Gulag Historiography

Bell’s piece focuses on the historiographical analyses of Gulags. He notes that the term “gulag” has taken on several meanings throughout recent history and the term has even been applied to more recent examples such as Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. However for the purpose of his paper he defines a Gulag as Soviet-era prison camp.

The focus of his paper is on the developments amongst scholars about the possible motivations of these forced labor camps. He cites scholars such as D. Dallin and B. Nicolaevsky who argued that there were economic motives behind the development of the Gulag as a result of rapid industrialization (Bell, 4). Other scholars have argued that the Gulags provided expansion into unsettled territory. Another argument discussed is that Gulags were used with political motives as a way to subdue unsettled citizens. Much of the evidence for this argument relies on the first-hand accounts of survivors (Bell, 6-7). There are other historians such as G. Alexopoulos who argue that Gulags acted as a penal system for the Soviet government (Bell, 11). Finally, Bell looks at the argument that Gulags were an attempt at social engineering. He cites S.A. Barnes as a proponent of such engineering theory. Barnes argues that the Gulags were important in the government’s attempt to “purify society” (Bell, 12).

As the author, Wilson Bell creates his own narrative amongst the presentation of the historiography by evaluating which scholars made particularly weak arguments and which made strong and well developed arguments. He also brings in several different scholars to provide depth not only to Bell’s writing but also to the conversation between historians about this topic.

One thing that I found particularly interesting is how access to new information and primary documents can create a deeper understanding of a particular subject. This is evident when Bell references that prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union historian relied mostly on memoir and first-hand accounts of Gulag conditions. However, after the collapse many archival documents containing reports, documents and statistics became available to historians (Bell, 9).

Through-Lining Historical Perspectives: The Approach of an Historiographer

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.

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?