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.

Death and Redemption

Death and Redemption – Some thoughts about death

I know I am late entering this conversation and that puts me in danger of repeating many excellent points that have already been made. First – to echo my colleagues’ praise – I find Steve’s book an exciting addition to the secondary literature on the Gulag. It has a strong, compelling thesis, is grounded in a fascinating and unique regional study, and is beautifully written and organised with the undergraduate student and general reader in mind. It arrived a bit late to be incorporated fully into my final-year Gulag studies seminar this past academic year, but I did point students toward it and have good feedback to build in to future years’ coursework. So the book is an enormously valuable contribution.

My observations concern the emphasis on death.  Jeff Hardy hinted at the problem of assigning an ideological meaning for death in the Gulag philosophy of redemption (if one could label it that way), when he suggested that “a death-or-redemption ideal” operating in the minds of some Gulag officials does not capture the complexity of historical reality. Of course, the virtue of Steve’s book is that it does not confine itself to a simple dichotomy of death or redemption. But I do want to question how ‘death’ as an intended fate figures in the book as a matter of deliberate policy.

In no way am I denying that death was a constant threat in most camps most of the time. Nor do I deny that authorities were criminally responsible for these conditions.  We see high and fluctuating death rates that are explicable by official neglect and corruption (leading to reduced rations and inadequate living conditions); by a lack of planning for surges in prisoner numbers; by violence and abuse by guards; by extreme conditions, especially in the early, pioneering camps where no infrastructure existed; by parlous conditions during the transport of prisoners; and by extreme wartime privation, the single most important factor that seems to trump all the others when we look at recorded deaths.

My question is: how far can we consider what I have listed as the result of a planned, deliberate policy to kill off those who could not be redeemed through labour? Perhaps it may apply to the katorga camps, where extremely harsh conditions were mandated and little mercy was offered to the sick, for example. But I have not yet seen documents that explicitly state that in the Gulag, death would be the intended alternative to redemption.

We know that the Bolsheviks were not afraid to record their violent intentions on paper. We do not have anything like an NKVD Order No. 00447 that codifies a Gulag policy on the liquidation by labour exhaustion of unredeemables – at least, none has come to light in the fonds which have been declassified in the past 20 years. Naturally, such a document might one day surface. For the moment, however, I would argue that it seems prudent to approach the question of intention cautiously.

From the perspective of my own research, I find the existence of the Sanitary Department of the Gulag leads me to question the intention to kill unredeemables. How do we account for the twice-annual medical inspection of all prisoners’ physical condition (to classify them as capable of heavy/medium/light labour, or as invalids)?  How do we explain the seriously inadequate but system-wide attempts to reanimate sick and weakened prisoners in the Gulag’s infirmaries and hospitals? How do we explain the fact that from the late 1930s, the Gulag recruited doctors, nurses, dentists, and feldshers (paramedics) nationally from new graduate cohorts and made considerable investment in them?  One explanation is to interpret the prisoner’s access to medical care as an aspect of the web of incentives so persuasively detailed in Steve’s work; this thesis is proposed in a recent, excellent MA dissertation about medical care in Ukhta camps (Charlotte Sophie Kühlbrandt, “Rereading the Gulag through Medicine: Ukhta 1929-1955.” MA Thesis, Cambridge University, 2011).

Another explanation is to suggest that despite the high death rate, the authorities generally held that prisoners should survive. There were short and long-term rationales for this, I propose. Prisoners in camps were more valuable alive as units of labour. As released ex-convicts, confined to exile in nearby districts, they were valuable as productive ‘quasi-free’ inhabitants. Prisoners who survived to be released populated the new cities of the urbanizing Gulag. They provided the Gulag with the human resources required to fulfil the important, if secondary, colonial mission of the forced labour system. They were often eager to establish themselves, to found or reconstitute families, and they were a compliant workforce of second-class citizens. The authorities had plenty of reasons to wish that as many prisoners as possible from virtually all categories might finish their sentence and join this ‘colonist’ population.


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.  

Death and Redemption

Death and Redemption

Thanks to Jeff, Wilson, and Steve for their great comments and feedback.  In thinking about the book and their comments, I realized how easy it is to get locked into a mindset whereby you believe that the Gulag in one era might conceivably be identical to the Gulag in another era.  Or, conversely, that procedures and practices of one era were isolated in that point in time rather than carrying on and evolving over the course of the Gulag.  While this revelation might seem naive or simplistic, it underscores in a small way how complex the Gulag history is and how little we still know even with Steve’s book, our research, and those studies that preceded us.  I’m always amazed when the Gulag seems to be not a “hot” topic when, as Steve cogently argues, it was an integral part of Soviet life and that there is so much more to discover.

