The Gulag- Labor Camp, Cultural Divider, and Implement of Mass Murder

Wilson Bell presented multiple interpretations of the Gulag (a soviet work camp) in his article. These interpretations ranged from describing the Gulag as a simple work camp, to the extreme of comparing the death and destruction wrought by the institution to be on the same level as the Nazi Final Solution. The comparison between the Gulag work camp system during the Second World War, and the infrastructure driven Holocaust which occurred at the same time, made me reconsider the role of the Soviet Union in the conquest of Nazi Germany.

Without the fortitude shown by Soviet troops at Stalingrad, and various other points during Hitler’s failed assault on the eastern front, the allied effort certainly would’ve been slowed, if not halted all together. Learning that the Soviet mechanical machine was powered by labor akin to that used by the Nazis in work camps across occupied Europe puts a different spin on the contributions of the Russians to the allies. As Bell points out by citing Applebaum, the Holocaust and the Gulag system must be considered on equal playing fields, which makes looking at Russia and its Red Army as the saviors of Europe as they marched into Berlin difficult. The 27% mortality rate is certainly not as high as the numbers of dead from Nazi work camps, but the number of ‘incarcerated’ individuals in Gulags is higher, and the atrocities committed by those in charge (rape, ect) according to articles cited by Bell are astronomical in number. The enemy of my enemy is my friend- but when the enemy of your enemy and your enemy commit similar atrocities, the idea of marching into battle under the same flag becomes a lot more complicated.

4 thoughts on “The Gulag- Labor Camp, Cultural Divider, and Implement of Mass Murder

  1. Bell also stipulated Khlevniuk’ argument: that the camp systems were economically inefficient. How does that argument, in your opinion, affect the comparison between the Holocaust and Gulag system?

  2. I did a paper on the Gulag a few semesters ago and I remember Wilson Bells article pretty well. What we need to remember about the Gulags is that they were not merely death camps, but rather camps that were for people who were seen to be in need of reeducation by the state. Yes, it is true that a great number of people died in the Gulags as a result of the conditions they were living in, the people they worked under, and sometimes where they were located in terms of climate. However, it is also true that a good number of people who entered these camps who were deemed ‘reeducation’ could leave the camps. Steven Barnes book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Reshaping of Soviet Society, discusses these camps as reeducation camps. An excellent read by the way.

  3. Bell himself does not seem to agree with the view of the Gulag’s on par with the Holocaust. He feels the Gulag’s were too inefficient, chaotic to be similar to the Holocaust, also there was a policy on release and re-eduction, in addition to the stress on economic output that was not present in the Holocaust. He states historians often show the similarities that are quite obvious, such as the mistreatment, living conditions and torture that are akin to the Holocaust, yet often lack an in-depth examination of these common factors.

  4. Your point examining the Russians on the side of the allies, while implementing a comparable camp system used by the Nazis, is a good one. While the Nazi concentration death camps were more factories of death than the Gulags ever were; the Soviet camp system is still comparable in that both systems forcibly detained prisoners on the basis of being a societal degenerate. The Nazis detained and killed minority groups on the basis of racial inferiority; the Soviets detained and attempted to reeducated anti-Communists and others who were deemed educationally inferior. Do you believe FDR should have aligned with Stalin, knowing that he used a Gulag camp system in some ways similar to the National Socialist camp system the Allies were trying to defeat? Does Bell believe this contradictory basis of allied power (implementing aspects of a system it was trying to defeat) weakened their wartime morality?

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