Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

Death and Redemption – Reforging, Reeducation, Redemption

So many interesting posts in this discussion, I feel like I could write an entire article responding to all  of it. Here, I want to try to address some issues brought up initially by Jeff Hardy and in the comments of Wilson Bell (two of the best and brightest among the young Gulag historians) and then expanded on by others. (I must say, also, that Jeff often explains my book’s argument better than I do.) Each writing independent of the other, they raised similar questions about the book’s argument focused on whether and to what extent the “redemption” of the book’s title really matters in practice at the local level. I believe Jeff’s and Wilson’s comments, amplified by others, represent the most spot-on critiques of my book I have ever read and represent what I hope the next generation of Gulag histories will help us better understand.

What I hoped to do with the book, and what I think I have accomplished judging from the collected comments here, was to change the conversation about the Gulag and the role that it played in the Soviet Union. I wanted us to understand the Gulag was much more complex than Anne Applebaum would have it. I wanted us to think about more than the merely repressive or merely economic elements of the Gulag, while never forgetting the repressive and the economic in our analysis. I wanted us to start thinking about the Gulag as a penal system both similar to other modern detention institutions but with its own Soviet particularities.[1. In this, I stand on the shoulders of giants, following a raft of scholarship from the last twenty years that pushed us to see late imperial Russia and the Soviet Union as part of the broader Euro-American development of a modern political system rather than something sui generis, while maintaining sensitivity to the particularities of the Russian/Soviet version of this modernity.] When we learned in the late 1980s and early 1990s that a huge percentage of the Gulag population was released every year and that a minority of Gulag prisoners were politicals, previous explanations for the Gulag’s role in the Soviet Union seemed, if not wrong, certainly incomplete. Understanding what these new facts meant for our understanding of the Gulag has driven my research for more than a decade. Who was released, and when, and why? Who was not released? Did Soviet authorities care what became of the millions who would spend time in the camps but then return to Soviet society?

My interest in “reeducation” follows from these questions, but so too does my interest in the categorization of prisoners and the development of differentiated institutions and practices aimed at prisoners in accord with these categories. Though Jeff’s comments really grasp and explain quite well why I focus on both death and redemption, one of the things I worry about sometimes is that the unexpectedness of my argument that Soviet authorities pay real attention to the questions of reeducation can obscure the equally important element of my argument that mass death may not have been the intended outcome for all Gulag prisoners, for Soviet authorities it was an expected and easily accepted outcome for many. Granted, the redemption angle is the more surprising part of the book, but mass death must also be understood or we really miss a big piece of the explanation for this system’s operation. A big part of the question then revolves around who will die and who will survive and whether we can make any sense of this at all. It is here that I argue that prisoner categorization is absolutely critical.

However, we must understand that prisoner categorization was by no means simple. No formulas existed whereby various aspects of a prisoners’ identities and behaviors were plugged in to determine their fate. We can certainly identify some categories as more important than others for determining prisoners’ fates. Thus, one’s alleged crime was absolutely critical for it could be an important factor determining a number of things that might make it easier or harder to survive: length of sentence, eligibility for early release programs, eligibility for release under amnesties, location of detention, eligibility to participate in non-general (and therefore usually lighter) forms of labor, etc. This is not to say that all of these things were always followed in practice, but one can have little doubt that a conviction as a so-called “counterrevolutionary criminal” made it much more difficult to survive the Gulag than a conviction as a petty thief.

Wilson is right to emphasize that not all practices in the Gulag were necessarily tied to one’s alleged crime. Thus, for example, he notes:

Certain camps (for example Norilsk and Vorkuta) were even on a different, enhanced ration system due to their economic importance. Moreover, these specific regulations do not reveal differences related to sentencing or background. Those fulfilling their norms at 100% were supposed to get the basic ration, regardless of sentence.

No doubt about it, but notice also that it is “those fulfilling their norms at 100%” who are supposed to get the basic ration. The fulfillment of labor quotas is yet another way that prisoners were categorized, and one I argue that is key to understanding the issue of reeducation and the line between death and redemption.

