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”.)

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One Response to “Steve Barnes: Gulag Readings”

  1. Thanks for the fascinating series on Russia’s Gulag. We have some Russian history articles yourself and your readers may be interested in at http://www.historyorb.com/russia/

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