Teaching the Gulag

I was recently asked by my children’s school to come talk to 6th graders about the Holocaust, one of my teaching interests. I of course agreed, but then I realized the challenge of teaching such a complicated and difficult subject to 11 year-olds in 50 minutes. I don’t know what was more daunting: the Holocaust in under an hour or making the brutalization of humans accessible and not traumatizing to young boys and girls. No one left crying and the teacher said the students did well on their subsequent assignments, so I guess I didn’t fail miserably. This was just one of my motivations for starting this blog. My hope is that professors and secondary teachers will read, learn, and discuss methods to teach difficult topics without making them simplistic.

So, our first subject of inquiry on the Teaching History blog will be the Gulag. I have invited two specialists, Steven Barnes and Wilson Bell, to provide suggestions on how one might approach the subject.  Many of us have probably handed our students something by Solzhenitsyn (mostly likely One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) or Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, quoted some statistics of dubious origins, and made comparisons with Nazi concentration or death camps just so that our students have some frame of reference. But recent years have provided new glimpses into the Gulag system that can enliven and make more accurate our teaching of the Gulag.  The recent posts on Russian History Blog was a great start to this conversation for the academic community. But how can we translate the new scholarship into effective classroom teaching? This will be the subject for the “Teaching History” blog this month.

Steve is associate professor of history and director of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Mason University and author of Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, which was recently released by Princeton. His work on the Gulag also has a digital presence at Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, where Steve serves as project director and lead historian. He was also one of the catalysts for me to start this blog on teaching. He has been a central figure in trying to move us all to be more public and open-source in our research. Most recently he founded the Russian History Blog where he is a co-author.

Wilson is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Dickinson College, where he teaches Russian, European, and global topics courses, often experimenting with Web 2.0 methods. In 2011 Wilson completed his PhD (Univ. of Toronto) on the Gulag in Western Siberia, with a focus on the informal practices (black market activity, illicit relationships, personal networks). He has written articles and reviews that have appeared in Canadian Slavonic Papers, Gulag Studies, and Modern Language Quarterly. His article, “Was the Gulag an Archipelago? De-Convoyed Prisoners and Porous Borders in the Camps of Western Siberia,” is forthcoming in the Russian Review.

Both Steve and Wilson have spent a great deal of time on the ground in provincial archives and have opened our eyes to new ways of seeing the Gulag. Steve’s book shows the Gulag not as an extermination system like the Nazis employed, but rather part of the larger Soviet system of “re-educating” people. The Gulag was thus a penal institution that offered the promise of release if one learned, often through hard labor, the values and behavioral norms of the Soviet system. Wilson also looks at life in and after the camps. His research shows that the Gulag camps were anything but hermetically sealed sites. In fact, in many cases the whole notion of a “camp” is turned on its head as those imprisoned intermingled with those outside the institutions.

Stay tuned for their posts this month, and please join in the conversation. How do you teach the Gulag?



2 Responses to “Teaching the Gulag”

  1. DominiqueH says:

    I teach courses on Russian culture and am eternally curious about how others approach the same topics. This blog is a great idea and I look forward to observing its development.

  2. Hello,
    I found your page while looking for a good map of the gulag system as I am frequently asked to make presentations to children in Saturday morning Polish schools around Remembrance Day in the Montreal area and use a Powerpoint presentation thanks to the visual aid of my father’s numerous sketches and his memoirs. I read the text and was quite surprised by the last paragraph. Especially since most books written on the subject that I have come across, including the first hand experience that my father describes having spent almost two years in Kolyma in 1940-41 (four deportations of almost 2 million civilian and military Poles in 1940) readily establish the fact that the gulags were basically extermination camps – and in rich gold mines of the Kolyma River especially, people were sent there to be worked to death. There is also the memory of the 30 million Russians whom Stalin variously exterminated throughout his reign. And the achievement of the goal of re-education in the gulags in particular is doubtful given the circumstances of starvation, lice infestations, dysentery, scurvy, typhus, and supremely freezing temperatures, missing digits, self-mutilation, and trying to accomplish a “norm” of work in a 14 hour day, to name a few.
    However I do have to say that I am glad that the broader approach is being taken in teaching young people about the realities of the term “holocaust” – that it should not be viewed as a term uniquely referring to the tragedy of Hitler’s extermination of Jews. Thank you for that as I am infected with the conviction that unfortunately, “history is not about facts – it is about the interpretation of facts”, and that interpretation quite often becomes skewed.
    If you would like to see some of the sketches I am referring to there is an unfinished website where they can be viewed. I have indicated it in the box provided but here it is again.
    I look forward to consulting some of the new references you mention. Thanks so much.

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