Wilson Bell’s article on the machinations of the Gulag draws from and interprets a great many viewpoints, with the primary argument being that though the term “Gulag” has been used to encompass a wide berth of topics, its primary use is to describe the Stalin-era concentration camps. Bell touches on various points of contention between different historiographers while attempting to find common threads of agreement that can stand on their own as fact in relation to the topic of the Gulag. He begins by discussing how the settlements of relocated peasants have only recently been inducted into the broader scope of the Gulag in a historical sense, moving on to the various possible motivations for the Gulag as an economic tool to bring in cheap labor, a politically repressive bureaucracy, and a method of isolating the outliers of Stalinist-Utopian society. Bell brings up several differing perspectives, supporting points by other historiographers such as Ivanova, Khleuniuk, Alexopoulos, and Klimkova, while drawing their arguments under a common theme of the inefficiency and harshness of the Gulag. Some relatively unfounded claims are made- see Alexopoulos’s supposition that prisoner release implies a high level of Soviet/prisoner interaction with little supporting evidence other than base conjecture- but overall this piece serves as an excellent introduction into the model of historiography. In particular, I took away that historiography focuses primarily on bringing bits and pieces of previous research together to support or contradict one another and develop a new historical perspective. Bell assertion towards the end of the piece that there is plenty of research to be done underlines this historiographical approach.
The camps seemed to be more of an economic drain than a contributor to Stalinist Russia, and their techniques to re-educate the prisoners did not work for a large part of the population. What, out of the three functions of the Gulag, economic, repression, or isolation was the most important, and/or the most likely original intention of the regime do you believe?
The original intentions were most likely political. When Stalin gained power in the mid 1920s after Stalin’s death, Russia had been the victim of political turmoil at the hand of traditional Tsarists and newfound Bolsheviks and he was trying to establish stability. When you are removing millions from their ability to produce for the economy, however, you must substitute that labor in some way.
I agree with Jackson that the reasons were likely political; however, that isn’t to say that once the system of relocation and internment was developed there weren’t other problems that could be solved with the sudden influx of prisoners (such as the need for cheap labor to further Stalinist designs.
If the reasons for the Gulag system were economic or political, what does the high rate of release for prisoners mean for either of those theories?