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  • Destructive-Labor CampsRethinking Solzhenitsyn’s Play on Words
  • Golfo Alexopoulos (bio)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has been called “one of the great truth-tellers of the twentieth century,” and a breaker of the Soviet regime’s “blockade of silence.”1 The writer, who first revealed to his countrymen and the world the inhumanity of the Soviet penal labor system, was also a master of language. Like Jacques Rossi, whose Gulag Handbook exposed the camps’ alternative conceptual universe, Solzhenitsyn focused attention on the Gulag lexicon.2 He rejected the Stalinist term for the slave labor system, corrective-labor camps (ispravitel´no-trudovye lageria), in favor of his own term: destructive-labor camps (istrebitel´no-trudovye lageria).3 This pun or play on Soviet words stressed that Gulag labor was more lethal than corrective. According to Solzhenitsyn, “the camps were designed for destruction” (izobreteny lageria—na istreblenie).4 The writer highlighted the Gulag’s destructive elements, like the inhumane transport of prisoners and the draconian rules governing food and work. Solzhenitsyn did not have access to official Soviet sources, yet the archives support his assertions regarding the Gulag’s destructive capacity. I argue that Stalin’s Gulag constituted an institution of extreme physical exploitation at [End Page 499] its core, and that human exploitation in the camps was destructive by design. Moreover, as the present work illustrates, the system of physical exploitation in the camps grew more severe from the 1930s to the 1950s. Under Stalin, the Gulag produced an enormous population of prisoners on the verge of death, the so-called goners (dokhodiagi). To unburden the camps, conserve resources, and artificially reduce Gulag mortality rates, the Stalinist leadership routinely released these nearly dead inmates. Not only was Stalin’s Gulag destructive, but it deliberately concealed its destructive capacity.

Gulag literature catalogues the causes of human suffering and mortality, but scholars do not generally argue that the Stalinist camps were designed for destruction.5 We know that the Soviet security police (Unified State Political Administration, People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Internal Affairs [OGPU–NKVD–MVD]), which managed the arrest, deportation, and detention of millions in labor camps and settlements, was distinctly uninterested in preserving human life. Nonetheless, no plan of destruction has emerged from our initial reading of declassified state and party documents. Thus, although historians have emphasized the brutality of the system, few have argued that the Gulag was deliberately destructive.6 More common is the view that the Gulag represented an institution of mass death but not mass murder. Scholars have demonstrated that people died from the brutal journey in sealed railcars to their remote camps; the hostile Arctic environment; and the neglect, incompetence, and cruelty of camp officials and fellow inmates. Memoirs and the historical literature underscore the nonsystemic causes of Gulag mortality: deaths resulting from underdevelopment (poor sanitation and infrastructure), violent criminal gangs, shortages and theft of food, sadistic guards, or factors external to the system, such as the harsh climate and war. Taken together, these do not produce an image of a labor camp system that was destructive by design. Although Solzhenitsyn remains the towering figure in Gulag studies, his analysis of “destructive-labor camps” has not been widely embraced in the historical literature. [End Page 500]

There are many reasons why. As noted, no statement from the Stalinist leadership has emerged that expresses a high-level intention or state-sponsored plan to destroy prisoners; quite the contrary, we have found many official complaints concerning elevated rates of illness and mortality and attempts by party leaders to incentivize forced labor and improve productivity through material rewards. Moreover, the Nazi–Soviet comparison looms large. There exists a legitimate desire to avoid false equivalencies between the Nazi extermination camps and the Soviet labor camps.7 Moreover, a vast memoir literature appears to underscore the survivability of the Soviet camps; some memoirists, like Eugenia Ginzburg, endured nearly two decades in detention.8 The Gulag maintained hospitals and clinics, and camp doctors were not tasked with experimental and “mercy” killing, as in the Nazi case.9 Rather, many camp doctors viewed themselves as healers and often struggled to improve prisoners’ chances of survival.10 The NKVD–Gulag leadership regularly...


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