All the entries by my colleagues in history have been informative, fascinating, and extremely useful for someone like me who operates outside the fold, as it were, of official Gulag scholarship. I agree with the eloquent reviews written thusfar of Steve’s book, so my comments will not reflect so much a review, as certain points, themes, and ideas that resonate for me as someone who is, for better or for worse, taking an interdisciplinary approach to the Gulag with a special emphasis on questions of culture and space/place.
For me, what sets Steve’s book apart from Applebaum and Solzhenitsyn is a lack of preachiness or unquestioned moral authority that those works claim. Rather, Steve uses all his sources to present an argument as to why the Gulag in general, and Karlag in particular operated as they did. His focus on “re-education” or reforging is vital to my mind to understanding how the Gulag operated especially in the thirties and forties. I agree with him that it was possible to be reforged/re-educated and that this was a means through which some inmates could be released. As Jeff, Wilson, and Miriam all point out, the Gulag on paper and the Gulag in reality were often quite different things. But what had gone unsaid prior to Steve’s book, at least in a historian’s book about the Gulag, is that this re-education could and did occur and that many people–inmates and re-educators alike–believed in it. How well it worked is a different issue and I would argue that one person’s re-education is another’s capitulation to or manipulation of the system.
The whole process of re-education created both a “culture” of reforging and cultural products. These products, the quality of which might be questionable, nonetheless lend further credence to the point Steve makes about the redemptive qualities of the camp system and the particular way in which the Gulag sought not to slaughter outright those deemed potentially irredeemable, but rather to return them to Soviet society as a whole. Indeed, as simplistic as it might sound, the ability to read and write and to have some sort of trade beyond thieving or prostitution could have been adequate “re-education” for those who had neither prior to their time in the camps.