Thursday, April 16, 2015

Reading :: The History of the Gulag

The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror
By Oleg V. Khlevniuk

As part of my research into the early Soviet context in which activity theory was developed, I picked up this book. Like The Gulag Archipelago, it examines the development and social impact of the brutal penal system that thrived under Stalin; unlike that book, it was written after the fall of the Soviet Union and with access to archival records that document the Gulag's development and operation. Thus the book is far more heavily documented than Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece and allows us to understand some aspects that he could only guess at.

This book covers 1929-1941, beginning with the Stalinist period and ending with the opening of war with Germany. It confirms some of Solzhenitsyn's arguments: (1) the Gulag established forced labor—let's call it what it is, slavery—as a key part of the Soviet economy; (2) the results of the forced labor were terror and poor quality work (see p.185: "The Gulag economy was never effective, and it survived only through the massive, uncontrolled exploitation of forced labor); (3) children, especially orphans, were hardest hit (see especially p.123); (4) the Gulag relied on false confessions and false witnesses to collect more people for forced labor camps (p.151).

The book also discusses how, in the years of the Great Terror, officials "fabricated charges of an 'anti-Soviet underground' in the camps" (p.223), charges that fit into the paranoia of the early USSR.

In the early 1930s, the author concludes, about a sixth of the adult population in the USSR was subject to repression and persecution—a broad category that includes the Gulag, execution, and exile, but also discrimination and loss of jobs (p.304). From 1930-1940, the number of convictions approached 20 million people (p.305). When the war started in 1941, Gulag divisions held a total of about 4 million people, plus 2 million more in corrective labor (p.328).

The author concludes: "Thus, the Gulag spread beyond the barbed wire. Society absorbed the criminal mindset, the reliance on violence, and the prison culture" (p.344).

Yes, of course you should read this book. The author's analysis is important, but equally important are the documents and correspondence he includes from the archives, including correspondence among top officials as they developed the Gulag, told each other stories about the threats the Gulag was addressing, and (surprisingly often) told each other the truth about its appalling conditions.

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