Category Archives: Soviet History

Steve Barnes: Gulag Readings

The Gulag Lecture (3): Readings

In my last post on teaching the Gulag in a survey course, I want to turn attention briefly to readings. In this, I doubt I will offer many suggestions that Russian history specialists are unaware of, but perhaps other instructors will find it helpful. We have a vast treasure of readings on the Gulag. In fact, the hardest part is deciding which of the hundreds of available publications are best suited for your particular needs as an instructor. Here, I will focus only on primary sources (thus avoiding gratuitous mentions of and links to my own book) and will go through a few different options from the iconic to those less-used but worthy of consideration.

Perhaps the most widely-used source type is the Gulag survivor memoir. Memoirs powerfully reveal the horrors of the Gulag experience and often leave a deep impression on our students. Most specialists in Russian history have read many such memoirs, and I am sure we all have our favorites, but I’ll discuss only two. I suspect that Eugenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind is most commonly used. (I use here the common spelling of her name in the English translation of the volume.) Journey is without doubt an enormously compelling story of the Gulag experience and fits well within the story of the “Great Terror” and the forced labor system. Ginzburg was a member of the Communist Party and arrested in early 1937. Yet, discussion of the book can animate later parts of the survey history course through discussion of the book manuscript’s circulation via samizdat and the life and work of her son, Vasily Aksyonov. (Again, I am following the most common English spelling.) In some respects, I find the second volume Within the Whirlwind to be yet more interesting, but this volume is rarely used in courses and appears to be out of print. Yet Journey is not without certain drawbacks for the survey course. Not least, of course, is its length. At more than 400 pages, Journey can take a huge bite out of your assigned readings for a semester. (Within clocks in at an additional 400-plus pages.) Second, the volume has been used so widely that quite a number of internet sites offer students the opportunity not to read the volume.

Although it has the same problem of length (also over 400 pages), perhaps my favorite Gulag memoir is Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag by Janusz Bardach. (You might also point your students toward this interview transcript with Bardach. Unfortunately, I cannot seem to find the audio of the interview, which I know I listened to many years ago.) I reviewed the memoir for H-Net over a decade ago. Bardach’s story fits a bit differently, as he grew up in interwar Poland. After the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Poland in 1939, Bardach wound up on the Soviet side of the new border. In part due to the anti-Semitism he experienced as a secular Jewish youth in Poland, Bardach was initially sympathetic to communism. Yet his stint in the Red Army ended with his arrest after overturning a tank. The story then becomes rather similar to many told about the Gulag, as Bardach undergoes trial, a commuted sentence of execution, imprisonment in Kolyma, and survival mostly through gaining a job as a medical assistant in the camps. After release, (chronicled in part in the even better second volume Surviving Freedom: After the Gulag) he completed medical training, later left Poland, and became a noted expert in facial reconstruction surgery for those with cleft palates at the University of Iowa.

I like the volume for many reasons, though some of these reasons may disqualify the memoir from use in pre-collegiate education. As I wrote for H-Net:

Yet, somehow he evokes the stench and brutality of the Gulag environment with a power few others can match. Writing in 1990s America, Bardach exhibits no reticence relating graphic descriptions of the foul language of the criminal elements, hetero- and homosexual rape and homosexual relations in the Gulag–topics often mentioned only vaguely or briefly in early memoirs. After a scene of homosexual rape in a shower Bardach relates the titular phrase taught to him by his mother chelovek cheloveku volk–“man is wolf to man.”

