One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

The story of Ivan Denisovich is a telling tale of the human spirit and it’s will to survive. The author was able to make you feel the emotions of what life was truly like in the typical day of an inmate in the gulag. Ivan story seems to be a typical story of an individual that was accused of being a spy and guilty of treason against the soviet empire. The fact that other individuals in the same camp found themselves there under the same pretext shows it was a rather common crime, or in other words was a crime the government used to classify someone they believed had done something wrong. The fact a person had to make a choice to either face a firing squad if they denied the charge or admit to treason and go to the gulag show that the government had no desire to find out if there was any merit to the accusation.


The author highlighted the theme, not of escape, freedom, injustice; allusion to these theme appear throughout the account, yet while important, these themes to an inmate are irrelevant. Nothing can change why they are in the gulag. The only thing a prisoner can think about is survival. The account brings to the fore this issue by placing emphasis on two reoccurring areas, food and warmth. The amount of time in just one day a person thinks about food and the extent that a person’s life revolves around getting food only to make it to the next day. So much effort by the author goes into describing food, the rationing out of it, when and how much, as well as the type and the result of deprivation of food. The book really puts into perspective the condition of the gulag, and the human spirit will to survive.

Know Your Enemy

Fitzpatrick’s chapter regarding the Great Purges of the Soviet Union reads like a dystopian novel. Even the epigraph at the beginning stirs thoughts of “Big Brother”; it reads “You know they are putting people in prison for nothing now”.  Fitzpatrick attributes this quote to an anonymous “local official”, circa 1938, the temporal heart of the Great Purge. ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “A Time of Troubles,” in Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. (Oxford University Press, 2000), 190.))  This epigraph highlights a concept touched on throughout the rest of this chapter: no one in the Soviet Union, whether they be members of the communist party or ordinary citizens, escaped the wrath of the purge.

In other cases of state sponsored violence studied in this course thus far, a specific group finds themselves in the cross-hairs of the government. In Nazi Germany, the state took aim at the Jews. In Soviet Russia, however, the target never stayed the same. As Fitzpatrick notes, “enemies of the party” came under heaviest scrutiny, which ranged from people politically opposed to the rule of Stalin, to those ‘bourgeois degenerates’ who used state money to make their living situation more comfortable. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 197.))  These high born degenerates suffered a great number of trials and tribulations due to their perceived offences. Public scapegoating came into common practice. These scapegoatings, as Fitzpatrick notes, often occurred among workers towards an individual in a position of power above them. These “Stakhanovites” organized meetings, and in them, flung insults at whomever they chose, calling them “bureaucratic barbarians” and comparing the accused to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 200.)) Still, however, at this point in the purge, the elites suffered, not the commoners.

The Great Purge did not spare the common, government fearing citizen.  In fact, as Fitzpatrick eloquently points out, it did not spare anyone. This all occurred because of denouncement. Neighbors snitching on neighbors to secret police and spies. Students on teachers. Factory workers on one another. Even members of the communist party sought fit to report crimes. No one, not even an innocent (albeit troubled) 8 year old boy, found themselves under an umbrella of safety from this disturbing phenomena. It is this that made the Great Purge so terrifying and effective.((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 207-208.))

Sending people to the Gulag on a tip from their neighbor, persecuting political prisoners, and denouncing members of the privileged elite created, in essence, a state of fear in Soviet Russia. It fostered obedience to the state. Why? In times of most stark oppression, as seen in Italy under Mussolini (who met his end at the hand of his own people) and in Kenya during the Mau Mau era, people often organize, revolt, and overthrow the government; every society has its breaking point. How far would Stalin have to have gone in order to incite a revolt among his own people? If mass imprisonment, murder, and development of total paranoia among all members of society didn’t do it, what would?

