Death and Redemption-More on Reforging

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).

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3 Responses to Death and Redemption-More on Reforging

  1. Jeff Hardy says:

    Deborah–I’ve read Harry Wu’s writings along with a few other memoirs from the Chinese case and it appears that at least for them (the memoirists, who were political prisoners) there was a very intensive thought reform/political indoctrination segment of their incarceration that preceded their transfer to a labor camp. There was nothing like this is the Soviet Union, where the two (re-education of the mind and labor) were supposed to be accomplished together, not one before the other. So yes, this appears to be a Chinese innovation.

    • Miriam says:

      I think this difference is interesting and wonder if it relates to the fact that – as Death and Redemption shows – the most important targets for re-education were the “socially friendly common criminal,” rather than 58ers whose potential for reform was always more dubious? This perhaps relates back to the points about literacy too: perekovka was about creating the new Soviet person – literate, honest, and hard-working; his political beliefs were important but only once facet of this new identity.

      In teaching I use a translated Izvestiia article from 1935 about reforging. I suspect is one of the last times that the theme was discussed in the mainstream press. After reading Deboarah’s posting, I’ve just looked back through it and found that in this idealized example reforging was as much, if not more, about the transformation of the prisoner’s morality as his politics. The hero has to act “as psychiatrist, as teacher, as political agitator, and as Chekist all at the same time.” Anyway, I thought I’d paste it in so that others can use it in teaching if it’s of interest.

      The Heart of a Chekist

      Izvestiia, 4 October 1935

      When, not so long ago, the Bolshevskii NKVD labour commune celebrated its tenth anniversary, the name Matvei Samoilovich Pogrebinskii appeared on the list of organisers and leaders who were to be given the highest state awards. As creator of several NKVD educational institutions and as one of Iagoda’s closest advisors in this field, Pogrebinskii is outstanding because already more than three thousand criminals must have passed through his hands: thieves, bandits, marauders and freemasons who have now broken with their dark pasts and returned to the path of honest toil. Matvei Samoilovich Pogrebrinskii can rightly wear his medal of honour and be proud of it!

      Already there has been a substantial amount written about Pogrebinskii and the NKVD’s educational work. We all know dozens of surprising and unexpectedly touching stories about former thieves who have become engineers, or about ex-bandits who now work in laboratories with microscopes, or about former robbers who are now graduating from conservatories and will become conductors, singers, and musicians. But how do these miraculous transformations occur? What methods do the Chekists employ in order to remake people? What is the most important in this very complex and difficult work? As yet, we know very little about this. However, as soon as you look at Pogrebinskii and his colleagues one thing jumps straight out – their incredible love of man and the touching kindness that runs though all their work. I think that this warmth is the secret to their stunning successes.

      Here is a run of the mill story – when it comes to Pogrebinskii, you could recount so many, and each one as compelling as the next.

      About eight years ago, when the Bolshevskii commune was only just getting going, a big-time ‘safe-cracker’ was arrested and put on trial. For the purposes of the article, we’ll call him Poronin. He was an exceptional, original, and in his own way, talented individual, no doubt deserving of a more detailed account of his past and current fate – but we don’t have space here to recount his whole life-story. Suffice it to say, he was arrested and as a result of his crimes – taking into consideration the fact that he had already been a criminal for thirty years – the court sentenced him to the death penalty. The matter was already decided and the proceedings were in their final stages, when Pogrebinskii, supported by Iagoda, stepped onto the scene. Yes, of course, Poronin is a criminal, but it was the old [pre-revolutionary] system that made him that way and which is responsible for his crimes, argued Pogrebinskii. Surely before punishing, shouldn’t the revolution try to heal, shouldn’t it have pity on people who had been morally crippled by capitalism? Yes, of course, Poronin is a socially dangerous type, but didn’t these characteristics develop during the ugly circumstances of the past? Won’t the new social conditions allow his talents, his will, his intellect to develop in another, more healthy direction?

      Pogrebinskii believes too much in the healing principles of the revolution to let a chance go by, he loves and feels for people too much, he values each human life too much – as long as the person is not an outright enemy of the working class. He takes Poronin under his guardianship and begins a long and persistent struggle to save a human being.

