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  • Convicts and Concentration Camps
  • Alexander Morrison
Clare Anderson, ed., A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies. xiv + 389 pp., maps, illus., tables. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. ISBN-13 978-1350000674. £90.00.
Aidan Forth, Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain’s Empire of Camps, 1876–1903. xiv + 352 pp., maps, illus., tables. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. ISBN-13 978-0520293977. $85.00.

At first glance it is not at all clear why the readers of Kritika should be particularly interested in these books. True, Clare Anderson’s edited volume contains a lucid essay by Sarah Badcock and Judith Pallot on convicts and penal colonies in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, which is an excellent introduction to the subject; otherwise, neither Aidan Forth’s monograph nor the other contributions to Anderson’s volume seem to have anything in particular to say to historians of Russia and Eurasia. Looming over both these books, however, is the question of how far the forms of incarceration developed by liberal European states at home and abroad before World War I were precursors of the camps that came to define the history of 20th-century Europe: Nazi labor and extermination camps and the Soviet Gulag (though not—and I will return to this—the vast system created by Communist China). In their essay Badcock and Pallot are absolutely clear that the most obvious predecessor of the Gulag—the Siberian exile system under the tsars—was very different in both scale and kind.1 Between the 16th century and the October Revolution, [End Page 390] perhaps 1.5 million people were exiled to Siberia, not all of whom were subject to imprisonment or forced labor, and many of whom immediately escaped. At this point, Badcock and Pallot note tersely that Foucauldian ideas of the modern penal system controlling the body and mind of the prisoner are of little relevance to understanding the Russian and Soviet experience (275). The currently available figures for the Gulag are some 18 million prisoners and another 6 or 7 million subjected to internal exile, crammed into a period of around 30 years, with almost no possibility of escape and mortality rates of up to a third—so high that Golfo Alexopoulos concludes that parts of the system were effectively run as death camps.2 Between 1930 and 1941 alone, 20 million people were convicted and another 3 million exiled or deported, out of a notional USSR-wide population of 160 million.3 This was repression on a scale that no state ever contemplated before 1914, whether metropolitan and liberal or colonial and despotic. Badcock and Pallot note that tsarist exile regimes were often cruel, but a political prisoner might, for instance, receive medical treatment if he fell ill on the journey: “this was to contrast sharply with the indifference towards human suffering in the Soviet period” (280). The common factor, which endures in the Russian prison system until the present day, is the use of geographical distance as a form of punishment: the journey into exile is a consistent theme in memoirs, although what lay at the end was very different before and after 1917. Still, what we take away from their essay is that even Russia, the most illiberal of European states before World War I, did not begin to approach the horrors its Soviet successor would inflict on its population from the 1920s to the 1950s.

An understanding of the clear distinction between 20th-century totalitarian regimes of punishment and extermination and those of their imperial predecessors is certainly not unique to Russianists, but that clarity is much less evident in Aidan Forth’s book. My jaundiced view of Barbed-Wire Imperialism may be partly because it is not an easy read: thickly forested with scare quotes, most of Forth’s arguments come hedged around with qualifications that [End Page 391] render them slippery—both hard to criticize and hard to grasp. Occasionally he slides to the opposite extreme, with superficially profound statements such as “the British Empire was made of canvas and thatch” (100). Really? What about corrugated iron? Or cement? What I would take to be his central conclusions are quite reasonable: namely, that techniques...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-5000
Print ISSN
1531-023x
Pages
pp. 390-403
Launched on MUSE
2019-05-25
Open Access
No
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