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INTELLECTUALS, THE SOVIET REGIME, AND THE GULAG:
THE CONSTRUCTION AND DECONSTRUCTION
OF AN IDEAL
LISA L. BOOTH
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Lisa L. Booth
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A B S T R A C T ................................................................................ iv
1 IN TR OD U CTION ......................................................... .. ........ .. ..
2 LABOR CAMPS IN THE PERIOD OF 1929-1933:
DEPICTIONS AND POLITICAL USES.........................................................11
3 KHRUSHCHEV'S THAW: LABOR CAMPS
AND DE-STALINIZATION .................................... ................... ................37
4 PERESTROIKA: LABOR CAMPS AND THE
EMERGENCE OF A PUBLIC DISCOURSE.................................................57
5 SOVIET LABOR CAMPS: HISTORIOGRAPHY
AND CONTESTED MEANINGS................................. ........................ 71
REFER EN CE LIST.............................................. .. .. .... ......... .........79
BIOGRAPH ICAL SKETCH .............................................................. ............... 85
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
INTELLECTUALS, THE SOVIET REGIME, AND THE GULAG:
THE CONSTRUCTION AND DECONSTRUCTION OF AN IDEAL
Lisa L. Booth
Chair: Alice Freifeld
Major Department: History
This study seeks to examine the three distinct periods of Soviet history during
which the regime permitted and at times even encouraged a discussion of the system of
labor camps, commonly referred to as the Gulag (Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main
Administration of Labor Camps). However this is not to imply that the discussion of
labor camps was of the character that may occur in an open society, but instead was a
highly-censored discussion that remained within the boundaries established by Soviet
officials. Nevertheless, an analysis of these three distinct periods and the depictions of
the labor camps in each instance reveals the contribution of intellectuals to governmental
In the first instance labor camps were highly praised in the late 1920s and the
early 1930s for their reformative benefits, and as a result of the successful construction of
the Belomor Canal (White Sea-Baltic Canal) in 1933, which relied on prison labor and
served as the model for all future projects. The second instance was provoked by Josef
Stalin's death and continued roughly through the end ofNikita Khrushchev's
premiership, often referred to as the "thaw," in an attempt to discredit Stalin and his
methods. The last and most significant instance occurred during Mikhail Gorbachev's
perestroika and ultimately tested the limits of governmental control. Focusing on these
three specific instances reveals not only one example of the many ways in which the
Soviet regime sought to influence its citizens, but also the significant contribution of
Soviet intellectuals to such efforts. Such an analysis also reveals how and why certain
images of the Gulag were beneficial to the regime.
This study will primarily rely on legally permitted representations that were
included in Soviet newspapers, literary journals, books, and films. By focusing on
officially sanctioned works it is possible to observe the interaction and contestation
between the regime and intellectuals as they each competed for their own version of
society. However, the presence of samizdat, or underground, depictions will be
considered as they serve to shed doubt on the official interpretation of the camps as
provided by the regime and its more cooperative intellectuals.
Boris Yeltsin's campaign posters for the 1996 Russian presidential elections
demanded that Russians "Vote or Lose!" They need only vote and the world would be
theirs, as symbolized by a world globe directly above "vote." However, if they did not
vote they would most certainly lose, signified by a mass of barbed wire; a thinly veiled
reference to the labor camps of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party candidate
Genadii Ziuganov. Yeltsin's campaign also included a poster of flowers, the stems of
which were made from different types of barbed wire. The caption read "the Communist
Party hasn't changed its name and it won't change its methods," again warning people
from voting for the Communist candidate lest they wish to return to an oppressive era. In
her study of Yeltsin-era politics, sociologist Kathleen Smith has referred to Yeltsin's
campaign tactics as "campaigning on the past," and indeed the Yeltsin campaign reveals
that political tacticians believed they could successfully draw upon the historical memory
of Soviet labor camps to discredit the Communist Party.1 However, President Yeltsin
was not the first official to use the camps in a political manner.
In three distinct periods of Soviet history the regime permitted and at times even
encouraged a discussion of the system of labor camps, commonly referred to as the
Gulag (Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Administration of Labor Camps).
'Kathleen Smillhi I i,,ii, ,1 ., in the New Russia: Politics and Memory during the Yeltsin Era
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 133-145.
However this is not to imply that the discussion of labor camps was of the character that
may occur in an open society, but instead was a highly-censored discussion that remained
within the boundaries established by Soviet officials. In the first instance labor camps
were highly praised in the late 1920s and the early 1930s for their reformative benefits,
and as a result of the successful construction of the Belomor Canal (White Sea-Baltic
Canal) in 1933, which relied on prison labor and served as the model for all future
projects. The second instance was provoked by Josef Stalin's death and continued
roughly through the end ofNikita Khrushchev's premiership, often referred to as the
"thaw," in an attempt to discredit Stalin and his methods. The last and most significant
instance occurred during Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and ultimately tested the
limits of governmental control. Focusing on these three specific instances reveals not
only one example of the many ways in which the Soviet regime sought to influence its
citizens, but also the significant contribution of Soviet intellectuals to such efforts. Such
an analysis also reveals how and why certain images of the Gulag were beneficial to the
This study will primarily rely on legally permitted representations that were
included in Soviet newspapers, literary journals, books, and films. By focusing on
officially sanctioned works it is possible to observe the interaction and contestation
between the regime and intellectuals as they each competed for their own version of
society. However, the presence of samizdat, or underground, depictions will be
considered as they serve to shed doubt on the official interpretation of the camps as
provided by the regime and its more cooperative intellectuals. As Vincent Lietch once
wrote, "a space opens between an assigned meaning-whatever it may be-and the actual
reality."2 Samizdat literature makes this "space" apparent as it reveals the difference
between the reality of the camps and their assigned meaning as defined by the Soviet
Before discussing the various and often purely ideological representations of the
labor camps, the reality of life within the barbed-wire zone should first be addressed as
well as those unfortunate individuals who found themselves imprisoned there. The
acronym Gulag refers to a system of forced labor camps and colonies that existed in the
Soviet Union primarily throughout the Stalinist period, although there is some debate
among historians as to the official beginning and end of the Gulag. Galina Ivanova and
Michael Jakobson each locate the beginning of the Gulag in the early Bolshevik period
when concentration camps were created for the imprisonment of White Guardists and
kulaks. On the other hand Oleg Khlevniuk insists that the first forced labor camp was
established in 1929.3 Additionally, most historians place the end of the Gulag in 1959,
when the administration was officially terminated. However, the Memorial Society dates
the end in 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev closed the camp at Perm, the last operating
labor camp in the Soviet Union. Though it should be noted the camp at Perm housed
largely political criminals and dissidents who were not subjected to the grueling physical
labor and destruction of the Stalinist era camps. The greatest danger for such prisoners
2Vincent Leitch, Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1983), 5.
3Galina Ivanova, Labor Camp Socialism: The Gulag in the Soviet Totalitarian System (New York:
M.E. Sharpe, 2000), 12; Michael Jakobson, Origins of the Gulag: The Soviet Prison Camp System, 1917-
1934, (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 37; Oleg Khlevnyuk "The Economy of the
OGPU, NKVD, and MVD of the USSR, 1930-1953: The Scale Structure, and Trends of Development," in
The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag, eds. Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (Stanford,
CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), 45.
was often self-initiated through hunger strikes, as in the case of Anatoly Marchenko who
died in 1986 as the result of such a strike.
While there was undoubtedly a history of harsh exile and imprisonment in
Imperial Russia, the system established during the Soviet period was unprecedented in a
number ways. The sheer numbers of persons imprisoned are staggering, especially when
compared with the high-water mark of tsarist imprisonment of 142,000 in 1916.4 In
contrast, there were 2.5 million people imprisoned in the Soviet Union by the early
1950s.5 How the Gulag population rose to such great proportions is attributable to a
number of Soviet practices. For instance the de-kulakization and collectivization drives
that began in earnest in 1930 resulted in the arrest of 330,000 persons, with 114,000 of
them being sent to labor camps and colonies.6 The drives originated as a means to rid the
peasantry of supposedly wealthy kulaks who were perceived as hostile to the regime and
to organize the peasantry in collective farms referred to as kholkozes. Often those who
were considered kulaks, or wealthy peasants, were viewed as such because of their
nationality as Poles or Germans.7 Not all were arrested and placed in camps however.
Approximately 1.8 million were exiled to eastern regions of the Soviet Union.8
4Michael Jakobson, Origins of the Gulag, p. 10.
5Paul R. Gregory, "An Introduction to the Economics of the Gulag," in The Economics of Forced
Labor: The Soviet Gulag, eds. Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution
Press, 2003), 11.
'Oleg Khlevniuk, A History of the Gulag (London: Yale University Press, 2004), 11.
Terry Martin, "The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing," The Journal of Modern History 70 (Dec.,
8Oleg Khlevniuk, A History of the Gulag, 18.
The Great Purge, or "Yezhovschina" named for Nikolai Yezhov, also resulted in a
dramatic increase in the Gulag population. Although it is not necessary to recount the
complete history of the Great Purge, a brief sketch would be useful. In 1934 Stalin
ordered the assassination of Sergei Kirov, a member of the Politburo member and chair
of the Leningrad Party. Stalin most likely ordered his assassination for fear of Kirov's
growing popularity and power. Following the assassination, Stalin ordered Nikolai
Yezhov to implicate "Old Bolshevik" members Gregory Zinoviev and Nikolai Kamenev
in the murder and in general to develop a case against the anti-Soviet Trotskyist Center,
supposedly led by Karl Radek and Nikolai Bukharin. Yezhov duly followed Stalin's
instructions and carried out a thorough purge of the party, resulting in the execution of
many Old Bolsheviks and leaving Stalin unopposed.
Stalin and Yezhov did not stop at only top party officials, but also targeted lower
orders as well. Particularly chilling was Order #00447 of 1937, which, in addition to
requiring the repression of kulaks and anti-Soviet elements, directed that all who had
been previously arrested for such crimes be rearrested and investigated. Persons with ties
to foreign nations, such as immigrants or members of national minorities such as
Estonians and Latvians, were arrested en masse and accused of counterrevolutionary
activities. But perhaps the most ominous provision of the order was that it set quotas
for the number of persons to be arrested and provided instructions for increasing the
quotas should NKVD officers find such an increase desirable. The results of this order
were devastating; the original number to be arrested was set at 268,950, of which 72,950
were to be executed, but by the end of 1938 over 500,000 persons were arrested and
sentenced to prison terms of eight to ten years.9
A third significant increase in the Gulag population was due to the Soviet Union's
attitude toward returning Red Army soldiers taken prisoner during World War II.10
These soldiers, who were often forcibly repatriated by the Allies, were viewed as traitors
and consequently were imprisoned upon their return to the Soviet Union Such an attitude
is clearly apparent in the 1943 edict, "On Measures of Punishment for Traitors to the
Motherland and Turncoats, and on the Introduction of Hard Labor as Punishment for
these Persons." Approximately 60,000 returning soldiers were thus sentenced to labor
camps in the Vorkuta and Northeast camps, such as Novaya Zemyla and Kolyma.11
Lastly it should be mentioned that many people were arrested during times of
famine and financial hardship. For instance, 1931 and 1932 were years of famine and the
situation was further exacerbated by laws against the theft of "socialist property," which
were in fact directed at peasants resisting requisition orders.12 As a result, nearly 200,000
peasants were arrested and sentenced to 10 year terms.13 Following the destruction of
World War II, the Soviet Union again experienced famine in the years of 1946 and 1947.
1'See Mark Elliott, Pawns of Yalta: Soviet Refugees andAmerica's Role in Their Repatriation
(Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982).
"Ivanova, Labor Camp Socialism, 43.
1201eg Khlevniuk, A History of the Gulag, 55.
As in the previous famine, a similar law on the theft of socialist property was once again
issued, resulting in the arrest of approximately 337,000 persons.14
According to recent estimates, for the period of 1934-1953 approximately 18.75
million persons were imprisoned in the Soviet Union's labor camp system.15 And
although this number is undoubtedly exaggerated as people were often arrested more than
once, what could the regime have possibly gained from such large scale incarceration?
Initially certain Soviet officials and intelligentsia viewed forced labor as a means to re-
forge or re-educate class enemies, as will be shown in the discussion of the
Belomorkanal, many others looked upon the Gulag as a "remarkable economic
opportunity."16 Unlike free laborers who were scarce in the remote regions of the far
Northeast and who required appropriate and functioning equipment, Gulag inmates could
be forced to work in harsh and primitive conditions. Soviet authorities were well aware
of this fact and consequently, as early as 1929 all persons convicted of terms of three or
more years were sent to remote labor camps for the development of natural resources.17
Gulag labor was so pervasive in Kolyma that the prisoners were even used to build the
capitol of the region, Magadan. Gulag labor was used for the construction of canals,
railways, and factories, and also for mining natural resources such as gold and uranium.18
"Ivanova, Labor Camp Socialism, 49.
"Michael Ellman, "Soviet Repression Statistics: Some Comments," Europe-Asia Studies, 54 (Nov.
16Gregory, "An Introduction to the Economics of the Gulag," 21.
17Jakobson, Origins of the Gulag, 87.
1Ivanova, Labor Camp Socialism, 43.
