Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

Death and Redemption – Responses, but not answers

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.

3 replies on “Death and Redemption – Responses, but not answers”

One last thing about death, since both Steve and Dan examine the problem (and what a problem it is). I think that those of us who work on the gulag need to be careful when we cite gulag statistics, especially death rates. We all know that these statistics are problematic. Oleg Khlevniuk is the most blunt on the subject when he speaks of direct falsification. In the least, we know that camp officials had to keep death rates within certain limits, and that they were reprimanded for high mortality rates. The Gulag leadership interpreted high death rates as a sign of poor camp management, so the incentive for gulag staffers on the ground was always to underreport. This is just to say that the low mortality rates reported in the 1950s may not be all that useful.

As for Dan’s wonderful discussion of intention, I still think that Steve is largely right that death is the flip-side of redemption, in the sense that those who did not produce at the levels the gulag demanded were denied adequate food. This goes back to the cartoon that Jeff cited. It’s a brilliant cartoon and it captures intentionality quite well, in my view. This was a system built on the deliberate denial of food– the very substance of life– to those who did not produce at the levels required.

I’m very grateful to both Steve and Golfo for these thoughtful comments. As Golfo so rightly observes, the death question is enormously challenging and troubling. I want to add a few, mostly minor, observations.

First – let me offer a warm plug again for the MA thesis of Charlotte Kuhlbrandt on Ukhta camp medicine (mentioned in my first posting). The value of Charlotte’s work is that she takes an issue Steve could not explore in depth and reads it into Steve’s overall premise about death and redemption. In other words, Gulag medicine was a part of the incentive system used to reforge prisoners. I find this a largely persuasive claim, and Charlotte’s reading of amazing personal sources from the archives of the Ukhta History of Medicine Museum is fascinating.

Second, Steve invites us to consider the propaganda grave, that so neatly ties the dyad of death and redemption in one arresting and disturbing visual image. I find it fascinating, but it is regrettable that we don’t know from Memorial’s annotations where this is from or when. Is it my impression that this is a rare instance where KVCh propaganda referred explicitly to death as a consequence of “failure” to remake oneself? Cynthia Ruder is working on reforging propaganda and may be able to comment.

Golfo mentions prudent doubts about the death rates for the latest period of the Stalin-era Gulag. I accept we can not trust these or rates for other periods blindly. My research partner on the Gulag medicine project, Kirill Rossiianov, is working on a paper about the various discrepancies in Gulag morbidity and mortality statistics and I hope it will soon be published. My gut feeling for the late Stalin years however is that there were such noteworthy improvements in the reach and sophistication of Gulag medicine by then, that some reflection in lower morbidity and mortality was plausible.

I am responding to Dan’s second point in his post about reeducation. In a post I just made in response to Miriam and Deborah about reforging, I discuss some of that to which Dan is alluding.

In addition, might I propose a more metaphorical or literary spin on the notion of “death”? Clearly there is death as in inmates who are worked or starved to death or who died from severe illnesses or who were executed. This is the real death–the actual physical manifestation of the worst the Gulag. It is fact and, as Golfo and others point out, is the topic of considerable consternation when it comes to accurately counting the deaths the Gulag produced. Clearly Steve’s discussion focuses on this death–the direct result of life in the Gulag.

Yet if we examine this question on a spiritual level–and there were many believers in the camps–then death would in itself be redemption–a redemption from the physical bounds of life, of suffering in the Gulag, of being persecuted for one’s actions or beliefs. Here the equation is reversed, whereby death IS the redemption and not the punishment.

Second, given that one of the major purposes of the KVOs was to make illiterate prisoners literate and to create a “homegrown literature”, if you will, then it is no surprise that a KVO would construct a “graveyard” and identify those who face “death” if they do not submit to reforging. For an illiterate person who still cannot read successfully, the most pointed and effective way of getting across the message of “change or be changed” is a visual representation. And what better way to accomplish this than by constructing a fake graveyard that brings a world of innuendo and imagery to the service of the reforging effort?

I realize this approach is not necessarily grounded in statistics, but it is of great value when we analyze the cultural production that was part and parcel of the Gulag.

Arguably death as conceived of in this context is the death of the old person–common criminal, for example–who is reborn (read reforged) into a new Soviet person who can read, write, work, and support the Soviet enterprise. Death here is metaphorical–a process through which those who avail themselves to the opportunity can be reforged.

A different question, as mentioned elsewhere, is whether or not this reforging was successful and how extensive was it? That I cannot answer, but I encourage us to think not only about the literal possibilities that the Gulag rhetoric created, but also the metaphorical or representational possibilities as well. There’s death, and then there’s DEATH.

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