Categories
Blog Conversations Gulag Gulag Town Company Town Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism

Gulag Town, Company Town: A Blog Conversation

We are excited to be trying something new with the latest in our series of blog conversations. We are co-hosting this blog conversation in conjunction with the Second World Urbanity Project blog. You can follow part of the conversation here at Russian History Blog, but should see the rest of the conversation (and check out the project!) over at Second World Urbanity. (And don’t forget to follow Russian History Blog on Twitter (@RussHistBlog) or on Facebook.) Now on to our book:

Alan Barenberg, a past blog conversation participant here at RHB, has published a magnificent new work on the history of the Gulag and its legacy. Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and Its Legacy in Vorkuta (Yale University Press, 2014) takes us north of the Arctic Circle to one of the Soviet forced labor camp system’s most notorious locations. Through an in-depth study based on archival research in Moscow, Vorkuta, and Syktyvkar, Gulag Town shows that the Gulag was thoroughly enmeshed in the Soviet system. It is a meticulous ground-level study of Soviet life–the history of the coal-producing city of Vorkuta from its foundation as a Gulag town in the 1930s to its transition from Gulag town to company town after Stalin’s death. Alan shows the deep integration of the Gulag into the local community spatially, economically, and through its personnel, an integration that left lasting traces well into the post-Stalin era. As such, he has provided a concrete picture of the legacies of the Gulag in post-Stalinist and ultimately even post-Soviet history.

I am looking forward to this conversation and will add many of my other thoughts about the book as we go. For now, jump below the fold to see Russian History Blog’s participants in the conversation and don’t forget to check out what’s happening with the conversation over at Second World Urbanity. My thanks to Steve Harris for his willingness to consider this kind of joint venture.

Categories
Russian History in Popular Culture Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism Teaching Russian History

The 1936 Guide Book of the Soviet Union

A few years ago Steve Barnes was visiting Hawaii to give a talk on his work on campus here at UH. He spent a bit of time at our Library, and came across an unusual find in our special collections, the American Express Travel Service’s 1936 Guide Book of the Soviet 1936 Guide BookUnion. It is included in the material we call The Social Movements Collection, which does contain a lot of Soviet material. American Express offered four different tours of the Soviet Union: “A Tour of Great Soviet Cities” that went from Leningrad to Moscow to Kiev, and then returned to the West via Warsaw; “The Crimea Tour” that went from Moscow to Kharkov to Sevastopol, Yalta, and Odessa; “The Volga River Tour” that left Moscow for Gorky, Kazan, Kuibishev, Saratov, Stalingrad, Rostov, and then a train to Kharkov, Kiev, and Warsaw; and “The Caucasus-Black Sea Tour” that took a train down the Volga to ultimately reach Ordzhonikidze, Tiflis, and then depart onto the Black Sea from Batum.

Categories
Blog Conversations Historiography Myth, Memory, Trauma Nostalgia and Memory Russian Literature Soviet Era 1917-1991 Soviet Intelligentsia Stalinism

Myth, Memory, Trauma: A Blog Conversation

For this edition of Russian History Blog’s “Blog Conversations,” we have gathered a distinguished group of scholars to discuss Polly Jones’s new book, Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-1970 (Yale University Press, 2013). Having devoted our blog to a discussion of The Stalin Cult two years ago, it seems only fitting that we discuss Soviet attempts to cope with that cult and other difficult aspects of the Stalinist past in the first two decades after the dictator’s death.

Generally, we have thought of this “thaw” primarily through through the lenses of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, the removal of Stalin’s body from the mausoleum after 1961’s 22nd Party Congress, the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and a few other notable works in the journal Novyi mir, only to have the “thaw” undone by Khrushchev’s ouster in favor of Leonid Brezhnev in 1964. Jones draws on a wide array of sources and intellectual approaches to paint a more complex and more interesting picture of Soviet approaches to the Stalinist past during and even after the Khrushchev years.

Categories
Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

“Under the beneficent rays of Soviet national policy…”

I spent some time this past week preparing for my fall class on the Soviet Union.  Each time I’ve taught it here at Hawai’i, I’ve made use of an unique resource at our Library, the “Social Movements Collection,” which is a large group of pamphlets and books that had been collected by Eugene Bechtold, a bookseller and former instructor at the Chicago Workers’ School.  While much of the collection relates to American Communism, anarchism, and peace movements, it also contains a rich source of material on the Soviet Union.

Categories
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.)

 

 

 

Categories
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.

