Reuben Woolley reviews ‘Rethinking the Gulag: Identities, Sources, Legacies,’ edited by Alan Barenberg and Emily D. Johnson

1 July 2022

by Reuben Woolley

Reuben Woolley reviews Rethinking the Gulag: Identities, Sources, Legacies, edited by Alan Barenberg and Emily D. Johnson, Indiana University Press, 2022, pp320. ISBN 9780253059611.

The Gulag system is a historical phenomenon so vast that it can be hard to grasp it in anything approaching its entirety. There are two predominant approaches in work surrounding the Gulag. Popular history books aim to give you a broad map of the era, with all major dates and locations. The writings of famous Gulag inmates will give you a rich and detailed picture, but by definition it is limited to individual experience (with, perhaps, the exception of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago). For the average reader, it can be very hard to link these two pictures. But for any kind of genuine reckoning with the history of the twentieth century, and the more violent and dehumanising aspects of the Soviet Union, it is vitally important that we fill out this map in greater detail.

Each of the essays in Rethinking the Gulag: Identities, Sources, Legacies is an attempt at sketching out a more detailed picture. The entries come from a range of different academic disciplines and a range of different focuses within those fields — from historical work on the Gulag’s early years to its influence on modern-day post-Soviet prisons; from the daily rituals of priests to the daily rituals of organised criminals, and from close readings of poetry by individual inmates to statistical analysis of over 1,000 memoirs.

The Gulag system lasted for the majority of the twentieth century across the entirety of the Soviet Union, so the breadth of the collection is entirely appropriate. As the introduction well explains, for many years the field of ‘Gulag studies’ was limited to examining the testimony of the few select survivors whose work made it to the West — predominantly Russian, predominantly political prisoners, predominantly writers. As vital as the contributions of figures like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov were (and those two receive no shortage of discussion in this collection), it Is important and valuable to see a book exploring the Gulag in all its complexity. The Gulag contained within it a vast number of different nationalities, ethnicities, reasons for arrest, and interactions with the Soviet state and its ideology — this variety deserves to be documented.

All of the essays expand and interrogate their academic field in interesting ways, but some prove clear highlights for the layman reader. Emily D. Johnson’s article on non-Russian-speaking prisoners who wrote letters to their family, and the censorship process those letters were put through, is a brilliant and illuminating excursion into a world of understaffed and exhausted bureaucratic processes, of the lives of non-Russian prisoners and the languages they were forced to acquire to engage in camp life, and of their attempts to convey their strange new experiences to a family that still lived in an entirely different world. Mikhail Nakonechnyi’s top-down review of ‘aktirovanie’, a process in which terminally-ill patients would be given medical release from the camp to ‘lower’ the mortality rate during periods of national or regional crisis, takes what first seems an obscure topic, then details its precise importance in understanding both the functioning of bureaucracy in the Gulag system, and the later historiographical debate around the total death toll of the camps. Alan Barenberg’s article on the letters exchanged by Varlam Shalamov and Georgii Demidov presents the kind of behind-the-scenes literary encounter that the public can only experience through the careful unearthing and interpreting of archival sources, and aims to raise the profile of Demidov, a Gulag writer who often lived in the shadow of his fellow writer inmates, and whose strained friendship with Shalamov in particular harmed both men’s ability to understand and share their experiences.

There is an inevitable sense of eclecticism when reading a collection of academic articles grouped around a broad theme. However, the editors of Rethinking the Gulag have gone to great lengths to attempt to make the book cohere more than the average academic collection. Each section (‘Identities’, ‘Sources’ and ‘Legacies’) ends with an essay by another academic, who reflects on the essays and tries to draw together comparisons and add insight from their own research. Along with the extensive introduction on the history of Gulag studies and a conclusion trying to draw the book together as a whole and put it in a modern context, this goes a long way to situating each of the individual essays, helping the reader to ‘fill out’ their own map of the Gulag and the modern research being done on it. 

Reflecting on the accessibility of research is not just an ‘optional extra’ in this field. The Russian government has done a great deal to curtail and obscure public knowledge of the Gulag system in Russia. In the last year in particular, as the arrest of Gulag historian Yuri Dmitriev and the prolonged repression of the organisation Memorial make painfully clear, public knowledge of the Soviet Union’s violent past is now a political question. By doing what they are trained to do, academics who study the Gulag are forced to take sides. It is testament to the authors in this collection that such conditions have not stripped their work of its painstaking nuance, nor filled it with unjustified polemic. At its core, much of the best academic work is slow and careful; it is only by doing such work, and doing it properly, that it is of any use whatsoever for future generations. The rest of us, the readers, must then take that work and pay attention to it, to remember the Gulag as a network of institutions that held millions of prisoners across the Soviet Union, and shaped lives in ways we are only just starting to entirely comprehend. In an era when Putin and his government attempt to nakedly and brazenly rewrite history, those who do the legwork of actual historical research are doing the rest of us an invaluable service — something we should honour by reading and engaging with their work.

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