Review Articles

The review article “Gulag Historiography: An Introduction”, written by Wilson T. Bell, a former visiting professor at Dickinson College, attempts to explain what an actual Gulag is. Although the term was originally used as an acronym for Stalin’s labor camps, it currently is used to describe various forms of labor camps all over the world along with having numerous definitions. The second review article, written by Steven Maddox and has no title, compares two books: Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia–a compilation of essays edited by Helena Goscilo and Stephen M. Norris– and From Ruins to Reconstruction: Urban Identity in Soviet Sevastopol after World War II, written by Dickinson College professor, Karl D. Qualls. This review article reviewed the two books on how they “discuss issues of urban identity, historic preservation, and persistence of local memories and cultures in St. Petersburg and Sevastopol” (Maddox 241).

Although both articles are review articles, they are very different types. Bell’s article reviewed the history of the word “gulag”, which called for the use of many different sources. About half of each page consisted of footnotes. It wasn’t focused on specific works, but rather the topic as a whole.

Maddox’s article goes into great depth on each of the books, while comparing and contrasting the two books. Maddox’s positive review had me intrigued and interested in reading the books he was reviewing. At the end of the review, I found it interesting how Maddox’s questions for the authors truly demonstrated how closely related the two books are to each other, and how there are avenues for greater exploration on the topics.

Overall, I found both reviews extremely well written and interesting. Although they were both different types of reviews, the common theme between the two is that they both easily explain their concepts and ideas to the reader.

Is it more effective to cover a topic using many different sources, or to focus the topic with just a few?

Shhhh…It’s a Secret Speech

Khrushchev’s secret speech, given to party officials but not published for the general public, showed his desire for de-Stalinization.  Basically, Khrushchev has the same criticisms about Stalin that the rest of the world had: he was paranoid, rude, and killed too many people. Khrushchev believed that Stalin had given the world a bad example of socialism.  He also stated that many innocent lives had been lost.

When Khrushchev is speaking, he is careful to maintain the language of the party.  He emphasizes the point that Lenin didn’t like Stalin.  If Lenin, who cannot be wrong, disliked Stalin, than logically this must mean that Stalin was a bad person. Since Lenin expressly stated he did not want Stalin to be the next leader of the USSR, then Stalin’s reign could be viewed as a mistake and a break away from communism.  Khrushchev makes it seem as though a communist must choose between Lenin and Stalin.  And a good communist will always choose Lenin.

My questions after reading the speech were these: Did Khrushchev dislike Stalin because Lenin disliked him? Or was this speech, as I suspect, a cleverly designed mask for deeper feelings? Did Khrushchev dislike Stalin for the obvious, ethical reasons? Or personal reasons? Whatever the reason, conditions in the Soviet Union began to improve under de-Stalinization.

Gulag Historiography

Wilson T. Bell’s article on Gulag historiography does not seek to define what a Gulag is. Instead, it is a fascinating effort to clarify the several definitions of Gulag in addition to the speculated reasons they existed. He states that there is no clear agreement among scholars and proceeds to list several definitions and contexts that have been explored. Bell also goes through the often debated economic and political motives behind the Gulags. His last statement, and perhaps his the most important, is that there is far more research needing to be done on this topic to add to the motives, goals, and contexts of a Gulag.

The part I found most interesting is the excerpt on just how disgusting these were. While he makes a point to differentiate them from Nazi death camps; “they were not death camps, there was a desire to keep the prisoners alive” (15), the human rights offenses were not few and far between. He believes that the human rights offenses have not been brought to enough attention through historian work. In general, human rights offenses tend to be disregarded either because they are unfathomable or guilt-ridden. With this, what other explorations of the Gulag, be it life in the camp, or Soviet motives, need to be explored?

Structure and Function of Gulag Historiography

Wilson T. Bell’s article on Gulag Historiography is very interesting. He talks about the many different terms of a gulag and how it is difficult to give the term a specific definition, since they vary so much. The three principal terms which define gulags revolve around economic, population politics, and social factors. Gulags differ from place to place, but Bell focuses on the gulags that are in the Soviet Union during the Stalin-era.

