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).