Prisoners of War constituted an important economic force both as laborers within the camps, as well as in agriculture and the industry outside of them. They were not entirely isolated from Russian society. There was always a great deal of uncertainty for Prisoners of War. The upheaval in Russia during World War I resulted in continually changing Prisoner of War regulations as well as in a delay of repatriation. As a direct consequence of these circumstances, camp life developed a high degree of organization.
Prisoner of War communities developed according to multiple factors such as nationality, ethnicity, and language. Communication barriers strained contact between nationalities, whereas the relationship of enlisted men and officer ranks of the same origin were marked by camaraderie. In times of hardship, officers joined forces to support their men financially. Gradually, an organized camp structure developed. Classes were set up to provide diversions to escape the dreary life in the camps. The classes covered a vast range of subjects, such as languages, science, law, and art. There were also facilities set up for sports. These activities allowed Prisoners of War to learn and practice a profession. The scarcity of available goods, as well as the growing need to supplement their income led the Prisoners of War to set up workshops where they produced their own commodities. Gradually, these developed into full-fledged enterprises that were part of camp industries, which played an important role during the Civil War.
Captive soldiers could be used as laborers, while the officers were exempt from this obligation. In 1916, Russia used Prisoner of War labor in agriculture, industry, and the public sector. Within a year, half of all enlisted men were used as cheap labor. By 1917, Prisoners of War constituted abou 20-25 percent of Russia’s workforce. In some respects, the Soviet economy did gain from prison labor. The free physical labor that the Prisoners of War offered contributed greatly to the economy. For example, the gold mined in Siberia exceeded expectations and helped to boost the financial status of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, although the prison camps were shown as making important contributions to the Soviet economy, it is not surprising given the desperately poor conditions, that prison labor did not make a substantial contribution to the economy. Without sufficient food, supplies and clothing, prisoners were weak and sick, and unable to work. This photograph shows Austrian prisoners of war standing in front of a simple wooden shelter. The appearance of a number of the prisoners, some of whom are barefoot, reflect the squalor and unsanitary conditions that prevailed in such barracks.