Rethinking the Gulag
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Rethinking the Gulag

Identities, Sources, Legacies

Alan Barenberg, Emily D. Johnson, Alan Barenberg, Emily D. Johnson

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eBook - ePub

Rethinking the Gulag

Identities, Sources, Legacies

Alan Barenberg, Emily D. Johnson, Alan Barenberg, Emily D. Johnson

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About This Book

The Soviet Gulag was one of the largest, most complex, and deadliest systems of incarceration in the 20th century. What lessons can we learn from its network of labor camps and prisons and exile settlements, which stretched across vast geographic expanses, included varied institutions, and brought together inmates from all the Soviet Union's ethnicities, professions, and social classes?

Drawing on a massive body of documentary evidence, Rethinking the Gulag: Identities, Sources, Legacies explores the Soviet penal system from various disciplinary perspectives. Divided into three sections, the collection first considers "identities"—the lived experiences of contingents of detainees who have rarely figured in Gulag histories to date, such as common criminals and clerics. The second section surveys "sources" to explore the ways new research methods can revolutionize our understanding of the system. The third section studies "legacies" to reveal the aftermath of the Gulag, including the folk beliefs and traditions it has inspired and the museums built to memorialize it. While all the chapters respond to one another, each section also concludes with a reaction by a leading researcher: geographer Judith Pallot, historian Lynne Viola, and cultural historian and literary scholar Alexander Etkind.

Moving away from grand metaphorical or theoretical models, Rethinking the Gulag instead unearths the complexities and nuances of experience that represent a primary focus in the new wave of Gulag studies.

