- The Soviet Gulag: Evidence, Interpretation, and Comparison ed. by Michael David-Fox
The past several years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the Soviet penal system, commonly known by its Stalin-era acronym, Gulag. Announcements for new books, articles, special journal issues, and conferences appear regularly, and scholars are taking advantage of newly available archival documents and thousands of published and unpublished memoirs, among other materials. This edited volume, much of which was already published in “The Soviet Gulag: New Research and New Interpretations”—a special issue of Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, XVI (2015), 469–728—is just the latest in a flurry of recent scholarly activity.
The chapters in this volume are broken into two sections, the first containing seven chapters of “Evidence and Interpretation.” Major themes include sickness and mortality, along with the blurry line between “the Gulag and the non-Gulag,” to borrow Oleg Khlevniuk’s chapter title. Just a few of these chapters go beyond traditional historical research. Dan Healey’s chapter about the “biopolitics” of the Gulag, for instance, applies a Foucauldian lens to the Gulag medical establishment. Acknowledging the challenges of using Foucault’s ideas in the socialist setting, he finds that medical authorities engaged in systematic surveillance of their labor “inventories,” continually shifting work details and even establishing separate camps for those inmates who were exhausted and disabled (72).1 In running this system, they borrowed tactics developed in ordinary Soviet society and often used explicitly medical terminology, such as work “dosages” (81). The Gulag was thus part of the larger Soviet biopolitical effort to adjust socialist bodies to the productive apparatus.
In contrast to this Foucauldian interpretation, Emilia Koustova’s article employs ethnographic research about former “special settlers” (who were isolated in camp-style facilities but usually not subjected to the same level of confinement or abuse as Gulag inmates). Her subjects recalled varied experiences in detention, and widely differing levels of adaptation [End Page 267] to the new conditions. Moreover, Koustova finds that interviews conducted with Lithuanians and Ukrainians who remained in Russia after their period of detention largely follow narratives constructed by ethnic Russians sent to similar fates, with an emphasis on individual suffering that is largely devoid of politics. Those who returned to Lithuania or Ukraine after their detention, however, present a more coherent and detailed narrative of collective national suffering. This fusion of ethnography with the history of memory is an important methodological contribution to the study of the Gulag.
The most innovative section of this volume, however, is not the one containing the traditional research chapters; rather, the second section, “Comparison,” is what gives this volume its intellectual heft. Correctly noting that the comparative history of the Gulag is “at a nascent stage,” David-Fox included two chapters that place the Gulag in the broader context of pre-Soviet and post-Soviet Russian penal systems, and four chapters that compare the Soviet Gulag to Nazi, Chinese, North Korean, and British colonial camps (9). The level of comparative analysis varies in these chapters—from Daniel Beer’s contribution, which offers nothing in way of explicit comparison to the Tsarist past, to Dietrich Beyrau’s balanced comparison between Nazi and Soviet camps—but all of the chapters grapple with the question of Soviet exceptionalism.
The most provocative chapter is Aidan Forth’s comparison of British colonial camps with the Gulag. Forth argues that British repressive practices “helped foster the structural and conceptual preconditions for the development and management of camps” in the modern world. Ultimately, however, “liberal ideology and an open public sphere” prevented British camps from approaching the scale and deadliness of the Gulag (200). Nonetheless, the two systems shared ideologies of rehabilitative labor and rehabilitative discipline. Both at times presided over excessively high mortality due to over-exertion and malnutrition (rationing was tied to productivity in both cases), and both closely monitored inmates for political dissent. Thus, the practices of “liberal” regimes in the colonial setting bore a close “family resemblance” to later Soviet repression (200).