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Diamond slavery

29 april 2019

The diamond business has many dark pages in its history, but the use of the convict labour in the diamond mining industry for many years gives the most painful impression. This practice was applied in the South Africa and the Soviet Union only. Undoubtedly, De Beers surpassed in this – this company had started to employ the prisoners in diamond mining since 1885.1 K. C. Goyer states in his monography “Prison Privatisation in South Africa: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities” that the employment of prisoners in mining in the South Africa continued till 1952 and was a large scale one – up to 10,000 prisoners worked at the mines controlled by De Beers.2 In the overwhelming majority of cases, those were the black people hit the bricks for the violation of racial segregation laws. As De Beers was not a state-owned company, a special agreement was required between the government of the South Africa and the diamond mining giant that stipulated the construction of private prisons, among other things. Such a ‘public-private partnership’ was beneficial to both contracting parties: the government practically assumed no responsibility for the prisoner welfare and De Beers obtained thousands slaves who could be employed to do the most difficult work free of charge and without any control.

It appears that in the USSR such practice was of real interest almost immediately after the discovery of the first alluvial deposits in the Ural area. In 1940, the secretary of the Economic Council under the Council of People's Commissars Mikhail Pomaznev supervising the diamond geology at that time applied to the Head of the GULAG Vasiliy Chernyshev requesting to provide several hundreds prisoners to staff the diamond mining parties and got a positive answer.3 From that year on, the time of the most shameful affair in the Soviet diamond industry history began.

Before 1946, the labour of prisoners and of the categories close to them who were disqualified (exiled people, special settlers) was employed in the diamond industry from time to time, the number of prisoners was several hundreds. However, after the Regulation of the Council of Ministers of the USSR No. 1978-832ss dated 07.09.1946 was adopted, the situation has changed radically. Now, the ‘special contingent’ (i. e., prisoners) should have become the basis of the Soviet diamond mining industry. Interestingly, that the Regulation itself was ‘highly classified’, but the fact of the employment of the prisoners in the diamond mining was considered by its authors as a top secret with the classification code ‘sensitive information’ and it was put away in para. 1, the ‘Special Folder’.4

The discussion between the Minister of Internal Affairs Sergey Kruglov and the supervisor of the diamond industry Anastas Mikoyan who was a Member of the Political Bureau, preceded the decision-making on the slavery labour of the Soviet citizens. It may seem a paradoxical situation but Kruglov was unalterably opposed to the employment of the prisoners in the diamond mining and tried to obstruct this decision under the slightest specious excuse.5 In fact, the minister knew very well the level of theft of precious metals in the places where they were mined by the GULAG and was afraid that the rough diamonds would suffer the same fate. But Mikoyan showed inflexible determination and owing to this ‘most liberal’ Stalin’s supporter, thousands prisoners were sent to the Ural diamond mines.

On November 14, 1946, the Directorate (group) ‘Uralalmaz’ was established under the Order from the Minister of Internal Affairs of the USSR No. 001006. Under the same Order, the Kus’insky correctional labour camp (Kus’inlag) was set up that housed the prisoners working at the ‘Uralalmaz’. At first, the positions of the Head of the Directorate ‘Uralalmaz’ and the Head of the Kus’inlag were combined. N. Guzov, engineer-major of the MIA, was appointed the Head of the ‘Uralalmaz’, and M. Shestopalov, engineer-captain of the MIA, became the Chief Engineer. The key top positions of the Directorate were also taken by the MIA officers.  

A kind of a special ideological education preceded the establishment of the Kus’inlag. In 1946, simultaneously with the adoption of the Regulation ‘On the development of the national diamond industry’, a mass edition of the novel by Nikolai Asanov ‘A fairy stone’ was put out devoted to the Ural diamond mining. In several months, the novel was filmed and the movie “Diamonds’ was screened. Today, both the book and the film are forgotten, but in vain, as these works - although they are of no art value – are bright (and successful) example of the industry legendizing.

The quintessence of the Asanov's novel is in the words of a certain ‘General Bushuyev’ representing the ‘Defence Committee’.

“But Bushuyev said shooting him a glance:

“The debates on buying or prospecting rough diamonds are useless. Probably, we have to spend more than one million on further exploration. The matter is that the situation with this raw material is much worse that you think. The Defence Committee had to address this issue specifically because the English and the American owners of diamond mines refused to supply – in spite of the military agreements – I emphasize, this strategic raw material to us against the Treaty of mutual assistance or under Lend-Lease, and only agree to sell rough diamonds - at the price for the precious stones only, even though we asked them to supply the cheapest grades, so called bort diamonds and diamond powder. Can you imagine what it means to us in such a time? The Americans supply over 50 mn carats diamonds per year to their industry, but they took us by the throat and demand gold!”

He said this in a level voice and only pauses and accent on some words showed that he bottled up his wrath recollecting this ultimatum. A hush came over the room. Only the Chief geologist asked being somewhat puzzled:

“But they are our allies in the common war?”...

