The Lagging Gulag

Professor Wilson Bell’s article on the Gulag comes as a response to the expanded use of the term in present time. Originally, the Gulag was a Soviet administration body that oversaw labor camps and later special settlements. The term Gulag has been used by Amnesty International in reference to Guantanamo Bay, by Al Gore when describing Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and by other academics to to describe work or incarceration camps throughout the modern age. Bells tracks the complex and irregular history of the Gulag to whittle down and refine the term to a more precise end.

Bell chiefly examines the motivation behind establishing the Gulag as a means to arrive at its more accurate definition. He identifies three main genesis theories supported by various Gulag historians: economic, socio-political, and ideological. Many historians believe that the Gulag supplied the rapidly industrializing Soviet Union with crucial cheap labor. However logical, this argument falls apart in Bell’s eyes when you examine some of the more economically “dubious” labor projects, sites, and the composition of the labor force. This last point leads many scholars to attach a strictly political agenda to the Gulag, a system by which unwanted classes (criminals), thinkers, or ethnicities could be isolated. Again, this notion unwinds when one identifies the Gulag’s semi-colonial value (in establishing new towns and settlements) and its re-education goals (somewhere between 20-40% of prisoners were released back into society). Bell’s thesis mimics his dismantle of others’. He believes that the three main approaches to the Gulag’s establishment are not mutually exclusive but include parts of one another. Nevertheless, he ultimately ends by saying that far more research needs to be done on the Gulag. It’s hostile environment, diversity, and other nuances, remain enigmatic to the world.

I learned that producing a thorough historiography requires the historian to delve into each deep lead he finds. Bell does not just discuss the fact that political revolutionaries or counter cultural thinkers were targeted by the Soviet Union he moves deeper, researching their distinct experience, their numbers in relation to the entire labor camp population, and the changes of the aforementioned over time. History is not one dimensional, it permeates throughout, affects and is effected by society. One must meticulously track minute changes over time because progress is often an entities most defining feature.

2 thoughts on “The Lagging Gulag

  1. According to the various arguments presented in Bell’s article on the historiography of the Gulag, do you think the term was applicable to other prisons or penal systems (like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib)?

  2. You refer to Bell’s call for more in-depth considerations of Gulag historiography. Do you think Bell would support further research in the psychological consideration of the Gulag, namely mental imprisonment and repression first studied by Augusto Pinochet’s in his article “Gulag of the Mind”. (Referenced on p. 2)

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