However, as certain historians have demonstrated, Gulag labor was not always the most
Mention should also be made of the deplorable living conditions of Gulag
inmates. As Christopher Joyce stated, "the provision of food and medical supplies to the
Gulag was subject to the unpredictability of the Soviet planned economy," and therefore
during times of crisis or famine the inmates suffered terribly.19 For instance, a 1935
NKVD report on labor camp inmates reported that of 741,599 persons, 90,000 were
incapable of work due to illness and malnutrition.20 Needless to say, NKVD officials
were not known for their leniency in regarding persons as too ill to perform their labor
requirements. Following Beria's reforms, food rations were linked to worker output so
that a worker performing at optimum levels received approximately 800 calories per day,
mostly in the form of bread. However, if one was incapable of performing at this level,
his or her rations were decreased, thereby rendering increased production impossible.21
Gulag inmates were particularly affected by World War II. Although many were
freed and sent to the front, either of their own accord or through service in penal
battalions, for those that remained imprisoned the conditions worsened considerably.
Their food rations were curtailed severely, as were food supplies for the entire Soviet
Union. However, what made life especially harsh for the inmates who remained in the
camps, mostly political prisoners and persons too ill to serve in the army, was that they
19Christopher Joyce, "The Gulag in Karelia: 1929-1941,"in The Economics of Forced Labor: The
Soviet Gulag, eds. Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press), 185
20Khlevniuk, A History of the Gulag, 86.
were expected to double their output to compensate for the reduction.22 Consequently,
the poor conditions and increased labor resulted in an extremely high mortality rate.
According to ministry reports approximately 1,005,000 inmates died between 1941 and
The beginning of the end of the Gulag came on March 27, 1953 when the
Presidium of the Central Committee published an amnesty decree. Pursuant to the
decree, which incidentally was drafted and proposed by Lavrenty Beria, 1.5 million
persons were released from the Gulag.24 However, the first prisoners released were
common criminals, rather than political prisoners. It was not until 1954 or 1955 that
political prisoners began to be released.25 As Aleksei Tikhonov has argued, the amnesty
was not granted for humanitarian reasons, but due to a general understanding among
some Gulag officials that the current system was too expensive to maintain and that it
would be more cost effective to convert inmate status to that of exile status. In
Tikhonov's words, "the death of Stalin in March of 1953 provided the opportunity for the
new leadership.....to make the political decision to dismantle the Gulag system."26
Furthermore, Oleg Khlevniuk has also located documents within the state archives
indicating that certain Gulag officials were seeking to convert prisoners to at least
22Andrei Sokolov, "Forced Labor in Soviet Industry: The End of the 1930s to the Mid-1950s, An
Overview," in The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag, eds. Paul R. Gregory and Valery
Lazarev (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), 39.
2301eg Khlevniuk, "The Economy of the OGPU, NKVD, and MVD of the USSR, 1930-1953: The
Scale, Structure, and Trends of Development," in The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag, eds.
Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), 51.
24Aleksei Tikhonov, "The End of the Gulag," in The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet
Gulag, eds. Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), 67.
25Ivanova, Labor Camp Socialism, 66.
26Tikhonov, "The End of the Gulag," 71-72.
partially free prisoners due not only to the expense of maintaining the prisoners, but also
the inability to motivate prisoners to work at the required levels. In this sense partially
free indicates workers who would be required to work on certain projects for a specified
period of time, but would remain free to reside in private residences with their families if
they so chose.27
27Khlevniuk,"The Economy of the OGPU, NKVD, and MVD of the USSR, 1930-1953: The Scale,
Structure, and Trends of Development," 57.
LABOR CAMPS IN THE PERIOD OF 1929-1933: DEPICTIONS
AND POLITICAL USES
The period of 1929-1933 witnessed the first significant development of the labor
camp as an institution of re-education and reformation. Additionally, labor camps during
this period received a great deal of attention in the official press for a number of reasons,
all of which of course benefitted the regime. But without the involvement of prominent
intellectuals like Maxim Gorky, it is doubtful that the idea of re-education would have
gained such credibility or political capital. The following sections will therefore explore
the origins of the Soviet idea of re-education through labor and its multiple incarnations
as they appeared in the official press and literature. The reasons for such a shameless
promotion on the part of the government will also be addressed through a contextual
analysis of the individual texts in the attempt to understand why the government
permitted and encouraged such a public discussion of its labor camps.
Although Soviet labor camps were obviously very harsh and destructive, they
were not always seen in such a light and at times were even considered a humane
alternative to Western penitentiaries. In the late 1920s Soviet intellectuals and
government officials began to theorize that forced labor possessed a reformative quality
that could transform previous class enemies into new Soviet men and women. Given the
Soviet position that "social conditions, and not racial differences, determined human
development," based on a Marxist understanding of history,1 it is not surprising that
certain members of the regime believed that removing the so-called kulaks and
bourgeoisie from their current surroundings and forcing them to work in labor camps for
the good of the state would transform them into ideal members of the Soviet proletariat.
As early as 1919 Felix Dzerzhinsky suggested that placing "class enemies" in corrective
labor camps would result in their transformation into "true proletarians."2 However, by
1929 the idea of reformation or re-education through labor had a much more developed
and articulate theorist in Evsei Shirvindt, at that time Chief of the Places of Confinement,
who published an extensive article delineating an entire system based on such a belief
and arguing that in a few years time under such a system prisons would no longer be
To emphasize the educative nature of Soviet labor camps, NKVD officials and
others in influential positions, such as the father of Socialist Realism Maxim Gorky,
presented a humane and nurturing vision of the labor camps. In fact, the first such
positive description of a labor camp was the result of Gorky's travel sketches of the
"new" Russia, published in 1929 in the Soviet journal Nashi Dositzheniia (Our
Accomplishments).4 Why Gorky chose to glorify the labor camp system and to present
it in such laudatory terms has been the subject of much debate. After all, he openly
criticized the Bolsheviks in Untimely Thoughts, originally published in the Leningrad
'Francine Hirsch, "Race without the Practice of Racial Politics," Slavic Review 61 (Spring 2002):
2Felix Dzerzhinsky quoted in Dariusz Tolczyk, See No Evil: Literary Cover-Ups and Discoveries
of the Soviet Camp Experience (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 100.
3E. Shirvindt quoted in Jakobson, Origins of the Gulag, 87-88.
4Tolczyk, See No Evil, 105.
newspaper Novaya Zhizyn throughout 1918. In his work on Soviet camp literature,
Dariusz Tolczyk theorized that Gorky's about- face was the result of Lenin's death,
whom Tolczyk describes as Gorky's "ultimate protector." Following Lenin's death
Gorky glorified Soviet methods, he argues, so that Gorky might return to Russia for the
"still possible prospect of literary fame in the Soviet Union."5 Others, however,
suggested that Gorky had become disaffected with the Russian emigre community,
Europe in general, and reacted against the increasing hostility toward the Soviet Union.6
Lidiia Spiridonova offers yet another possibility, arguing that Gorky was wooed back to
the Soviet Union with a "fight for Gorky." In this fight, Stalin, his enemies, and allies all
sought his endorsement so as to influence not only the Soviet public, but international
public opinion as well.7 Thus, Gorky's decision to leave his sunny villa in Sorrento, Italy
and return to the Soviet Union may have resulted from a multitude of explanations.
Throughout 1928 and 1929 Gorky visited factories, collective farms, Komsomol
events, and workers' meetings to collect information and material for his series of articles
published under the title of In and About the Soviet Union.8 Remarkably, the Soviet
publishing house Gosizdat, which orchestrated all of Gorky's visits, even arranged for his
visit to the labor camp on the Solovki Islands in the far norther region of European
Russia.9 Although his interactions with workers and Komsomol members seems logical
6Andrew Barratt and Barry P. Scherr, Maksim Gorky: Selected Letters (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
Lidiia Spiridonova, "Gorky and Stalin (According to New Materials from A.M. Gorky's
Archive)," Russian Review 54 (Jul., 1995): 415.
8Tolczyk, See No Evil, 105.
and relatively uncontroversial from the point of view of a regime seeking to inspire
confidence and pride among its citizens, his 1929 visit to Solovki is an entirely different
matter. Given the atrocious living conditions, frequent prisoner beatings, low rations,
and near-absent medical care,10 it is quite amazing that such a visit was risked at all. And
yet Gorky's glowing report of the camp defies all imagination. However, upon closer
review it appears that the Soviet government actively sought a positive portrayal of its
labor camps to influence world opinion and to discredit the memoir of Sergei Maslagov,
a former inmate of Solovki who had escaped and published his account in England in
1926.1 That Gorky was aware of such issues and in agreement with the government is
evidenced by a 1927 letter in which he expresses great anger at England for breaking off
diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union allegedly due to the use of prison labor. He
states that "the events in London have made me so upset that I felt like going to Russia
just so that I could enter into a swearing match with Europe from there," and hints that
soon he will "occupy myself with journalism."12
However, why would the Soviet government concern itself over a prison memoir
published in England? Public opinion abroad could severely restrict Soviet exports,
particularly timber, which the government considered as a replacement for grain
exports.13 In the years following the publication of Maslagov's memoir, reports of the
labor camp on Solovki increased, and with them so did the Soviet Union's attempts to
1'Roy R. Robson, Solovki: The Story ofRussia Told Through its Most Remarkable Islands (New
Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 211-214.
1Tolczyk, See No Evil, p. 118.
12Maksim Gorky, letter to E.P. Peshkova, 9 June 1927, quoted in Andrew Barratt and Barry P.
Scherr, Maksim Gorky: Selected Letters, 283-284.
13Jakobson, Origins of the Gulag, 118.
deny the nature of the camp. To date, the 1947 work of David J. Dallin and Boris
Nicolaevsky, Forced Labor in Soviet Russia, provides the best account of the public
relations battle waged throughout 1930 and 1931.14 Although Dallin and Nicolaevsky
considered the actions of numerous humanitarian groups that were concerned for Soviet
inmates, such as the Anti-Slavery Society of England and the American Wage Erarners'
Conference, they found that ultimately certain "private and pecuniary trade interests"
determined the outcome of trade relations with the Soviet Union.15 Coupled with the
pressure from shipping interests to maintain open trade relations, the Soviet Union's
invitations to foreigners for inspection of the camps helped to undermine the campaign
against Soviet exports. Contrary to the memoirs published in England and in France,
Premier Vyacheslav Molotov asserted at the Sixth Congress of Soviets on March 8, 1931,
Soviet prisoners worked only eight hours per day, received sufficient rations, were paid
each month, and that they even moved about freely in the camps. In fact he even referred
to the living conditions as "excellent" when compared with the living conditions of "real
slavery that exists in capitalist society."16
It may be that Molotov was inspired by Gorky's description of Solovki, for his
description was certainly as colorful as that presented by Gorky in the journal Our
Accomplishments. According to Gorky's account the prisoners lived in comfortable and
spacious barracks "decorated with personal things: private blankets, pillows; on the walls
hung photographs and postcards; on window sills there are flowers." Moreover, the
4David J. Dallin and Boris Nicolaevsky, Forced Labor in Soviet Russia (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1947), 217-230.
"Dallin and Nicolaevsky, Forced Labor, 221.
atmosphere of a prison is completely discarded as "there is no resemblance of a prison
but instead it seems that these rooms are inhabited by passengers rescued from a drowned
ship.""7 Neither did he refrain from describing the excellent working conditions of the
"healthy lads in unbleached linen shirts and high boots.""1 Lastly, and particularly
important for the further development ofperekovka, he argued that through work in the
camp "socially dangerous people are transformed into socially useful ones, professional
criminals into highly qualified workers and conscious revolutionaries."19
Gorky's account of Solovki was not the only attempt to dissemble the true nature
of Soviet labor camps. In 1929 Evgenii Cherkasov produced the propaganda film The
Solovki Prison Camp (Solovetskii Lager). At the time it was filmed the Soviet
government encouraged and preferred pseudo-documentary films that depicted life in the
Soviet Union, albeit with glorified but simple messages. The Russian word for these
films, neigrovaia, literally means unplayed, implying that the films were not scripted or
acted.20 As in Gorky's account, the prison depicted by Cherkasov is presented in the best
of light. The prisoners, who were shown as physically unhealthy at the beginning of the
film, are depicted as considerably fitter by the end, and are shown working, reading, and
engaging in musical entertainment and plays. The film also compares the Tsarist prison
cells of Solovki with the new larger and lighter Soviet facilities.21 However, despite its
1Maxim Gorky quoted in Tolczyk, See No Evil, 137.
1Maxim Gorky quoted in Tolczyk, See No Evil, 138.
g1Maxim Gorky quoted in Tolczyk, See No Evil, 143.
20Graham Roberts, Forward Soviet! History and Non-fiction Film in the USSR (London: I.B.
Tauris Publishers, 1999), 2.
obvious and politically correct message, it is not clear that this film was ever shown to
audiences. Soviet film historian Graham Roberts indicated that he could find no
evidence that it was ever shown.22 Furthermore, Russian cinemaphotographer Marina
Goldovskaya who used Cherkasov's film in her 1988 documentary Solovki Power
(Solovestkaia Vlast), stated that her presentation of the film was the first time it had been
shown to anyone.
