Death and Redemption

Over the past eighteen months I have come to realise that I’m not an ideal blogger in the sense that I’m not always very good at checking the internet! I’ve been busily writing my first thoughts about Death and Redemption without realizing that the conversation had already started. So here are my reflections about Steve’s book and its contribution to the field of Gulag studies. Having quickly read through the other posts, I think some of the comments I make in the second half of the blog echo questions Wilson and Jeff raise about how the political ambitions behind the Gulag played out in practice.

As others have already noted, Steve’s book is very readable, and brilliantly researched. Steve uses archive material and published texts from the time to reconstruct the state’s perspective on the unprecedented penal network it was creating, but he also draws on a wide range of memoir material to explore the experience of the most important people in this bloody chapter in Europe’s history: the Gulag’s inmates.  One of the real strengths of Death and Redemption is that it does not present the Gulag as an unchanging and immutable institution. There are certainly some constants throughout – the disregard for human life being one, the regime’s insistence on political re-education another (more on this in a minute). But there are also important changes across the period and this book draws out the war and post-war developments very effectively.  The special camps created in 1948 sectioned off the prisoners considered least likely to reform, not only creating a new kind of penal institution which was to prove particularly volatile in the years 1953-4, but also changing the composition of the remaining camps. There the removal of the political contingent seemed to contribute to an escalation of tensions between different criminal groups which – no longer able to lord it over the 58-ers – increasingly turned against one another. 

In addition to creating a nuanced picture of the Gulag and its transformation over time, Death and Redemption also makes an important argument. As Steve explains in the introduction, different explanations for the existence of the camps have been put forward. Some argue that its origins were economic, its raison d’etre the league of laborers who slaved in the hostile but resource-rich territories which made up the margins of the USSR; others that the Gulag’s roots were essentially political – a monstrous penal system was brought into being as a mean to destroy the regime’s enemies and instil fear throughout society. Steve eschews the economic for the political, but he understands the political reasons for the Gulag’s existence rather differently from historians of an earlier generation. In keeping with other recent scholarship, he takes the Bolsheviks’ ideology and propaganda seriously and argues that we should not simply dismiss the resources and manpower poured into the “re-education” of prisoners as some kind of pernicious window-dressing. Instead, he argues that one of the prime functions of the Gulag was to sort and categorise its inhabitants: the redeemable were to be identified and reforged, through labour and the efforts of the Gulag personnel; the remaining could be worked to death, sent to a penal battalion, or simply shot.  

To support his argument about the political purpose of the Gulag Steve draws on a number of sources, making particular use in early sections of the seminal text Belomor which trumpeted Soviet success in re-forging the criminal. It could be argued that the authors of Belomor cared as much about an international audience as readers within the USSR, but Steve also draws on archival sources which show how important such ideas remained within the sealed world of the camps: memos and directives from Gulag’s leaders in Moscow to its regional camp commanders; newspaper articles produced solely for prisoners; even letters from ex-zeks thanking their former educators for putting them on the right track. Research into the economics of the Gulag has suggested that the camps were not financially viable as the relatively cheap labor of the ordinary Soviet citizen was in fact more cost-effective. Moreover, as is noted in Death and Redemption, the political leaders of the Soviet Union were aware of the economic burden presented by the camps (at least by the beginning of the Second World War). And yet this realization did not spell the end of the Gulag, because the political drive to preserve it lasted as long as Stalin did, with change only possible after his death in 1953.

After reading Death and Redemption I’m thoroughly persuaded that the goal of sorting, re-educating, and where possible releasing the offender were real ambitions, and did impact on the management and running of the Gulag, but I also wonder how far these big political ambitions filtered down to the grass-roots level. To what extent did the goal of politically transforming prisoners govern the thinking and actions of those charged with the day-to-day running of the camps? In terms of thinking about how research on the Gulag might develop further in the future the question of how those who guarded and administered the camps understood their own actions seems to me to be an important one.

As an earlier blog conversation revealed, historians still find it hard to learn much about the guards and other officials working within the zona; in contrast to the huge body of writing produced by the victims of Stalinist terror, Fyodor Mochulsky’s Gulag Boss is one of the first memoirs left by those who policed the camps.1 Death and Redemption suggests that the men who ended up in these roles were often demobbed soldiers or young NKVD commanders who – whatever their own political beliefs – needed material incentives to persuade them to set off for a new life in the Gulag. How did they feel about their charges once they got there, I wonder? What role did class identity or military experience play in the way guards and officials treated prisoners?