The economic aspect is in reference to Stalin’s Five Year plan and wanting to create rapid industrialization. In order to achieve this they used forced labor. The population politics factor examines the types of people that were sent to the camp. There was not a “type” of person that was sent, Stalin arrested and threw in all kinds of people to contribute to the industrialization. And, finally the social factors describes the change of goals in the camps, such as re-educating the prisoners into Soviet citizens. From all of this, one can see how gulags had such a negative connotation.

Bell’s article is extremely interesting in examining all of the factors that revolve around gulags. He provides a lot of information, especially from outside sources, on gulags and all of the different terms associated with it. I thought it was particularly interesting when Bell, agreeing with other authors, states that the Stalin-era gulag is similar to the Holocaust. They are similar because of the forced labor, the amount of deaths, and inequalities among the guards and the prisoners.

How much do gulags really differ from place to place if they all revolve around issues of mortality and exploitation of citizens?

Secret Speech

We’ve talked about Khrushchev’s contradicting opinions of Stalin while he was the Party First Secretary and later Chairmen of the USSR, but his “Secret Speech” seems to finally put to rest his true opinion on Stalin’s dictatorship. The speech was known as such because it was read in a session without discussion and was not reported in the Soviet press. However, the Communist world knew of its existence and the claims within- that Stalin’s “Cult of Personality” was responsible of crimes such as the Terror of the later 1930s to the deportation of nationalities in the early 1940s- shocked and led many Western Communists to abandon Communism altogether. Not only did this speech reveal how Khrushchev truly felt about Stalin’s dictatorship and his desire to create a more Leninist society but also consolidated his authority over other Stalinist Party members.

Khrushchev’s speech argued that Stalin’s role in the Party was completely the opposite of the spirit of Marxism-Leninism, thus blaming for the various crimes in the past three decades. He also claimed Lenin recognized Stalin’s negative qualities which made him a poor leader as early as 1922. He spoke of Stalin’s continuous violence and suspicious nature as leading reasons why the Soviet Union suffered such great losses during the war without necessary preparation. His final message is of the abolishment of the “cult of the individual” in favor of the unity of the Party. Ultimately, he is condemning the small role Leninism has played within the government and the atrocities committed under the name of Marxism-Leninism and Stalin.

Urban development as a reflection of culture and politics

I found the reviewer’s last sentence, recommending the three books for those interested in issues of memory, history, and urban planning very interesting. Urban planning reflects both the values and dynamism of a society. Paris, for instance, along with many other European cities, remains fixated on the past; try building a skyscraper on the Champs-Élysées if you want a challenge. Other cities, like New York, promote their ostensibly forward-looking nature with hyper-modern architectural styles and a constant flow of major construction projects.

I believe cities should recognize the importance of change with regard to practical matters, including increasing populations, inadequate public services, and important cultural changes (e.g the dissolution of an old, popularly discredited order). I contend that, with urban planning as with history in general, we must not regret the past but question the future we choose.  Regarding this, I found the debate over Sevastopol particularly interesting, considering the conflict between “accommodation and agitation” and Moscow’s attempt to mythologize the city without paying attention to the actual needs of its citizens. It would appear that overconfidence in an assured victory posed as grave a danger to the Soviet Union as it did to Catholicism and Liberalism in the West. For all of his flaws, at least Chairman Mao understood that only revolutions within the revolution, fed by the blood and ingenuity of each successive generation, could keep the movement effective and relevant.

The Role of Tobacco in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich places an inordinate amount of emphasis on the role of tobacco in the Gulag, a luxury one normal does not consider readily accessible to convicts stuck in the middle of Siberia. The main character, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov exemplifies the obsession with this drug, even to the point that he takes a loan out for it. After an unusually large portion for lunch, Shukhov cites an insatiable craving for it, a craving which is odd seeing how this man was previously just worrying about whether or not he would get extra food.

Tobacco influences how Shukhov spends his day from the minute he rises to the time he goes to bed. Shukhov second-guesses going to the infirmary in order to possibly secure some tobacco even with his feverish pains and aches. After he fails to secure more tobacco, he manages to beg Tsezar for his cigarette butt, which he then proceeds to smoke until it burns his lips. After his loaner cigarette, Shukhov then waits in line for Tsezar in an attempt to get more tobacco or even any sort of reward for his assistance, before finally going to see his tobacco dealer, where he pays CASH for two small glasses of it. Because cash was not a common commodity in the camps, this signifies just how desperate for tobacco Shukhov is. This luxury, more than food or sleep, gives him the motivation to survive.