While it is difficult to determine the impact of Gorky's initial account of the
Solovki camp, and obviously it is doubtful that Cherkasov's film had any effect
whatsoever, the Soviet regime's decision to actively promote the construction of the
Belomor Canal and to emphasize prison labor is a completely different matter. Not only
was a collective literary work completed, but numerous newspaper accounts bombarded
the Soviet public with stories of the great achievements of the Soviet Union and the
As Russian historian Mikhail Morukov indicated in his brief study of the White
Sea-Baltic Canal, the idea of a canal linking the Baltic and White Seas has existed in
Russian imagination since the time of Peter the Great.23 Although various individuals
undertook preliminary surveys and construction plans, the canal was not seriously
contemplated until the beginning of 1930 under the auspices of the Council of Labor and
Defense of the Soviet Union. After a preliminary investigation the Council announced
that the proposed canal would provide such strategic benefits as allowing for the transfer
22Ibid., note 9, 163.
23Mikhail Morukov, "The White Sea-Baltic Canal," in The Economics ofForced Labor: The
Soviet Gulag, eds. Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press: 2003),
of navy ships to the northern seas and the economic benefits of the development of
Karelia and transportation of goods from the northernmost regions of Russia.24
However, the strategic function of the canal was largely excluded from official
announcements regarding the project and provided the impetus for the canal's initial
designation as "top secret." Needless to say, once the regime "recognized the true
propaganda value of the Canal project" it was publicized with much fanfare.25
The construction of the canal, which commenced in the spring of 1931, coincided
with or possibly exacerbated certain internal struggles within the upper echelons of the
Soviet regime. The construction of the project was entrusted to the OGPU (Unified State
Political Administration state security) by decree of the Politburo. However, the OGPU
was not the only entity which relied upon prison labor, as the NKVD (People's
Commissariat of Internal Affairs) also used prison labor for their projects, road and
railway construction for example. The initial construction plan submitted by the OGPU
called for the employment of 276,000 workers but only 180,000 were available, and of
those approximately 30,000 were incapable of work due to exhaustion and illness. To
correct the shortfall, the OGPU proposed to transfer the needed prisoners from the
NKVD camps, which of course was opposed by NKVD officials. Ultimately the matter
was settled by Stalin who ordered the dissolution of the Republican NKVD offices,
thereby establishing the OGPU as the primary authority of prison labor.26
25Cynthia Ruder, Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal (Gainesville:
University Press of Florida, 1998), 36.
26Khlevniuk, History of the Gulag, 24-28.
Despite the OGPU's victory over the NVKD, the construction of the canal was
not completed as originally designed. It was neither as wide, deep, nor grand as
originally conceived, causing Stalin to laconically comment during the opening
ceremonies that "it is not very big."27 While the canal stretched 227 km long, quite
impressive considering the rudimentary level of equipment used by the prisoners, in
certain places it was only 20 to 25 meters deep and only 30 meters wide.28 Nor was the
economic potential ever achieved, as in 1940 the total transportation value was only
forty-four percent of the original projected capacity.29 However, all was not lost as the
navy successfully transferred a number of ships prior to World War II through the canal
and use of the canal reduced the travel time between Leningrad and Arkhangelsk from
twenty days to only eight."3 Completed only one month later than the original projection
date of May 192031 and within its projected budget, the successful construction of the
Belomor Canal greatly influenced future Gulag projects.32 But before analyzing the myth
of the Belomor Canal as it was depicted in Soviet discourse, it is first necessary to
describe so to speak, the truth of the matter.
Who were these remarkable workers that accomplished so great a feat that even
Peter the Great himself had not dared attempt it? Just as in Peter's day, the workers were
primarily peasants. As a result of the collectivization and dekulakization drives
SRu idl IUA I -,, Historyfor Stalin, 23.
29Morukov, "The White Sea-Baltic Canal," 161.
''Rudi l I I,-,,nig Historyfor Stalin, 34.
32Morukov, "The White Sea-Baltic Canal," 162.
beginning in 1929 and overall increased repression, the labor camps of the Soviet Union
rapidly expanded. In 1930 alone 330,000 persons classified as kulaks were arrested.33
The struggle to survive the famine of 1931 increased the number of peasants in the labor
camps as they were frequently arrested for "theft of socialist property."34 In addition to
peasants, the OGPU arrested a number of engineers on alleged "wrecking" and sabotage
charges. Beginning in February of 1931 they were placed under house arrest and held at
the Liublianka Square in Moscow.35
By the time construction commenced in 1931, there were more than 100,000
prisoners at the Belomor labor camp. Sadly, by the end of the year at least two percent of
the camp population had died due to poor working conditions, exhaustion, accidents, and
illness. Some prisoners worked up to sixteen hours a day, a deadly situation considering
that the prisoners survived on only 800 calories per day. The successive famines,
resulting from the process of collectivization, were particularly hard on the prisoners as
supplies to the OGPU were restricted. The prisoners lacked sufficient mechanized
equipment for the task of digging the canal and had to rely heavily upon improvisation,
ingenuity, and brute force. The only motivating factor was the option of work credits for
fulfillment of OGPU labor norms. Under the work credit system prisoners could receive
a reduction in their sentences based upon the successful and timely, by OGPU standards,
completion of their assigned tasks.36
33Khlevniuk, History of the Gulag, 9-24.
R udci i ll-,,,Ag iHistoryfor Stalin, 20.
36Morukov, "The White Sea-Baltic Canal," 159-162.
Unsurprisingly, the press coverage of the Belomor Canal and its attendant camps
depicted a completely different image. Initially, the articles in the main party newspaper,
Pravda, focused solely on the role of the OGPU and its remarkable success. On May 25,
1933 the paper reported that the canal would be built in the record time of 18 months and
went on at length about L.I. Kogan, the OGPU official in charge of the construction.
Kogan is praised for the ingenuity of the construction and the wise use of inexpensive
and readily-available wood. Although the article was quite lengthy and included a
photograph of the canal, it did not describe the workers.37 However, by June the paper
had shifted its focus and began describing the "heroes of zeal, enthusiasm, and
consciousness" who had constructed the canal.38
Finally, on June 29, 1933, Soviet citizens were given a truly remarkable
description not only of worker life at the camp, but also of educational value of such
experiences.39 Indeed, it painted such a picture of camp life that it was reminiscent of
Gorky's 1929 descriptions of Solovki. The article, which again began with praise of the
OGPU and statistics of the construction process, discussed the many cultural activities
available to canal workers somehow without mentioning the fact that the workers were
prisoners. Rather, they were referred to as udarniki, meaning shock-workers. According
to the reporter, the udarniki were able to attend camp plays and orchestras, and certain
workers were even creating "new songs of harmony and victory." The article also retold
the story of Mitka, who had come to the camp as a philistine and runaway collective farm
7"Nakanune puska Belomorskovo kanala," Pravda (May 25, 1933), 142, 4.
:'"Not vodnyi put," Pravda (June 25, 1933), 173, 3.
39"Trudovaia Letopis," Pravda (June 29, 1933), 177, 3.
worker. Through work Mitka had learned the error of his ways and had even become a
shock-worker himself, "earning shock-worker rations and comraderly friendship." The
article then went on to state that there were "thousands" of stories just like Mitka's.
Although there were numerous other accounts in Pravda and Izvestia, none could
top the narrative produced by Gorky's Writer's Brigade. Cynthia Ruder's 1998 study of
the brigade, Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal, chronicles the
journey of the writers to the Belomor site and their subsequent work The History of the
Construction of the Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal (1934), hereinafter The History.
Ruder's work, which is based on archival materials, personal interviews, and memoirs, is
driven to disprove the claim that the writers brigade was comprised of "hack writers)
who complied with every state mandate." On the contrary, Ruder's work demonstrates
that "some of the best and brightest Soviet writers" worked on the Belomor project and
actually subscribed to the rhetoric of perekovka.40
Ruder argues that the idea for the writers brigade originated with Maxim Gorky at
a meeting at his house in late 1932.41 Gorky, along with other Soviet writers, was joined
by Politburo members Viacheslav Molotov, Klim Voroshilov, and none other than Joseph
Stalin himself to discuss the role of Soviet writers, and it was at this meeting that Stalin
famously concluded that writers were to become the "engineers of human souls."42 The
idea to collectively write the account complemented the theme of collectivization that
"'Ruidil \la,,,a Historyfor Stalin, 85.
42Arlen Viktorovich Blium, "O chem nel'zia pisat': tsenzumye tsirkuliary," Za kulisami
"Ministerstva Pravdy": Tainaia istoriia sovetskoi tsenzury, 1917-1929, transl. Donna M. Farina (Saint
Petersburg: "Akademicheskii proekt," 1994), in Book History 1.1 (1998): 274.
was present in Soviet society at the time; for the canal was to be constructed by the
collective efforts of Soviet citizens, therefore it was only logical that the writing of its
history should take a collective form as well. Additionally, the Socialist Realist canon
that Gorky and other prominent writers were developing called for new methods and
literary forms worthy of Soviet Communism that would rival, if not surpass, the great
literature of other world systems.43 Over the course of the following year, 120 writers
were chosen to visit the Belomor Canal and to contribute to the writing of its history.
Although it is not exactly clear how the final decision was made, it seems most likely that
this decision fell to Gorky, the OGPU, and the editorial board for the publishing house
The History ofFactories and Plants, under whose auspices The History was to be
published. Among the writers chosen for the project were such prominent and popular
personages as Alexy Tolstoy, Valentin Kataev, and Alexander Avdeenko.44
The writers assembled on August 17, 1933 to begin their two week journey,
without Gorky who contrary to The History did not travel with the Writers Brigade to the
Belomor Canal.45 However, the date of departure is noteworthy as the canal was
completed in July and the majority of the prisoners had already been dispersed to other
projects. Therefore, it is not surprising that the writers did not actually meet with many
prisoners but instead relied on OGPU reports and accounts for much of their narrative.
While the writers did attend the inmate-staffed camp theater, their limited meetings with
prisoners were arranged by OGPU officials and those whom they did meet with were not
43Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual, third edition (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 2000), 36.
'R uiC I l I u-,, g History for Stalin, 44-46.
political prisoners but common criminals.46 Also casting a dubious shadow is the fact
that one of the most prominent contributors to the Belomor volume, Sergei Alymov, was
incapable of being in the Writers Brigade as he was an inmate at the camp and
furthermore the editor of the camp newspaper Perkovka.47
The History was rushed into print so as to be complete in time for the Seventeenth
Party Congress in January, 1934, otherwise designated the "Congress of Victors" to
celebrate the achievements of the First Five-Year Plan. Four thousand copies were
reserved for the delegates to the congress and provided to them prior to the congress
where possible. A public edition was run in March 1934 and sold approximately 80,000
copies, and again in 1935 approximately 30,000 copies were sold. However, following
the purges of 1937 The History was banned as it explicitly praised the work of Genrikh
Yagoda, Semyon Firin, and other prominent OGPU officials who were either imprisoned
or executed.48 Neither Yagoda nor Firin lived to see the end of 1938.49 As the main
censorship agency of the Soviet Union, Glavlit, expressly forbid the publication of the
names of "enemies of the people," the disappearance of The History and the labor
camps from the official discourse is not surprising in the least.50 There were simply too
many such names in the work.
Katerina Clark argued in her seminal study of Socialist Realism that "literature is
49Marc Jansen and Nikita Petrov, Stalin's Loyal Executioner: People's Commissar Nikolai Ezhov,
1895-1940 (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2002), 61-64.
50Blium, "O chem nel'zia pisat': tsenzumye tsirkuliary," 275.
not merely the handmaiden of politics, not even in times of severe repression,"51 and this
argument is certainly true with respect to The History. The Writers Brigade presented a
very carefully constructed image of Soviet labor camps with their own, very specific
aims in mind. But while it is true that this image was crafted under the watchful eye of
Maxim Gorky, it should also be remembered that Semyon Firin, Chief of the OGPU,
served as an editor. As The History itself indicates, many of the stories that the writers
related were provided to them by OGPU reports. Additionally, given the strict
censorship of the Soviet regime for it to have even appeared in print indicates that the
Politburo perceived the volume to be useful in some manner or other. In other words, the
publication of such an account "verified the fact that the work was viewed by the
authorities as promoting the regime's own point of view."52 Though literature in this case
may not have been the regime's handmaiden, it certainly was not a hindrance either.
What image was put forth in The History and how was it useful to the regime?
The Belomor volume presented a similar picture as depicted in the newspaper articles
announcing the canal, but obviously with much more detail and idealism. A close
analysis of the text reveals at least four broad and interwoven themes: 1. pride in Soviet
accomplishments, 2. supremacy of Socialism over capitalism, 3. wisdom and
righteousness of the OGPU, 4. reform of criminals and social enemies through labor. As
can be expected, the camps are treated as very humane and caring institutions. In fact,
they are so humane and caring that there is only mention of two deaths in the entire work,
51Clark, The Soviet Novel, 20.