Furthermore, Bardach sits a little less firmly in the sphere of the “political prisoners,” who wrote the vast majority of Gulag memoirs. As such, he experiences Gulag “society” a bit differently. Again, from my H-Net review:

His intellectual background and the nature of his offense seem to qualify him for political prisoner status, yet he was technically sentenced not under Article 58 but under Article 193.1.b for wartime military treason. As such, he was a military criminal, but his background left him uncomfortable in the company of other veterans. Furthermore, Bardach himself did not observe the political prisoner-common criminal boundary, frequently befriending elements in criminal gangs as their storyteller, as their source of information about the “capitalist” world, or as their health care provider. Bardach entered the criminal world with a mastery of the criminal language, the use of which distinguished him from the “mama’s boys” in the eyes of the criminal world (p. 183). His ties with the criminal community were very useful, expanding his survival network in the Gulag. Not only did he earn their protection from attacks by other criminals, but he frequently earned access to additional (often, stolen) food, space, clothing, and other material items which allowed him to maintain his bodily strength.

Everyone should read and choose the Gulag memoir that fits best with the topics they wish to discuss. Yet, you should certainly consider other types of sources—some of which are significantly shorter and may therefore fit better. One option is “fictionalized” stories based on real experience. The most used of those is obviously Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (under 200 pages), but many colleagues report great success using selections from Varlam Shalamov’s short-story collection, the marvelous Kolyma Tales.

Finally, I will mention three other possible options and leave their exploration to the reader. The first is Oleg Khlevniuk’s entry in the Yale University Press Annals of Communism series, The History of the Gulag. The great benefit here is the inclusion of a large number of official archival documents in translation combined with analysis from one of the best Russian historians of Stalinism. The second is Fyodor Mochulsky’s Gulag Boss: A Memoir, which presents the Gulag from the very different angle of an employee of the forced labor system. Some colleagues are reporting good success with using this new memoir brought to us by Deborah Kaple, though I have some qualms if the volume were to be used in isolation. I think it must be combined with a first-hand account by a prisoner of the system. I would also encourage you to consider having your students read the “blog conversation” at Russian History Blog about Gulag Boss, where they can perhaps learn something from Gulag specialist scholars attempting to determine the significance of this new source for our understanding of the camp system. Finally, I would encourage some consideration of Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, the web exhibit I created with colleagues at George Mason and in Russia. I think you could use parts of the website in conjunction with any of the above sources, especially in the realm of getting students to focus on visual imagery and material culture of the camps. (Consider having them find and talk about one item in the site’s “archive”.)

Steve Barnes: Teaching the Gulag with Images

The Gulag Lecture (2): The Images

When I give my Gulag lecture, I use quite a number of images and for many different reasons. In some cases, they simply provide illustration to back up and reinforce the things I am talking about. In others, the image itself becomes an integral part of the lesson, and I will focus on one of them below. Other than maps, all images that I use come from the archive of Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, the web project I completed with my colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason and with partners at the International Memorial Society and the Gulag Museum at Perm 36. It really is a terrific resource for teaching the Gulag, and I know many Russian history colleagues use the site in their courses in some creative ways. (Andrew Jenks at Cal State Long Beach had his students write reviews of the site. Steve Norris at Miami University had his students create posters on the Gulag that were displayed during a conference I attended at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies and a great many students used the Gulag website archive to create their stunningly superb final projects.) At the end of the post, I will provide a list of links to some of my favorite images to use during my Gulag lecture.

I’ll start this post talking about maps. For many years, finding a really good Gulag map was difficult, but we have many options now. I find a combination of three maps necessary to make the points I want. First, like Wilson, I use this map to provide a general sense of the Gulag’s geography. It offers one really important advantage over any other, as the shaded areas on the map indicate regions that held a substantial number of internally-exiled peoples. For students, though, its Cyrillic labeling is problematic, so I turn to this version of the same map (without the shading) but in Latin letters, though in German not English.