Because of the camp conditions, particularly in regards to food and staying warm, it is interesting to see how much emphasis Shukhov places on securing tobacco, rather than trading it to others for more food or other materials that could improve his quality of life. While there are limited goods Shukhov could have due to regulations, it seems a little ridiculous that he emphasis this good so heavily rather than finding better ways to stay warm or items such as firewood to help with his living conditions.

What Makes a Good Soviet?

What makes one a good Soviet? Being faithful to Stalin? Being faithful to Marx? In his novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn examines these questions. Solzhenitsyn implies throughout his novella that a good Soviet is faithful to Marx and the ideals of communism, not the dictatorship that Stalin created.

Among the prisoners in the camp, there is a sense of camaraderie. For example, Fetiukov saves Shukhov’s breakfast for him when he is late (p.15). Even though they are not allowed to be called “comrade,” they are each other’s comrades, and seem to embody the ideals of communism more so than the guards and other authorities. Solzhenitsyn illustrates this on page 34 when Buinosky says to the guards, “You’re not behaving like Soviet people, you’re not behaving like communists.”

Do the prisoners share comradeship because they share a common enemy and/or common struggles in life? Or did Solzhenitsyn include this element because he was influenced by the Soviet system? I think the latter is unlikely. Solzhenitsyn spent time in a Soviet prison camp, and had his citizenship revoked and was deported in 1974, so it seems doubtful that he would be concerned with Soviet ideals.

So, what makes a good Soviet? Was Stalin a good Soviet? Are the guards good Soviets? Are the prisoners? Why?

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich describes the working and living conditions of a Russian labor camp by examining the lives of its prisoners.  All of these men ended up in the camp by being deemed enemies of the state, and the purpose of the camp is to reteach them how to be productive members of the Communist party.  However, some of the values that are prominent in the camp ironically go against those of Communism.  The prisoners are viewed as below so-called “comrades” in the outside world to the point that they are dehumanized.  There is also a distinct hierarchical structure within the camp, which is emphasized when Solzhenitsyn describes how Shukhov refuses to take certain jobs because “there were others lower than him” (15).  The niceties that are enjoyed by the prison staff come at the expense of the labor of the convicts, who are not allowed to use the facilities which they have built (38).   Bribery through gifts of extra rations is also a common method of getting out of having to undertaking work projects with poorer conditions.  Overall, the idea of all citizens being equal is not enforced within the camp, and the only value it shares with the idealistic view of Communism is the importance of hard work.  Does the hypocrisy of the camp accurately portray the hypocrisy of the Soviet government at the time in which the novella takes place?

Stalin’s Accusations of Subversion

Stalin’s attempts to remove any political factions that were pitted against him provide an iconic example of a totalitarian rise to power.  These ambitions are summarized definitively in “Purges,” a document published in 1935.  In this passage, Stalin’s prose reveals his feelings that the extant companions of Lenin in the Soviet Union constituted a threat to his own political prowess and thus needed to be eliminated by whatever means necessary to decimate their power and credibility with the general public.

Stalin accused figures such as Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Trotsky of “insincerity and duplicity” in their statements of allegiance to the state and claimed that they were responsible for numerous acts of subversion, most significantly “a villainous plot against the life of S.M. Kirov. (Stalin)  The more poignant purpose of these accusations was to portray these Old Bolsheviks as enemies of the “common cause.” (Stalin)  By extension, these opponents of Stalinism became the collective enemy of the public.  Thus, by publishing “Purges,” Stalin attempted to simultaneously denounce the likes of the Old Bolsheviks and create a unifying “us against them” mentality amongst the Russian population.  The administrative technique of “unification against a common enemy” is pervasive throughout history and is evident in countless examples of leadership beyond the political sphere.   “Purges,” however, is one of the most archetypal instances of the usage of this tool.

Do you think that Stalin’s accusations of “insincerity and duplicity” against the Old Bolsheviks were a calculated act of propaganda or simply the product of paranoia? (Stalin)