US and Stalinist Prison Populations Revisited

Back in 2013, I wrote a post examining at the numbers of people in the Stalinist gulag compared to the US prison industrial complex. The post was in response to the Adam Gopnik’s and Fareed Zakaria’s claim that the over 6 million people in the US are under “correctional supervision” was higher than in the Stalinist gulag. Following a series of charts that broke down the prison population under Stalin, I concluded:

[There was an] estimated 7.4 million people were under Stalinist correctional supervision in 1953, exceeding Zakaria’s and Gopnik’s 6 million for the United States. Again the numbers are probably higher since these they don’t include everyone in the Stalinist penal system.

Things get even more complicated when you consider the gulag population per 100,000 citizens. According to Eugenia Belova and Paul Gregory, the Soviet institutionalized population in 1953 was 2,621,000 or 1,558 per 100,000. When you include special settlements, the numbers jump to 4,301,000 or 2,605 per 100,000. This puts the 760 per 100,000 in the United States into perspective.

I’ve come back to this issue because I ran across Burckina-Faso’s LiveJournal post that compares the numbers of prisoners per 100,000 people in the USSR from 1930 to 1940 to that of the Russian Federation and the United States from 1992 to 2002. I don’t know the source for these numbers, but assuming they’re correct, they once again raise questions about the USSR, the Russian Federation, and the United States as carceral states. And politically important for the current Presidential race in the US, politically considering the US numbers cover the tenure of Bill Clinton and now candidate Hillary Clinton’s “superpredator” comment in 1996.

The number of prisoners in the USSR, Russia, and United States (per 1000 persons)
The number of prisoners in the USSR, Russia, and United States (per 100,000 persons)

While Burckina-Faso is attempting to suggest the idea of “ghastly” Stalinist repression as “hysterical,” I honestly don’t understand how it wasn’t ghastly when the prisoner population per 100,000 in the Soviet Union increased 1125 percent (114.7 in 1930 to 1126.7 in 1938) during some of the most repressive periods of Stalin’s rule. Part of this steep rise is due to falling mortality rates—population fell while prison population rose—during those years. But, even those excess deaths can be mostly attributed to repression: collectivization, famine, forced population transfer, prisoner deaths, and executions.

Okay, sure, Burckina-Faso’s point is that the average prisoner population per 100,000 persons during these years are comparable: 564 in the Soviet Union, 647.5 in the Russian Federation, and 623 in the United States. This is indeed ghastly as is the sheer ghastliness of the fact that when you compare the US prison population with the Stalinist, it makes you go, “Hmmm . . .” Though the increase in the US prison population in the 1990s was in no way as drastic as in the USSR in the 1930s, it still went up by 34 percent under Mr. Clinton.

And what about the prisoner population in the Russian Federation in the 1990s? Surely some of this was inherited from the Soviet system. Still, the prisoner population per 100,000 increased by 16 percent in the 1990s. Still awful, for sure.

So perhaps the best way to take all this is not try to argue which state was just as or more repressive, but that they are all repressive but for different reasons, in different ways, using different methods. Ghastliness doesn’t require equivalence.