I bring this up because I was interested to hear from Jeff and Wilson that the reeducation efforts in the camps did not diminish even as the Gulag itself was slowly evaporating as the fifties wore on.  This should not be a surprise given that, again as Steve argues, the theory underpinning the Gulag was based not just on economic issues, but on a very real idea that prisoners could be remade/reforged into Soviet citizens.  This idea cannot be over-emphasized.  While the ultimate goal might have been so-called model Soviet citizens (whoever they might be), the overall goal still was to produce Soviet citizens.  What the promoters of reforging did not take into account, however, was that Soviet could mean a lot of things–from someone who genuinely believed in the Soviet enterprise to someone who mastered the art of “tufta”, a practice we know invaded many parts of Soviet life outside the Gulag as well.

Indeed, the whole idea of what it means to be Soviet vis-a-vis Gulag prisoners is a fascinating question.  (I realize topics of subjectivity and identity are hot topics now.)Where not those Gulag inmates who produced armaments during WWII Soviet citizens,  in the sense that their labor contributed to the USSR’s victory and likely, in spite of the horrendous conditions could have been posited on real patriotism (even if many were hoping a German victory might free them)?  And what Steve points out on p.131 about wartime re-education echoes and continues the same rhetoric of which the Belomor and Moscow Canal projects were redolent.

The enterprise of reforging likewise is based on the premise that Steve brings up (p. 97) of malleability.  The notion of reeducation is posited on the belief that human beings can change and can be remolded–not as raw material, but as poorly cast original material that requires REmaking into the purported image of a Soviet citizen.  The term перековка, a word imbued industrial and metallurgical meaning, speaks both to the idea of malleability, but also to the difficult process inherent in reforging metal.  The industrial metaphor dovetails with Soviet rhetoric of the late twenties and the thirties, while the metallurgical element surely was not lost on the promoters of reforging, prominent among them Semyon Firin, a person who deserves a much more detailed study in his own right.

Arguably the process of reforging reached beyond the remaking of prisoners and into the remaking of the landscape, cultural production, and rhetoric as well.  One need look no further than the Moscow Canal to see how this re-engineering of landscape–space and place–was taken on wholesale:  from the construction of the Northern port in the shape of a ship with a red-star-crowned mast that could be extended to reach farther into the heavens, to the monumental sculptures of Lenin and Stalin at the entrance to the canal at Lock #1, to all the architecture and sculpture in between.  This suggests a physicality to reforging that goes beyond human nature to nature itself and to cultural production.

Blog Conversations Death and Redemption Gulag

Death and Redemption – a newspaper article and some thoughts on release

It’s  been pointed out that the translated newspaper article I pasted into a comment at the bottom of a long discussion might go unnoticed, and – given it might be useful to others teaching on the Gulag – I thought I’d add it here as a proper post. 

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?

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

All the entries by my colleagues in history have been informative, fascinating, and extremely useful for someone like me who operates outside the fold, as it were, of official Gulag scholarship.  I agree with the eloquent reviews written thusfar of Steve’s book, so my comments will not reflect so much a review, as certain points, themes, and ideas that resonate for me as someone who is, for better or for worse, taking an interdisciplinary approach to the Gulag with a special emphasis on questions of culture and space/place.

For me, what sets Steve’s book apart from Applebaum and Solzhenitsyn is a lack of preachiness or unquestioned moral authority that those works claim.  Rather, Steve uses all his sources to present an argument as to why the Gulag in general, and Karlag in particular operated as they did.  His focus on “re-education” or reforging is vital to my mind to understanding how the Gulag operated especially in the thirties and forties.  I agree with him that it was possible to be reforged/re-educated and that this was a means through which some inmates could be released.  As Jeff, Wilson, and Miriam all point out, the Gulag on paper and the Gulag in reality were often quite different things.  But what had gone unsaid prior to Steve’s book, at least in a historian’s book about the Gulag, is that this re-education could and did occur and that many people–inmates and re-educators alike–believed in it.  How well it worked is a different issue and I would argue that one person’s re-education is another’s capitulation to or manipulation of the system.

The whole process of re-education created both a “culture” of reforging and cultural products.  These products, the quality of which might be questionable, nonetheless lend further credence to the point Steve makes about the redemptive qualities of the camp system and the particular way in which the Gulag sought not to slaughter outright those deemed potentially irredeemable, but rather to return them to Soviet society as a whole.  Indeed, as simplistic as it might sound, the ability to read and write and to have some sort of trade beyond thieving or prostitution could have been adequate “re-education” for those who had neither prior to their time in the camps.

