I am so enjoying this discussion, and I wish I weren’t leaving for a month (to Moscow, of course) in 2 days. I regret that all the business of getting properly packed has kept me away from this wonderful conversation.
In any case, I have read all the great comments, and what I wanted to talk about is Steve’s focus on Bolshevik ideals and his interest in “reforging.” Until this point I had felt that the Bolshevik ideals had melted away as the expediency of work and plans and then the war took over. I had no idea that the Gulag administrators had held on to these earlier ideals, and even took seriously the type of writing we saw in Belomor. To find out that Steve finds evidence of this sort of talk in the Karlag files is very important. It gives us a glimpse at the work of the political officers who were everywhere in the Gulag. Before this, I never had a feel for their real role aside other than preparing propaganda posters and exhibits.
Reading Miriam’s thoughtful comments made me realize that I too totally buy Steve’s argument that the reason for the existence and even endurance of the Gulag had to have been more political than economic. But like Jeff mentions in his excellent posting, I find this a very difficult point to prove. I mean, it’s fascinating to see that within the walls of the Gulag there were attempts at “reforging” going on, but my question is: to what end? And why do we not see mention of it in the memoir literature? Admittedly, we have all thought about the flaws and drawbacks in relying on memoirs, and I have not read that entire literature, but I cannot recall any descriptions of the actual work that the political officers did with the prisoners, or the results of this work. I would be interested to see that.
The reason I’m thinking about this is that I’ve studied the Chinese Gulag (the Laogai), which has its roots in the Soviet system. All I have been able to find out is that the Chinese imported the Gulag “model” in the early 1950s during the famous period of friendship and cooperation. (My favorite slogan from that time is “Let’s Be Modern and Soviet!”) The two systems are shockingly alike in their structure and function. However, there are definitely differences between the Gulag and the Laogai, the most important of which is that the Chinese Laogai is still functioning and actually producing goods that make money for the Chinese economy. The other difference is that still being a functioning Communist government, they successfully keep a lid on any files or data about the Laogai. It is basically a forbidden topic.
But, the most important difference is that there exist Laogai survivor memoirs (and there are not anywhere near as many of them), in which the survivors write a lot about the “reforging” that took place in the Chinese Gulag. The most well-known writer, the Solzhenitsyn of the Laogai, if you will, is Harry (Hongda) Wu. He was arrested as a “rightist” in kind of a mass craziness sort of like the Great Purges called The Hundred Flowers. In any case, in the middle of a mass meeting to criticize him at his workplace, a uniformed Public Security officer appeared to announce: “I sentence the counterrevolutionary rightist Wu Hongda to reeducation through labor.” (45) He was forced to confess that he was indeed a rightist, and once he was incarcerated in the Laogai, he was told that his entire family had denounced him. The political officer then said to him: “You must study Mao Zedong thought very hard, reform yourself diligently, and become a new socialist person.” (57)
Later, after being worked over constantly “to reform his thoughts,” he thinks about the old Chinese custom of footbinding. “We have switched to headbinding…they bind a person’s thoughts instead. That way ideas all take on the same size and shape, and thinking becomes impossible. That’s why they arrested me. That’s why they want to change me, that’s why they force me to reform.” (88)
Has this sort of blatant recording of actual “reforging” or “thought reform” appeared in the Soviet memoir literature? I’m totally ready to believe that I have missed it. But it would be so great to find some accounts of it. As Steve mentions somewhere in his book, the camps were all different, and they changed over time, too, so it seems to me that if this “reforging” work was being pushed at all by the Central Administration, it would show up in some memoir. Anybody?
Note: Citations from Wu, Harry, Bitter Winds: A Memoir of my Years in China’s Gulag (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994).