52Tolczyk, See No Evil, 10.
which is comprised of some three hundred and forty pages.53 Needless to say, this
picture is at odds with the fact that 2,000 prisoners had died by the end of 1931.54
Aside from the obvious exaggerations and embellishments, what Soviet
accomplishments did The History present? As only those blessed with a great
imagination can do, the Writers Brigade discovered pride in a situation that others would
have found embarrassing. As had been mentioned in the Pravda articles, the Belomor
Canal was constructed not only without foreign aid and assistance, but also without
foreign machinery. More importantly, it was also largely constructed without Soviet
machinery. Therefore, the writers focused on the novelty of constructing the flood gates
and locks out of native Karelian timber. Under the pens of the Writers Brigade the Soviet
Union's technical disadvantage was turned on its head and engineers found great
amazement that they were the first to use such methods as "wooden sills and flood gates
of locks for deep-sea vessels have never been made by anyone, anywhere in the world,
and that science has no formulae for any such construction."55 And to all who would
patronize their wooden works, after the successful construction of the first lock, an
engineer asserts that "wood gates are not inferior to iron ones."56 Not only are the
wooden gates of equal quality of those iron gates of the West, but "America and Europe
53Maxim Gorky, L Auerbach, and S.G. Firin, eds. Belomor: An Account of the Construction of the
New Canal Between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1935);
the first of these instances is on p. 274 where the prisoner Tuchkov dies through a mining accident that is
without blame. The second instance is mentioned on p. 335 by a woman shock-worker as she is receiving
her medal. In her speech she mentions that her father died while working on the canal, but she does not
5Morukov, "The White Sea-Baltic Canal," 159-162.
5Gorky, History, p. 157
gasped and took off its hat" to the workers who built the canal using "rough-hewn
pickaxes."57 The engineers even created a new science in the process, that of "Socialist
The Belomor volume also focused on the benefits of the new Socialist mode of
life as compared to the disadvantages of life under the tsars or capitalism. Of primary
importance was the fact that under the Russian tsars the canal had not been built, but the
"Soviet Union succeeded where tsarist Russia had failed."59 According to the authors of
Belomor, the idea of the canal had dated back to the sixteenth century and implied that
where the tsarist government was denied "eternal glory," it would be rightfully granted to
the Soviet Union.60 Also in contrast to construction projects of the tsarist era, where
workers were denied the right to enjoy that which they had created, the canal would be
available to the workers. Rather than traveling alongside the tsar's road where it was
"ditch after ditch, bump after bump," the workers would be able to take leisurely sails
through the canal to Karelia.61
The old way of life, be it tsarism or capitalism, is portrayed in The History as the
reason for criminality among Soviet citizens. As in traditional Marxist thinking, people
are conditioned by their social environment, and by implication the Socialist environment
of the Soviet Union will not produce criminals. A former criminal even looks forward to
the day when the OGPU will announce "there are no more criminals!"62 The Belomor
volume includes a number of individual accounts that attribute the criminal behavior to
capitalism or tsarism. For instance, engineer Budassy's criminal behavior, he was after
all discovered cheating the Soviet state of its timber, is attributed to the former society
and the "engineering circles of the capitalist era, in which Budassy lived and worked,
must bear the full responsibility for him."63 Rothenburg, a former thief, learns from an
OGPU officer that life had forced him into thievery and that it was no fault of his.
However, he does come to understand that under Socialism he has been given another
chance and that it would be his fault should he continue thieving.64
A further difference between Socialism and capitalism is the nature and goal of
the prisons in each system. The reader is led to the conclusion that under Socialism
prisons are meant to rehabilitate prisoners and provide them with new modes of life,
unlike those in Western, bourgeois countries. The story of Rothenburg, the reformed
thief mentioned above, demonstrates the senselessness of British prisons and the
ineffectiveness of menial labor. After one year under their system Rothenburg has
learned nothing and returns to his life of crime.65 Furthermore, under the Soviet system
prisoners feel no shame of their time served. At the end of their sentences at Belomor,
they are perceived of as heroes who are rewarded with an early release. An engineer who
was concerned for what his children would think was thus reassured upon his release.66
And according to the writers of the History, the prisoners "have been set free from guilt,
from 'police records,' from the prostitutes' 'yellow ticket,' from a bad reputation."67
Directly related to the nature of the Soviet prison system as it is depicted in the
Belomor account, is the wisdom and righteousness of the OGPU, a major theme of the
narrative. There are a number of chapters dedicated solely to OGPU officers L. Kagan
(Kogan), Yakov Rappoport, Dmitri Uspensky, and Naftali Frenkel. As if to further
emphasize the competition between the OGPU and NKVD for control of the prisoners,
the account includes a chapter entitled "The G.P.U. Men Need the Prisoners."
Throughout the volume the OGPU officers, or Chekists as they are referred to, appear to
primarily be concerned with the physical and mental welfare of the prisoners. Kagan is
quoted as stating that "the men and their comforts are every bit as important as the
obligatory fulfilment of the production programme set by the State Political
Department,"68 and Dmitri Uspensky later exhorts his assistant to keep the men clothed
and "supplied with clean linen."69 Not only do the authors use the OGPU officers to
assert such concern, they also use the words of the prisoners. For instance, Rothenburg
relates that thanks to the Chekists he has good clothes and boots and that they are all
"properly looked after."70 A female prisoner reassures a newcomer that should she get
sick she will be provided with medicine and permitted to rest.71
However, the OGPU men are presented as more than just fair wardens. The
OGPU men are considered exemplars of the new Soviet man. They are beyond reproach
in their moral values and quest for social justice. Although they "dressed as officers,
they live like monks: you never see them drunk, and they don't hang around the girls," or
least so attested one prisoner.7 But, what else could one expect from the "bodyguard of
the proletariat," as Gorky named them.73 The writers establish the revolutionary pedigree
of the OGPU men by describing their various encounters with White Guardists and
counter-revolutionaries, numerous stints in prisons, and battle wounds. Accordingly,
"they know what the truth is, they know what Socialism is they have been defending it
for the last fourteen years, the true soul of their Party, gallant Bolsheviks."74 They are
also presented as forgiving, as demonstrated by Yakov Rappoport's treatment of the man
who denounced him for being a Bolshevik during their school days. Rappoport merely
observes the man, now a prisoner, rather than confronting him as he appears to be on the
correct path to redemption.75 And in their spare time they study trigonometry and
Not content to care only for the bodies of their prisoners, the OGPU officers are
shown by the writers of The History to be concerned for their minds as well. Social clubs
were organized to help workers and engineers understand the need for mass work.
OGPU officers even personally invited persons to attend such clubs and gatherings.7
The OGPU organized study circles, reading circles, and correspondence courses for the
prisoners so that they do not remain illiterate and so that they could acquire professions
rather than return to thievery, banditry, or prostitution.7" There are also efforts to prevent
those sentenced for common crimes, such as theft, prostitution, or living as kulaks, from
"falling under the influence of the counter-revolutionaries, who have been sent here for
entirely different things."79 However, counter-revolutionaries are virtually non-existent
in The History and the reader is never provided with a description of their activities.
They remain a mystery.
Through the heroic and successful efforts of the OGPU men, the prisoners are re-
forged, the fourth and most prominent theme of the Belomor volume. The re-forging
aspect was present in Gorky's account of Solovki, but in The History it is much more
prominent. Although the ideology of re-education or re-forging, perekovka in Russian,
was mentioned by Dzerzhinsky in 1919 and further developed by Gorky, the Belomor
volume declares that "Stalin was the initiator of the G.P.U. labour communes and the
policy of reform through labour."80 Therefore, it is to Stalin that the reformed thieves and
prostitutes should turn in gratitude. In return for their reformed lives the re-forged men
and women are called upon by the OGPU to "help us to care for and re-educate the
counter-revolutionaries.""1 However, again it must be mentioned that the narrators of
Belomor do not discuss in detail or mention who is a counter-revolutionary and how they
are to be discovered.
There are numerous stories of reforging throughout The History. Some are great,
such as the re-forging ofNaftali Frenkel, the former criminal who rose through the ranks
to become an OGPU officer in charge of construction at the Belomor camp.82 Others are
less spectacular, such as the account of former thief Zinaida Yurtzeva, who eventually
becomes a shock-worker, exceeding the expected output of work by fifty percent.83 Not
only common, uneducated prisoners were reformed, but also engineers such as Maslov,
who through the design of unprecedented wooden locks and gates experienced a
"reconstruction of his conscience."84 However, despite the previous social standing of
the person that is re-forged or their level of education, they all come to understand and
accept the new regime and the importance of the construction. In what now seems a tired
cliche, those that were re-forged not only constructed a canal, but also Socialism in the
Soviet Union. The writers do not offer a definite reason for each reformation, as their
concept of criminality is that it is a social illness. In this reasoning, once an individual is
placed in a healthy social environment, all criminality will cease. Therefore, the reader is
provided with the poignant example of engineer Zubrik who although a son of
proletarians, had rejected this most superior class to attain a place in bourgeois society.
Through working in the Socialist environment at the camps, provided for by the OGPU,
Zubrik then underwent a re-molding and "cast aside all his former views, illusions, and
prejudices all that with which the bourgeoisie had once poisoned this young proletarian,
sprung from the very heart of an oppressed class."85
How could the aforementioned four themes be useful to the Soviet regime and
why would its members wish to promote such a work? The praise of Soviet
accomplishments, although in the name of Socialism, strikes the reader as patriotism or
nationalism. The writers do not present the construction of the canal as a model for the
international proletariat or as a means to inspire the international proletariat, but rather it
is a demonstration that "our country is magnanimous, beautiful, and strong, that the
people are strong and sane, that it can and should accomplish wonderful things."86
Statements such as this are certainly at odds with the views on national chauvinism
espoused by Lenin in the early 1920s, but they are in perfect accord with Stalin's new
focus on "Socialism in one country.""87 Additionally, the Belomor volume served to
discount stories in the international press of the horrors of Soviet labor camps. In an era
of "Socialism in one country" and of normalized relations with other nations, public
opinion was important. It is quite telling that The History was translated into English by
Soviet authorities and distributed to England and the United States.
Dariusz Tolczyk stated that the glorification of the labor camp, as presented in
The History, was an "attempt to verify in practical terms the totalitarian claim to total
control over the human mind.""88 Of course, Tolczyk's view of the Soviet Union is that
87Nicholas Riasanovsky, A History ofRussia, sixth edition (New York and Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2000), 495.
8Tolczyk, See No Evil, 10.
the ideas presented by the writers of The History came from the top down, as it were,
and not from any other source. In his opinion, it appears that literature is the
"handmaiden of politics," to once again use Clark's phrase. On the contrary, a much
simpler answer is quite plausible in this instance. Might the answer of why the Soviet
regime would wish to glorify labor camps be to inspire the confidence and pride of its
citizens, and to use whatever tools were at hand? The canal was presented as part of
Stalin's First Five-Year Plan, which was touted as successful. Although percentages
were exaggerated, it did result in a significant increase in industrial output and quality.
Unfortunately, the collectivization of the countryside resulted in resistance, famine, and
untold numbers of peasants executed or arrested.89 By praising Soviet methods and
Soviet accomplishments, the population would begin to see that despite the problems in
the countryside, the regime was leading them in the right direction and that conditions
would improve. Furthermore, from the regime's view the chances of success for the
Second Five-Year Plan could only increase with a cooperative populace.
The focus on the OGPU and their re-forging methods also served the pragmatic
purpose of promoting cooperation among the population. As is well known, the Soviet
regime encouraged its citizens to denounce not only one another, but also family
members, and Soviet officials. In 1932 the young Pioneer Pavel Morozov was murdered
for the denunciation of his father, or at least that is what the Soviet press reported.
According to the Soviet accounts, Pavel denounced his father for assisting kulaks and
therefore opposing the Communist Party. As a consequence of Pavel's bravery he was
8Riasanovsky, A History ofRussia, 497.
immortalized in statues throughout the Soviet Union and praised as a hero for his act.90
Sheila Fitzpatrick has noted however that the denunciation of parents by their children
was in fact very rare and that the archives simply do not reveal this type of activity.
What is more common is the denunciation of unrelated individuals on the basis of their
class. For instance, kulaks and former managers were often targeted in denunciation
By presenting the labor camp and OGPU officers in such a just and useful
manner, The History could only encourage those who were reluctant to inform on others.
Potential informers were reassured by the account that those who were arrested would be
treated fairly. All that would be expected was that they work for the common good of the
Soviet Union. According to the authors, socially alienated kulaks would be reformed
and learn useful trades, thereby contributing to the growth and prosperity of society.
Likewise, for those that had strictly personal motives for denunciation, such as revenge
or profit motives, the account ofBelomor assured that denunciation would not mean the
total destruction of the arrested individual. The practice of denunciation was a powerful
tool, not only for the state to monitor its population, but also for individuals seeking state
action on their behalf. It is, as Jan Gross has pointed out, the "privatization of the public
realm," and the "real power of the totalitarian state."92
90Yuri Druzhnikov, Informer 001: The Myth ofPavlikMorozov (London: Transaction Publishers,
91Sheila Fitzpatrick, "Signals from Below: Soviet Letters of Denunciation of the 1930s," in Sheila
Fitzpatrick and Robert Gellately, eds. Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History,
1789-1989 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 103.
92Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest ofPoland's Western Ukraine and
Western Belorussia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 117-120.
