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.