      Three months in a row, Pogrebinskii visits Poronin in prison every day. Their conversations last for hours, and Pogrebinskii conducts them with amazing skill, acting as psychiatrist, as teacher, as political agitator, and as Chekist all at the same time. He tries all methods, one time adopting a comradely tone, the next acting exceptionally severe, and the third unexpectedly shower his Poronin with the kind of warmth that would make even the most hardened heart must tremble. One time he might explain the basics of political literacy; the second he turns into a cold and deliberately impartial judge; the third time he suddenly switches into the realm of personal life and for hours they sit chatting about love, about women, mothers, children. The huge gulf that lies between them little by little begins to be bridged. Little by little, the whole life of the criminal is laid out before Pogrebinskii, like a complex, but finely-drawn, map. He studies his subject with all the care of an anatomist, seizing on every little thread which might help him drag this man from out of the murky depths and towards the surface. This work is terribly difficult and these conversations in prisons demand huge amounts of physical and spiritual strength. Every time he leaves the prison completely wasted, his head hurting and bags under his eyes. But he doesn’t give up. The life of a human being is at stake, and in saving another life, he doesn’t want to think about himself.

      And then after several weeks, he begins to feel the first signs of change, the first tiny crack in the thinking, mood and emotions of the old thief. It is almost unnoticeable, almost invisible to the naked eye. But the ice has cracked, and it is now time to act.

      He comes and takes Poronin to the commune. He arranges that tomorrow, at 6pm, the old thief will come to his apartment. They will go to the theatre.

      The next day, Poronin is already missing from lunch. Will he come, or has he already run away? Pogrebinskii believes he will come; the ice has cracked, he has found all the little threads and holds them firmly in his hand… But then again, maybe not? Pogrebinskii stands by the window, drumming on the glass, his heart racing with anxiety. On the dot of six, the bell rings and he melts into a warm smile. But no, two other thieves have arrived with whom Poronin was supposed to have come, but they are without him. It seems that on their way to the apartment, Poronin hung back, then said that he had to go to his sister’s. He had run away! Something snaps within Pogrebinskii. He became heated, but couldn’t show anything in front of these two, who are looking at him sideways.

      ‘He’ll come!’, he said casually. ‘Let’s drink tea!’

      They sit and wait. The conversation doesn’t flow. To Pogrebinskii the tea seemed bitter and tasteless. The hands of the clock tick by unbelievably slowly. Finally, seven o’clock comes. There’s no Poronin. He had run away! No doubt, he’d run away! […] They went down the stairs and opened the door. There on the doorstep stood Poronin, panting. His sister had kept some of his belonging and he had simply called in on her to get changed into smart clothing before the theatre. He wasn’t any old burglar or freemason – he knew good form! Pogrebinskii felt a pleasant wave of warmth flood his chest. He wanted to embrace this bearded, rather smelly bloke standing before him – but pedagogically, he knew he mustn’t.

      “Ah Poronin!” he said in a very casual tone, before turning to speak to the other two, as if the hour of torture had never happened, as if he had never doubted for a moment that when he opened the door he would find Poronin standing there on the doorstep. And only he knew how much this act cost him, and only he felt the sudden fatigue that hit his whole being.

      So Poronin moved into the Bolshevskii commune and began working. But Pogrebinskii knew that this didn’t mean that relapses wouldn’t happen. This was just the first step and it was still easy to slip. He didn’t let his eye off the old thief for a second. He went to the Bolshevskii commune almost every day, he advised the pedagogues there, he surrounded Poronin with healthy influences, constant attention and concern. […]

      A year passed like this. It seemed as if everything was going well. Poronin was working well and it seemed as if all links with his past had been broken. But with his special gift as psychologist and Chekist, Pogrebinskii felt that something wasn’t quite right. He decided to do a kind of general check-up.

      “Listen Poronin,” he said suddenly in the middle of a conversation, “You came to the commune, you broke with your past. But what happens if you’re on a tram and you see a thief steal someone’s watch? What would you do? Would you arrest him?”

      There was a long heavy pause. Slowly Poronin paled, little drops of sweat appearing on his skin.

      “I never was and never will be a snitch,” he said finally. “Don’t ask this of me.” Abruptly he turned around and walked out. […]

      Pogrebinskii didn’t push it further and didn’t return to the difficult topic. But he made new efforts. Poronin liked reading, so – without him noticing – Pogrebinskii began to push books his way that might help him to make sense of things. Poronin enjoyed detailed, precise work, so they found him employment that suited him. He was surrounded by young people who introduced him to new and exciting things. For three whole years the battle for his soul went on. And only at the end of three years did a moment of triumph come for Pogrebinskii.

      At this time, while he was living in the city of Ufa, Pogrebinskii went through a difficult phase in his life. He became very seriously ill and underwent one operation after another. The Bolshevskii commune arranged for a delegation to go to Ufa and find out how he was doing, and Poronin headed this delegation. So six former thieves arrived at the hospital and were taken to see the patient. Pogrebinskii lay there, his face pinched, gloomy, his skin slightly yellow, with bags under his eyes. The conversation didn’t flow, everyone sat in silence and Poronin could only fidget on his stool. It seemed that he wanted to do or say something nice and pleasant to Pogrebinskii but that he didn’t know how to begin. Finally he plucked up his courage.

