Death and Redemption

Thanks to Jeff, Wilson, and Steve for their great comments and feedback.  In thinking about the book and their comments, I realized how easy it is to get locked into a mindset whereby you believe that the Gulag in one era might conceivably be identical to the Gulag in another era.  Or, conversely, that procedures and practices of one era were isolated in that point in time rather than carrying on and evolving over the course of the Gulag.  While this revelation might seem naive or simplistic, it underscores in a small way how complex the Gulag history is and how little we still know even with Steve’s book, our research, and those studies that preceded us.  I’m always amazed when the Gulag seems to be not a “hot” topic when, as Steve cogently argues, it was an integral part of Soviet life and that there is so much more to discover.

I bring this up because I was interested to hear from Jeff and Wilson that the reeducation efforts in the camps did not diminish even as the Gulag itself was slowly evaporating as the fifties wore on.  This should not be a surprise given that, again as Steve argues, the theory underpinning the Gulag was based not just on economic issues, but on a very real idea that prisoners could be remade/reforged into Soviet citizens.  This idea cannot be over-emphasized.  While the ultimate goal might have been so-called model Soviet citizens (whoever they might be), the overall goal still was to produce Soviet citizens.  What the promoters of reforging did not take into account, however, was that Soviet could mean a lot of things–from someone who genuinely believed in the Soviet enterprise to someone who mastered the art of “tufta”, a practice we know invaded many parts of Soviet life outside the Gulag as well.

Indeed, the whole idea of what it means to be Soviet vis-a-vis Gulag prisoners is a fascinating question.  (I realize topics of subjectivity and identity are hot topics now.)Where not those Gulag inmates who produced armaments during WWII Soviet citizens,  in the sense that their labor contributed to the USSR’s victory and likely, in spite of the horrendous conditions could have been posited on real patriotism (even if many were hoping a German victory might free them)?  And what Steve points out on p.131 about wartime re-education echoes and continues the same rhetoric of which the Belomor and Moscow Canal projects were redolent.

The enterprise of reforging likewise is based on the premise that Steve brings up (p. 97) of malleability.  The notion of reeducation is posited on the belief that human beings can change and can be remolded–not as raw material, but as poorly cast original material that requires REmaking into the purported image of a Soviet citizen.  The term перековка, a word imbued industrial and metallurgical meaning, speaks both to the idea of malleability, but also to the difficult process inherent in reforging metal.  The industrial metaphor dovetails with Soviet rhetoric of the late twenties and the thirties, while the metallurgical element surely was not lost on the promoters of reforging, prominent among them Semyon Firin, a person who deserves a much more detailed study in his own right.

Arguably the process of reforging reached beyond the remaking of prisoners and into the remaking of the landscape, cultural production, and rhetoric as well.  One need look no further than the Moscow Canal to see how this re-engineering of landscape–space and place–was taken on wholesale:  from the construction of the Northern port in the shape of a ship with a red-star-crowned mast that could be extended to reach farther into the heavens, to the monumental sculptures of Lenin and Stalin at the entrance to the canal at Lock #1, to all the architecture and sculpture in between.  This suggests a physicality to reforging that goes beyond human nature to nature itself and to cultural production.

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