Death and Redemption Gulag

Death and Redemption

Over the past eighteen months I have come to realise that I’m not an ideal blogger in the sense that I’m not always very good at checking the internet! I’ve been busily writing my first thoughts about Death and Redemption without realizing that the conversation had already started. So here are my reflections about Steve’s book and its contribution to the field of Gulag studies.

Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism Teaching Russian History

Death and Redemption – On Images

First, I must thank my colleague and co-blogger Andrew Jenks for setting up this blog conversation here at Russian History Blog. As an academic author, I have found the wait for journal reviews of my book to be excruciating. The book came out almost exactly one year ago, and the first two reviews of the book appeared only in the last month. (Only this French review is available on the free web.) Immediacy is definitely something the blog conversation can uniquely provide.

It is a great honor to have this stellar cast gathered for this conversation. I find the praise overwhelming and flattering (“dean of Gulag studies“? wow!) and the critiques painful but also exhilarating and thought-provoking. Most of all, I am excited to see that the argument I tried to make in the book (warts and all) actually came through to the readers.

In an effort to facilitate this as “conversation”, I’ll respond intermittently to the readers’ comments rather than waiting for all to chime in. Here, I want to address the issue of images raised both by Deborah Kaple and Cynthia Ruder. Obviously, I can change nothing about the book now and I acknowledge that the book would have been improved with more images, but I can point now to some visual (and textual) evidence that might be useful to readers and to all of our students. I like Cynthia’s idea of creating auxiliary web material for the book, and it’s something I’ll think about doing. However, I would point out the availability of some freely available auxiliary material that may not be known to all. (For an extended discussion of materials available for teaching the Gulag, look at the posts by Wilson Bell and me at Teach History, Karl Qualls’ blog on teaching Russian history.)

I would point readers and students to the Gulag website created with my colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media here at George Mason University. In addition to a virtual exhibit, complete with visually-based original mini-documentaries, the site, especially in its archive, contains a wealth of visual evidence.The text search and the “browse by tag” function allows one to find materials by location, subject matter, person, etc.

In particular and in relation to Death and Redemption, I would like to point colleagues, readers, and students with Russian language skills to a selection of documents from the local Karlag archive in Karaganda.

As for a map of Karlag, it is easier said than done. Karlag, like most Gulag camps, did not occupy a single defined (let alone enclosed) space. It was diffuse with many different sub-camps located around the steppe of central Kazakhstan (not to mention the many “de-convoyed” prisoners who were herding animals around the steppe without residing in a particular camp zone and sometime even without the presence of an armed guard.) I try to describe the extent of the camp in the text by pointing out its outermost sub-camps, and I provided a map that located the most important geographic locales in Kazakhstan discussed in the book. To draw lines around the camp would be misleading as to how the camp was actually organized. (Here is a rather poor-quality version with credit to the cartographer Stephanie Hurter Williams.)




Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism

Death and Redemption—Theory and Practice

Though still a relatively young scholar (nine years since receiving his Ph.D.), Steve Barnes can rightfully be considered the dean of Gulag studies in the United States.  From his provocative 2003 dissertation, to his Gulag: Many Days Many Lives website, from his many public talks to his mentoring of other scholars, Steve has been at the forefront of all things Gulag over the past dozen years.  He organized a conference devoted to new interpretations of the Gulag, he helped facilitate a traveling Gulag exhibition put on by the National Parks Service and Gulag Museum in Perm, he has authored several scholarly articles, and his current slate of projects includes several devoted to Gulag themes.  I therefore consider it a privilege to review his latest and most important work, which is in my mind the most significant book on the Gulag since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.  On the surface, it has much to recommend it against other works on the Soviet penal system.  It covers the entire Stalin era, plus a little beyond.  It is a detailed study of one location—Karlag—but it employs evidence from across the Gulag.  It is based evenly on archival and memoir sources, both of which are necessary to understand the Gulag phenomenon.  It covers a range of penal institutions.  And it explores both the theory and the practice of punishment in the Soviet Union.

The primary contribution of Death and Redemption is the author’s willingness to ask (and, of course, answer) a seemingly simple question: Why did the Soviet authorities spend enormous amounts of energy and resources “to replicate the Soviet social and cultural system within the Gulag?”  In other words, why not just kill the prisoners either through execution or through penal labor and use the resources on any number of other important priorities, rapid industrialization being chief among them.  Why go to such lengths to try to reform them into good Soviet citizens?  Certainly, millions of Soviet subjects were shot or worked to death in the camps of the Gulag, or left to die in the so-called special settlements.  But several times more survived confinement and returned to Soviet society having supposedly undergone the process of “reforging” or “re-education.”  To some this re-education process was a farce, lip service to Bolshevik identity that prisoners simply ignored or manipulated to their own advantage.  Barnes, while not dismissing such reactions to the re-education process, nonetheless accepts it as real, as tangible evidence that the Gulag represented not just the fears of Soviet socialism but its hopes and dreams as well.  Indeed, he views it as a crucial link for understanding in their full complexity the tensions inherent in the Soviet worldview, and, more narrowly, in their vision of criminal justice in a socialist society.