As mentioned previously in this study, the Gulag as a literary topic was forbidden
following the Great Purges of 1937-1938. The mass arrests of that time were in direct
opposition to the utopian ideas put forth by the authors. Though a new society had been
constructed crime had not ceased as promised. In fact, if the charges brought forth in the
purges were to be believed, crime had instead increased. The presence of the camps was
further shrouded in secrecy by laws that required individuals to remain in exile for up to
twenty-five years following the completion of their sentences and release from labor
camps. After the purges the emphasis on reform through labor and the description of
prisoners as shock-workers was no longer accepted in any of the prison labor
93David Norlander, "Magadan and the Economic History of Dalstroi in the 1930s," in The
Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag, eds. Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (Stanford, CA:
Hoover Institution Press, 2003), 124.
KHRUSHCHEV'S THAW: LABOR CAMPS AND DE-STALINIZATION
During Khrushchev's "thaw," the labor camps were again brought to the forefront
of official discourse through the publication of numerous camp stories, Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) being the most prominent
and best remembered. As with the accounts of the 1930s the government, or specifically
certain individuals in the government, sought to use these accounts for their own
purposes. Although it is doubtful that the intellectuals and government actors involved in
the official discourse at this time were in agreement over the meaning and origins of the
Gulag, it must be stressed that the image of the camps that emerged at this time was the
product of their interaction. The following will address two camp accounts published
during the thaw, each representing one end of the permissible spectrum, in order to
determine how and why the government sought to make use such accounts. Also
included in the analysis are a number of samizdat accounts, which were published outside
of the official realm and therefore highlight the variance of intellectual opinion regarding
Soviet labor camps. Such accounts additionally serve to demonstrate what the regime
found acceptable and provide a further indication of why certain depictions were deemed
appropriate and others were not.
The labor camp did not make another appearance in the official discourse again
until November 6, 1962 when Aleksei Adjubei, Nikita Khrushchev's son-in-law and
editor of Izvestia, published Georgy Shelest's Kolyma short story, "A Nugget."1 Later
that month Novyi Mir, the premier liberal "thick journal" of the time, published
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, hereinafter One Day.2
Solzhenitsyn later criticized Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor of Novyi Mir, for not
publishing a chapter from his novel First Circle during the high-tide of anti-Stalinism. In
Solzhenitsyn's opinion, the publication of his chapter on Stalin would have "stripped him
down much more thoroughly," and "made it much more difficult to touch him up again in
glowing colors." In short, "literature could have accelerated history."3 Obviously
Solzhenitsyn believes himself important in this particular episode, but would the
publication of a piece lambasting Stalin have been possible and would it have made such
a great difference? A survey of government actions during Khrushchev's tenure indicate
a resounding no.
Shortly after Stalin's death, Minister of Interior Lavrenty Beria drafted an
amnesty for the release of all prisoners with sentences of up to five years. The decree
was soon published in Pravda and Izvestia, and approximately 1.5 million prisoners were
released.4 In 1955 the Kremlin began to investigate the cases of those arrested for anti-
Soviet activities, the so-called politicalls' and by the end of the year thousands had
1Tolczyk, See No Evil, 188.
2Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "Odin dne Ivana Denisovicha," Novyi Mir, Nov. 1962.
3Aleksandr Solzhenitysn, The Oak and the Calf Sketches ofLiterary Life in the Soviet Union,
transl. Harry Willetts (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1979), 32.
4Aleksei Tikhonov, "The End of the Gulag," in The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet
Gulag, eds. Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, CA, 2003), 67.
returned home.5 In Anna Akhmatova's apt phrase, the "two Russias looked each other in
the eye: the one that sent people to the camps and the one that was sent away. Although
the release of the prisoners was certainly a promising sign for the liberalization or reform
of the Soviet regime, the future was anything but certain.
Stalin's death in 1953 resulted in a power struggle among top party officials, and
much to his surprise, Lavrenty Beria was the first victim. In fact, Nikita Khrushchev,
Viacheslav Molotov, Georgy Malenkov, and other central committee members used
Beria as a "scapegoat...... for the worst of Stalinism while leaving Stalin's reputation
intact and cleansing their own hands in the bargain."6 Beria was subsequently executed
on December 24, 1953 following a closed and predetermined trial. Khrushchev's "Secret
Speech" was not meant merely to denounce Stalin, but also to taint his fellow committee
members with the crimes of Stalinism and at the same time preserve his own image. By
focusing on the repression of the Communist Party member of the 1934 Congress, he
ever-so-slightly indicated Molotov and Kaganovich in Stalin's crimes.7 Khrushchev
continued the de-Stalinization campaign with the decree of June 1956 "On Overcoming
the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences," which announced the official party
position and authorized public criticism of the crimes of Stalinism.8 Khrushchev also
encouraged the creation and revival of numerous 'thick journals,' which served as a
5William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2003),
6Taubman, Khrushchev, 257.
Nikita S. Khrushchev, "Secret Speech Delivered by the First Party Secretary at the Twentieth
Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union," February 25, 1956, Moscow, full text
available at Moder History Sourcebook, Fordham University,
8Tolczyk, See No Evil, 185.
forum for the discussion of Stalinism. During the period of 1955-1957, twenty-seven
such journals were created or revived.9
However, Khrushchev and his Kremlin cohorts undertook numerous actions that
indicated the repressive policies of Stalinism were not at an end but simply a new phase.
The brutal oppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was certainly a stunning
example of the regime's unchanging nature. Throughout 1957 hundreds of protesters
were arrested and sentenced to terms of up to seven years for counterrevolutionary
crimes. Liberalization appeared to be a long way off on the cultural front as well. In a
meeting with the Writers Union in May of that same year, Khrushchev attacked various
works and insulted numerous writers. He followed the debacle at the Writers Union with
another, even more disastrous encounter at his dacha, originally intended to soothe the
tensions between the intelligentsia and the government.10
Following the coup attempt of 1957, Khrushchev's policies continued to waver
between Stalinism and anti-Stalinism. According to Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko,
who was himself lambasted by Khrushchev at a meeting with the Writers Union,
"Khrushchev's tragic flaw was that he was both a Stalinist and an anti-Stalinist."11 This
'flaw' was clearly visible in his policies throughout his term as First Party Secretary. In
1958 he encouraged the attack on Boris Pasternak following the author's Nobel prize
award for Doctor Zhivago.12 But at the Twenty-Second Congress in October 1961 he
9Yitzhak Brudny, ,. n,,,. m.,,o Russia: Russian Nationalism and the Soviet State (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.), 31.
'oTaubman, Khrushchev, 303-309.
"Yevgeny Yevtushenko, "Introduction," Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of van
Denisovich, transl. Ralph Parker (Signet Classic: New York, 1998), x.
12Taubman, Khrushchev, 385.
again attacked Stalin and called for the removal of his body from Lenin's mausoleum on
Red Square. And in another about-face, he authorized the use of force in June of 1962 on
protesters in Novocherkassk who were protesting price increases and wage decreases.13
And yet it was this same Khrushchev who was undoubtedly instrumental in the
publication of the most famous Soviet labor camp story to date, One Day in the Life of
Solzhenitsyn recounted the publication of One Day in his 'sketch' The Oak and
the Calf, previously cited in this essay. However, his account implies that Aleksandr
Tvardovsky merely needed to place a telephone call to Khrushchev to gain approval. As
demonstrated in the previous discussion, Khrushchev's commitment to liberal policies
was in no way certain. Furthermore, Tvardovsky was well aware that the novel would
not pass muster with Glavlit, which explicitly prohibited the subject of 'places of
detention' in print.14 At the Twenty-Second Party Congress in October 1961, he had
given an impassioned speech calling for greater quality and truth in literature, and
denouncing the "varnishing" effect of Socialist Realism. He also attacked the stock hero
of Socialist Realism, "who lacks one vital quality: the charm of a human being.""5 As
can be expected from such exhortations, Tvardovsky was quite taken with Solzhenitsyn's
novella and took great care in its publication.
14Vladimir Lakshin, "Solzhenitsyn, Tvardovsky, and Novy Mir," in Solzhenitsyn, Tvardovsky, and
NovyMir, eds. and transl. Michael Glenny (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1980), 4.
"Aleksandr Tvardovsky quoted in Peter Rudy, "The Soviet Russian Literary Scene in 1961 A
Mild Permafrost Thaw," The Modern Language Journal 46 (Oct., 1962): 248.
According to Vladimir Lakshin, who was a literary critic and member of the
editorial board at Novyi Mir in the 1960s, the entire editorial board unanimously agreed
that Solzhenitsyn's work should be published. As it was understood that Glavlit would
never approve such a story, Tvardovsky decided to appeal to Nikita Khrushchev, through
his well-known liberal aide Vladimir Lebedev.16 To gain support for the novella
Tvardosky sent copies to certain influential members of the literary intelligentsia, such as
Ily'a Ehrenburg, Kornei Chukovsky, and Venhamen Kaverin, and requested that they
write letters in praise of the work. Tvardovsky then sent the letters along with the
novella to Lebedev who read portions of the novel to Khrushchev sometime in September
1962.17 Apparently Khrushchev was "smitten" with the simple peasant hero of the
novella and called the Presidium together twice in October to discuss the work.
Ultimately the Presidium consented and Khrushchev personally contacted Tvardovsky to
inform him of the magnanimous decision.18
As with The History, publication of Solzhenitsyn's novella and other works of the
time served the Soviet regime in some fashion. Although his work was considerably
different from other writings, such as Georgy Shelest's Kolyma Notes, Yuri Pilyar's
People Remain People, or Boris Dyakov's The Story of What I Lived Through, they were
all stories of the labor camp and they were all published within the years of 1962-1964.19
16Lakshin, "Solzhenitsyn, Tvardovsky, and Novy Mir," 4.
1Mary Chaffin, "Alexander Tvardovsky: A Biographical Study," in Solzhenitsyn, Tvardovsky, and
Novy Mir, 106.
1Taubman, Khrushchev, 527.
19Tolczyk, See No Evil, 189.
The question is then what made these so very different works acceptable and appealing to
the Soviet regime? Additionally, how is their presentation of the Gulag different or
similar to that presented in the earlier camp works?
From a post-Gulag Archipelago stance it might be difficult to imagine that any of
Solzhenitsyn's works were ever determined appropriate for Communist consumption.
But in 1962 he was virtually unknown until the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan
Denisovich. Furthermore, despite Solzhenitsyn's later criticisms of the Soviet Union he
was thoroughly disappointed in 1964 when he did not receive the Lenin Prize for
Literature.20 It is also worth noting that his novella was not considered objectionable by
Nikita Khrushchev or Aleksandr Tvardovsky, who in addition to being the editor of
Novyi Mir was also a Communist and member of the Central Committee.21 The beauty
of Solzhenitsyn's story lies in its very ambiguity; it can be interpreted as a condemnation
of the labor camps, but it can also appear to affirm certain communist values. Certainly
the hero of the novel, peasant-soldier Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, must have appealed to
Khrushchev and Tvardovsky who were each of peasant origins themselves. As a peasant,
Ivan Denisovich behaves in a virtuous and honorable manner, yet manages to survive
under harsh conditions. He considers his squad companions his "brothers," and even
though he has spent eight years in the camp he is not wasteful as "nothing must be wasted
without good reason."22 Additionally, Shukhov has never taken nor given a bribe
20Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1984),
21Chaffin, Aleksandr Tvardovsky," 105.
22Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, transl. Ralph Parker (New
York:: Signet Classic, 1998), 85-88.
because "easy money weighs light in the hand and doesn't give you the feeling that
you've earned it."23 Ivan Denisovich is also quick to sacrifice his needs for those of his
family and admonishes his wife not to send parcels of food since it would only deprive
his children.24 Truly, Shukhov is a character to inspire the nation with his peasant
Solzhenitsyn's hero is an extremely hard worker, another virtue that would have
been well-received in communist circles. In fact, he is such a hard worker that in the
novel it appears the only time that he is completely happy is when he is working. Not
only is he the lead worker of his squad, but he refuses to leave the wall he is constructing
after the alarm has been sounded to return to the camp. He "felt the cold no
longer.......nothing else mattered," only his wall and the mortar. A fellow worker even
challenges him at one point, he is after all the lead worker, to "see who's working
Solzhenitsyn mentions communism only once in his novella and it is through the
protestations of Captain Buinovsky that the subject is briefly broached. Infuriated that
the prisoners are being strip searched in the cold, Buinovsky yells at the guards that they
are "not behaving like Soviet people, you're not behaving like communists."26 Of course,
Buinovsky's implication is that good communists would not degrade the prisoners or put
them at risk in such a manner. However, Shukhov knows better and understands that
23Solzhenitsyn, One Day, 35.
they are at the guards' mercy. Nevertheless, there are various moments throughout the
novella that could appear to promote socialism or communism, without explicitly
mentioning the terms. The previously mentioned competition between Shukhov and his
fellow prisoner to see who was worker harder is reminiscent of the socialist competition
stories of the Belomor Canal. At one point Shukhov's squad and their guards together
raced another column back to camp. The prisoners viewed the escort "now as a friend
rather than the foe."27 Again, this incident would seem to confirm the earlier view of
camp guards and their relations with the prisoners.
As with communism, Stalin too receives scant mention in One Day. He is
referred to as "Old Whiskers" by a prisoner who is discussing his chances of release with
another. Unsurprising they decide that the chances of Stalin taking pity are decidedly
slim.28 However, more importantly Solzhenitsyn strips the veneer of the labor camp
myth first propagated under Stalin. In Shukhov's world there is noperekovka, no
development of class consciousness or learning through work. Although there is a
transformation, it is not Shukhov but the communist Buinovksy who is transformed.