“The war is common, but the aims are different … don’t you understand this?” answered Bushuyev angrily and added after a while “We need our own rough diamonds! I have witnessed with my own two eyes how at the armament manufacturing factories, the hard alloys are machined with polished diamonds removed from the jewellery pieces given by our people to the Victory fund.”

He went silent, falling into a muse and looking in front of him as if he saw precious stones pouring that were removed from the ring settings, earrings, broaches and pendants and turned into cutters to be used for the precise operations in the military equipment production.”

The funny thing is that the revelations of this fictional character having nothing to do with the reality and representing the concentrated industry legend determined the paradigm of the historical research in the diamond sphere to the present days. Who was the ordering customer and the consultant of this ‘masterpiece’? Practically, there are no doubts, because later on, the author became somewhat famous thank to his novels ‘based on documents’ about the adventures of the Soviet intelligence officers ‘in the very midst of the British intelligence in London’. And Asanov himself, although he did not wield a pen, had a very good sense of humour! He prefixed an epigraph to the key chapter of the novel “However, the fairy tale was ready and just in time … H. C. Andersen.” At first sight, the epigraph has nothing to do with the book, the casual reader would miss it. Those privy to the matter would understand it. Really, both the book, and the film (and many reviews in press) could not have come at a better time. It was impossible to keep the slavery labour at the diamond mines in secret in spite of the information security designations – thousands prisoners went through the KUS’INLAG and it was impossible to avoid the leakage of information. However, it was impossible to recognize that the Soviet slaves mined the diamonds that were turned into polished diamonds for the western elite – such a blow on the ideological principles of the USSR was inadmissible. Both the slaves and their supervisors should have been sure that their work was required to strengthen the defence of the country, it was an honorable sacrifice on the altar of the state, the diamonds were required for ‘military precision operations’. The film ‘Diamonds’ was a success in the cinemas all over the country, it was probably on in the Kus’e-Aleksandrovsky settlement, and no doubt, the book ‘A fairy stone’ was in the KUS’INLAG’s library. So, neither the ‘special contingent’, nor other Soviet citizens had any cognitive dissonance – the thought that they were working for the benefit of the Western jewellery brands never crossed their minds.

Nevertheless, a specific filter was used to ensure the higher stability of legendizing in choosing the ‘special contingent’ for the KUS’INLAG: the prisoners who knew foreign languages, had higher education and political prisoners were seldom among this prison population, their number was below several percent. It was not allowed to send the prisoners to the KUS’INLAG who were former employees of the foreign trade organizations, diplomats, international intelligence officers and those having close relatives abroad. The majority of the prisoners were regular criminals and luckless men who suffered from the rigid Stalin’s Decree of 1947 that strengthened the responsibility for petty stealing of the ‘socialist property’.

Not a single case of diamond theft was recorded during the KUS’INLAG lifetime (1946 to 1953). The Kruglov’s concerns did not prove true, rough diamonds were of no value to the criminals of the Stalin’s USSR – they could not sell them, as distinct from the situation with gold, the shadow market did not exist in the country, and setting up an independent export channel was too stiff to handle for the then criminal world.

The Soviet leaders had not the slightest doubts as for the economic efficiency of the diamond slavery. After the alluvial fields were discovered in Yakutia, 5,000 prisoners - according to the project worked out by the MIA - should have been sent there to develop the deposits, at the first stage only. This was scheduled for 1952. But as is known, this project was ‘frozen’ and the diamond GULAG was not set up in Yakutia. It should be reckoned that it was merely a coincidence that the same year, the employment of the prisoners ceased in the South Africa’s mining.

Sergey Goryainov, Rough&Polished

1A history of prison labour in South Africa. https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/history-prison-labour-south-africa
2K. C. GOYER. Prison Privatisation in South Africa: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities. https://www.africaportal.org/publications/prison-privatisation-in-south-africa-issues-challenges-and...
3 State Archives of the Russian Federation. Ф. 5446. О. 25а. Д. 8352. Л. 12.
4 State Archives of the Russian Federation. Ф. 5446. О. 48а. Д. 825. Л. 107.
5 State Archives of the Russian Federation. Ф. 5446. О. 48а. Д. 825. Л. 34.

We continue to publish the collection of archive documents on diamonds:

1. 1940. State Archives of the Russian Federation. Ф. 5446. О. 25а. Д. 8352. Л. 12. The letter of the Head of GULAG V. Chernyshev on the employment of the prisoners in the diamond geology.


2. 1946. State Archives of the Russian Federation. Ф. 5446. О. 48а. Д. 825. Л. 107. The first sheet of the Regulation ‘On the development of the national diamond industry’. The decision on the employment of the prisoners is ‘hidden’ in the “Special folder’.


3. 1947. State Archive of the Perm Krai. Ф. Р-1244. О. 1. Д. 107. Л. 148. The first report on the employment of the prisoners in the diamond industry.


4. 1952. Russian State Archives, Economy. Ф. 8153. О. 5. Д. 1488. Л. 118. The material for the nomination of the work ‘The creation of the diamond industry in the USSR’ for the Stalin Prize.