increases lights per capita by 58%, profits per employee by 65%, and average wages by 22%. 

Figure 3 Share of enemies of the people vs. night lights per capita across Gulags


Notes: The scatter show the relationship between the share of enemies in camps in 1952 and night lights per capita within 30 km of camps in 2015. Each circle is a 30km-radius area around a camp, and the size of the circles is proportional to the camp's prisoner population. The solid line shows the linear and the shaded area shows the 95% confidence interval. Areas near camps with a higher share of enemies have brighter night lights per capita in 2015. The data on Gulags is from the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) and the data on night lights is from the DMSP-OLS satellite program and made available by the Earth Observation Group and the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center. The data on population is from the grided population of the world from SEDAC.

We also show that neither economic activities in Gulags nor favourable geographic attributes predict the share of enemies of the people across camps, suggesting that the effect is driven by the enemies of the people themselves. Indeed, enemies of the people might have been allocated to more productive regions with better soil, to camps closer to productive cities with skilled labour, or to skill-intensive or capital-intensive activities, themselves predicting long-run prosperity. The data suggests this is not the case, and so does the historical narrative. This argument is made for example by Ertz (2008) and also Khlevnyuk (2003), who writes that “[t]he main purpose of the Great Terror was declared at the very outset to be the physical annihilation of enemies rather than their use as cheap labour... The political motives for the Terror took absolute priority over economic ones.” 

Implications for the role of education in development

By providing evidence for the long-run effect of enemies of the people on development, our paper contributes to the literature on long-run persistence, especially the subset that focuses on human capital and growth. The role of human capital in fostering growth is at the core of economics research, yet this effect has been hard to identify across locations. Many of the latest contributions rely on historical natural experiments. Rocha et al. (2017), for example, show that the specific regions of Brazil where high-skilled immigrants settled in around 1900, via a state-sponsored policy, have higher levels of schooling and income per capita today. Droller (2018) shows that European settlers raised literacy rates and helped industrialisation in Argentinean counties. Hornung (2014) shows that in late 17th century Prussia, textile firms in areas receiving skilled Huguenots from France experienced increased productivity. Chen et al. (2020) show that the forced resettlement of 16 million high school graduates to remote villages in China during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution led to extra schooling for rural children who were exposed to the educated, sent-down youth. 

Our paper contributes to this literature on the long-run effect of educated migrants not only by bringing to light the case of the enemies of the people, but also by providing a natural experiment whereby educated migrants did not self-select into migration but were rather forcedly resettled across locations in a quasi-random way.


More than 60 years after the death of Stalin and the demise of the Gulag, areas around camps which had a higher share of enemies of the people are richer today, as captured by firms’ wages and profits, as well as by night lights per capita. We argue that the education transferred from forcedly displaced enemies of the people to their children and grandchildren partly explains prosperity across localities of Russia. Our paper can be seen as a natural experiment that identifies the long-run persistence of higher education and its effects on long-run prosperity. Sadly, it also highlights how atrocious acts by mad individuals can shape the development path of localities over many generations.


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Toews, G, and P-L Vézina (2021), “Enemies of the people”, NES Working Paper w0279, New Economic School (NES). Updated version available here.

Wheatcroft, S G (2013), “The Great Terror in Historical Perspective: The Records of the Statistical Department of the Investigative Organs of OGPU/NKVD," in J Harris (ed.), The Anatomy of Terror, Oxford University Press.

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