Contrary to the images of Belomor, Buinovksy's experience did not reaffirm his faith or
belief is communism, but instead transformed him "from an eager, confident naval officer
with a ringing voice into an inert, though wary, zek."29 Gone as well are the high ideals
and morals presented in the early thirties, and in their place food and cigarettes become
the ruling force of a zek's life. Freedom is no longer important when compared to a bowl
of cabbage soup which was "dearer than life itself, past, present, and future."30
The life that Solzhenitsyn presents is not filled with socialist competitions,
awards, or gleeful shockworkers, but wary zeks who must somehow "prove that work
which hadn't been done had been done" so that they could receive a decent amount of
food, which the camp authorities would cheat them of anyways.31 It is a world filled with
persons who are only given a chance to bathe every ten days, who are only allowed one
pair of shoes at a time, and in Shukhov's case who are only allowed two letters from
home per year. The guards who inhabit Shukhov's world are in some ways no better off
as they receive minimal rations as well. They are held responsible if a prisoner escapes
and as Shukhov states, if you are a guard and "there was one head short when they got
past the barbed wire, you had to replace it with your own."32 In other instances however,
the guards are the worst of the system as it is they who place people in solitary
confinement or beat the prisoners at will. Nor are the guards exemplars of socialist
behavior, for they too steal from the construction site in an effort to supplement their
Solzhenitsyn's account also brings to light the injustices suffered by the returning
POWs. For instance, Ivan Denisovich volunteered for the front twice during World War
II, and yet after escape from German captivity he is sentenced as a German spy, a traitor
to his homeland. Shukhov is, in effect, a "prison-made" spy forced to confess for fear of
execution. However, compared to his companions who were shot by their own men upon
return, Shukhov considers himself lucky.33 Throughout the account Solzhenitsyn make
allusions to those newcomers, "just in from the front," who undoubtedly comprised a
significant portion of the camp population. There is also no guarantee of release once an
inmate has served his time. Shukhov mentions those prisoners who were to be released
during the war but were somehow held for another five years "pending special
instructions."34 Even if a prisoner is released it is unlikely that he or she will ever be
permitted to return home. As for Ivan Denisovich, he didn't know whether to wish for
freedom or not because freedom meant home to him, and he would surely be exiled upon
Solzhenitsyn's novella is unique compared with the other camp accounts released
during Khrushchev's "thaw." His story is not told from a communist point of view, nor
does it overtly espouse communist or socialist ideology, although it was interpreted by
many in exactly such a fashion. Gerogy Shelest's "The Nugget," which appeared mere
days before One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, is a story of communist affirmation
and is typical of published labor camp stories of the early 1960s. Eventually Shelest's
complete cycle, Kolymskie Zapisi, or Kolyma Notes, was printed in the journal Znamia.36
Zhores Medvedev, who traveled in the same intellectual circles as Tvardovsky, noted that
"The Nugget" was originally submitted to Tvardovsky at Novyi Mir, but that he rejected
36Georgy Shelest, "Kolymskie Zapisi," Znamia, 9 (1964), 164-180.
it because "the writing was bad" and it "did not ring true.""37 And indeed while the world
described by Shelest is as harsh and destructive as Solzhenitsyn's, the heroes who inhabit
Shelest's story never question their beliefs, but always adhere to their communist
principles. The camp life is forever in the background and serves only to demonstrate the
virtue of his characters.
In Shelest's first story, "The Nugget," the prisoners' communist faith is tested
when they find a rather large nugget of gold, hence the title. The prisoners, all self-
professed communists of course, discuss their options and how they could improve their
lives by selling the nugget instead of turning it in to their work leader. For instance, they
could purchase tea, extra rations, and even tobacco. However Dushenov, a former Red
Army general, gives an impassioned speech stating that they should hand over the nugget
because they are communists. Quoting Lenin he argues that they should "consider the
facts of the situation," and the fact is that "there is a war." And although "someone with
a nasty disposition had charged them and hidden them away to mine gold," their job as
communists was to support the war effort. In Dushenov's words, "we are
communists.....this is our life." At the end of the day, in true form, Dushenov thanks his
fellow communist prisoners for their "working days and assistance to the Soviet
Communist ideals are further advanced in "The Meeting," in the form of Aleksei
Ivanovich Zaborskii, an intellectual and former party official. When the camp
commander learns who Aleksei is, he invites Aleksei to his office and asks if there is
3Zhores A. Medvedev, Ten Years After Ivan Denisovich, transl. Hilary Sternberg (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1973), 14.
38Shelest, "Samarodok," in Kolymskie Zapici, Znamia, 167.
anything that he would like. Aleksei humbly asks only for the six volume set of Lenin's
writings. The camp commander is so impressed that he graciously provides the volumes
to Aleksei and also gives him a good bit of tobacco. Shelest writes that Aleksei
Ivanovich was a great man of purpose and a legend in the camp, for he had been to the
office of the commander and returned. To further amazement, each night after a full day
of work, Aleksei diligently reads the works of Lenin.39 As is typical of other stories in
Shelest's cycle, Aleksei and his fellow communists refuse to address each other by any
other title than tovarish, or comrade, which was strictly forbidden in labor camps. In
another story, "The Novice," the hero who is aptly named Vladlen,40 laments that he can
no longer read the works of Lenin, nor gaze upon the portrait of his namesake that hung
in his library.41 Leaving no stone unturned, Shelest even includes a communist named
Nikita in the work brigade that Vladlen is assigned to.
Unlike Solzhenitsyn's work which mentions Stalin only once, in Shelest's work
he is straightforwardly blamed for their imprisonment. It is because of Stalin that the
communists in the camp are not fighting at the front and it is because of Stalin that
Aleksei Ivanovich no longer has a position in the Party. Hinting at the immorality of
Stalin's acts, the narrator declares that "Aleksei could never become accustomed to
Stalin," and that "Stalin carried out his own policies and Aleksei Ivanovich his own."42
39Shelest, "Vctrecha," Kolymskie Zapici, Znamia, 170-171.
40A combination of Vladimir and Lenin.
41Shelest, "Novichki," Kolymskie Zapici, Znamia, 178-179.
'-ShicI's "Vctrecha," Kolymskie Zapici, Znamia, 171.
In short, Stalin's name is constantly associated with repression, while Lenin is revered as
the wise and knowing leader.
A number of other camp survivors were also motivated or inspired to submit their
stories for publication during Khrushchev's Thaw, although their works were fated to
appear only in samizdat for the time being. Varlam Shalamov began working on Kolyma
Tales following his release from prison in 1956, and it is likely that this collection of
short stories was submitted to Novyi Mir sometime in 1962.43 However, it was denied
publication as were works submitted by Vasily Grossman and Eugenia Ginzburg.
Grossman's account so upset the authorities that his apartment was searched and not only
were all copies of the offensive novella, Forever Flowing, confiscated, but the KGB also
took his carbon paper and typewriter.44 Grossman understood that his story would not be
published during his lifetime and therefore continued to expand the novella, the original
manuscript of which was a mere seventy-eight pages, until upon his death he had written
over two hundred pages.45 In Eugenia Ginzburg' case it seems that even though the
journals Yunost and Novyi Mir each refused to publish her story, Journey Into the
Whirlwind, a member of one staff or the other felt that her account should be made
available to readers as it "suddenly appeared in samizdat." She began to receive not only
43Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, 441.
44Riitta H. Pittman, "Perestroika and Soviet Cultural Politics: The Case of the Major Literary
Journals," Soviet Studies 42 (Jan., 1990): 121.
45John Garrard, "The Original Manuscript of Forever Ft .... i, Grossman's Autopsy of the New
Soviet Man," The Slavic and East European Journal 23 (Summer, 1994): 273-275.
letters and books from well-respected authors such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Ily'a
Ehrenburg, but also from former inmates who had read her book.46
The works of Shalamov, Grossman, and Ginzburg were undoubtedly considered
inappropriate for a number of reasons, but the primary difference between their works
and those of Solzhenitsyn or Shelest is that the camp life does not reaffirm the values of
its inhabitants. The camps of the unpublished writers do not present an experience that
can be effectively overcome, nor do they present inmates that will be as useful to society
as they were before their imprisonment. In contrast to Solzhenitsyn or Shelest, who each
present inmates that work together in order to achieve greater rations or other ends,
Shalamov asserts that in the camps "they immediately learned not to defend or support
each other."47 Both Shalamov and Grossman highlight the degradation of morals and
values by discussing the various, and invariably violent, homosexual relationships that
develop among the women and men when separated from members of the opposite sex
for long periods of time.48 Ginzburg thoroughly destroys the image of the honorable
Communist in various passages, describing the "patronizing" tone that Communists take
with other prisoners and their unfounded hostility and suspicion towards non-
Euigcniw Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind, transl. Ian Boland (New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1981), 420.
"Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, transl. John Glad (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 242.
4Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, 160; Vasily Grossman, Forever Fi. i.. transl. Thomas P.
Whitney (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1970), 117, 129.
E ugc ni Ginzburg, Journey Into the Whirlwind, transl Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward (New
York: Harcourt, Inc., 1967), 115, 154.
Particularly objectionable in the works of Ginzburg and Grossman, are the issues
of blame and responsibility. Whereas Khrushchev and other like-minded individuals
found Stalin solely responsible for the transgressions against the Soviet population, and
conversely praised the Communist Party for exposing the heinous crimes, Ginzburg and
Grossman pressed deeper into the matter. Ginzburg mentions Stalin and his
responsibility, but she does not dwell on the matter and instead focuses on the "tortures
which human beings inflict on one another."50 As a communist she feels "burning
shame" and wonders when she would "stop feeling ashamed and responsible for all
this?"51 Grossman's protagonist, Ivan Grigoryevich, not only questions his own
responsibility in the terror and imprisonment of millions of citizens but also that of the
"patron saint and martyr" of the Party, Vladimir Lenin.52 When pondering the history of
the Soviet Union, Ivan Grigoryevich no longer saw Stalin as responsible but instead
thought that "all the cruelty inflicted upon the nation also lay tragically on Lenin's
shoulders."53 Obviously such an account was completely at odds with Khrushchev's
campaign to return the nation to the path of Lenin.
In contrast to the samizdat writings mentioned above, neither Shelest's nor
Solzhenitsyn's account overtly suggested a reassessment of Communism or Soviet
society in general in the manner of the samizdat writers. Rather, they could be interpreted
as direct attacks on Stalinism and were therefore useful to Khrushchev and other party
52Garrard, "The Original Manuscript of Forever Flowing," 272.
53Grossman, Forever Flowing, 195.
officials who sought only to reform certain policies and not to question the entire system
of government. As the crimes and injustices described in each account took place during
Stalin's rule they could be blamed, if one wished, directly on Stalin. For Khrushchev it
seems that the anti-Stalinist rhetoric was a matter or practical politics. By encouraging
and permitting the publication of such stories, he presented himself in opposition to
Stalin, his methods, and his supposed supporters. In this sense he repented, ever so
subtly, in order to gain public support for his various programs, such as the Virgin Lands
scheme, whereby uncultivated land in the East would be used for agricultural production.
Faced with protests and strikes resulting from the June price increases, Khrushchev's
popularity was on the wane in 1962. Therefore the easing of censorship restrictions later
that year may have been an attempt on his part to improve his image and relations with
not only the masses, but also with the intelligentsia. By allowing the development of
camp literature, Khrushchev was able to draw in the intelligentsia, if only for brief
periods, and gain their support. To borrow Ken Jowitt's term, Khrushchev was
practicing the "politics of inclusion."54
However, the role of intellectuals should not be overlooked as it was not just
Khrushchev who took aim at Stalinism. The image of the gulag in the early 1960s may
have been useful to Khrushchev and thus he encouraged it, but it was created by an
ideologically diverse intelligentsia, meant to serve their purposes as well. Solzhenitsyn's
work drew attention to the plight of the peasantry, former POWs, and seemingly average
people who were unjustly accused and imprisoned. Shelest on the other hand, and
completely in line with Khrushchev's 'secret speech,'presented wrongfully imprisoned
5Ken Jowitt quoted in Brudny, '. i,,i i,,ii. Russia, 15.
communists who had somehow remained true to their ideals. The characters, and by
extension the actual prisoners, were not enemies of the people, but enemies of Stalin.
Furthermore, each account, through the presentation of positive values, demonstrated that
the intelligentsia could be trusted to assist the regime in guiding the public. Shukhov did
not appear destroyed by the camps and had managed to maintain his natural values,
thereby assuring readers that the camps had not produced thousands of common
criminals. The same could be said for Shelest's heroes as well.