Death and Redemption clearly shows the huge gulf between the Soviet Gulag and Nazi concentration camps, but some of the issues concerning camp workers’ responsibility, and the role of material or political incentives in motivating them, are perhaps similar. I recently read an article examining the violent practices of SS guards in the Majdanek camp during the Second World War. Elissa Mailänder Koslov asks why guards transferred to Majdanek were more violent in their treatment of prisoners than they had been earlier in the careers and suggests that certain factors enabled the guards to see the inmates as a dehumanizied “other.” She considers, for example, the extreme cold in Lublin, the prevalence of disease, the foreignness of the prisoners, the chaotic and brutal conditions which meant the prisoners were easily viewed as animals rather than other human beings.2 This article made me wonder about the importance of the different stages of a Soviet prisoners’ sojourn before she even arrived in the camp. Starvation, torture, and other forms of degradation prisoners experienced first in prison, then in transit meant many prisoners simply did not recognize themselves.  In her camp memoir, Olga Adamov-Sliozberg describes finding a full-length mirror during one of the long transits “I stood in the crowd and stared, unable to figure out which of the women was me [...] [F]or a long time afterward, I kept thinking of that gray-haired woman who had stared at me from the mirror with her sad, weary face, trying to get used to the idea that this was me.”3 If they were no longer recognizable to themselves, how did the prisoners appear to their guards and educators? Did the abuse and neglect which prisoners experienced pre-camp help to make further violence towards them seem legitimate to camp personnel who no longer saw them as fully human?

Death and Redemption takes us a long way in terms of understanding Moscow’s conception of the Gulag and – along with existing studies, and the great canon of camp memoirs  – probing the experiences and memories of the system’s victims. For me, the figure of the guard, the educator, and the camp administorator remain elusive. But perhaps this will always be the case. Studies of Nazi prison guards (such as Koslov’s) are possible for  because of the great body of perpetrator testimony which was generated by the trials held in West Germany from the 1960s. The situation in the USSR was very different. In the post-Stalin period, the Soviet leadership intermittently encouraged discussion of the country’s violent past, but it never sought to attribute personal blame on a significant scale, fearing, perhaps, a return to purging, or maybe just anxious about the threat it might pose to the regime’s legitimacy. Whatever the reason, it has legacies for post-Soviet attitudes towards Stalin and Stalinism but also has implications for the historical record.

I would be interested to know what Steve and others working on the Gulag think about this. Survivors’ memoirs tend to suggest that there was a huge variation in the way different camp employees treated prisoners. As the scholarship on the Gulag develops, can we go further in understanding how and why this was the case? Or is the evidence simply not there? 

  1. Fyodor Mochulsky, Gulag Boss: A Soviet memoir, trans. and ed. Deborah Kaple (Oxford, 2011).
  2. Elissa Mailänder Koslov, “‘Going east’: colonial experiences and practices of violence among female and male Majdanek camp guards (1941–44)”, Journal of Genocide Research, 10, 4, 2008, pp. 563-582.
  3. Olga Adamov-Sliozberg, “My Journey,” in Simeon Vilensky, ed., Till My Tale is Told (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1999), p. 47.
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3 Responses to Death and Redemption

  1. Wilson Bell says:

    Thoughtful post, Miriam. Camp Party documents may be a window into the workings of the guards and the administration. I used these documents in my own research. These include meeting protocols from the various Party organizations within the camp administration. Sometimes the protocols appear to be verbatim, other times summaries, but over enough time one can get a sense of the topics that concerned the Party in the camps, as well as disciplinary infractions by Party members. The disciplinary infractions are particularly revealing, because we see cases both of prisoner abuse and of fraternization with prisoners (illicit relationships, smuggling correspondence, alcohol, and cigarettes, etc.). Anyway, I found plenty of these types of documents in local former Party archives in both Novosibirsk and Tomsk, so presumably similar documents are available throughout much of the former Soviet Union.

  2. Miriam says:

    Thanks for this – sounds like really interesting material. I wonder if there are any patterns in terms of who is most likely to fraternize or abuse of prisoners (in terms of age, social background, military experience)?

    And – shamelessly hijacking a conversation about sources for my own ends (!) – have you come across any materials in Gulag archives relating to the control of religious practice within the camps? I’m currently working on a project on Baptists and Pentecostals and would like to have a chapter on religious life in the camps if that’s possible. So, if any of you working specifically with Gulag materials have any pointers I’d be very grateful!

    • Steve Barnes says:

      Miriam, remind me (once this broken leg is healed and I get back into my office) to find some notes I have on members of the Istinnaia pravoslavnaia tserkov’ who were charged criminally for their refusal to work while in the camps. I reference them in the book, but I have further notes that might be useful for you. Also, check out Father Christopher Zugger’s book The Forgotten: Catholics in the Soviet Empire from Lenin through Stalin. He has some interesting non-archival material on Catholics in the camps.

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