German and Soviet Mass Violence

Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth’s essay, “”State Violence-Violet Societies” discusses the use of mass violence in camp systems. Gerlach and Werth analyzed the methods of violence, the intensity of the violence, the role of the State in the violence, and the ideology behind the violence.1 Gerlach and Werth argued that in Germany the eradication policies were multicausal and that the archival revolution in Russia allowed historians to grasp the foundation of Soviet violence.2

The part of this article that caught my attention was the section on prisoners of war. In this section, the authors discussed “unfit” Soviet workers left to die from starvation.3 Upon hearing the phrase mass violence, my thoughts involve images of large scale killings such as gas chambers and weapons. However, this was hardly the case for Soviet POWs. Although many Soviet citizens lost their lives each day, a minority were killed together all at once. Malnutrition was the leading cause of death.4  However, regardless of whether killed by weapons or lack of food, the Soviet officials did the doing.

Naked Soviet POWs

Naked Soviet POWs

This section on Soviet POWs changed my prospective of mass violence. Gerlach and Werth shed light on the key aspect of isolation in Soviet Union concentration camps in harsh conditions, leading to malnutrition. Nazi concentration camps are so commonly portrayed in media that this had shaped my perception of violence within dictatorships. As I read about Soviet concentration camps, I learned a new perspective to mold into my view of mass violence. Did this essay change your view of mass violence? Besides “unfit workers”, what were some other groups the Soviet Union targeted as POWs? How does the Soviet Union differ from Nazi Germany with their management of POWs?


1. Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 133.

2. Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 135. 

3. Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 162. 

4. Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 163. 


The Gulag- Labor Camp, Cultural Divider, and Implement of Mass Murder

Wilson Bell presented multiple interpretations of the Gulag (a soviet work camp) in his article. These interpretations ranged from describing the Gulag as a simple work camp, to the extreme of comparing the death and destruction wrought by the institution to be on the same level as the Nazi Final Solution. The comparison between the Gulag work camp system during the Second World War, and the infrastructure driven Holocaust which occurred at the same time, made me reconsider the role of the Soviet Union in the conquest of Nazi Germany.

Without the fortitude shown by Soviet troops at Stalingrad, and various other points during Hitler’s failed assault on the eastern front, the allied effort certainly would’ve been slowed, if not halted all together. Learning that the Soviet mechanical machine was powered by labor akin to that used by the Nazis in work camps across occupied Europe puts a different spin on the contributions of the Russians to the allies. As Bell points out by citing Applebaum, the Holocaust and the Gulag system must be considered on equal playing fields, which makes looking at Russia and its Red Army as the saviors of Europe as they marched into Berlin difficult. The 27% mortality rate is certainly not as high as the numbers of dead from Nazi work camps, but the number of ‘incarcerated’ individuals in Gulags is higher, and the atrocities committed by those in charge (rape, ect) according to articles cited by Bell are astronomical in number. The enemy of my enemy is my friend- but when the enemy of your enemy and your enemy commit similar atrocities, the idea of marching into battle under the same flag becomes a lot more complicated.

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.

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.

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?

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?

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a compelling account of life in the Russian gulag system, based on Solzhenitsyn’s experiences. It deals with the various trials of living in labour camp, and strikingly presents the idea of the relativity of good fortune. A perfect example is the apparent good fortune of Ivan, because he sleeps in the barracks instead of the cells (165). However, the alternative example that I wish to focus on, is Solzhenitsyn’s  commentary on the Russian Orthodox Church. He describes Alyosha, a fellow prisoner who has been imprisoned for his Baptist beliefs. He is described as a naive prisoner, who does not understand the methods for survival within the camp. However, in one exchange between Ivan and Alyosha, the latter talks about the betrayal of the Orthodox Church. He implies that the Orthodox Church’s attempts to work within the communist system is a sin, and that those men who are imprisoned are more righteous in the eyes of the Lord (162-3). This opinion that prison is a method of penance raises a question pertaining to the legality and authority of the Orthodox Church. While the Church collaborated with the government to ensure it’s survival, what was the sentiment of the common man? Did the everyday Orthodox priest loyally follow the Church’s orders, or were they defiant like Alyosha and the other sects of Christianity?