Wilson Bell: The Gulag in Survey Courses

Map of the Soviet Gulag

How do I teach the Gulag in survey classes on Russian history? As with any undergraduate survey, trying to push students to think differently about what they think they know is a good place to start. The problem with the Gulag, however, is that very few students know anything—and I mean anything—about it. Many have never heard the term before. Still, if they know anything, they know that people were sent to Siberia. So, geography is where I start.

Take this map of Gulag camps, courtesy of the Memorial Society.[1] Each red dot represents the administrative headquarters for a Gulag camp. What do you notice (keep in mind that Moscow = МОСКВА on this map)? Well, clearly, the Gulag is not a phenomenon only of Siberia and the Far East. Indeed, a huge number of camps existed in European Russia, including areas in and around Moscow. Yet, if we start with geography as a way of breaking down preconceptions, we’re still faced with the question of where to place the Gulag in a survey course.

There is no easy place for the Gulag. If one teaches the course chronologically, there was some sort of penal camp system in place in Russia from 1918 until the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, indeed, the Tsarist system before the revolution relied on penal camps, as does Russia today. So, part of our problem is a matter of definition. What was the Gulag? Technically speaking, of course, GULag was the administrative bureaucracy (Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei – Main Camp Administration) in charge of running the extensive camp system, and, for a time, the special settlements (places of peasant exile). As a bureaucracy, it existed from 1930-1960. In my survey class, I bring up the camps in the context of the First Five-Year Plan and collectivization/de-kulakization. These events, from the late-1920s to the early-1930s, caused enormous disruption to Soviet society, perhaps even more than the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It was during this period when the Gulag expanded, rapidly, as the state sought to transform society, forcibly, into what was hoped would be a modern, industrialized state. I then go into greater detail about the Gulag when discussing the mass arrests during the period of 1937-38. I also frequently assign Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.[2] Short, but also powerful, this book lends itself well to class discussions about life in the camps, and also about the persistence of Soviet “values” even in anti-Stalinist writing (the titular Ivan Denisovich, for example, takes enormous pride in his manual labor). One Day is also important for discussions of de-Stalinization, of course, as Khrushchev permitted the publication of this novella as part of his campaign to reveal the excesses of the Stalin era. Coupled with Miriam Dobson’s excellent research on the public’s reception of the novella,[3] one can use One Day—and, by extension, the Gulag—to show the ambiguous feelings that existed in the Soviet Union around de-Stalinization and the release of prisoners.

The current academic semester, I have not assigned One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. My students, however, will write a short assignment related to Gulag Boss.[4] This is one of the very few examples of a memoir written by someone who worked in the camps. I hope to use this memoir in conjunction with other memoirs on the Gulag experience and the discussion on http://russianhistoryblog.org in order to explore issues of primary source analysis and some key aspects of Gulag history.

There are now a huge number of resources, available even in English, that relate to Gulag history, but I’ll discuss some of these in more detail in my next post on teaching a gulag-specific course.


[2] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, trans. Max Hayward and Ronald Hingley (New York: Bantam Books, 1990).

[3] Miriam Dobson, “Contesting the Paradigms of De-Stalinization: Readers’ Responses to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Slavic Review 64.3 (2005): 580-600.

[4] Mochulsky, Fyodor Vasilevich, Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir, trans. and introduced by Deborah Kaple (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

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