Death and Redemption Uncategorized

Death and Redemption-More on Reforging

I am so enjoying this discussion, and I wish I weren’t leaving for a month (to Moscow, of course) in 2 days. I regret that all the business of getting properly packed has kept me away from this wonderful conversation.

In any case, I have read all the great comments, and what I wanted to talk about is Steve’s focus on Bolshevik ideals and his interest in “reforging.” Until this point I had felt that the Bolshevik ideals had melted away as the expediency of work and plans and then the war took over. I had no idea that the Gulag administrators had held on to these earlier ideals, and even took seriously the type of writing we saw in Belomor. To find out that Steve finds evidence of this sort of talk in the Karlag files is very important. It gives us a glimpse at the work of the political officers who were everywhere in the Gulag. Before this, I never had a feel for their real role aside other than preparing propaganda posters and exhibits.

Reading Miriam’s thoughtful comments made me realize that I too totally buy Steve’s argument that the reason for the existence and even endurance of the Gulag had to have been more political than economic. But like Jeff mentions in his excellent posting, I find this a very difficult point to prove. I mean, it’s fascinating to see that within the walls of the Gulag there were attempts at “reforging” going on, but my question is: to what end? And why do we not see mention of it in the memoir literature? Admittedly, we have all thought about the flaws and drawbacks in relying on memoirs, and I have not read that entire literature, but I cannot recall any descriptions of the actual work that the political officers did with the prisoners, or the results of this work. I would be interested to see that.

The reason I’m thinking about this is that I’ve studied the Chinese Gulag (the Laogai), which has its roots in the Soviet system. All I have been able to find out is that the Chinese imported the Gulag “model” in the early 1950s during the famous period of friendship and cooperation. (My favorite slogan from that time is “Let’s Be Modern and Soviet!”) The two systems are shockingly alike in their structure and function. However, there are definitely differences between the Gulag and the Laogai, the most important of which is that the Chinese Laogai is still functioning and actually producing goods that make money for the Chinese economy. The other difference is that still being a functioning Communist government, they successfully keep a lid on any files or data about the Laogai. It is basically a forbidden topic.

But, the most important difference is that there exist Laogai survivor memoirs (and there are not anywhere near as many of  them), in which the survivors write a lot about the “reforging” that took place in the Chinese Gulag. The most well-known writer, the Solzhenitsyn of the Laogai, if you will, is Harry (Hongda) Wu. He was arrested as a “rightist” in kind of a mass craziness sort of like the Great Purges called The Hundred Flowers. In any case, in the middle of a mass meeting to criticize him at his workplace, a uniformed Public Security officer appeared to announce: “I sentence the counterrevolutionary rightist Wu Hongda to reeducation through labor.” (45) He was forced to confess that he was indeed a rightist, and once he was incarcerated in the Laogai, he was told that his entire family had denounced him. The political officer then said to him: “You must study Mao Zedong thought very hard, reform yourself diligently, and become a new socialist person.” (57)

Later, after being worked over constantly “to reform his thoughts,” he thinks about the old Chinese custom of footbinding. “We have switched to headbinding…they bind a person’s thoughts instead. That way ideas all take on the same size and shape, and thinking becomes impossible. That’s why they arrested me. That’s why they want to change me, that’s why they force me to reform.” (88)

Has this sort of blatant recording of actual “reforging” or “thought reform” appeared in the Soviet memoir literature? I’m totally ready to believe that I have missed it. But it would be so great to find some accounts of it. As Steve mentions somewhere in his book, the camps were all different, and they changed over time, too, so it seems to me that if this “reforging” work was being pushed at all by the Central Administration, it would show up in some memoir. Anybody?

Note: Citations from Wu, Harry, Bitter Winds: A Memoir of my Years in China’s Gulag (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994).

Death and Redemption

Death and Redemption-Prisons

Just to start the conversation, I’d like to mention how rich and multi-faceted Steve’s book is, and how useful the various short and long discussions on many aspects of the Gulag are. For instance, the section titled “Hierarchy of Detention: The Institutions of the Gulag” is a thorough and clearly-written several page discussion about all the relevant Gulag institutions. Going along with his idea that prisoners were sorted out according to their presumed redeemability, he lists, from most severe to least: execution, prisons, katorga camp divisions and special camps, corrective labor camps, special settlements and corrective labor colonies. Within each of these categories, he clearly sets out a compact descriptive history. I am so grateful to have this spelled out so brilliantly (for myself) and I can’t wait to have my students in the Soviet Gulag class use this resource.

What I don’t like about Steve’s book is…the lack of photos. Where are they? I so much wanted to see Dolinka that I found this on the internet. I hope it’s the right one. The title is “Karlag Museum, Dolinka, Kazakhstan.” The prose in the book is very descriptive, but I needed a visual.

Karlag Museum, Dolinka, Kazakhstan



Gulag Boss

Gulag Boss: Some thoughts

Thank you Steve, for organizing this incredible blog, and for choosing to begin with Gulag Boss. It’s an honor to have so many scholars I admire read this book and comment on it. You are right: this is so much better than waiting for the random review to come out 15 months from now. And thank you all for taking the time to do this.  I’m sorry to be so late in responding. I guess I temporarily forgot that handing out a take-home midterm exam yesterday to my Freshman Seminar students might cause them to become crazed and needy! What can I say? It’s what we do.

One thing that made me happy about many of your comments was seeing that Mochulsky inadvertently answered some questions that have puzzled us. For instance, it thrilled me to see that Alan could finally find a reason for this rail line to be built, of all the myriad of projects in Komi that were started and abandoned. Jeff mentioned that seeing the political prisoners behave badly was unusual (I was also surprised), as well as seeing that the Germans actually landed near the camp during the war (this really surprised me, too).  I, too, felt that the Selektor was an important part of camp boss life, and yet I’d not seen much about it in the literature.  The Selektor is an excellent symbol of Lynne’s point about the sheer isolation and desolation of the camps, so far from Moscow.

Like Golfo, I was on the edge of my seat as well when Mochulsky’s horse got stuck in the mud, and shocked at the callousness of the other “free” employees in leaving the 3 boys there to fend for themselves. Already, before they even arrived at the camp, they had to worry about being arrested for the “plundering of State property.” It was, as nearly everyone mentioned, a stark reminder to us of that very fuzzy line between perpetrator and prisoner, as well as the blurred boundaries between the archipelago and the mainland, the famous “little camp” and “big camp.” Mochulsky’s memoir, for me, has made it much harder  to simply dismiss the Gulag administrators as perpetrators.  He has put a very real face on the challenges and choices they faced every day on the job.