Gulag Historiography

Bell’s piece focuses on the historiographical analyses of Gulags. He notes that the term “gulag” has taken on several meanings throughout recent history and the term has even been applied to more recent examples such as Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. However for the purpose of his paper he defines a Gulag as Soviet-era prison camp.

The focus of his paper is on the developments amongst scholars about the possible motivations of these forced labor camps. He cites scholars such as D. Dallin and B. Nicolaevsky who argued that there were economic motives behind the development of the Gulag as a result of rapid industrialization (Bell, 4). Other scholars have argued that the Gulags provided expansion into unsettled territory. Another argument discussed is that Gulags were used with political motives as a way to subdue unsettled citizens. Much of the evidence for this argument relies on the first-hand accounts of survivors (Bell, 6-7). There are other historians such as G. Alexopoulos who argue that Gulags acted as a penal system for the Soviet government (Bell, 11). Finally, Bell looks at the argument that Gulags were an attempt at social engineering. He cites S.A. Barnes as a proponent of such engineering theory. Barnes argues that the Gulags were important in the government’s attempt to “purify society” (Bell, 12).

As the author, Wilson Bell creates his own narrative amongst the presentation of the historiography by evaluating which scholars made particularly weak arguments and which made strong and well developed arguments. He also brings in several different scholars to provide depth not only to Bell’s writing but also to the conversation between historians about this topic.

One thing that I found particularly interesting is how access to new information and primary documents can create a deeper understanding of a particular subject. This is evident when Bell references that prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union historian relied mostly on memoir and first-hand accounts of Gulag conditions. However, after the collapse many archival documents containing reports, documents and statistics became available to historians (Bell, 9).

2 thoughts on “Gulag Historiography

  1. Bell noted that some first-hand accounts differ from the official paperwork, especially in the death count. Bell stated, according to Khlevniuk, those who died en route to the Gulag’s and many other deaths were not recorded in official accounts. Also many released prisoners were ill, and died shortly after their release due to the conditions at the Gulag. While official records are helpful in determining statistics and the reasoning behind the Gulag’s, they can also be misleading, which raises the question: What accounts are more trustworthy, the people who experienced the event, or the government that operated the Gulag’s?

  2. Bell discusses how the original study of Gulags was based on primary sources in the form of person memoirs written by the prisoners themselves. You reference how after the collapse of communism archival legal documents came to light reveling new statistical information. Which ( a)personal memoirs or b)official legal documents ) do you believe is a more valuable primary source to consider as a historical research document?

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