Like Wilson, I show students how much of the Gulag existed in the European parts of the Soviet Union. However, this map gives a somewhat false impression in this regard, for the map does not take account of the population of camps. Fortunately, we have an absolutely terrific web-based mapping project helps clear up this problem. Oxford University’s geographer Judith Pallot, a specialist in Russia’s “penal geography,” has undertaken a monumental and magnificent project. Her Mapping the Gulag: Russia’s Prison System from the 1930s to the Present, a site worth an extended look, provides a whole series of maps with a wide variety of information. For my lecture, I use this map which provides a sense of the distribution of prisoners in the Soviet Union and shows how the geographic extremes held the largest numbers of prisoners. The site offers all kinds of interesting possibilities for more in-depth discussions. Just one example, here you will find a map that overlays the distribution of camps in 1951-1952 with average January temperatures. This should certainly bring home some of the realities of the Gulag to students.

Finally, I want to turn to one particular image (click on the image for a larger version) that I received from the International Memorial Society during the course of the creation of Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives. I have written about this image before at Russian History Blog, but it is worthy of some repetition here as the image is so integral to the way I teach the Gulag.

The image shows the “Graves of the Lazy” (with the word that I translated as “lazy” really a Gulag acronym standing for “the false invalids of the camps of special designation”) What this image shows is a “propaganda” graveyard. After I have talked to the students about the way in which fulfillment of one’s daily work norm was treated as evidence of one’s level of reeducation and how food provision was tied to work norm fulfillment, it all comes together when I show them this image. The individual grave markers read: Mavlanov 22%, Gaziev 30%, etc. Thus it is clear, the failure to fulfill labor quotas was treated as a prisoner’s failed commitment to “reeducation.” Nobody was understood to be “unable” to fulfill norms. (Thus, the deceased in this propaganda graveyard are “false invalids.”) Rather, failure to fulfill norms was treated as a willful activity, an evidence of continued “enemy activity” on the part of the prisoner. Reduced rations would either compel “reeducation” by breaking down a prisoner’s resistance, or if a prisoner continued to “resist” by failing to fulfill norms, their rations would lead to starvation and death. Gulag camp directors, as we can see through this image, were not ashamed of the explicit link between poor labor productivity and death. They actually advertised that link directly to their prisoners. The students generally find the image as breathtaking as I did when I first saw it after years of making this argument about the tie between labor, correction and death in the Gulag.

Whether photographs, paintings, or memorials, images of the Gulag can provide an excellent opportunity to engage students in conversation about what the camps were all about. Here are some of my favorite images for lectures on the Gulag, but I do urge you to explore Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives at the easy-to-remember for other possibilities. (In addition, be sure to check out Nikolai Getman’s phenomenal series of 50 paintings. I usually use numbers 8 and 37 in my lecture, but one could conduct a whole class period around these paintings.)

Brass Band at the White Sea Canal

Fence and Guard Tower at Perm-36

Cutting Timber

Construction at White Sea Canal

Mining in Kolyma

Mikhail Distergeft, Without the Right of Correspondence

Benjamin Mkrtchan, Digging a Grave

Steve Barnes: Goals for Teaching the Gulag

The Gulag Lecture (1): The Fundamental Questions

First, let me congratulate Karl Qualls on the creation of Teaching History. I am excited that a new blog with significant focus on Russian history has appeared, but even more excited that the blog focuses on teaching. At Russian History Blog (, we do talk about teaching issues and resources (, but in a more haphazard fashion. Karl’s new blog will be a welcome opportunity for many of us to think more systematically about how we teach Russian history and to share those thoughts with others.

Following Karl’s suggestion, I’ll try to write a few different posts on how I would teach the Gulag in different courses aimed at different levels of student, and I hope readers will raise any questions that I seem not to answer. I am quickly finding that writing about teaching is quite difficult. My instinct is just to lay out the text of my typical Gulag lecture, but I doubt that will really help us address the appropriate questions. (You can see a portion of my usual Gulag lecture here: Although this was a book launch event, my teaching of the Gulag is strongly influenced by my own writing on the Gulag and so this talk includes probably 40% of the material I use with students, including a potentially useful if oversimplified rundown of the basic facts about the Gulag as we think we know them today. And please, steal freely from this presentation for your own lectures on the Gulag.)

