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  • The Soviet Gulag—an Archipelago?
  • David R. Shearer (bio)

In 1973, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn authorized publication of his monumental study of the Soviet forced labor camp system, Arkhipelag Gulag.1 That publication not only offered a searing indictment of the Soviet regime but also created the image of the camp system as an archipelago, an image that has dominated scholarly and popular discussion of Soviet penal practice for a number of decades. This image went hand in hand with discussions of secrecy and the separateness of the Gulag system. This was a closed system, not discussed in wider Soviet society—one that, having ensnared a victim, devoured that victim. In Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag world, there was little or no trafficking between inside and outside. The Gulag was a separate world with its own rules, habits, and culture.

In recent years, a number of scholars have questioned the metaphor of the Gulag camps as an isolated world within Soviet society. New work emphasizes a more dynamic and interactive relationship between the Gulag system and the rest of Soviet society. Scholars have coined new metaphors to characterize this relationship—revolving doors, porous boundaries, mirror images, and continuums.2 The majority of papers in this collection reflect this new, more dynamic understanding of the Soviet Gulag, but they also cover the spectrum of discussion that has made the field of Gulag studies so evocative. As with all things Soviet, the Gulag system reflected many of the [End Page 711] contradictions inherent in Soviet history, a history that both fits and does not fit general trends of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Dan Healey puts his finger on this peculiarity of Soviet history in discussing Michel Foucault and the philosopher’s ambivalence about how to understand Soviet penal practices. As Healey writes, “Foucault himself could not decide if the Gulag represented a pre-Enlightenment form of punishment or an example of ‘modern’ (in his characteristically Eurocentric sense) incarceration” (532–33). In another work, as Healey notes, Jan Plamper demonstrates how Foucault generated compellingly paradoxical characterizations of Soviet penal policy without ever deciding where it fit in his schemes of historical development. As Plamper writes, Foucault was puzzled by the spectacle of a presumptive socialist workers’ state that used labor to define citizenship but also as a form of punishment.3 One might also point to the seemingly blatant contradiction between the goals and reality of Soviet penal practice—between the supposedly redemptive purpose of labor and the reality of destructive punishment in the camps. In their 1934 publication about the Belomor canal, writers such as Maksim Gor´kii and avant-garde artists such as the photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko teamed up to create a myth of reforging (perekovka) as the foundation of the Soviet labor camp system. Their book, Belomorsko-Baltiiskii kanal imeni I. V. Stalina (The Stalin White Sea–Baltic Sea Canal), glorified police officials such as Genrikh Iagoda and the like as heroes in the creative reengineering of human raw material.4 Healey does not go as far as to endorse this myth, but he does see some attempts by camp medical staff to mitigate the harsher aspects of the camp system. According to Healey, medics tried, within the severe constraints placed on them, to apply criteria of health standards to camp inmates that reflected those used more widely in Soviet industrial practice. In making this argument, Healey places camp medical practices within a broader context of what he terms Soviet biopolitics, an idea that he borrows and then develops from Foucault. His paper thus also follows recent trends that place Soviet penal practice on a continuum within Soviet society as a whole.

Golfo Alexopoulos will have none of this. By examining the politics of rationing, Alexopoulos rejects the notion that there was any rehabilitative, let alone redemptive, quality to Soviet penal practice. She does not confront Healey head on, nor does she call into question the work of Steven Barnes, [End Page 712] who argues that we need to take the ideology of rehabilitation and redemption seriously, since the Soviets did so, in their own skewed way.5 But Alexopoulos nonetheless systematically demolishes this argument with statistics and policies taken directly from the...


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