Despite Khrushchev's attempts, his politicking was unsuccessful and he was
removed from office in October 1964. Although he painted his fellow Politburo
members as Stalinists, he was not removed simply because they were committed
Stalinists and therefore opposed his policies. Rather it was the policies themselves,
exacerbated by the Cuban Missile Crisis, that led to his downfall. In a revealing
quotation from Zhores Medvedev, Khrushchev's downfall resulted from the use of:
his popularity in traditional fashion to strengthen his personal power. He was
removed by a collective initiative, out of which there grew a truly collective
leadership in the country. For the country as a whole this was a very positive
phenomenon, because it promoted more cautious and considered solutions to
important political and economic problems. It meant that the Minister of
Agriculture, for example, was given more opportunity to take independent
decisions without fearing that he would be forced, for instance, to provide for the
cultivation of maize in the Leningrad and northern, Archangel, regions, while the
Minister of Foreign Affairs was better able to work towards establishing
international equilibrium now that he no longer had to worry lest his Head of
State should suddenly arrive at the United Nations, take off his shoe and start
banging it on his desk in front of the General Assembly.5
Following Khrushchev's ouster, Leonid Brezhnev became First Party Secretary
on October 14, 1964. Although some historians have argued that Brezhnev did not
initially end the limited thaw that had begun under Khrushchev, repressions began
5Medvedev, Ten Years After, 57.
relatively early and well before the Prague Spring of 1968.56 For instance, the poet
Joseph Brodsky was tried and sentenced in 1964 for parasitismm,' and in 1965 the writers
Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were arrested for the publication of certain works that
were considered harmful under Article 70 of the Criminal Code. Notably, Sinyavsky
criticized Socialist Realism and Daniel published a short story implying the responsibility
of society for the various purges and arrests carried out under Stalin. They were later
tried in 1966 and their works were judged to be "agitation or propaganda carried out with
the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime.""57 They each received seven
year sentences in hard labor facilities, although reportedly such facilities were officially
closed in 1959 for not fulfilling their primary function, "the rehabilitation of prisoners by
means of labor."58 Additionally, Glavlit and the Writers Union became more active
under Brezhnev. Beginning in 1966 editors of journals and newspapers were advised that
they would no longer be able to publish materials that addressed labor camps or crimes
committed under Stalin.59 Authors who had previously addressed the issue of Stalinism
and gained approval for publication were forbidden to publish further on the subject and
56See Mark Sandle, "A Triumph of Ideological Hairdressing? Intellectual Life in the Brezhnev Era
Reconsidered," in Edwin Bacon and Mark Sandle, eds., Brezhnev Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan: New
York, 2002), p. 143, Sandle emphasizes the imo\ cs that were afoot to deepen the process of economic
reform and de-Stalinisation." See Dmitry Shlapentokh and Vladimir Shlapentokh, Soviet Cinematography,
1918 1991: Ideological Conflict and Social Reality (Walter de Gruyter, Inc.: New York, 1993), p. 131,
Shlapentokh argues that the first thaw existed between 1954 and 1968, "since Brezhnev continued the thaw
for almost four years until the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968."
5Leopold Labedz and Max Hayward, eds. On Trial: The Case ofSinyavsky (Tertz) and Daniel
(Arzhak) (London: Collins and Harvill Press, 1967), 33-43.
5Andrei Sokolov, "Forced Labor in Soviet Industry: The End of the 1930s to the Mid-1950s, An
Overview," in The Economics of Forced Labor, 42.
59Medvedev, Ten Years After, 59.
were continuously hounded by KGB officials searching for incriminating evidence.
Historian Roy Medvedev, famed author of Let History Judge, was expelled from the
Communist Party for his work. Concurrently, certain officials were calling for the
rehabilitation of Stalin and an adjustment in official party policy.60 There was simply no
place in such a constrictive atmosphere for the discussion of the Gulag. Ironically the
regime still had labor camps at its disposal for the removal of socially harmful elements
from society, but it could not permit their appearance in print.
60Mark Sandle, "A Triumph of Ideological Hairdressing?" 149.
PERESTROIKA, LABOR CAMPS, AND THE EMERGENCE
OF A PUBLIC DISCOURSE
In the spirit ofperestroika and glasnost, General Party Secretary Mikhail
Gorbachev encouraged, once again, a public discussion of the Gulag when he broached
the topic of Stalin's repressions at the seventieth anniversary celebration of the October
Revolution.1 As with the resurgence of the Gulag in the official discourse of
Khrushchev's thaw, Gorbachev too was motivated by a desire to achieve certain aims.
However, unlike the previous discussions in the late 1980s the topic did not remain
confined to the official discourse but became part of thepublic discourse largely in part
due to the efforts of intellectuals. The term public is used here in the sense indicated by
Jirgen Habermas whereby private individuals claimede) the public sphere regulated
from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage in a debate over the
general rules governing relations."2 In fact numerous intellectuals and activists refused to
limit their descriptions and interpretations of the Gulag to those proscribed by the
authorities and instead chose to challenge the official position of the Stalinist nature of
the camps and thereby the very nature of the Soviet system.
1Nanci Adler, The Gulag Survivor: Beyond the Soviet System ( London: Transaction Publishers,
2Jiirgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a
Category of Bourgeois Society, transl. Thomas Burger ( Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1991)
Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party in
March 1985, following the death of his predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko. While this
event certainly did not indicate the imminent demise of the Soviet Union, by April
Gorbachev had intimated that the Soviet Union was "verging on crisis." This crisis was
visible, in Gorbachev's opinion, in the stagnation of the economy, lack of sufficient
healthcare, and total disrespect for the law among some Soviet officials.3 Therefore, to
correct these issues and to prevent possible political instability, various reforms were
initiated under the guise ofperestroika, restructuring, and glasnost, or openness.
Specifically, Gorbachev emphasized the role of the intelligentsia in overcoming the
shortcomings of Soviet society and indicated that the mass media would be permitted to
undertake previously forbidden topics. Although as with Khrushchev's thaw,
Gorbachev's early speeches and writings focus only on the repressions of intellectuals
under Stalin. For instance, in Perestroika he writes that "the intelligentsia, including
intellectuals in the Bolshevik Party, suffered enormous, at times irretrievable losses
because of the violations of socialist legality and the repressions of the 1930s."4
Vladimir Shlapentokh argued in 1988, and the remaining years of the Soviet
Union have proven his argument to some extent, that Gorbachev's reforms were of a
"preventative" nature and therefore "frail, inconsistent, and superficial."' Gorbachev's
tenure, like Khruschvhev's, was fraught with contradictions as he attempted to allow the
3Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinkingfor Our Country and the World (New York:
Harper and Row, Publishers, 1987), 19-25.
Vladimir Shlapentokh, "The XXVII Congress: A Case Study of the Shaping of a New Party
Ideology," Soviet Studies, 40 (Jan., 1988): 4.
participation of the intelligentsia in civil society, and at the same time restrict their
parameters of opinion and action. For instance, he refused to allow Andrei Sakharov, the
founder of the Soviet nuclear program, to return from exile in Gorky until December of
1986. Additionally, he continued the restriction on Jewish emigration, an aspect that
was duly noted by the same intellectuals that he sought to influence.6 On the other hand
he made key changes among top level positions, recruiting liberal party members to
supervise and develop cultural aspects of Soviet society. Perhaps the most influential
person appointed during this time was Aleksandr Yakovlev, who became the overseer of
culture within the Secretariat of the Central Committee and was believed to be
responsible for the showing of controversial documentaries and feature films, such as
Perestroika witnessed the publication of many, previously banned works that
specifically addressed the Soviet labor camps. Portions of Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma
Tales were printed, as were Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and Vasily Grossman's
Life and Fate, which in similar fashion to the previously mentioned Forever Flowing
addressed the responsibility of Lenin in the country's tragic history.8 However, the
system of censorship was no yet defeated and a number of works were edited for content.
As such, the actions of the NKVD were omitted or condensed so as to hide incidents of
extreme cruelty and torture.9 Despite the incidents of censorship and negative reactions
7Pittman, "Perestroika and Soviet Cultural Policies: The Case of the Major Literary Journals,"
Soviet Studies 42 (January 1990): 114.
8Pittman, "Perestroika and Soviet Cultural Politics," 121.
9Herman Ermolaev, Censorship in Soviet Literature: 1917-199 (New York: Rowman and
Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997), 240.
from certain conservative journals, such as Nash Sovremennik or Molodaya Gvardiya,
the image of Soviet labor camps once again surfaced and was to a certain extent
encouraged by Gorbachev. In particular there were two films which drew a great deal of
attention to the history or repression in the Soviet Union: Marina Goldovksaya's 1988
documentary Solovky Power, about daily life in the labor camps on Solovky, and Tengiz
Abuladze's 1986 feature film, Repentance, about a ruthless dictator in Georgia.10
The story of Marina Goldovskaya's 1998 documentary Solovky Power is very
similar to Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in that it required help
from above, so to speak. Just as Khrushchev intervened and presented Solzhenitsyn's
novella to the Central Committee, Gorbachev performed a similar function for
Goldovskaya. According to Goldovskaya, she was inspired to make the film after finding
Cherkasov's earlier propaganda film about the Solovky labor camps. She began to locate
survivors of Solovky and conducted interviews not only with former prisoners, such as
the historian Dimitri Likachev, but also with former security officers. Although she
proceeded with interviews and research, she knew that the time was not right for such a
film and that the current administration would never allow it to be shown to audiences.
Following Gorbachev's election and the onset ofperestroika and glasnost, she and her
crew decided that the time was right. However, she still remained cautious and unsure as
her father, also a filmmaker, was arrested in 1938 and imprisoned for a short time.
Therefore, when she finally presented her script to Goskino, the state film office, she
submitted a work that was primarily about the culture, history, and religion of the
Solovky Islands. And while she did mention the prisons on Solovky, her script indicated
1'Repentance, 1986, color, 151 minutes, producer Gruziafilm
that she would film only the tsarist prisons. Needless to say, once she gained approval
she set about filming a completely different picture than the one presented to Goskino.
The film was completed in early July of 1988 and was submitted to the Ministry
of Culture for review. Alexander Kamshalov, who was at that time responsible for
reviewing the content of films produced in the Soviet Union, stated that the ministry was
pleased with the film but requested several alterations before the film could be shown.
He was particularly concerned that the Soviet camps, army, and guards not be presented
in a fascist light. Therefore, he requested that she remove footage of survivors discussing
the fascist elements of the camps and a scene of the Red Army marching through Red
Square, ostensibly because they looked like fascists. Lastly, at one point in the film the
narrator laments that there is no literature on the camps available in Russian other than
Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn was still persona non grata and mention
of his name in such a film was not permissible. As Goldovskaya refused to make the
changes, the Ministry of Culture effectively banned her film.
The Khrushchevian moment arrived when Goldovskaya contacted Gorbachev's
press secretary, who happened to be a friend from her university days, and told him of
her dilemma. He then showed her film to Gorbachev and presumably other prominent
members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Within two months she
received a request for three copies to be provided to the Central Committee and
subsequently approval to show her film. The film was released theatrically in the latter
part of 1988 and additionally Goldovskaya and the script writer Viktor Listov visited
numerous universities and colleges throughout the Soviet Union. She indicated that at
these early screenings there were numerous clashes between viewers, who often included
former prisoners and relatives of former prisoners, and hardline communists. She likened
these clashes to an emerging "emotional civil war."11
Solovky Power begins with the rediscovery of history as archivists are shown
uncovering prisoner letters that were obviously never sent. The prisoners write that
conditions are deplorable and express concern that they have been forgotten.
Goldovskaya then juxtaposes camp conditions with early footage of a lively and cheerful
Moscow, filled with banners, speeches, and Red Army soldiers. To further emphasize the
contrast, she films survivors as they view and respond to the Cherkasov propaganda film.
As previously mentioned, the first Solovky film depicted clean barracks, healthy and
fulfilling meals, and humane treatment; completely at odds with the recollections of
former prisoners and guards. Unlike the early film, the survivors that Goldovskaya
interviewed describe in detail the daily tortures and hunger, often unable to continue in
their retelling as the subjects becomes too emotional to discuss. By showing Cherkasov's
film and the survivor reactions, Goldovskaya draws attention to the duplicitous nature of
the Soviet regime and the hidden history of the Soviet Union.
The title, Solovky Power, is a phrase taken from one of the prisoners who stated
that the guards constantly reminded them that they were not held by Soviet power, but by
Solovky power. This fact is highlighted throughout the film and Solovky is referred to as
an "autonomous region," with its own administration, cultural department, and even
newspaper. It is presented as a power unto itself and regulated not by any power but its
own. It is this aspect that is at the heart of Goldovskaya's film. She adamantly denied
that her film is simply about the Gulag or Stalin's crimes, but rather that it is instead
"Interview by the author with Marina Goldovskaya via telephone on March 28, 2006. Also see
Marina Goldovskaia, Zhenshchina s kinoapparatom (Moskva: Materik, 2002).
about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union. Contrary to the Ministry of Culture,
which was disconcerted by the image of Red Army soldiers who in 1930 resembled a
fascist army, Goldovskaya argued that this image should be acknowledged precisely
because the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime and in fact had much in common with
Tengiz Abuladze also faced difficulty in gaining approval for his 1986 film
Repentance, a fictional account of a ruthless dictator in a small Georgian town. Abuladze
filmed the movie entirely on location in Georgia and was able to secure the protection of
Eduard Shevarnadze, then head of Georgia's Communist Party. The distance from
Moscow provided a degree of independence and the film was shown on Georgian
television, which was permitted three hours of local programming time, in 1986. With
Shevarnadze's assistance, and as previously mentioned the intervention of Yakovlev,
Abuladze was able to release his film throughout the Soviet Union in 1987 to a rather
wide and receptive audience. Film historians Josephine Woll and Denise Youngblood
indicate that approximately thirty million tickets were sold, indicating "an exceptionally
large number for a difficult picture.""3 The film was considered so significant in the
development ofperestroika and glasnost that in August 2004 a group of prominent
Russian directors, producers, critics, and screenwriters gathered in Moscow to celebrate
the twentieth anniversary of the release.14
Abuladze's film centers around the life of Keti, a woman who at the beginning of
Il Incin ICl of March 28, 2006.
