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  • Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society by Steven A. Barnes
  • Katherine R. Jolluck
Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society. By Steven A. Barnes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. 352 pp.).

Veterans of the Soviet Gulag have typically portrayed it as utterly alien and other worldly; one author called it The Dark Side of the Moon.1 Many memoirists who [End Page 1111] endured incarceration or internal exile in the USSR, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn included, describe their experience as being cast off into a wasteland, wrenched from the society around them, and left to the mercy of the elements, the whim of commandants and brigade leaders, and the brutality of fellow inmates. Survival and release appears more a miraculous than expected or intended outcome. Steven A. Barnes, in his study of the Soviet penal system, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, offers a different perspective. While fully cognizant of the deplorable conditions and inhumanity of life in the Gulag, he argues that the purpose of the Gulag was not merely to dump criminals and enemies and leave them to rot, after exploiting their physical labor. Instead, unlike most memoirists and scholars, he takes Soviet ideology seriously, particularly the notion of redemption through labor, and sees the Gulag as part of the process of creating a utopian Soviet society.

Barnes bases his analysis on careful and extensive research of the mammoth penal system in the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan, the destination both for populations exiled because of their class and national origin, and for ordinary and political criminals sentenced to corrective labor. He has mined the local administrative archives, including individual prisoner files, as well as central Gulag administration and secret police archives in Moscow. Importantly, Barnes also uses prisoner memoirs published over the past fifty years, allowing him to examine the reality of life in the Gulag (especially the camps Karlag and Steplag), paying particular and fruitful attention to the social identities and hierarchies formed among the inmates. The breadth and depth of his research pays off, for the book deftly examines not just the central directives, local administration, and prisoners’ experiences, but also the interaction of these three components. Combining his own research with recent scholarship on the Gulag, Barnes uses his local focus to provide a detailed, original, and highly readable account of this most central Soviet institution from its heyday to its decline (1930–1957).

Barnes moves beyond the numbers of detained individuals, their immense suffering, and the death toll, arguing that examination of the thinking and practice governing the Gulag is necessary for a complete understanding of the penal system and its role in the Soviet order. This includes education, labor, death, and release (the first and last, he points out, are typically dismissed by scholars). The Red Corners, political lectures, wall newspapers, orchestras greeting prisoner ships, constant evaluations of prisoners, and talk of reeducation, he maintains, were not simply window dressing, masking the murderous nature of the Gulag. Instead, they formed a critical part of the Stalinist plan to create a new society. The Soviets were capable of creating genocidal camps, but they chose not to; the Gulag, Barnes argues, was used to cleanse and mold the Soviet population. Criminals and enemies were isolated in camps and special settlements, where they had a chance to redeem themselves through labor and education, which would, the thinking went, reforge their political consciousness, rendering them fit to return to Soviet society. Those who failed to rehabilitate themselves would inevitably die in detention. “Soviet authorities,” he writes, “operated within a framework that accepted the potential redeemability of all prisoners who entered the gates of the Gulag, but that redemption was never a guarantee” (254). He supports this contention by showing continual exhortations from Moscow to improve reeducation efforts, the categorization of detainees according to their level of redeemability, and the corresponding organization of daily life according to that hierarchy. Further evidence includes the frequent [End Page 1112] evaluations of prisoners, and the fact that 20 percent of the Gulag population was released every year, even during Stalin’s reign. This critical function of...


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