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  • What Was the Gulag?

This special issue on “The Soviet Gulag: New Research and New Interpretations” goes to press at a particular moment, at once promising and troubling. In the first instance, it comes at a time when scholarship on the Soviet camp system, which began to grow relatively slowly after the opening of the former Soviet archives, is now gaining a weight and synergy never before achieved. Scholarship received an important impetus with the publication in 2004–5 of a landmark seven-volume Russian documentary study, The History of the Stalinist Gulag.1 In recent years, the momentum in Gulag studies has accelerated as new work in Russian, English, French, and other languages has pushed the field forward.2 The title of this special issue is intended to underscore how the new empirical work presented here, as well as the growing number of important recent works, goes hand in hand with a broader reconceptualization of the nature of the Gulag and its role in the Soviet system. In the second instance, by contrast, we publish this at a time when the memorialization of Stalin-era crimes in Russia has been curtailed and public discussion there has been shifting toward justifications and even celebrations of aspects of Stalinism. Oleg Khlevniuk, a contributor to this number, felt it necessary to rebut this shift toward apologia, notably the increasingly popular myth of the “modernizing Stalin,” in a concluding section to the Russian edition of his new biography of the dictator.3 It [End Page 469] remains unclear how much the renaissance in scholarship can affect political representations, but we have to believe that in the long run it is important.

The acronym “Gulag” stands for Glavnoe upravlenie ispravitel´notrudovykh lagerei i kolonii, or the Main Administration of Corrective-Labor Camps and Colonies of the GPU/NKVD and later MVD.4 It was not well known or much used until the 1973 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which had huge resonance outside the USSR (and continues to be discussed, as in Golfo Alexopoulos’s contribution to this issue). Since then, what was originally a bureaucratic contraction has come to denote the entire Soviet system of camps and special settlements, and even more broadly the entire system of unfree labor and repression that peaked in the Stalin period. The metaphor of an archipelago can be traced back to a conversation between Solzhenitsyn and Academician Dmitrii Likhachev. Likhachev was arrested in 1928 and became an inmate for five years at the Solovetskii lager´ osobogo naznacheniia (SLON), also known as Solovki, which became the prototype for the expanding system of camps at the outset of the Stalin period. He recalled sharing his notes on the history of the camp in the White Sea archipelago with Solzhenitsyn, who spent 11 years in the camps, as both were preparing their respective publications on the topic. In the course of those three days, he told Aleksandr Isaevich about the Latvian camp boss Degtiarev, the self-styled “surgeon-in-chief” and “head of the troops of the Solovetskii archipelago.” Solzhenitsyn exclaimed, “That is what I need!” Thus, Likhachev recounted, “in my office the name for his book ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ was born.”5

As David Shearer discusses in his commentary, Solzhenitsyn’s metaphor, so widely adopted and so long-lasting, has been productively called into question in recent scholarship. Although Solzhenitsyn also suggested that Soviet life was made up of bigger and lesser zones, the archipelago metaphor was often taken to assume insular separation from the Soviet mainland, so to speak, and thus presupposed a world that was as separate and closed off as it was physically remote.6 By contrast, the new scholarship attempts to draw out connections, interactions, and parallels with the broader Soviet civilization beyond the barbed wire. This line of investigation is pushed quite a bit farther by a number of the articles in this collection. [End Page 470]

When enough new research accumulates in a relatively new historical field, as in the archival study of the Gulag begun in the post-Soviet years, scholarship often wends its way back to first principles and basic concepts. It does so in part because growing empirical...


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