This understanding of the Gulag as a microcosm of Soviet society, with events, institutions, and relationships in the Gulag mirroring those outside the barbed wire, owes much to Solzhenitsyn, as Barnes readily acknowledges.  Yet Barnes views this not as an exclusively negative, repressive phenomenon as Solzhenitsyn does, but as a positive, constructive one.  It was perhaps not a moral system, but it operated within its own system of ethics that made sense to its practitioners.  From political indoctrination sessions to socialist slogans in the barracks, from literacy classes to musical performances, Gulag life was organized around this new socialist ethos.  And the most important part of this ethos and of Gulag life was labor.  It was the primary method and indicator of re-education, of the inmate’s readiness to return to a productive life outside the barbed wire.  Those who failed this critical test could have no place in Soviet society—they were slated for death.

For Barnes the tension between life and death, between redemption and guilt is summarized in this visual propaganda piece, which is described but unfortunately not included in the book:

Here a mock grave complete with coffin has been constructed for members of a prisoner labor brigade.  The crime, as depicted by several signs, each bearing a prisoner’s surname along with a percent—22%, 30%, 42%—was underperformance of the work quota.  Laziness.  The message is unmistakable: those who do not perform their labor duty are not submitting to re-education.  They will exit the Gulag not by release but by death.  Or as Barnes puts it: “In the harsh conditions of the Gulag, the social body’s filth would either be purified (and returned to the body politic) or cast out (through death).” (14)  What is important here is that both options—death and redemption—are appealing outcomes in the Soviet worldview.  Setting deadly violence alongside correction was not a contradiction, but an ideal.  It was not a perversion of socialism, it was not some sort of Stalinist deviation, it was how socialism was to be built.  This argument is the central tenet of the book and a significant departure from most other works on the Gulag, from Solzhenitsyn’s and Anne Applebaum’s memoir-based studies, to the more archivally-grounded works of Oleg Khlevniuk and Galina Ivanova.  It is also an important theoretical foundation on which younger scholars, including myself, can build.

Death and Redemption

Death and Redemption–

I love this book and wanted to second Deborah’s comment about how readable and useful it is.  I’ll comment more on that later.  But for my first post I also wanted to second how much I wished there were illustrations–pictures, of course, but a map of Karlag would have been most useful as well to get a sense not only of the size of the camp, but the location of the various outposts and a relative scale of the distances covered, especially since this was such a geographically large camp.  Forgive me if I have not checked this, but it might be helpful, especially as we use this book in our courses, to have web material posted to which we could send students for further clarification of locations and terrain.

I also had a question for Steve–Why did you decide to use the English translation of the История строительства…rather than the Russian original?  I ask because the English translation is a poor substitute for the original.  While scant information exists (at least that I know of) as to how the English translation came to be, it turns out that the English variant omits significant parts of the Russian original, incorrectly translates some of the sub-headings, if they are included at all, and diminishes the careful construction of the original that the true editorial team–Boris Lapin, Viktor Shklovsky and other writers–had in mind when they produced the work as a literary montage. Just curious!  ( As a basis for reference I talk about this in my book, pp. 192-202.)

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



Blog Conversations Death and Redemption

Death and Redemption – A Blog Conversation

Welcome to the third of our blog conversations. I encourage readers to join the conversation by commenting our our authors’ posts. The book we are discussing is by fellow blogger Steven A. Barnes (Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, Princeton University Press, 2012).

Based on meticulous and exhaustive archival research, as well as a thoughtful examination of memoir literature by prisoners, the book examines the Gulag as a penal institution. While acknowledging the brutal and inhumane nature of the Gulag, Barnes also explores those aspects of the institution that made it very different from a Nazi death camp.

The conversation dovetails nicely with our first blog conversation about Deborah Kaple’s translation of a Gulag prison guard memoir (Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir). That conversation prompted a lively exchange on the nature of the Gulag — its function in Soviet society, its distinctiveness versus other internment systems. Barnes’ book forces us to consider the borders that separated the Gulag from the rest of Soviet society. How did the Gulag figure into the larger Soviet political and economic project? Was its function economic, ideological, or rehabilitative — or some combination of all three? What was the relationship between the regular criminal and the political criminal within the Gulag?