Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society
Barnes described the Gulag as an institution of forced labor, where workers had real prospects of being released. According to the author 18 million people passed through the work camps. While approximately 1.6 million died, a large number were released and reintegrated into Soviet society. The camps functioned primarily as a penal system and this is how the Soviet society perceived them. In Barnes’s terms, the Bolshevik world view influenced the mission of the Gulag. It served as a means of getting from an imperfect present to a perfect future.
Re-education of inmates was tracked through elaborately detailed files kept and maintained by prison guards. Each file included an identity questionnaire, a summary of the prisoner’s conviction, prisoner evaluations, as well as appeals on conviction and receipts for personal property brought to the camp. The preoccupation with collecting such data, Barnes asserted, reveals an obsession by the state with getting to know its society of criminals and political prisoners. In addition, the elaborate camp portfolios contained statistical computations of the population on site, including escapes, violations and types of work performed. Authorities reviewed individual records periodically to determine a prisoner’s eligibility to be released.
“Humanity’s dark side unleashed under the fig leaf of ideology” – is how Russian intellectual Solzhenitsyn described the labor camps. He belonged to a group of political prisoners convicted under article 58 of the Soviet Republic, which broadly prohibited counter-revolutionary behavior, and could be applied to almost any case when needed. Individuals sentenced under this article received harsh treatment and their chances for redemption were low. Criminals, on the other hand, were considered socially friendly, and more likely to be reformed. For them, it was easier to climb the camp hierarchy quickly, and some even served as prison guards.
In his comments, Karel Berkhoff confirmed that Death and Redemption conceptualizes the Gulag in a broader context, and presents it not only as a site of violence alone, but as a means of reforming people. Reeducation was never intended to be easy, and labor was considered a measure of redemption. In conclusion, Berkhoff suggested that the Gulag made only secondary contributions to the economy. It remained an ideological institution.
Drafted by Nida Gelazis, Senior Associate and Kristina Terzieva, Program Assistant, European Studies
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, European Studies
Steven Barnes // Former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan InstituteAssociate Professor, History and Art History, George Mason University
Associate Professor, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Maurice C. Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum