POLITICAL REPRESSION CREATES LONG-LASTING MISTRUST: Evidence from exposure to forced labour camps in the former Soviet Union

Trust differences within the former Soviet Union (FSU) countries are attributable to past political repression, according to research to be presented at the European Economic Association’s Annual Congress in August 2020. The study by Milena Nikolova, Olga Popova, and Vladimir Otrachshenko finds that exposure to forced prison labour camps (gulags) during Stalin’s rule created a persistent mistrust culture within FSU nations.

The authors show that living close to a former gulag – an active reminder of past repression – increases the probability of reporting complete distrust from 14% to 17% and some distrust from 22% to 25%. This is important because a large body of research shows that a lack of trust is detrimental to the economy and lowers GDP growth.

Living near a former camp also results in lower present-day civic engagement by reducing the likelihood of voting from 77% to 73%, of being an active party member from 6% to 3%, and of visiting friends and relatives from 79% to 75%. While they seem small, these effects are meaningful, since they have persisted for over half a century.

Established in the 1920s and peaking during Joseph Stalin’s rule (1929-1953), the gulag system resulted in the forced deportation and coercion to penal labour of millions of men, women, and children in camps scattered throughout the former Soviet Union (see Figure 1).

A staggering 20 million people were gulag inmates. Inevitably, this left a mark on the collective consciousness. According to recent Russian polls, four out of five respondents are aware of Stalin’s repressions, one in three had repressed relatives, and nine out of ten respondents with repressed relatives learned about this through other family members.

Figure 1: Geographic distribution of forced labour camps in the former Soviet Union, 1923-1960

Geographic distribution of forced labour camps in the former Soviet Union, 1923-1960

Source: Authors’ compilation. 

The new study argues that living near a former forced labour campsite made political repression more salient and visible to local communities and increased the costs of trusting others. This was especially because the Soviets under Stalin encouraged citizens to spy and tell on one another. Given that one could land in a gulag for the smallest suspicion or accusation, mistrusting others was a coping strategy to avoid incarceration and ensure self-preservation.

Gulag contemporaries likely developed mistrust through the memories of released relatives or other former prisoners who settled locally or through interacting with gulag prisoners who worked alongside free labourers or roamed across towns. This social norm of mistrust persisted and was transmitted in the community over time. 

The study finds that living near a former campsite especially influences mistrust of neighbours, fitting with the historical evidence that Soviet authorities relied on neighbours spying on one another and willingly or unwillingly coming up with lists of potential ‘enemies of the people.’ 

The research also documents that those living near gulag sites harbour mistrust towards state institutions, such as the police, courts, and the local authorities. This is no coincidence as these were the institutions responsible for executing terror during Stalin. 

The social and behavioural norms that emerged due to Stalin’s terror still persist in communities in the former Soviet countries. Consequently, the study concludes that past political repression can have much more long lasting negative consequences in terms of eroding trust and civic engagement than previously thought.

Unfortunately, political repression and illiberal regimes are not a thing of the past, both in post-Soviet countries and globally. The research implies that in addition to the current suffering, these regimes erode the quality of the social fabric for the foreseeable future. 


Nikolova, M, O Popova and V Otrachshenko (2019), ‘Stalin and the Origins of Mistrust,’ IZA Discussion Paper 12326.

Contact details: 

Dr. Milena Nikolova
University of Groningen
Faculty of Economics and Business
Phone: +31 (0) 611228402

Twitter: @milenkanik
E-mail: m.v.nikolova@rug.nl
Home Page: milena-nikolova.com