Vic Peterson reviews ‘The Gulag Doctors’ by Dan Healy

29 March 2024

By Vic Peterson

Vic Peterson reviews The Gulag Doctors: Life, Death, and Medicine in Stalin’s Labor Camps by Dan Healy [Hardcover, $38, 344pp, ISBN-9780300187137, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2024]

One does not expect that prisoners in Stalin’s Gulag prison camps received medical care. The idea is counter-intuitive. Why would a penal system dedicated to forced labor and punishment, and renowned for its disregard of life, have a medical system for inmates? Why did this come about? Who were the medical providers who administered to the prisoners? And why did they do so? General readers are likely to have little exposure to the topic, apart from Alexander Solzshenitzyn’s sweeping moral condemnation of the Soviet Gulag and its medical system. I certainly had not.

Which makes Dan Healy’s The Gulag Doctors: Life, Death, and Medicine in Stalin’s Labor Camps impressive and vivid—and challenging for the general reader. The book tells the stories of eight individuals who practiced medicine on some level in the Soviet Gulag system. A few were freely-hired doctors or nurses; most were prisoners who happened into niche work where they rose to a level of achievement virtually equivalent to their free counterparts. Healy scrupulously recounts narratives that range from conventional arrest and imprisonment of persons who already have medical training, to those who got their training “on the job” saving the lives of the emaciated, the physically tortured, the psychologically ravaged. In some cases, medical personnel flirted with danger to protect their charges; in others, they were conformists who managed to carve out a humanizing career in a dehumanizing world.

We need to set aside images of Nazi concentration camps designed to kill on an industrial scale. There are no heroic Schindler’s of the type crafted by Hollywood. Shockingly enough, the Gulag medical system evolved in the name of labor productivity. Dead prisoners do no work. In this context, the scope and scholarly inventiveness of Healy’s work reveals a fragile strain of hard-won humanity.

Two examples of the eight stories illustrate the point. First is of a morgue anatomist, Eurfrosina Antonovna Kersnovskaya, who autopsied corpses in a prison camp in the Arctic circle. The role of the morgue in the Soviet Gulag developed, partly through her contribution, into a diagnostic tool that revealed chronic causes of death. Emaciation, tuberculosis, and scurvy were among the brutal maladies that prisoners fought. Grotesque as it is, the conditions of the Arctic and harrowing labor provided instances of illness not otherwise encountered—and that could lead to positive medical and other prophylactic treatment. Kersnovskaya is hardly a ghoulish figure; rather, hers was a practice in extremis.

Second is story is of Lev Grigorevich Sokolovsky, an academically trained psychiatrist imprisoned on ambiguous charges who rose to run the largest psychiatric hospital in the Gulag system. Remarkably, Sokolovsky penned a report on malingering psychiatric patients who feign illness to avoid crushing camp labor. Healy’s reading of Sokolovsky’s report reveals it as a subtle protest against the inhumane camp system. Officially, Solokovsky repudiates malingerers; indirectly, he declares camp-life traumatizes victims into mental illness. There are malingerers, but, for many, it is not their fault.

To be clear, The Gulag Doctors is not aimed at general readers except as a secondary audience; rather, it intended to break new ground for historical specialists. Still, in the hands of a powerful literary journalist, the subject could generate the attention of the Pulitzer committee. I am not suggesting the book is at fault for what it does not pretend to be, just that the reader should be prepared. Dan Healy’s creative, dogged uncovering of these personal tales from first- and second-hand sources makes a very compelling read. Although he nods to Michele Foucault early on, he is silent on theoretical matters, being more interested in historical facts drawn from memoirs and local archives. The benefit of this approach is that the reader is not suspicious of a theoretical axe to grind. Yet still it clears the ground for accountability in the Putin era, which reflects its inheritance of Stalin’s political prisons. 

How Putin’s Russia has drawn its model for political imprisonment from Stalin via the infrastructure of the KGB is alone worth a dissertation. In the meantime, The Gulag Doctors: Life, Death, and Medicine in Stalin’s Labor Camps by Dan Healy is like a treatise on beautiful rare species that grow in environments so brutal they kill countless would-be survivors.