The Gulag Lecture (1): The Fundamental Questions

First, let me congratulate Karl Qualls on the creation of Teaching History. I am excited that a new blog with significant focus on Russian history has appeared, but even more excited that the blog focuses on teaching. At Russian History Blog (, we do talk about teaching issues and resources (, but in a more haphazard fashion. Karl’s new blog will be a welcome opportunity for many of us to think more systematically about how we teach Russian history and to share those thoughts with others.

Following Karl’s suggestion, I’ll try to write a few different posts on how I would teach the Gulag in different courses aimed at different levels of student, and I hope readers will raise any questions that I seem not to answer. I am quickly finding that writing about teaching is quite difficult. My instinct is just to lay out the text of my typical Gulag lecture, but I doubt that will really help us address the appropriate questions. (You can see a portion of my usual Gulag lecture here: Although this was a book launch event, my teaching of the Gulag is strongly influenced by my own writing on the Gulag and so this talk includes probably 40% of the material I use with students, including a potentially useful if oversimplified rundown of the basic facts about the Gulag as we think we know them today. And please, steal freely from this presentation for your own lectures on the Gulag.)

So, today, I want to write a bit about how I would teach the topic to an introductory survey class in Russian history. I will focus in this post primarily on the goals and methods of the Gulag lecture. I will follow this up with successive posts on the audio-visual materials I use in the lecture and suggested readings for the survey class. Strangely, since I have a senior colleague who teaches the modern Russian history survey fantastically, I have only taught the Gulag in this survey course context as a guest lecturer for colleagues at other universities. Since my Gulag lecture has largely been created through a series of one-time appearances in someone else’s class, it is more lecture-oriented and less interactive than it might be in a class of my own where I have developed rapport with the students.

Teaching the Gulag in a single hour-long session presents a typical challenge for the Russian history professor. In a short period of time, you must take your students from a situation in which they have virtually no knowledge of the subject at hand and somehow get them to a level of basic knowledge where the more interesting questions can be asked. We must give them enough “what” so that they can and will be inspired to begin to ask “why”. Getting to the why of the Gulag is difficult when many of our undergraduates have never prior to walking into our class even heard the term “Gulag” (although a minority will have read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in a high school class.) The lecture, then, must explain to students what the Gulag was before getting them to the “whys” that drive historians’ work.

So, I have a few goals for my students in the Gulag lecture. The first encompasses the “what” and the next three ideally get the students interested in asking the “why”.

1)      Students will understand some basic (if oversimplified) facts about the Gulag: what was it, when did it exist, who were its prisoners, what was its scale, what did the prisoners do, what was its economic impact, and what were the fates of its prisoners.

2)      Students will be able to discuss and evaluate different explanations for the Gulag’s origins and role in the Soviet Union.

3)      Students will be able to discuss similarities and differences between the Gulag and the Nazi concentration camp system.

4)      Students will be able to analyze what all of these aspects of Gulag history tell us about the Soviet and more specifically the Stalinist political, social, economic, and cultural system.

Once I get past the “what” (and I’m happy to answer questions about that, but I’m going to skip by it for now), I try to bring students to ask the “whys” in two ways: 1) exploring the Gulag system as an apparent paradox and 2) drawing comparisons between the Gulag and the better-known Nazi concentration camp system. These are precisely the “whys” that lie behind my own research and writing of the Gulag. Death and Redemption is permeated by these two approaches—the former explicitly, the latter implicitly. I’ll write here mostly about the first of these two approaches.

I essentially lay the Gulag out as reminiscent of a fundamental “paradox” in much of Soviet history—the coexistence of seemingly contradictory notions of creation and destruction, of violence and transformation. For the Gulag, I put it like this:

“In the Gulag, forced labor, high death rates and an oppressive atmosphere of violence, cold and constant hunger coexisted with camp newspapers and cultural activities, a constant propaganda barrage of correction and reeducation and the steady release of a significant portion of the prisoner population.”

In essence, like the title of my book, I ask the students to think about how we make sense of a system that was both a place of mass death and a place of mass release. I show the students how historians have thought about the Gulag as an economic system of slave labor, as a political system to destroy real and perceived opposition to the Stalinist regime, and as a reflection of humanity’s dark side unleashed by the fig leaf of ideology. We talk about the strengths and weaknesses of these explanations.

Then I go on to suggest a different interpretation (my own) that sees the Gulag as the Soviet penal system, a part of the Soviet attempt to completely reengineer society. I show students how the Soviet regime categorized and analyzed its prisoner population.

“In the Gulag, an elaborate and ever-shifting hierarchy of identities emerged from this incessant categorization.  Not only were prisoners defined in opposition to the camp authorities, but they were themselves divided at different times by class background, national origin, article of conviction, military status, gender—that is who they were prior to arrival in the camps—along with labor productivity, behavior in the camps, health—that is who they had become in the camps.  All of these categories bore a direct relationship to the perceived redeemability of the prisoner or exiled person, and consequently also to their chances for survival.”

Then, since prisoners spend most of their time working, I go on to focus on the importance of labor in the Communist worldview and I explore labor productivity as a measure of “success” and “failure” in the reeducation project. To bring home the point that this line between success and failure was the line between life and death, I talk with students about the tie between provision of food and labor performance, showing this both as a way to promote labor productivity, but also to reward those who were laboring well and therefore “successes” and to punish and ultimately kill those who were not and therefore “failures.” Of course, I must temper that with recognition that laboring well was not a guarantee of survival, and that success or failure in meeting work norms was in no real sense a measure of some type of “reeducation.” In the next post, I’ll discuss one image that really brings this whole point home to the students.

So, at this point, then, I have largely laid out the operation of the Gulag from the point of view of Soviet authorities. The lecture does remarkably little with what it was like to live through the experience, relations among prisoners, etc., but ideally that will be handled through readings from some Gulag memoir (and hopefully some discussion of readings.) I’ll write later about my favorite readings for students.