From time to time, I want to share some of the remarkable photographs, paintings, drawings, artifacts and documents available to the public in the Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives archive. Here we see one of my favorite images–one I write about briefly in my forthcoming book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, and that I use as a key illustration in virtually every public lecture I give on the subject.
The main sign reads “Graves of the Lazy” (Могила Филонов – with the latter term a Gulag acronym for the “False Invalids of the Camps of Special Designation”). The burial markers in this “propaganda graveyard” read names and percentages like “Gaziev – 30%” or “Mavlanov – 22%.” The meaning would have been quite clear to prisoners. As a fellow prisoner and brigade leader told Janusz Bardach, “You work, you eat. You stop working, you die. I take care of my people if they produce, but loafers don’t stand a chance.”[1. Janusz Bardach and Kathleen Gleeson, Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 204]
Gulag authorities were openly proclaiming to their prisoners the close tie between labor productivity, correction and death that in some ways defined the Gulag experience. Rations were differentiated in the Gulag. According to official regulations, and usually in practice, prisoners received different amounts of food corresponding to different levels of labor productivity. This practice both cajoled prisoners to increase their labor output, but it also served to tie the measure of a prisoner’s “reeducation” to the fulfillment of work norms. The failure to fulfill labor quotas was treated as a prisoner’s failed commitment to “reeducation.” Nobody was understood to be “unable” to fulfill norms. (Thus, the deceased in this propaganda graveyard are “false invalids.”) Rather, failure to fulfill norms was treated as a willful activity, an evidence of continued “enemy activity” on the part of the prisoner. Reduced rations would either compel “reeducation” by breaking down a prisoner’s resistance, or if a prisoner continued to “resist” by failing to fulfill norms, their rations would lead to starvation and death. Gulag camp directors, as we can see through this image, were not ashamed of the explicit link between poor labor productivity and death. They actually advertised that link directly to their prisoners.
I had been making this argument about the tie between labor, correction and death in the Gulag long before I discovered this image in the midst of research for the Gulag web project. It is a key element of the argument in my book. To see this linkage so graphically illustrated, confirming that argument I had so long made, was one of those fascinating moments that makes historical research so engrossing.