Categories
Blog Conversations Russian and Soviet Art Soviet Era 1917-1991 Soviet Intelligentsia Stalinism The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult – More (Clearly, I hope) on Thinking Visually

I hope I made it clear that I consider The Stalin Cult an excellent work of political and institutional history, from which I learned a great deal about a subject I care about. But my objections to its treatment of the visual culture so central to Stalin’s personality cult do not end with circles. And I do like a good argument. (Can I blame my parents? I grew up in household where arguing about ideas was a sign of love and respect.) Plamper’s discussion of individual works of art may, as he put it, “borrow tools from contemporary visual studies,” but it does so rather unevenly. The result is a book that deserves all the praise it has received from the other bloggers, who largely ignored the visual, but it doesn’t give us a proper sense of the visual culture that made up the cult or the visual experience of living in it.

Categories
Russian and Soviet Art Stalinism The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult: Painting and Socialist Realism

As a historian interested in visuality in general and Soviet visual culture in particular, I read Jan Plamper’s book with great interest and benefit, but with some perplexity.  The book offers us an excellent survey of the production of some of the visual components of the Stalin personality cult and an interpretation of some of those products. The chapter on photos of Stalin in Pravda gave me an almost palpable sense of the progression of the cult over time. The chapters devoted to the artists and institutions that produced the Stalin cult contribute an important case study to a developing body of scholarship about socialist realism in the visual realm. Its discussion of those products and of socialist realism as a system of artistic production, however, left me unsatisfied.  I am not trained as an art historian so I want to be careful about making definitive statements here, but I found several of the arguments in the book to have been suggestive but under-developed.

First, I have no doubt that Stalin was understood to be the central point of concentric circles radiating out from his body, his office in the Kremlin, and so on to the borders of the empire, as Plamper argues, but I struggled in vain to see anything circular in the composition and conceptualization of the paintings he singles out for analysis. Both Morning of the Motherland and Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin look to me to be constructed of networks of diagonal lines, making up numerous independent and overlapping triangles.

Morning certainly does place Stalin’s heart in the sun’s spotlight at the center of the painting, but the plows, plow lines, power lines and road all converge at a vanishing point behind Stalin, forming triangles on the horizontal plane of the landscape and a vertical triangle from the right and left edges of the canvas up to Stalin’s head as the apex. The smokestacks in the distance may be on a circular line, as Plamper suggests, but it’s hard for me to see that and it’s more plausible to my eye to see them as another flat line along the horizon making up the base of another triangle with Stalin’s head as the apex again.

Stalin and Voroshilov is even more insistently angular, with diagonals crisscrossing throughout the composition, creating a sense of dynamism underlying the solidity of Stalin’s immobile form (he seems to be both standing still and walking at the same time, a neat trick!) and among the solid, stable architectural elements. One can easily imagine the conceptual circles Plamper proposes, but I can’t see them anywhere in these two paintings.

Categories
Blog Conversations Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult – A Blog Conversation

Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-Il, Joseph Stalin. The mere sound of these names conjures up mental images of the personality cult–films, monuments, renamed cities, prose, poetry, and, perhaps most of all, portraiture all designed to raise a dictatorial leader to mythic, super-human status. All Russian history professors teach about the Stalin cult, and students find it endlessly fascinating, yet surprisingly little serious academic research has been devoted to the topic–until now. Yale University Press has just published Jan Plamper’s The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power, and we have brought in a terrific group of experts to discuss what is, in my estimation, an instant classic in the field of Russian history.

Since we held our first blog conversation on Gulag Boss in the fall, we have received a lot of positive feedback on the format and hope to make this a regular feature here at Russian History Blog. (You can read my initial thoughts on the form of the blog conversation.) Periodically, either my co-bloggers or I will pick a book (new or old) or a topic, bring in guest bloggers with appropriate expertise, and invite our readers to participate via commenting on the individual posts. From time to time, we hope to coordinate our efforts with the New Books Network, as we have done for this conversation. Sean Guillory, host of New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies interviewed Plamper about the book and I urge you to listen to the podcast and join us for the conversation here at the blog. I also hope you will become a regular at New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies where many an author, myself included, are given the opportunity to talk about our works.

Categories
Cold War Films Stalinism Teaching Russian History

Stalin’s Daughter

The death of Svetlana Alliluyeva in a nursing home in Wisconsin brings to a close a fascinating and tragic life. The documentary film maker Lana Parshina in 2007 had the good luck of landing one of the few extensive interviews with Stalin’s daughter, who had taken on the new name of Lana Peters. Here are my thoughts on the film.

In 2007, the producer and director, a young Russian émigré named Svetlana Parshina, learned to her great amazement that Stalin’s 82-year-old daughter Svetlana was not only alive—but living in a retirement community in Wisconsin under the name “Lana Peters” (Peters is the name of her last husband, an American architect whom she divorced in the 1970s). Fiercely protective of her privacy, Stalin’s daughter had famously refused for decades to entertain requests for interviews, for they invariably turned toward the deeds and misdeeds of her infamous father.