Thanks to Golfo Alexopoulos and Dan Healey for joining the conversation. It is pleasing to see that not only are new young scholars writing about the Gulag, but some of the best established scholars like Golfo and Dan have turned to the subject as well. We still have so much to learn about the operation of this system, and over time all of these scholarly efforts will coalesce into a truly new understanding of the Gulag that will far surpass my own efforts in Death and Redemption. Although I toyed with moving on from studying the Gulag, this plethora of unanswered questions has pulled me back into the subject.
In general, I find the critical responses here as with many earlier responses to emerge to a significant degree from the boldness with which I lay out my argument. In laying out the argument, I will admit to giving up some valuable nuance in favor of an attempt to steer our conversation about the Gulag in new directions. Often, as these respondents repeatedly show, the nuance appears in the heart of the book and at times seems to contradict, or at the very least complicate the bold central argument. At the same time, the respondents seem to value the change in direction of our Gulag conversation above all else.
So, Golfo raises three critiques or questions. Here, I will provide three responses, but certainly not three definitive answers to subjects that will drive our work for years to come.
First, Golfo raises the issue of the political vs. economic explanations of the Gulag, and in particular posits that this is an either-or proposition that makes no sense as the two were inseparable in the Stalinist context. I agree wholeheartedly, even if the book no doubt frequently veers from this ideal. I certainly grant primacy to the political for explaining the origins of the Gulag system, and I take strong issue with those economic explanations that have placed the Gulag’s origins exclusively in the desire to extract economic benefit from slave labor. Perhaps in trying to steer the conversation away from the economic explanation that seemed to dominate thinking about the Gulag, I over-corrected in the direction of the political. However, I would never doubt that both factors played a significant role in shaping Gulag history. I try repeatedly in the book to show the politicization of the economic in the Stalinist Soviet Union in general and in the Gulag in particular. Now, perhaps this can be taken as the subjugation of the economic to the political in my analysis, but I don’t mean it to be so. Rather, I hope to show how the two factors worked together. Thus, the significance of labor under Stalinism is both for its economic output and for the political importance of that economic output. I find the political more convincing for understanding the origins and the persistence of the system, yet the economic continually shapes day-to-day existence in the Gulag. Camp authorities were met with a variety of demands from their superiors, not the least of which was to fulfill economic plans. Yet, the demand to operate the Gulag as a penal system was never absent, though the penal through labor always had an economic component. At any rate, we would do well to keep Golfo’s formulation in mind so that we don’t slip (as I no doubt do) into more of an either-or understanding of political and economic factors in our analysis of the Gulag than is necessary.
Second, Golfo returns us to the issue of reforging, as many others have and as seems clearly to be the issue that most animates discussions of the book. She urges us to question the sincerity of Soviet authorities about redemption and finds the tie between reeducation and release hard to prove. I’ll keep this response brief, as we have discussed it elsewhere in this conversation, and it is discussed at length in the book. First, on sincerity Golfo may be right, but I would still argue that redemption (granting the problematic nature of the term as raised in earlier posts) or some kind of policy on reeducation impacted the Gulag’s operation in highly significant ways, whether or not Gulag authorities were sincere. It is precisely in the tie between reeducation and release that I find this impact, again without the need to assume that Gulag authorities were sincere in belief that released prisoners had been reeducation. The evaluation and categorization of prisoners is critical here and serves as the system whereby “reeducation” was measured. So, prisoners who committed certain types of crimes, who performed poorly in labor, who committed crimes while in the camps–these prisoners as a general rule (though not in every individual case, certainly) were held in the camps for longer periods of time, performed harder and more dangerous labor, were excluded from amnesties and therefore their categorization was tied directly to their prospects for release.
Third, Golfo raises my criticism of the notion of a “crisis” in the late Stalinist Gulag, pointing out how the system was overwhelmed with the rapid and unprecedented expansion of the late 1940s. On this, I will simply say that I am awaiting evidence of the crisis, because I still don’t see it. If you look at mortality rates and escapes, two measures by which a crisis might be measured, though I will grant that there are others, the Gulag is at its most efficient in Stalin’s final years. I could, of course, be wrong, but I have not yet seen what is to me convincing evidence of a crisis.
Dan takes us in some sense in the opposite direction from reforging to the question of death in the Gulag, using the concept of intentionality rather than sincerity. Dan is working on the history of medical practices in the Gulag and rightly points us to the widespread medical facilities in the camp system as evidence that “despite the high death rate, the authorities generally held that prisoners should survive.” I think Dan is right, and I carefully and deliberately chose the word “accepted” rather than “intended” when describing authorities’ attitudes toward death in the Gulag. (“As I will demonstrate, the death of prisoners was always accepted as part and parcel of the work of the camp system.” p. 12) Certainly as I look back through the book, I see some slippage in language that may give the wrong impression. Thus, “food operated in such a manner that those determined to be irredeemable were placed on a downward spiral to death.” (p. 41) Yet, I am not arguing or not intending to argue for intentional death. Rather, I argue that all who entered the gates of a Gulag camp were seen as potentially redeemable, but redemption was never guaranteed, and it was fully accepted that many would die in the camps. (Look again at the propaganda graveyard. Death was not the intended outcome for Gulag prisoners, but it was not one that camp authorities shied away from either. If you refused to work, you may not have been assured of death, but it was a likely outcome.)
At any rate, the conversation here is very stimulating and has already made me want to reformulate (reforge?) my argument a bit here and there, though on the whole, I will stick with its broad outlines as a new way of thinking about the Gulag.