Day in the Life

Although the critically acclaimed prose of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has been diminished through translation, Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivers a powerful novel which exposes the tribulations and inhumanity in Russian labor camps in the 1930s. Ivan Denisovich is a former soldier who was sentenced to ten years in a labor camp located in Siberia. As long as the temperature did not drop to negative forty-one degrees, Ivan and the other prison inmates were sent out in groups to perform tasks which mostly involved construction or heavy labor. The prisoners were malnourished, ill equipped for the elements, and abused by prison staff on a daily basis.

Something that interested me as I read this novel was the fact that the events took place over the course of a day, which makes the reader think of the potential types and severities of events which simply did not occur in that time frame. Another thing which stuck out to me was the fact that labor is seen as a type of privilege–it was unfortunate to have your rights to perform labor stripped because otherwise it was harder to stay warm and feel alive.

Probably my favorite quote from this novel may have been the saying “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?”. (23) It is used repeatedly and represents the two sides of “us” and “them” that is a ubiquitous theme when learning about Russian class relations.

Penal Systems of World Powers

Abladen grosser Steinbrocken am Weissmeer-Ostsee-Kanal, 1932

The organization of Soviet labor camps hoped to accomplish a number of purposes. These projects were improvements on the infrastructure of the Soviet Union and, ultimately, the economy. Considering how swiftly the Belomor was completed (“Twenty months and it must be built cheaply” –Stalin) and the lack of material resources, this success was based primarily on the re-purposing of an otherwise idle prison population. Granted, the ‘labor camp’ style of  punishment in the Russian penal system was established long before Soviet rule but the Soviets were the first to implement it on such a large and effective scale. Removal of ‘undesirables’ was, as we can see from Stalin’s policies, a high priority. These “enemies of the State” would then (hopefully) be re-educated by exposure to a good Soviet work ethic. This pool of shiftless ‘kulaks’ isolated to the wilderness would provide the Soviet Union with a valuable resource key to large projects, such as the Belomor Canal, developing in the Union –cheap labor.

At the same time, the United States was facing some of the earliest waves of incarceration increases while also not greatly revising her penal system.Moving into the 1930s, labor derived from the then locally-managed institutions was made illegal and a national “Bureau of Prisons” was formed. Now in charge of more than 160 institutions, and with very little experience, the Bureau prescribed a “penopticon” model to their prisons –a style which allowed for maximum surveillance of a maximum number of inmates. The prison population would not stop increasing until the onset of America’s involvement in World War II. Many Capturehistorians argue that American productivity and mass of troops helped turn the European front. But, how different is this from the labor in the Soviet camps? We can say that the quality of life was far better and the pay, of course. But, the camps were focused on a mass of cheap labor. When the prisons were releasing such numbers of inmates, a mass  of labor was definitely produced and the larger general supply of labor provided lower wages to employers — though not the free prison labor of Stalin’s camps.

If we examine both countries now, when the U.S. and Russia are both among the world’s top ten largest incarceration rates (716/100,000 citizens and 490/100,000 respectively), should we expect any change in penal policy?

Bibliography Interwar.doc 24.0 KB

My research project will focus mainly on the repressive political system run by Stalin in the Soviet Union from 1930 to 1950. During this era, Stalin used an oppressive political machine in order to gain control over the political sphere. Two ways which Stalin executed this tactic was through mass purges and The Gulag. The Gulag was a Soviet Union government agency which spearheaded the labor camp movements. Stalin’s purges of The Party was also a form of political control. Millions of Party members which he deemed as unfit were killed. I will be explaining the political and social strains and affects that this had on the Soviet Union during this time period.