MIKHAIL GORBACHEV's policy of glasnost - openness - has broken one more taboo. The government newspaper Izvestia has opened up the long-forbidden subject of Siberian labor camps and challenged the way the centuries-old system of forced labor operates to this day. The newspaper exposed the evils of the system in a series of three articles by Leonid Shinkarev, one of Siberia's most distinguished journalists. Izvestia, which publishes daily in almost 50 cities of the country, has a circulation of 10 million.
It printed the series as Mr. Gorbachev prepared to set out on his recent tour of Siberia. During the tour Soviet television showed Siberians complaining to him of food and housing shortages. The Izvestia articles charged that by bringing convicts from all over the country to Siberia, the forced labor system has fostered crime there.
If news media focus on Siberia portends action to improve conditions in that region, it could be significant in the framework of Gorbachev's economic reform effort. Siberia holds most of the country's natural resources - oil, gas, gold, coal, diamonds, timber, water power, and minerals in abundance. Although it is larger than the United States and Western Europe combined, it has a population of barely 30 million and desperately needs to attract a skilled, stable labor force. Mr. Shinkarev denounces the labor camps as a brutal and inefficient means of meeting labor needs.
Russia has been using convict labor in Siberia for 400 years. Stalin packed the labor camps with millions. After his death, Nikita Khrushchev released great numbers of inmates but left the camps intact. Most remain in Siberia. No one knows how many inmates they imprison today, although certainly many fewer than during Stalin's purges. Moreover, there are very few political dissidents, religious believers, and innocent victims of arbitrary arrest among the inmates now. The camps are almost entirely populated by convicted criminals.
There's the rub, from the viewpoint of Siberians. After Khrushchev's amnesties, the cities of European Russia to which freed criminals returned, including Moscow, suffered crime waves until Army units were called out to help the police. In Siberia nowadays, as in the past, some camp inmates escape, and many more, forbidden to return to the large cities of European Russia, remain in Siberia and resume lives of crime there. The camps themselves and ``labor rehabilitation centers'' for drug addicts, prostitutes, alcoholics, and juvenile delinquents, says Shinkarev, are breeding grounds of crime. This, he declares, is why the crime rate in Siberia is four times that of the Transcaucasus. Crime waves have terrified entire Siberian cities, he reports.
Shinkarev draws an unsparing picture of the degrading conditions in which prisoners are jammed pell-mell into barred railroad cars bound for Siberia. En route they stop for weeks in cold, crowded, pre-revolutionary transit jails. Prisoners are herded together with little regard to age, sex, or the nature of their crimes. For 15 years only hardened criminals could be sent to Siberia, but in 1987 the law was amended to allow the exiling of any offenders. Women, juveniles, and first-termers are now at the mercy of hardened traveling companions. Drunken guards sometimes abuse them. Shinkarev cites the case of three former guards convicted of torturing seven boys 11 and 12 years old. Drug addiction, he says, has appeared in Siberia since someone got the idea of exiling addicts from southern parts of the country ``to take them out of their environment,'' whereupon relatives, friends, and accomplices began to turn up with drugs and offer bribes to police.
Neither the inmates nor, sometimes, even camp officials have access to the regulations governing them. Labor camp officials are tempted to violate health and work regulations and to require overtime labor when under pressure to meet the production plan.
Shinkarev's charges of economic malpractice and the inefficiency of camp labor may carry more weight than his humanitarian concerns. He bluntly accuses the central planning agencies of siting production facilities in Siberia, not merely because of the natural resources, but because they count on cheap convict labor. It costs 20,000 rubles (about $34,000) to recruit a worker from European Russia and settle him and his family in Omsk, but only 1,000 rubles when ``parolees'' are hired from pre-release centers. If contractors use convict labor, they are free of having to build housing, schools, and the like. And they need only provide inmates of the corrective-labor camps two square yards of living space per person. They substitute arduous manual labor in place of expensive machines. Machines at the labor camps and colonies come to only 20 percent of what they are at similar enterprises in the regular economy, Shinkarev reports.
The whole system is riddled with inefficiency, he says. If experienced auto mechanics turn up in a camp where furniture is made, two or three months are spent teaching them a new trade, instead of using their skills. Skilled workers are employed at basket-weaving. In Irkutsk labor colonies, thousands of men assemble radio parts, a job traditionally done by women, and when the men are released after five or eight years they cannot find work. In some labor colonies the supply of materials is erratic, work is often interrupted, and idle inmates, deprived of their limited piecework earnings of pocket money, have ``created disturbances.'' At other, understaffed projects with high output goals, officials have faced the bizarre situation of granting concessions to rebellious prisoners to induce them to work overtime.
Shinkarev spells out only one conclusion - a demand that criminals serve their sentences in the places where they committed their crimes - but he doesn't have to spell out implications. They are self-evident and a shocker to Russians unaccustomed to his candor.
Leo Gruliow, editor emeritus of the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, was formerly the Monitor's Moscow correspondent.