So, on to the questions around reeducation itself. While Jeff points out that I show how labor “was the primary method and indicator of re-education,” I think it bears repeating here, for the term “reeducation” can be perhaps a bit misleading. While I fully acknowledge the active cultural and educational programs in the Gulag (the camp newspapers, the political education sessions, the camp theatricals and musical performances), when I speak of reeducation, this is not what I primarily have in mind. One of my Stanford professors Terence Emmons argued at my dissertation prospectus presentation many years ago (in which I heavily focused on precisely the cultural and educational activities in the camps) that I was mistaken to focus on reeducation, quipping that Gulag reeducation was “certainly not the type of reeducation [I was being subjected to] at Stanford.” And he was right, but that didn’t mean that reeducation was not happening in the Gulag. A fellow graduate student came up to me after and said I merely needed to explain that others had focused on the Gulag’s brutality and I was writing the rest of the story. This also didn’t strike me as quite right, for how could we truly understand the Gulag if we didn’t understand its brutality as well. I began to understand that reeducation Gulag-style was of a specific sort. As I started thinking about the prisoners’ daily schedules, I could not help but notice that the vast majority of waking hours were spent working. As I started looking at the content of cultural and educational activities, I could not help but notice that labor was typically explicitly or implicitly one of the main focuses. Labor was in fact itself understood as reeducation, and as I argue further in the book, it was also the main method of evaluating success or failure in the reeducation project. Like one’s alleged crime, fulfillment of labor quotas was never the only category according to which prisoners were evaluated, but it was always an incredibly important one.

Of course, Wilson notes that in the case of amnesties and periodic releases of invalids, pregnant women, and nursing mothers, behavior in the camps was irrelevant to the release. However, if you look more closely at these mass forms of release, certain categories of prisoner were usually excluded–those with long sentences, those sentenced for counterrevolutionary crimes, recidivists, those who had fulfilled less than half of their sentence, etc. (These exclusions differed from one incident of mass release to another, so they did not all always apply.) While behavior in the camps may not have been important here, evaluation of prisoners still was, and local Karlag bureaucrats would work through individual prisoner files at each such mass release to determine if a prisoner was eligible. Wilson’s point here about the importance of external events to amnesties (announced at, for example, the end of the war, Stalin’s death, etc.) is actually important to highlight, because the way in which prisoners were evaluated and the line defining the boundary between death and redemption (though keep in mind that envisioning this as linear is overly simple) was constantly being redrawn in response to political events.

Now, perhaps the biggest objection one can lodge to my argument is raised by Jeff and Wilson. As Jeff wrote:

Yet when it comes to practice, things were not so neat, and it seems to me that Barnes takes the death-or-redemption dichotomy too far by tightly linking survival with re-education.

Or as Wilson put it:

it’s difficult to imagine that some of these categorizations worked in practice the same way that they worked on paper.

With this I cannot disagree, though I might quibble a bit with some of the particular examples chosen to illustrate the point. Thus, for example, Jeff points out that

the primary form of release under Stalin, as Barnes acknowledges, was simply the expiration of sentence….In other words, without any sort of final assessment as to their correction while incarcerated (other than a pulse?), the Stalinist regime was letting convicted criminals back onto the street.  Neither death nor redemption, one might argue.

Wilson makes the same objection that release upon expiry of sentence did not require exemplary behavior in the camps. This misses a couple of things, I think. First, fixing a certain length of sentence was itself part of the evaluation process. More serious crimes, especially political crimes, and repeat offenses garnered longer sentences. In addition, prisoners could be and frequently were (though I have no figures on how frequently) charged criminally for their failure to exhibit proper labor performance and behavior in the camps. Thus, we should keep in mind not only shortening but also lengthening of sentences. Furthermore, release was never taken as an indication of total reeducation. Numerous restrictions remained on former Gulag prisoners and they could easily become victims of new legal campaigns when police officials found rounding up former prisoners a convenient way to meet arrest quotas.

Here, I would latch on to Cindy’s comment, put better than I ever could, that in using the term redemption in the title, I do not intend to imply actual, successful reeducation, but rather “bringing someone back from the edge,” in this case return from the brink of death, which the Gulag as a “last chance” represented.

Nonetheless, Jeff has pointed us toward some additional nuance we must think about to understand the system and his point that studies of recidivism rates revealed problems with supposed reeducation to Soviet authorities in the post-Stalin years is critical. When people have asked me what most surprised me when I got to the archives, I have often noted that given my schema for understanding the system, I would have expected to find studies of recidivism rates (for example, comparing one camp’s recidivism rate to another as a measure of performance) but never did.

