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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3.2 (2002) 255-280

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Foucault's Gulag*

Jan Plamper

On the evening of 21 June 1977, while French President Giscard d'Estaing was toasting the General Secretary of the CPSU and State President of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, on the occasion of Brezhnev's first visit to France, an odd mix of people embarked upon a curious counter-celebration. At the small Théâtre Récamier a group of French intellectuals and Soviet dissidents gathered to stage a symbolic protest against what they saw as a political farce unfolding at the Élysée Palace. The dissidents present at the theater included Andrei Amal´rik, Vladimir Bukovskii, Natal´ia Gorbanevskaia, Leonid Pliushch, and Andrei Siniavskii; among the French guests were Simone de Beauvoir, Gilles Deleuze, André Glucksmann, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The French Left had come a long way from its Sovietophilic days, and this June evening might well have been the most harmonious that the two ends of the political spectrum had ever enjoyed together. The principal host and organizer greeted his guests: "We simply thought that, on the evening when M. Brezhnev is being received with pomp by M. Giscard d'Estaing, other French people could receive certain other Russians who are their friends." 1 These words came from Michel Foucault.

Foucault's masterminding of the Brezhnev counter-celebration was the culmination of an extended period beginning in the early 1970s, during which a number of more or less related issues preoccupied him. The year 1974 had seen the French publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. In its wake a group of so-called nouveaux philosophes (new philosophers) around the former Maoists André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy had completed their break with Marxism - begun in the aftermath of 1968 - with Solzhenitsyn's evidence as ammunition. Foucault's own break with Marxism occurred during this period [End Page 255] and he chose to enter an alliance of sorts with the nouveaux philosophes. In 1975 Foucault's Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish) came out, a book that marked his rupture with structuralism and the beginning of what is conventionally labeled his Nietzschean phase. Concomitantly, Foucault's method changed from earlier archaeology, aimed at the uncovering of deep-structural discursive formations, to genealogy, concentrating on "that which conditions, limits, and institutionalizes discursive formations," while shunning hermeneutics and causal inquiry altogether.2 Finally, Foucault engaged in tireless real-life political activism on behalf of Soviet dissidents.

This essay examines the relationships between these events - the discovery of the Gulag, the break with Marxism, the alliance with the nouveaux philosophes, the drift into Nietzsche's orbit, the adoption of the genealogical method, and anti-Soviet political activism. Its focus is on Foucault's attempts to write the Gulag into his analysis of prisons and Soviet Russia into his philosophy. I will try to show how Foucault at one point associated the Soviet Gulag with pre-Enlightenment mechanisms of punishment, at another with 19th-century bourgeois penal practices. The Gulag, I will argue, ultimately remained a paradox to Foucault, for methodological and epistemological reasons. First, the genealogical method effected a leveling of sources that made distinctions between different types of evidence impossible. Evidentiary distinctions, however, are indispensable to any analysis of the Gulag, even if it foregrounds micro-techniques of power at the expense of macro-politics or the question of causes. For example, a history of the Gulag based on public legal documents, one of Foucault's preferred source genres, would fail to capture a far greater number of life practices than ever imaginable in the case of France. Second, despite Foucault's lifetime project of historicizing foundational categories of modernity (subjectivity, authorship, in/sanity), the geographical delimitation of his analyses remained undertheorized and never ceased to be refracted through the prism of an underhistoricized East/West dichotomy. Russians have seen themselves, and have been seen by others, as belonging to either East or West or both of the two poles, or neither one of them. Russia has been, in...


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