      “Matvei Samoilovich!” He said. “Things are hard for you, perhaps we can help you in some way?”

      “In what way?” asked Pogrebinskii, surprised.

      Poronin paled slightly, but remained calm. “Well maybe you have problems here with bandits and thieves. If you allow us, we will catch every last one of them and bring them to you.”

      Pogrebinskii looked at him and a happy smile lit up his thin, yellow face. “But don’t you remember what you said to me that time?” He asked after a pause.

      Poronin paled ever more. Then he lifted up his hand and did the sign of the cross. The past is finished. And these two men – a thief and a chekist – silently embraced each other.

      I think that this was one of the happiest days in Pogrebinskii’s life. But it took three years of stubborn battle to see that gesture and to bring Poronin back to life (he’s now the manager of a large enterprise). Three years! What amazing inner qualities, what genuine humanity, what warmth towards people and what belief in the new life, Pogrebinskii must have had to devote so much energy and effort on another person like Poronin whom he didn’t even know – a thief who in any other country (with their pitiless judicial systems) would simply have been hung.

  2. Cynthia Ruder says:

    I’ve been out of the loop a bit and have read with great interest the recent entries, especially those about “perekovka”. I was particularly interested in Deborah’s comment that–”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.”

    This is precisely the issue that confronts anyone trying to explore perekovka. First, you won’t find much of it in official memoirs, although if memory serves there are discussions of it in the memoirs of Antsiferov and Losev, both of whom were political prisoners and both of whom spent time on Belomor. The reason perekovka is rarely discussed is, I would argue, twofold: 1) Politicals were, as many here have mentioned, not the targets of reforging. If anything they were considered “unreforgable” and therefore did not become involved wholeheartedly in the effort. 2) Because the target of reforging, as Miriam rightly observes, were the “socially friendly common criminals” we have little if any memoir literature from them. The best method to trace their “reforging” remains the archives and the materials held therein, along with the Belomor volume (the Russian version). The Belomor volume was designed to be mass-distributed so that its readership would be large. The problem is that many of the people connected with the Belomor project, most notably Semyon Firin, were purged. When they were purged, the book was pulled from broad circulation and became part of the “spetskhran.” So much for a broad readership.

    In addition, the discussion of perekova was featured largely in internal camp publications–among them the eponymous newspapers of both Belomor and Dmitlag (among other places) , the Dmitlag journal , and in an intersting little collection entitled the which was a series of booklets produced under the auspices of the Dmitlag KVOs and written mostly by “тридцатипятники” who were common criminals. Those publications were designed precisely for the internal camp population and not intended for distribution beyond the camps. So it’s no wonder that we never hear stories about the results/effects of “perekovka”, provided, of course, that the reported results were accurate–which is another question.

    In addition, like the “История строительства” there was supposed to be a similar book published that contained original artwork by the Dmitlag artist’s cooperative, as well as a variety of articles by engineers, Soviet writers, architects, politicians (Kaganovich in particular), and kanaloarmeitsy that detailed, praised, and described the construction of the Moscow Volga Canal. This book never saw the light of day because its publication coincided with–you guessed it–the purges. When Firin and his “circle” were arrested in April 1937 anything, especially in print, was considered tainted and unworthy of publication. Hence, it is, as the Russians say “не случайно” that we see so little about perekovka.

    Finally, if one ascribes to the idea–similar to what Miriam described in her post–that perekovka was designed to create new Soviet citizens who had training in a practical profession, were literate, and believed–then there is some success to report on that score. Perhaps the proof of this would be statistics (and here I am out of my depth) on the degree of recidivism of those released from the camps. Finally, when I was researching my book on the “История строительства”I came across documents in GARF that were, theoretically, written by those released from Belomor who wrote about how they had been reforged–they had left their criminal life behind and were able to secure employment using the new skills they had acquired at Belomor. Given the level of the language, it was easy to believe that these documents were actually written by newly-literature releasees, although it is entirely possible that these accounts, written in longhand, were dicated to the writers. How to prove that? I don’t know.

    One last point–if it seems that perekovka, at least the official program, seems to have ceased as the 1930s came to a close, then that might be deceiving since the same practices that were employed in perekovka inside the camps, were used outside the camps as well. Music, posters, reading circles, meetings, etc. all continued outside the camps for many years, arguably until the fall of the USSR. The notion that citizens could be reforged seeped from the camps into society at large and remained that way for a very long time.

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