Russian Citizenship

Russian Citizenship: The Police View Prevailed

I’m going to use this opportunity to speak to the Soviet side of Eric’s wonderful book, and to the way his research helps us to better understand the Soviet Union.  Yesterday, in Eric’s comment on Alison’s thought-provoking essay, he said he tried to explain the policies of his subjects using a kind of rational cost-benefit analysis.  It’s almost a cliché that the Soviet leadership did many things that—from a purely economic point of view—proved highly irrational.  Although building socialism (the very goal of the regime) was tantamount to industrialization, Soviet citizenship policies did not do much to advance the goal of economic growth.  Security concerns consistently trumped the needs of economic modernization.

Eric writes that, in the Soviet period, “the old regime formula of ‘attract and hold’ had been reduced to ‘hold.’” (179)  At the same time, the two regimes pursued “hold” in different ways and for different reasons.  The imperial regime believed it had a shortage of labor, while the Soviet regime did not.  The Soviet Union’s “hold” was not motivated by a desire to maintain a valuable labor force.  As we all know, the party leadership behaved (especially in the 1930s) as if it had an endless supply of labor.  The Soviet agricultural labor force never recovered from collectivization and dekulakization.  During the Great Terror, the regime shot three quarters of a million people, many of them able-bodied and skilled workers, the very kind the economy desperately needed.  The Soviet regime was not holding in people because it valued laborers.  Rather, “hold” (it seems) was about maintaining secrecy and security.

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.  

Gulag Boss

Gulag Boss and Room 101

Thanks, Steve, for pulling this conversation together. And thanks, Deborah, for bringing Mochulsky’s memoir to a broad audience.  There’s just nothing like it out there.

As I was reading Mochulsky’s fascinating and gripping memoir, I kept returning to a line from Leona Toker’s wonderful book, Return from the Archipelago.  Toker writes that for each gulag memoirist, there is a “terror gap” or “untidy spot” where he or she fears to tread, an Orwellian Room 101: “Each author is reluctant to face some special type of suffering, depravity, horror.”  I think that Mochulsky’s memoir is especially interesting for what it says about trauma and memory.