So, today, I want to write a bit about how I would teach the topic to an introductory survey class in Russian history. I will focus in this post primarily on the goals and methods of the Gulag lecture. I will follow this up with successive posts on the audio-visual materials I use in the lecture and suggested readings for the survey class. Strangely, since I have a senior colleague who teaches the modern Russian history survey fantastically, I have only taught the Gulag in this survey course context as a guest lecturer for colleagues at other universities. Since my Gulag lecture has largely been created through a series of one-time appearances in someone else’s class, it is more lecture-oriented and less interactive than it might be in a class of my own where I have developed rapport with the students.

Teaching the Gulag in a single hour-long session presents a typical challenge for the Russian history professor. In a short period of time, you must take your students from a situation in which they have virtually no knowledge of the subject at hand and somehow get them to a level of basic knowledge where the more interesting questions can be asked. We must give them enough “what” so that they can and will be inspired to begin to ask “why”. Getting to the why of the Gulag is difficult when many of our undergraduates have never prior to walking into our class even heard the term “Gulag” (although a minority will have read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in a high school class.) The lecture, then, must explain to students what the Gulag was before getting them to the “whys” that drive historians’ work.

So, I have a few goals for my students in the Gulag lecture. The first encompasses the “what” and the next three ideally get the students interested in asking the “why”.

1)      Students will understand some basic (if oversimplified) facts about the Gulag: what was it, when did it exist, who were its prisoners, what was its scale, what did the prisoners do, what was its economic impact, and what were the fates of its prisoners.

2)      Students will be able to discuss and evaluate different explanations for the Gulag’s origins and role in the Soviet Union.

3)      Students will be able to discuss similarities and differences between the Gulag and the Nazi concentration camp system.

4)      Students will be able to analyze what all of these aspects of Gulag history tell us about the Soviet and more specifically the Stalinist political, social, economic, and cultural system.

Once I get past the “what” (and I’m happy to answer questions about that, but I’m going to skip by it for now), I try to bring students to ask the “whys” in two ways: 1) exploring the Gulag system as an apparent paradox and 2) drawing comparisons between the Gulag and the better-known Nazi concentration camp system. These are precisely the “whys” that lie behind my own research and writing of the Gulag. Death and Redemption is permeated by these two approaches—the former explicitly, the latter implicitly. I’ll write here mostly about the first of these two approaches.

I essentially lay the Gulag out as reminiscent of a fundamental “paradox” in much of Soviet history—the coexistence of seemingly contradictory notions of creation and destruction, of violence and transformation. For the Gulag, I put it like this:

“In the Gulag, forced labor, high death rates and an oppressive atmosphere of violence, cold and constant hunger coexisted with camp newspapers and cultural activities, a constant propaganda barrage of correction and reeducation and the steady release of a significant portion of the prisoner population.”

In essence, like the title of my book, I ask the students to think about how we make sense of a system that was both a place of mass death and a place of mass release. I show the students how historians have thought about the Gulag as an economic system of slave labor, as a political system to destroy real and perceived opposition to the Stalinist regime, and as a reflection of humanity’s dark side unleashed by the fig leaf of ideology. We talk about the strengths and weaknesses of these explanations.

Then I go on to suggest a different interpretation (my own) that sees the Gulag as the Soviet penal system, a part of the Soviet attempt to completely reengineer society. I show students how the Soviet regime categorized and analyzed its prisoner population.

“In the Gulag, an elaborate and ever-shifting hierarchy of identities emerged from this incessant categorization.  Not only were prisoners defined in opposition to the camp authorities, but they were themselves divided at different times by class background, national origin, article of conviction, military status, gender—that is who they were prior to arrival in the camps—along with labor productivity, behavior in the camps, health—that is who they had become in the camps.  All of these categories bore a direct relationship to the perceived redeemability of the prisoner or exiled person, and consequently also to their chances for survival.”