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Year
2022
ISBN
9780253059598
ONE
INTRODUCTION
Gulag Studies since the Archival Revolution
ALAN BARENBERG AND EMILY D. JOHNSON
THE PUBLICATION OF ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYNS The Gulag Archipelago in 1973, almost fifty years ago, launched Gulag studies as an academic discipline. Although memoirs, fiction, poetry, and histories describing Soviet places of imprisonment had been in limited circulation since the 1920s, Solzhenitsyn gave a name and powerful interpretive framework to the Soviet system of labor camps and prisons. He used Gulag, the acronym for the Main Administration of Camps (Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei), a central agency in charge of administering sites of internment between 1930 and 1960, to refer to the entire complex of Soviet carceral institutions. This vast network of spaces of confinement, Solzhenitsyn explained in the introductory sections of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, extended across the length and breadth of the Soviet Union. At any moment, walking down the “crooked streets” of their lives, Soviet citizens might, he suggested, pass “walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings” that concealed one of the system’s outposts. “Well-disguised” and hidden from view, these sites had swallowed up millions of Soviet citizens between the 1920s and the 1950s. In Solzhenitsyn’s description, the Gulag was “an almost invisible, almost imperceptible country” inhabited by a caste of prisoners with distinctive customs and characteristics, a tribe he identified as zeks, using the Russian abbreviation for the word prisoner (zakliuchennyi).1 These unfortunates circulated endlessly through sites of interrogation, torture, and confinement, including many geographically remote and climatically harsh locations, until they died or had the good fortune to be released. Although scholars have challenged certain parts of Solzhenitsyn’s conception of the labor camp system, including the degree to which carceral spaces were isolated from the rest of Soviet life, his work has remained foundationally important to the field of Gulag studies, and his metaphors continue to shape the thinking of academics from an entire range of scholarly disciplines who work on this topic.
Solzhenitsyn was able to convey a sense of the scale and horrors of the Soviet carceral system through both literary metaphor and an accumulation of first-person testimony, but he did not have access to official statistics on the size and composition of the camp population, mortality rates, or the precise number and locations of sites of confinement. In fact, in the preface to Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn expressed doubts that such data would even become accessible and suggested that his lack of access to official archives had affected the form of his work, encouraging him to write something generically idiosyncratic and literary as opposed to a pure history of the camp system: “I would not be so bold as to try to write the history of the Archipelago. I have never had the chance to read the documents. And, in fact, will anyone ever have the chance to read them? Those who do not wish to recall have already had enough time—and will have more—to destroy all the documents, down to the very last one.”2 Solzhenitsyn’s bleakest forebodings as to the fate of official Soviet archives describing the camp system were, fortunately, not realized. Although, as we will explain later in this introduction, archival access remains a problem for Gulag researchers, in the early 1990s scholars gained access to at least some of the records that Solzhenitsyn dreamed of reading. On the basis of these sources, scholars now estimate that from 1930 to 1952, approximately 25 million people cycled through the system, which included prisons, labor camps, labor colonies that held low-level offenders and juveniles, and “special settlements” to which various populations were exiled based on class origin or national identity.3 Official statistics state that 2.4 million people died in camps, colonies, and prisons—figures that do not include deaths in special settlements. This should be understood as the lowest conceivable estimate. Recent research has suggested that official mortality statistics were often manipulated with an eye toward minimizing death rates.4
Most Gulag survivors who went on to write about their experiences were, like Solzhenitsyn, members of the educated classes who were sentenced under political statutes such as the infamous article 58. As a result, such “political” offenders—a category that included many people who had no inclination to dissent and were arrested on sometimes fantastical fabricated charges—have always received disproportionate attention in Gulag studies. Scholars have often treated their experiences and perceptions as normative. However, in most places and periods, political offenders constituted a minority of the Gulag’s population; labor camp inmates convicted of political crimes typically comprised between a quarter and a third of the total incarcerated population.5 The largest segment of the Gulag’s population consisted of bytoviki, ordinary people sentenced for petty offenses and violations of labor discipline that would not, in many cases, merit criminal charges in most other societies. This category included, for example, starving peasants arrested for gleaning grain in state-owned fields and employees who violated harsh labor laws by arriving late to work one too many times. In addition, the Gulag held a population of violent career criminals known as urki or blatnye who followed their own social norms and traditions. As discussed by Gavin Slade in his contribution to this volume, this narrow slice of the prisoner population exercised extraordinary influence over life in the Gulag. Such inmates enjoyed a privileged status in some periods and places and often exercised authority over other prisoners.
The number of prisoners held in the Gulag varied significantly over time. In 1929 there were only 76,523 prisoners in the RSFSR serving sentences longer than three years. In the early 1930s, as a result of crackdowns on real and potential dissenters that accompanied crash industrialization and collectivization, the number of inmates held in prisons, labor colonies, and labor camps ballooned: by October 1934, the Gulag held 685,000 prisoners. The incarcerated population increased dramatically again during the so-called Great Terror of 1937–38, when intensive repressive campaigns targeted Soviet elites, ordinary citizens, and social undesirables: by January 1, 1939, nearly 1.3 million prisoners were held in the Gulag. Despite the fact that arrests and sentences to terms in the Gulag remained common during the Second World War, the overall population held in labor camps, prisons, and colonies declined between 1941 and 1944, primarily due to dramatic increases in mortality resulting from food shortages and the mass release of prisoners to fight on the front lines. By January 1, 1944, the prisoner population had fallen to 1.2 million. However, it expanded rapidly again after the war as a result of new political actions such as the Leningrad Affair, Soviet attempts to pacify reoccupied territory, and harsh new criminal laws, including the draconian antitheft laws of 1947. The camp and colony population reached its all-time high in 1948–52, hovering between 2.3 and 2.5 million prisoners.6 It began to decline dramatically following Stalin’s death in March 1953, when large contingents of prisoners were released as part of reforms initiated by Stalin’s successors, including, most importantly, Nikita Khrushchev.
