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.

Structure and Function of Gulag Historiography

Wilson T. Bell’s article on Gulag Historiography is very interesting. He talks about the many different terms of a gulag and how it is difficult to give the term a specific definition, since they vary so much. The three principal terms which define gulags revolve around economic, population politics, and social factors. Gulags differ from place to place, but Bell focuses on the gulags that are in the Soviet Union during the Stalin-era.

The economic aspect is in reference to Stalin’s Five Year plan and wanting to create rapid industrialization. In order to achieve this they used forced labor. The population politics factor examines the types of people that were sent to the camp. There was not a “type” of person that was sent, Stalin arrested and threw in all kinds of people to contribute to the industrialization. And, finally the social factors describes the change of goals in the camps, such as re-educating the prisoners into Soviet citizens. From all of this, one can see how gulags had such a negative connotation.

Bell’s article is extremely interesting in examining all of the factors that revolve around gulags. He provides a lot of information, especially from outside sources, on gulags and all of the different terms associated with it. I thought it was particularly interesting when Bell, agreeing with other authors, states that the Stalin-era gulag is similar to the Holocaust. They are similar because of the forced labor, the amount of deaths, and inequalities among the guards and the prisoners.

How much do gulags really differ from place to place if they all revolve around issues of mortality and exploitation of citizens?