As their discussion of its scope has become increasingly nuanced, scholars of the Gulag have recently refocused their work around the prisoner experience. Without examining its merits explicitly, some prominent historians of the Gulag have even begun to invoke the term "Gulag society" to describe their object of study. A study of prisoners' use of humor provides qualified support for the use of this term. In contrast with many others who have examined humor in repressive institutions, I argue that prisoners' humor was well more than a strategy for "resistance" or "survival," and while humor was certainly an element of prisoner culture, it was also a staple of prisoners' sociability as a means to form and maintain interpersonal bonds, as well as a medium for communicating values, attitudes, and information. A product of its important purposes in helping interpret and structure their society, prisoners' use of humor is fairly well preserved in the extensive memoir literature, penned largely by those sentenced specifically for political crimes. This is in stark contrast to the humor propagated by NKVD authorities overseeing the cultural and political "reforging" of prisoners, which is scarcely mentioned by memoirists even as an annoyance. This provides still more evidence that prisoners were, to some extent, able to reject officially propagated frames of thinking and shape their own experience in what was by its nature a context of dislocation and horror.


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pp. 1281-1306
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