Then, since prisoners spend most of their time working, I go on to focus on the importance of labor in the Communist worldview and I explore labor productivity as a measure of “success” and “failure” in the reeducation project. To bring home the point that this line between success and failure was the line between life and death, I talk with students about the tie between provision of food and labor performance, showing this both as a way to promote labor productivity, but also to reward those who were laboring well and therefore “successes” and to punish and ultimately kill those who were not and therefore “failures.” Of course, I must temper that with recognition that laboring well was not a guarantee of survival, and that success or failure in meeting work norms was in no real sense a measure of some type of “reeducation.” In the next post, I’ll discuss one image that really brings this whole point home to the students.

So, at this point, then, I have largely laid out the operation of the Gulag from the point of view of Soviet authorities. The lecture does remarkably little with what it was like to live through the experience, relations among prisoners, etc., but ideally that will be handled through readings from some Gulag memoir (and hopefully some discussion of readings.) I’ll write later about my favorite readings for students.


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 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).

Teaching the Gulag

I was recently asked by my children’s school to come talk to 6th graders about the Holocaust, one of my teaching interests. I of course agreed, but then I realized the challenge of teaching such a complicated and difficult subject to 11 year-olds in 50 minutes. I don’t know what was more daunting: the Holocaust in under an hour or making the brutalization of humans accessible and not traumatizing to young boys and girls. No one left crying and the teacher said the students did well on their subsequent assignments, so I guess I didn’t fail miserably. This was just one of my motivations for starting this blog. My hope is that professors and secondary teachers will read, learn, and discuss methods to teach difficult topics without making them simplistic.

So, our first subject of inquiry on the Teaching History blog will be the Gulag. I have invited two specialists, Steven Barnes and Wilson Bell, to provide suggestions on how one might approach the subject.  Many of us have probably handed our students something by Solzhenitsyn (mostly likely One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) or Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, quoted some statistics of dubious origins, and made comparisons with Nazi concentration or death camps just so that our students have some frame of reference. But recent years have provided new glimpses into the Gulag system that can enliven and make more accurate our teaching of the Gulag.  The recent posts on Russian History Blog was a great start to this conversation for the academic community. But how can we translate the new scholarship into effective classroom teaching? This will be the subject for the “Teaching History” blog this month.

Steve is associate professor of history and director of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Mason University and author of Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, which was recently released by Princeton. His work on the Gulag also has a digital presence at Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, where Steve serves as project director and lead historian. He was also one of the catalysts for me to start this blog on teaching. He has been a central figure in trying to move us all to be more public and open-source in our research. Most recently he founded the Russian History Blog where he is a co-author.

Wilson is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Dickinson College, where he teaches Russian, European, and global topics courses, often experimenting with Web 2.0 methods. In 2011 Wilson completed his PhD (Univ. of Toronto) on the Gulag in Western Siberia, with a focus on the informal practices (black market activity, illicit relationships, personal networks). He has written articles and reviews that have appeared in Canadian Slavonic Papers, Gulag Studies, and Modern Language Quarterly. His article, “Was the Gulag an Archipelago? De-Convoyed Prisoners and Porous Borders in the Camps of Western Siberia,” is forthcoming in the Russian Review.

Both Steve and Wilson have spent a great deal of time on the ground in provincial archives and have opened our eyes to new ways of seeing the Gulag. Steve’s book shows the Gulag not as an extermination system like the Nazis employed, but rather part of the larger Soviet system of “re-educating” people. The Gulag was thus a penal institution that offered the promise of release if one learned, often through hard labor, the values and behavioral norms of the Soviet system. Wilson also looks at life in and after the camps. His research shows that the Gulag camps were anything but hermetically sealed sites. In fact, in many cases the whole notion of a “camp” is turned on its head as those imprisoned intermingled with those outside the institutions.

Stay tuned for their posts this month, and please join in the conversation. How do you teach the Gulag?