Death and Redemption – Some thoughts about death

I know I am late entering this conversation and that puts me in danger of repeating many excellent points that have already been made. First – to echo my colleagues’ praise – I find Steve’s book an exciting addition to the secondary literature on the Gulag. It has a strong, compelling thesis, is grounded in a fascinating and unique regional study, and is beautifully written and organised with the undergraduate student and general reader in mind. It arrived a bit late to be incorporated fully into my final-year Gulag studies seminar this past academic year, but I did point students toward it and have good feedback to build in to future years’ coursework. So the book is an enormously valuable contribution.

My observations concern the emphasis on death.  Jeff Hardy hinted at the problem of assigning an ideological meaning for death in the Gulag philosophy of redemption (if one could label it that way), when he suggested that “a death-or-redemption ideal” operating in the minds of some Gulag officials does not capture the complexity of historical reality. Of course, the virtue of Steve’s book is that it does not confine itself to a simple dichotomy of death or redemption. But I do want to question how ‘death’ as an intended fate figures in the book as a matter of deliberate policy.

In no way am I denying that death was a constant threat in most camps most of the time. Nor do I deny that authorities were criminally responsible for these conditions.  We see high and fluctuating death rates that are explicable by official neglect and corruption (leading to reduced rations and inadequate living conditions); by a lack of planning for surges in prisoner numbers; by violence and abuse by guards; by extreme conditions, especially in the early, pioneering camps where no infrastructure existed; by parlous conditions during the transport of prisoners; and by extreme wartime privation, the single most important factor that seems to trump all the others when we look at recorded deaths.

My question is: how far can we consider what I have listed as the result of a planned, deliberate policy to kill off those who could not be redeemed through labour? Perhaps it may apply to the katorga camps, where extremely harsh conditions were mandated and little mercy was offered to the sick, for example. But I have not yet seen documents that explicitly state that in the Gulag, death would be the intended alternative to redemption.

We know that the Bolsheviks were not afraid to record their violent intentions on paper. We do not have anything like an NKVD Order No. 00447 that codifies a Gulag policy on the liquidation by labour exhaustion of unredeemables – at least, none has come to light in the fonds which have been declassified in the past 20 years. Naturally, such a document might one day surface. For the moment, however, I would argue that it seems prudent to approach the question of intention cautiously.

From the perspective of my own research, I find the existence of the Sanitary Department of the Gulag leads me to question the intention to kill unredeemables. How do we account for the twice-annual medical inspection of all prisoners’ physical condition (to classify them as capable of heavy/medium/light labour, or as invalids)?  How do we explain the seriously inadequate but system-wide attempts to reanimate sick and weakened prisoners in the Gulag’s infirmaries and hospitals? How do we explain the fact that from the late 1930s, the Gulag recruited doctors, nurses, dentists, and feldshers (paramedics) nationally from new graduate cohorts and made considerable investment in them?  One explanation is to interpret the prisoner’s access to medical care as an aspect of the web of incentives so persuasively detailed in Steve’s work; this thesis is proposed in a recent, excellent MA dissertation about medical care in Ukhta camps (Charlotte Sophie Kühlbrandt, “Rereading the Gulag through Medicine: Ukhta 1929-1955.” MA Thesis, Cambridge University, 2011).

Another explanation is to suggest that despite the high death rate, the authorities generally held that prisoners should survive. There were short and long-term rationales for this, I propose. Prisoners in camps were more valuable alive as units of labour. As released ex-convicts, confined to exile in nearby districts, they were valuable as productive ‘quasi-free’ inhabitants. Prisoners who survived to be released populated the new cities of the urbanizing Gulag. They provided the Gulag with the human resources required to fulfil the important, if secondary, colonial mission of the forced labour system. They were often eager to establish themselves, to found or reconstitute families, and they were a compliant workforce of second-class citizens. The authorities had plenty of reasons to wish that as many prisoners as possible from virtually all categories might finish their sentence and join this ‘colonist’ population.


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2 Responses to Death and Redemption – Some thoughts about death

  1. Wilson Bell says:

    Fascinating, Dan! I’ve always been perplexed by the medical facilities in the Gulag (and have even found some evidence that local villagers visited Gulag camps precisely in order to use Gulag medical facilities!). Why treat the prisoners so horribly, but then make genuine efforts to heal invalids? From my own reading of the documents and memoirs, I agree with what you’ve written, here: death in the Gulag was usually the result of systemic inefficiencies, corruption, and extremely harsh conditions, but was not usually intended. Indeed, camp officials could be punished if mortality rates were too high.

    • Dan Healey says:

      Thanks Wilson. The medical services in the Gulag camps could, paradoxically, be quite sophisticated, in part because of the brilliance and inventiveness of the people who staffed them. “Free” citizens living in their vicinity might often prefer to visit them if they could. Often, the prisoner-doctors were important specialists from Moscow or Leningrad hospitals and institutes, and the very green new doctors who were “freely hired” by the NKVD to staff both camp and “free” employees’ clinics were provincials who in sociopolitical status stood above them, while in professional terms very much deferred to the zek-doctors as experienced senior colleagues.

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