The number of exiles held in the Gulag system also expanded rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s. The first and largest group consisted of so-called kulaks (wealthy peasants) who were forcibly deported as part of the war against the peasantry that accompanied the collectivization of agriculture. In all, nearly 2.2 million were exiled to the far north, Urals, Eastern Siberia, and Kazakhstan, the majority from 1930 to 1931. This was followed by a variety of deportations based on national criteria, often involving an attempt to move entire national groups from their homes to various parts of Siberia and Central Asia. More than half a million Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Moldavians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians were exiled as part of Soviet operations to pacify territories occupied from 1939 to 1941 and again during the reoccupation at the end of the Second World War. During the Second World War, more than a million Soviet Germans and Finns were exiled because of their suspect national identity. Wartime deportations also affected the so-called punished peoples of the Caucasus who were accused of collaborating with the Germans: in 1943–44, nearly a million Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkarians, and Crimean Tatars were sent into permanent exile. In all, it is estimated that nearly 5.4 million people were exiled to special settlements from 1930 to 1953.7 All prisoner and exile figures listed here are approximate: potential irregularities in the central statistics maintained by Soviet state agencies and scholarly debates regarding which categories of repressed individuals should be included in the count make it hard to provide a simple answer to the question of how many inmates the system held.
The sites in which prisoners and exiles were confined varied in terms of both location and living conditions. In the prisons where those arrested were held while they were under interrogation and awaiting sentencing, conditions were filthy and often crowded, with dozens of inmates pressed into cells designed to hold two or four people. Generally, inmates did not work before sentencing and had almost no opportunity to correspond with family members. The strict isolation prisons set up to hold inmates believed to be particularly dangerous following the imposition of their sentences were very different. There, inmates were often housed singly or in pairs in cells and again generally did not work. The degree to which inmates could interact with each other and correspond with relatives varied over time. Some detention units were located in isolated areas—for example, the Solovetskii Special Purpose Prison (STON) operated on the Bol’shoi Solovetskii Island from 1937 to 1939, after the closure of the notorious Solovetskii Special Purpose Camp (SLON), which had been based in this forbidding far northern site from 1923 to 1933. Other detention units—such as Vladimir Central, which remains the Russian Federation’s largest prison as of this writing—were based in large urban centers.
The camps and colonies that held most Soviet prisoners, almost always with heavy labor requirements, also varied in the ways they were situated. Although most were located in remote, resource-rich areas where forced labor could extract hard-to-reach raw materials to help the Soviet Union reach industrialization targets, there were also clusters of confinement sites near major cities. What labor camps and colonies produced varied by location. In and around Moscow, prisoners might work on construction projects or in the kind of closed scientific research institution that Solzhenitsyn described in his novel The First Circle (V kruge pervom). In the distant reaches of Kolyma, in northeastern Siberia, they mined gold and other precious metals. In Western Siberia, in the area around the city of Novosibirsk, inmates performed a wide range of economic tasks, including assignments connected with agriculture and military production. Prisoners lived in barracks, tents, and dugouts, usually with their work brigades. The supply of food, clothing, and other necessities varied from camp to camp and over time but was at its worst in famine years and during the Second World War, when the entire Soviet population faced dire shortages of resources.
Special settlements that held entire families of exiles were located in the far north, Siberia, and Central Asia. Those confined in them were forced to undertake a variety of economic tasks and faced living conditions that were often at least as harsh as those in labor camps. As noted above, most had been sent into exile because they were deemed kulaks (rich peasants) or belonged to an ethnic group that was judged potentially disloyal.8 Exiles were allowed to take only what they could carry to their new settlement sites, and they often found themselves deposited in undeveloped wilderness without any regular source of supplies. Prohibited from leaving and stripped of most civil rights, they struggled to survive largely by their own labor while simultaneously working to meet any production targets set for them in forestry work, mining, collective agriculture, or any other area to which they were assigned.
During the Second World War, an entire separate network of confinement sites emerged to hold prisoners of war. Known as UPVI, the Administration for Affairs of Prisoners of War and Internees (Upravlenie po delam voennoplennykh i interovannykh), and then, beginning in 1944, as GUPVI, the Main Administration for Affairs of Prisoners of War and Internees (Glavnoe Upravlenie po delam voennoplennykh i interovannykh), it was administratively separate from the Gulag system but borrowed many of its practices. GUPVI prisoners, like Gulag inmates, performed various kinds of forced labor with often inadequate supplies of food and clothing. Their communication with their families back home was both carefully monitored and strictly limited.
As this overview of the most significant types of Soviet detention sites suggests, this volume defines the Gulag inclusively, much as Solzhenitsyn used the term. All Soviet confinement sites drew, to a greater or lesser degree, on the practices first developed at the infamous Solovetskii Special Purpose Camp, which opened in 1923. Most prisons, camps, and special settlements faced similar pressures and challenges, which included shortages of basic supplies and personnel, pressure to reduce death rates and raise production, and concerns about secrecy and security. Therefore, we believe that considering them together makes methodological sense. For this reason, the present volume includes chapters that speak to the experiences of inmates in the early Solovetskii Special Purpose Camp and even the GUPVI network as well as in labor camps and colonies that were subordinate to the Main Administration of Labor Cam...

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