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Confining Soviet Society:
Concentration Camps and Internal Exile, 1930s-1950s

Steven Barnes
Stanford University
June 2001

The massive Soviet system of forced labor concentration camps, known as the Gulag, condemned  millions of citizens to internal exile or imprisonment in some of the harshest locales of human settlement.  Only in recent years have historians been allowed access to the Communist Party and Soviet government documentation of this brutal system. My research aims to provide a thorough political, social and cultural history of the Soviet Gulag through a study of its institutions in the Karaganda region of central Kazakhstan, which housed one of the largest concentration camps in the Soviet system and received large numbers of internal exiles from other parts of the Soviet Union.

Chronologically, my study extends from the early 1930s, when the Gulag arose as a mass social institution detaining millions of Soviet citizens through the second world war, to the death of Stalin in 1953, followed by mass prisoner uprisings shortly thereafter and the large-scale releases which defined the Gulag's decline as a mass institution by the late 1950s. This independent study is based on a number of sources, including published and manuscript memoirs of Gulag survivors, collections of published Soviet government and Communist Party documents related to the Gulag, and an eight-month research trip to visit the government, Communist Party and private archives in Moscow, Russia and in Almaty (the former capital) and Karaganda, Kazakhstan.

Historians have known of the Gulag for years, based almost exclusively on the memoir testimonies of survivors of the system. These testimonies described the Gulag as either a mass system of "slave labor" or as a system designed to kill all real, potential and perceived enemies of the Soviet totalitarian dictatorship. In this understanding, being sentenced to a term in the Gulag would appear to represent being literally cast out of Soviet society. Likewise, the Gulag's institutions, which marked the geographical extremes of the Soviet Union, operated quite literally at the margins of the Soviet Union; and many millions of inmates would not survive to return from these margins.

My research seeks to challenge this dominant explanation.  To see the Gulag and its inmates as marginal to Soviet society is to make a major conceptual error in understanding not only the practice of Soviet penal politics, but also the operation of Soviet society itself.  The Gulag and its inmates were integral participants in the Soviet authorities' attempt to create a radically new socialist society, even though they were never quite clear or consistent about what "socialist" would mean.  They did know, however, that in building this new society, no sidelines would exist. Everyone-including the Gulag prisoner-was not only allowed but was required to participate in the creation of this new society. Soviet authorities also envisioned this very participation as key to the creation of a new Soviet man and Soviet woman. The only option other than participation in the crusade was full and final excision from society through death; and here stood the Gulag, defining and enforcing the border between inclusion and excision.  Millions died in the camps of the Gulag, and millions survived and were released.

Conceptualizing the role played by the Gulag in the Soviet polity has been fraught with this apparent contradiction.  Exploitation, brutality and death coexisted with correction, reeducation and redemption. Why did the Soviet authorities expend such tremendous energy to replicate the Soviet social and cultural system within the Gulag via an extensive indoctrination network-a continuous process extending from the prisoner's arrival until his departure (dead or alive)? For the Gulag was at times almost surreal, where backbreaking labor, scarce food and harsh climate coexisted with political education, prisoner "theaters" and camp newspapers. 

The present project proceeds from the hypothesis that these contradictions must be squarely faced, since in the apparent contradictory coexistence of correction and oppression, of transformation and violence, lies the heart of the Gulag and of the Soviet enterprise itself. The Communist mindset did not see the creation of a new socialist society as a peaceful project. Rather, it was the final apocalyptic struggle in human history defined by struggle. To remake humanity was the most difficult endeavor.  The Gulag in its very brutality was integral to this struggle to recreate society and thus to recreate man.

All scholarship on the Gulag has preceded on the assumption that cultural life, reeducation and redemption in the camps-themes so common in modern penal institutions-must be meaningless in the face of the brutality, violence and death that marked life in the Gulag. My study proceeds from the hypothesis that redemption and death were each consistent with Bolshevik visions of the role to be played by the Gulag in the creation of a radically new society.  My study will pay special attention to the ever-shifting but very important boundary between those Gulag inmates defined as redeemable and allowed to return to the body of Soviet society and those marked as irredeemable and, through death, excised from that body fully and finally. To accomplish this, I will perform a careful study of the institutions, identities and practices that defined the minutest aspects of daily life in a region of local outposts of the Soviet penal system.  Studying chronological shifts in power relationships at the most minute level in a fixed locality offers a focused look at the Gulag's role as a transformative space, in which individuals, identities, social hierarchies and daily life were broken down and reconfigured.