Death and Redemption

Death and Redemption

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.

5 replies on “Death and Redemption”

Cindy, I am so pleased that Andy chose to include more than just historians in the conversation. It is already apparent in your postings and in your comment on Jeff’s post that you bring a really important yet different perspective to our conversation.

One quick question to my gathered colleagues prompted by this post as it is something I have often thought about. Do we have any evidence that there was systematic development of literacy on the part of Gulag inmates? I have a suspicion I have seen this kind of stuff in the KVO portions of the Gulag archive, but I really cannot remember for certain. My book focuses overwhelmingly on labor itself when thinking about “re-education” and “sorting/evaluation” of prisoners and much less on education as we might traditionally understand it.

I’ve come across mention of literacy campaigns in both the KVO files and in the Gulag newspapers so, yes, I think there were concerted efforts to improve literacy. Some documents, particularly from the late-Stalin period, also emphasize skills training, which could be seen as a form of re-education.

Yes, there are periodic literacy campaigns and some rudimentary schooling at certain times and places in the Stalin-era Gulag. During the Khrushchev era the educational (and vocational) programs are greatly expanded and systematized.

Cynthia–yes, my impression is that despite what we find in Belomor, Gulag officials when they think of re-education at all, think of it in pretty basic terms. Do they continue to live a life of crime after release? No? Then we did our job. Officials in KVCh will often, though certainly not always (the KVCh for administrators was close to the bottom rung of the camp hierarchy under Stalin so the quality of personnel is often quite poor) have a deeper understanding of re-education, but their influence is often quite limited. The question of whether people were actually re-educated in the Gulag is a vexed one, and one that I’ve struggled with in my own work. Certainly everyone, as Solzhenitsyn notes, was reformed in some way or another by their experience in the camps, but did the Gulag turn criminals into honest Soviet citizens, which was the proclaimed goal? The politicals who wrote memoirs universally claim that they were imprisoned unjustly, so no sort of re-education was needed. Ordinary criminals didn’t really write memoirs, but there are some traces in the archives that suggest some re-education was occurring. We have letters from former prisoners (although authorship is never certain) to their former camp commanders thanking them for showing them the right way to live. We have letters and petitions from prisoners who renounce their lives of crime, although we certainly cannot be certain of their genuineness. We have prisoners who become active in inmate self-governance (although again motives are not necessarily pure). So while every piece of evidence has its caveats, I believe there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the kind of re-education that the Gulag is trying to achieve is actually happening for at least some prisoners. I argue in my work that this is happening more frequently and perhaps more deeply under Khrushchev, but I have little doubt that some of it was happening in the 1930s and 1940s as well. I think we can be plenty cynical about the commitment of the Gulag to re-education and about personal motives and about the poorly-trained personnel and the rest and still find place for re-education to occur. The numbers may at times be quite small, and in places like the gold mines of Kolyma in the 1940s it may be non-existent, but I think that in the Soviet Gulag as a whole it’s always there.

I agree, Cindy, that a key contribution of Steve’s book is to demonstrate conclusively that the regime took issues of re-education seriously long after public discussion of the issue ended in the mid-1930s.
The KVO files are filled with reports (usually dry, but interesting nonetheless) about cultural activities in the camps. These discuss the number of newspaper readings, political discussions, films shown (and which films were shown), camp orchestras, stage performances, and so on. They also discuss infrastructure – number of stationary and mobile libraries (and books), number of stationary and mobile movie theaters, number of clubs. The infrastructure was extensive (although not always used properly – one Siblag club, for example, was used for storing grain).
As a prisoner, work at the KVO, whether or not this involved re-education, could save one’s health and possibly one’s life, as it generally meant a warm space removed from hard, manual labor. Work in the KVO was often technically restricted from Article 58ers, although there of course were exceptions.

I am glad to see that this issue of re-education recurs no matter where the camp or during which time period. Indeed it could be argued that the process of re-education–and this dovetails with Steve’s contention–was a countrywide program that was not limited just to the confines of the Gulag, but was part of greater Soviet society as a whole.

The problem I see, however, is that the materials with which I work are “soft”. That is the intent of the language used in a poem, newspaper article, prose work, song, poster can have multiple meanings and interpretations. Consequently, while it is impossible to pose hard numbers to determine how successful those cultural products were in reeducation, the fact that they were produced at all suggests that there was at least some reeducation going on. How does one measure the effectiveness of a song? A poster? These are the foggier places that might not be able to be quantitatively measured, but nonetheless had a qualitative effect.

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