Again, while I may quibble with specific things my readers have noted, I do not dismiss the point of the difference between theory and practice and its importance. Perhaps I have stated the general argument too boldly, but in the heart of the book, I do try to show many instances in which local practice differed from the system as envisioned in directives from Moscow, and those directives themselves did not always offer an internally coherent system. I tried to show how Karlag officials struggled with seemingly incompatible demands from Moscow to fulfill their economic plan while never allowing alleged “counterrevolutionary criminals” to live outside of camp zones or work in their specialties. They never tired of reminding Moscow that this did not take account of their particularities as an agricultural camp, where economic tasks demanded that prisoners move about large areas herding animals and tending crops. The only way we can meet these two demands, they pleaded, was for central Gulag authorities to stop sending so many counterrevolutionary criminals to Karaganda. Even had certain Gulag directives not been so incompatible with others, demands would not have been perfectly fulfilled in local conditions in Gulag any more than in any other Stalin-era bureaucracy. However, this does not make central directives unimportant, and it would not totally alter our understanding of the system’s operation that I lay out in the book. The same can be said of the numerous (one might say endemic) way in which personal relationships, seeking individual gain, and other aspects of day-to-day life in the camps undercut the operation of the system I have laid out.

Hopefully, the nuance that perhaps gets lost at times in my book will be the ground on which the next generation of Gulag scholars like those gathered for this conversation and the many others now working on the topic will take our understanding of this massive system to the next level. I always understood my book first and foremost to be a conversation-changer. I felt compelled to comment on a wide array of topics often far too briefly in order to show how we needed to rethink what the Gulag was and what it meant. Now, many others (including myself) will go on to fix what I got wrong and fill in the picture where it is too sketchy but will hopefully do so from a new starting point.

For now, I will stop as I have gone on much too long, even though I still have not responded to many things I had initially set out to discuss.

3 replies on “Death and Redemption – Reforging, Reeducation, Redemption”

Well put Steve, and yes, you do show the complexity and contradictions on the ground quite well. I would be interested in more information on how often and under what statute prisoners were charged with poor behavior/labor performance in the camps. Certainly they are being prosecuted for a whole host of things like assault, banditry, murder, theft, escape, and so forth, but what was the charge for poor labor performance?

On redemption. You state that your focus was redemption/deliverance from death, rather than redemption/deliverance from a criminal way of life (which the Soviets called re-education or reforging). Okay, but this is basically saying that everyone convicted of a crime is de facto sentenced to death (even if the sentence says 5 years or 10 years or even 1 year) and those who survive have been redeemed. But redeemed by whom? By the prisoner himself (and if so, how did he earn redemption)? By the camp officials who fed and sheltered him (and who also made him work and attend cultural activities? By the Soviet state itself in a gracious act of pardon, as it were? I think this understanding of redemption (survival) makes the theory somewhat more abstract than I was assuming (going with the redemption as re-education train of thought, which is also difficult to pin down). In any case, thanks again for deepening our understanding of the Gulag and for making this discussion possible . It’s been enjoyable and informative.

Looking back, I think I inadequately explained what I meant when talking about “redemption” here (though I quite agree that it is all rather difficult to pin down–something I’ve struggled with from the time I first wrote a grad school paper on the Gulag). I have often been asked about that particular term in the title (including a highly memorable moment when I fumbled and stumbled through an answer about the religious connotations of the term during a job talk). All I intended in my explanation here was that I use the term redemption essentially as the obverse of death, the other half of the title. I did not really intend that all convicts were de facto sentenced to death, but I did intend an understanding that death was a potential outcome for all who entered the gates of the Soviet penal system. It does not mean that Soviet authorities or prisoners would have understood redemption in the same way that I use the term. In fact, I don’t think Gulag authorities would have used the term, although the Izvestiia article that Miriam put up in an earlier comment does head in that direction. I certainly think and obviously go to great lengths in the book to show that Soviet authorities took the idea of reeducation/reforging seriously, at least to some degree. Obviously at the moment of release, Soviet authorities maintained a certain skepticism about whether prisoners were in fact reeducated. Prisoners themselves (or at least those who left us their memoirs), rightly so, maintained a great deal of skepticism over how serious the whole reeducation thing was in the Gulag.

Now, on the question of punishment for poor labor performance and the specific statutes use, I will have to defer until I can get back on my feet and back into my office to look at some of the notes that I took from investigation files on “crimes” committed by prisoners while in the camps that led to new criminal sentences. I hesitate to make a guess based on memory, but I will with the proviso that I may be mistaken. I believe prisoners were either charged with counterrevolutionary offenses or under the labor discipline laws from (I think) 1940. What I also cannot recall for certain is whether any of these were cases of working poorly or whether they are all cases of refusal to work at all. I do not have and do not recall having ever seen any statistical information on how often prisoners were so charged.

Leave a Reply to Jeff Hardy Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.