Gulag Boss – A Blog Conversation

Welcome to the first Russian History Blog conversation. If you have not, do take a quick look at my introduction to these Blog Conversations. In this post, I want to introduce briefly the subject of our discussion and provide a biographical sketch for each of the Gulag specialists who will lead the conversation. I hope the readers of Russian History Blog will participate in the conversation by commenting on our authors’ posts.

Deborah Kaple met Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky in 1992, while conducting interviews with Soviet specialists sent as advisors to Communist China in the 1950s. He had advised the Chinese for many years on ideological and Communist Party matters. Kaple and Mochulsky developed a friendship over the course of many interviews. Shortly before her research trip in Russia came to a close, Mochulsky revealed that he had once worked for the Gulag and gave her the typescript memoir he had written about his experience in the late 1980s. Kaple has translated and published the memoir as Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir (Oxford, 2011). To see the Gulag through the eyes of one of its non-prisoner employees is quite unusual.

While the first generation of Gulag scholars faced significant difficulties due to a dearth of sources, today’s historians have perhaps the opposite problem. Millions of pages of official documents await them in the central and local Gulag administration archives. Memoirs, both published and unpublished, are voluminous and continue to appear or be discovered even as the last generation with experiences in Stalin’s Gulag leaves us. 1

Despite this wealth of information, certain topics are still poorly covered in the extant material. We can explore the Gulag administrative apparatus through its own documents. We can investigate the lives of highly-educated political prisoners in great depth through their memoirs. Yet, we still have trouble seeing the Gulag through the eyes of the common criminal or the uneducated “dekulakized” peasant. One point of view long missing has been the Gulag as seen by its non-prisoner employees. While their lives are expressed in a certain way through the bureaucratic language of official documents, we have had little opportunity to hear a more personal story from the guards, bureaucrats, and bosses who operated this system.

With the publication of Gulag Boss, we have an unusual opportunity to see the forced labor camp system through the eyes of one such employee. From 1940-1946, years encompassing the Gulag’s deadliest, Fyodor Mochulsky held a number of different positions in the Gulag system, including boss of several different subcamps, largely in the far north. 2

New Books in History’s Marshall Poe interviewed Deborah Kaple about the book.

This blog conversation brings together the following people, including the editor and translator of Gulag Boss and a group of Gulag specialists, to discuss what scholars can learn about the Gulag through Mochulsky’s memoir:

Deborah Kaple is Research Scholar and Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Princeton University. She is the editor and translator of Gulag Boss. Her first book, Dream of a Red Factory: High Stalinism in China, looked at the ways in which the origins of the Chinese communist regime are to be found in a conscious adoption of the Soviet model of “high Stalinism.” It was in the midst of further research on Soviet advisers in China that Kaple met Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky.

Golfo Alexopoulos is Associate Professor of Russian History at the University of South Florida. She is the author of Stalin’s Outcasts: Aliens, Citizens, and the Soviet State, 1926-1936 (Cornell, 2003). She is currently completing a monograph on the history of the Gulag with a focus on the systemic and routine violence of the labor camp system in the Stalin era. She is the author of numerous Gulag-related articles, including “A Torture Memo: Reading Violence in the Gulag” in Writing the Stalin Era: Sheila Fitzpatrick and Soviet Historiography (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), a book she co-edited; “Exiting the Gulag after War: Women, Invalids, and the Family,” published in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas (2009); and “Amnesty 1945: The Revolving Door of Stalin’s Gulag,” which appeared in Slavic Review (2005).

Alan Barenberg is Assistant Professor of Russian History at Texas Tech University. He is currently finishing a book manuscript entitled, Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and its Legacy in Vorkuta. The book focuses on the arctic Russian city of Vorkuta and its transformation from Gulag city to Soviet company town. His publications on the Gulag include: “From Prisoners to Citizens?  The Experience of Ex-Prisoners in Vorkuta, 1953-1965” in The Thaw: Soviet Society and Culture in the 1950s and 1960s, University of Toronto Press, forthcoming (2012);  and “Prisoners Without Borders: Zazonniki and the Transformation of Vorkuta after Stalin,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 57:4: 513-34.

Steven A. Barnes is the founder and co-author of Russian History Blog, director of the Center for Eurasian Studies and Associate Professor of Russian History at George Mason University. His first book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, (Princeton, 2011), uses a local study of the Gulag in the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan as a way to reinterpret the role the Soviet forced labor system played in Stalin’s Soviet Union. He shows how the Gulag must be understood as a penal system, attempting to sort out those who would die there and those who would be released. He is currently working on an article on representations of the Gulag in the visual arts and a new book focused on a group of elite women’s Gulag experiences tentatively titled, The Wives’ Gulag: The Akmolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland.

Wilson Bell is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian History at Dickinson College. He is writing a book on the Stalin-era Gulag in Western Siberia, tracing the contradictions between the very modern, bureaucratic “Gulag” as it appeared on paper, and the “Gulag” on the ground that relied heavily on informal practices, data falsification, and personal connections. He is exploring the interactions, illicit and condoned, between Gulag prisoners and the surrounding free populations. He has published numerous articles on the Gulag including: “Gulag Historiography: An Introduction,” Gulag Studies, 2009-2010 and “One Day in the Life of Educator Khrushchev: Labour and Kultur’nost’ in the Gulag Newspapers,” Canadian Slavonic Papers, 2004. See also his incredibly useful “Selected Bibliography of Historical Works on the Gulag” compiled with Marc Elie and published in Gulag Studies, 2008.

Jeff Hardy is Assistant Professor of Russian History at Brigham Young University. He is completing a book on the evolution of the Soviet penal system in the Khrushchev years. He shows how Soviet officials transformed the Gulag based on the rejection of mass incarceration and violence as governing principles through a new emphasis on “socialist legality” and “socialist humaneness,” only to see some of those reforms overturned by a broad coalition of interests that rejected amelioration of conditions for prisoners. Hardy soon will publish two articles based on this work: “The Camp is not a Resort”: The (re)Imposition of Order in the Soviet Gulag, 1957-1961″ will be in Kritika (vol. 13, no. 1 (Winter 2012)); and “Gulag Tourism: Khrushchev’s ‘Show’ Prisons in the Cold War Context, 1954-1959″ will be in Russian Review (vol. 71, no. 1 (January 2012)).

Lynne Viola is University Professor of History at the University of Toronto. One of the world’s leading specialists on the rural experiences of collectivization in the Soviet Union, she is author of numerous books and articles including The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements, (Oxford, 2007); Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance, (Oxford, 1996); and The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization, (Oxford, 1987). She is currently writing a book about the perpetrators of terror in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

  1. The bibliography, largely of published Gulag memoirs, compiled by the Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli contains nearly 600 entries, and it is far from complete.
  2. Death rates in Soviet forced labor camps reached nearly 25% of the prisoner population per year during the early war years.
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2 Responses to Gulag Boss – A Blog Conversation

  1. Pingback: There Can be More than One – The Aporetic

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