Death and Redemption

Death and Redemption – Three Questions

I apologize for my late entry, but as many of you know, I have been in Russia.  There’s a lot to say about Death and Redemption because it’s so rich and insightful.  Steve is right that book reviews are not exactly published in a timely manner.  The review of his book that I wrote last year just appeared in proofs.  I won’t restate what I wrote in my very positive review of Death and Redemption.  Instead, I will focus on three questions or doubts that have lingered since my first reading.

I should stress right off that I am persuaded by much of Steve’s analysis.  For example, he argues rightly that the Gulag was not separate from but entirely integrated into Soviet society, that its social impact was immense, that Moscow’s directives were often contradictory, that the Gulag “experienced remarkably little mass resistance throughout its history” and not really until the death of Stalin, that the whole re-education apparatus mattered to those who created and maintained the system, and that the NKVD-MVD operated an integrated system of camps, colonies, settlements, sharaski, etc.  All of these insights are extremely valuable, and I suspect that they will be developed even more in future gulag books.

There are three things I might disagree with, however.  First — on the political versus the economic.  I no longer think that “economic v. political” is an appropriate formulation for gulag analysis. We should do instead what Timothy Snyder suggests and consider the two inseparable in a Stalinist context.  After all, Steve quotes Stalin in his book as saying that the economic is the political.  Let’s take him at his word.  In an article, I too once claimed that the political superseded the economic, but I am now convinced that this is incorrect. We should really think of the two as integrated rather than competing goals.  

Second – on labor as a tool of transformation.  Much has been said about reforging already in this discussion.  I accept that cultural-education work was very important in the gulag, yet I think reforging primarily served those who built and maintained the system.  It wasn’t for the prisoners and their transformation.  Steve argues for a “tie between re-education and release in the camps” (p. 59), but the tie is hard to prove, as others have already noted in this discussion. We are still not sure what happened to those released and why most were released.  I love Steve’s line: “It would be quite an understatement to say that many prisoners were skeptical of the Soviet government’s seriousness about reeducation in the harsh environs of the Gulag” (p. 66).  Indeed.  Shouldn’t we take that skepticism more seriously?  Just because Soviet authorities “never seriously considered disbanding the KVCh” doesn’t mean they were sincere about redemption.  We know that they were really serious about boosting labor productivity. The promise of release was largely viewed as a way to motivate prisoners to work harder.

Third – on the crisis of the Gulag.  I understand why Steve is not convinced by the argument that there was a crisis in the gulag in the 1950s.  He says that many of the problems of the 1950s were endemic to the system since its inception and not unique to the later period.  Fair enough.  But my sense is that the rapid and unprecedented expansion of the late 1940s did indeed create a crisis.  Too many prisoners flooded the system, all too quickly.

These three questions do not undermine the book’s great strengths.  My favorite parts of the book were the in-depth treatments of the Karaganda camp, all of which I found fascinating.  Moreover, until Steve’s book, we had very little scholarship on the post-1945 gulag.  He’s done the field a great service.




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