13Josephine Woll and Denise Youngblood, Repentance, KINOfile Film Companion (New York:
I.B. Tauris, 2001), 91.
14"Dvadstat let bez Pokayaniya," Isskustvo Kino, 11 (Nov.30, 2004): 117.
the film is shown as an adult, and her reaction to the death of the dictator Varlam
Aravidze. Through flashbacks of Keti's life, viewers learn that her parents were artists
who refused to cooperate with Aravidze and were therefore repressed. After Aravidze's
burial, Keti digs his body up and places it in the courtyard of his son's estate. The body
is returned to its grave only to be dug up again by Keti. Eventually Keti is discovered
and brought before a court for trial. Through her testimony Aravidze's grandson,
Tomike, learns of his grandfather's crimes and is driven to suicide because of the
associative guilt that he feels, which has apparently bypassed his father Abel. Only after
Tomike's suicide does Abel come to admit the crimes of his father and deny him an
honorable resting place in the family cemetery.
As can be imagined from this brief description, numerous comparisons can be
made between Varlam Aravidze and Joseph Stalin, between his rule over the Georgian
town of the film and Stalin's rule over the Soviet Union, and between the reactions of
citizens in each location to the death of their respective dictator. However, while the
comparisons between Avaridze and Stalin may be the most obvious, they do not
comprise the most compelling aspects of the film. The most compelling aspect of the
film is Abuladze's treatment of repression, whether through imprisonment or execution.
He does not actually provide a depiction of life in the camps or an execution but instead
uses fantasy and surrealism to imply denunciation, torture, and imprisonment. And rather
than narrowly focus on the dictator, Abuladze chooses to address the living; those who
remain after the disappearance or death of their loved ones and those who remain after
the death of Varlam. And it is in the exploration of this theme that Abuladze effectively
and eloquently addresses the Gulag.
In arguably the most powerful scene of the film, part of Keti's flashback when
she describes to the court why she will continue to desecrate Varlam's grave, she and her
mother visit a railroad station where timber from labor camps has arrived. Prisoners have
carved their names and locations in the ends of the logs, and Keti and her mother go there
hoping to find a trace of Keti's father, Sandro. The station is filled with thousands of
logs, and as Keti and her mother search for Sandro's name they see other women
searching hopelessly for signs of their relatives. At one point Keti plays among broken
sticks and sawdust, representing the broken prisoners and an allusion to one of Stalin's
favorite proverbs, "when you chop down a forest, chips fly.""15 To further the point,
Abuladze includes a shot of logs being run through a mill, uselessly producing sawdust.
Keti and her mother sit among the logs and cry, while around them other women embrace
logs as if embracing husbands and fathers. In yet another reference to the camps, women
wait in line outside of a prison with parcels, hoping to discover whether or not their
relatives live or if they have been sentenced to "ten years without the right of
correspondence," which in Stalin's time indicated execution.
As can be inferred from the title, a central theme of his film is repentance for the
crimes of the past. Abuladze uses the relationship between Varlam's son Abel, and
Abel's son Tomike to remind viewers that repentance for a crime can only come after
one has acknowledged the crime. Following Keti's testimony in the courtroom, Tomike
questions whether or not Abel knew of Varlam's crimes. Abel responds using the
standard denials and justifications; "it was a very different time," "we were surrounded
by enemies," "what is the life of one man when the happiness of millions is at stake," and
"Woll and Youngblood, Repentance, 45.
so forth. Eventually Abel comes to the conclusion that Varlam's actions were morally
reprehensible and repents by throwing Varlam's body off of a cliff, but only after the
death of his son. Abuladze's implied question is what must happen before the crimes of
the past are recognized and atoned for.
The Gulag was further brought to the forefront of public discourse by the actions
of Memorial, an "all-union voluntary organization dedicated to historical and educational
work." According to Dmitrii Iurasov the group was founded in 1987 by a few people
seeking to construct a monument to the "victims of Stalinist repressions." Their goal was
to submit a petition for such a monument at the upcoming Party Conference. To gain
support for the project Memorial took to the streets and in November seven members
were arrested carrying signs on the Arbat, a very popular pedestrian mall in Moscow. In
Iurasov's account "from this moment (the moment of arrest), Memorial existed: we had
publicly stated the fact and purpose of our existence." 16 After the arrest representatives
from Memorial met with officials from the Propaganda Department of the Moscow Party
organization to seek permission for public meetings. Although their request was denied
they decided to continue demonstrating in hopes of becoming a mass movement and to
subsequently "recruit respectable members of the liberal establishment."17
Eventually Memorial was successful in gaining the assistance of well-known and
respected liberals, such as the scientist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov,
historian Roy Medvedev, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Boris Yeltsin, who was at the
16Stephen Kotkin, "Terror, Rehabilitation, and Historical Memory: An Interview with Dmitrii
Iurasov," Russian Review 51 (Apr., 1992), 239.
1Kathleen Smith, Remembering Stalin's Victims: Popular Memory and the End of the USSR
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 87-89.
time admired for his attacks on the privileged elite of the Communist Party. Although
they were prohibited on numerous occasions from holding a founding congress, their
worst defeat came at the hands of the Ministry of Culture, which in January 1989
announced a competition to design a monument to the victims of Stalin's repressions and
confiscated 500,000 rubles that Memorial had raised for the construction of a monument
and a center dedicated to further study of Soviet repressions.18 However, by 1990
members of Memorial became concerned that as a monument had yet to be constructed
that many camp survivors might not live to see the construction of a monument in their
honor. Therefore, they petitioned the Moscow city authorities to place a large stone from
the Solovky Islands on the Liubianka Square, in direct view of the KGB headquarters.
The city agreed and the dedication ceremony was held on October 30, 1990. The date
was significant as dissidents and human rights activists in the Soviet Union honored
October 30 as Political Prisoners Day.19
Although their initial focus was on the victims of Stalinist repression, the
dedication on the monument is "in honor of the millions of victims of the totalitarian
regime." As David Remnick observed, Memorial's definition of repression broadened to
include persons executed under Lenin's orders and also dissidents imprisoned under
Khrushchev and Brezhnev, most obviously inspired by the example of the dissident
writer Anatoly Marchenko who died in a labor camp in 1986 as a result of a hunger
strike. Remnick notes that "members were beginning to speak not merely of the
19Kotkin, "Terror, Rehabilitation, and Historical Memory," 242-243.
aberration of Stalin but a criminal regime."20 However, it should be noted that some
members were reluctant to subscribe to such a broadened definition for fear of retaliatory
acts by the authorities and insisted that the focus be on victims of the Stalin era.21
Memorial's political actions were limited to endorsing candidates such as Andrei
Sakharov and other liberals in their quests for parliamentary seats. The goal of the
organization was, and continues to be, the preservation of the memory of those
individuals repressed by the Soviet regime. For instance, in 1988 they helped to organize
the Week of Conscience whereby a memorial wall was created with one thousand
photographs of repressed individuals brought to the event by survivors and relatives.
Additionally members of their organization created an information center in Moscow to
provide assistance to those searching for information on repressed family members or
friends. Throughout the remaining years of the Soviet Union Memorial continued to
participate in demonstrations and conferences with the many other liberal organizations
dedicated to filling in the "blank spots" of Soviet history. Through their efforts at least
thirty-three provincial Memorial societies were created throughout the Soviet Union in
places such as Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, and Murmansk.22 And in the latter part of 1989
Memorial began providing medical services to victims and their family members through
20David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (New York: Vintage Books,
21Vladimir Brovkin, "Revolution From Below: Informal Political Associations in Russia 1988-
1989," Soviet Studies 42 (Apr., 1990): 241.
22Anne White, "The Memorial Society in the Russian Provinces," Europe-Asia Studies 47 (Dec.,
Compassion, a branch office consisting of doctors and psychiatrists serving on a
As can be seen in the films of Golodovskaya and Abuladze and in the actions of
Memorial, the resurgence of the Gulag in the public discourse of the perestroika years
was significantly different than that which appeared in the official discourse of the 1930s
and 1960s. In each film the director moves beyond simply placing blame on Stalin and
questions the role of society to some extent. Goldovskaya's film, which largely used the
accounts or prisoners, demonstrated that camp guards and officials were not simply
following Stalin's orders when they tortured and beat prisoners, but were instead acting
upon some internal drive. Though their unnecessarily cruel behavior may have been
rewarded by the regime, it was not required. Additionally, it should be remembered that
in the film she likened the Soviet Union to a fascist regime and considered the Solovky
labor camp a metaphor for the Soviet power in general. On the surface Abuladze's film
appears to strongly imply Stalin's guilt in the repressions, but on a deeper level the film
addresses the responsibility of society by depicting such taboo topics as denunciation and
the number of victims. Gorbachev was certainly not ready for the open and frank
discussion of the repression that these films implied, as can be seen in his contention that
under Stalin "thousands" of communists and Soviet citizens had been repressed.24
While Gorbachev undoubtedly sought favor with the intellectuals so as to
motivate support for his various economic and social reforms, he failed spectacularly
23Nanci Adler, The Gulag Survivor,. 116.
with respect to the Memorial group. However, it is also obvious that he and other
were more concerned with the actions of Memorial than any other group addressing the
topic of repression. As previously indicated their funds were seized and their reason for
being, the construction of a monument to honor the victims of repression, was usurped by
the government. Gorbachev was correct to see the inherent challenge to authority, as
members such as Andrei Sakharov and lurii Afans'ev did manage to acquire seats in the
Duma. The most striking example of this challenge is found in the person of Boris
Yeltsin, under whose presidency Russia's secession would occur.
SOVIET LABOR CAMPS: HISTORIOGRAPHY AND
Throughout the Soviet period labor and into the post-Soviet present labor camps
have been subjected to a number of different interpretations. For some, such as Maxim
Gorky, the labor camps represented all that was possible and desirable under Socialism.
Re-education through labor would eliminate criminality and provide a better world for all
members of society. For some, such as Solzhenitsyn or Goldovsakaya, the camps came
to represent all that was wrong with the Soviet system, while for others the camps were
simply a demonstration of the evils of Stalinism. Likewise the origins of the Gulag have
been the subject of much debate: in Grossman's account they are inherent in Leninism,
but for Shelest they are a purely Stalinist creation.
The various meanings, interpretations, and scope of the Gulag have not been
agreed upon by historians and scholars either. Although Hannah Arendt famously
compared the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in The Origins of Totalitariansim,
originally published in 1948, historians are still debating this particular aspect.1 For
instance, in her Pulitzer Prize winning work Gulag: A History (2003), Anne Applebaum
makes the comparison by expressing displeasure at the sight of "Americans and West
Europeans" buying "Soviet paraphernalia" in Prague. What she finds objectionable is
the sight of the hammer and sickle, which in her opinion are as much a "symbol of mass
murder" as the swastika. She writes "the lesson could not have been clearer: while the
1Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitariansim (London: Harcourt, Inc., 1994).
symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another mass murder
makes us laugh."2
Applebaum's comparison does not take into consideration the time duration of
seventy-four years of Communist rule as compared to the restricted time period of
Hitler's rule. Nor does she consider the differences inherent in each system. Unlike
Hitler's camps, the camps in the Soviet Union were not necessarily directed at the total
destruction of a particular people. Rather, the Gulag was much more ambiguous in its
creation, evolution, and purpose. The Russian historian Oleg Khlevniuk has noted that
the camps were used primarily for two purposes: the isolation of possible opponents and
the development of remote areas.3 Additionally, according to Soviet propaganda the
camps were used for the re-forging of individuals and creating useful Soviet men and
women from bourgeois class enemies.
Recently there has been considerable debate regarding the numbers of prisoners
that passed through the Soviet labor camp system and the number of resulting deaths as
well. The fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the archives has reanimated rather
than settled the matter, as could be expected. In December 1996, Stephen Wheatcroft
initiated a very heated debate by comparing Nazi and Soviet repressions and killings for
the period of 1930-1945.4 Although his primary focus was the comparison of the tighter
concentration camps of Nazi Germany and the labor camps of the Soviet Union, in the
process he questioned earlier mortality figures suggested by historians such as Robert
2Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (New York: Anchor Books, 2004), xviii.
3Khlevniuk, History of the Gulag, 18.
4Stephen Wheatcroft, "The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repression and Mass Killings,
1930-1945," Europe-Asia Studies 48 (Dec., 1996).
Conquest and Charles Maier. Wheatcroft concluded that "the Gulag was neither as large
nor as deadly" as it has often been presented, particularly by Conquest, and furthermore
that Conquest's figure of seven million deaths for the time period under consideration
was far too high.5 Robert Conquest published a reply in November of 1997, following
which Wheatcroft published another article, which of course was followed by another
reply from Conquest.6
The source of contention between the two historians has been the nature of the
sources and which sources can be trusted. Conquest's work has relied heavily on first-
hand accounts and memoirs, notably Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago,
whereas Wheatcroft has considered such works to possess only literary value as opposed
to historic value. Additionally, Conquest has argued contrary to Wheatcroft that the
famine of 1931 was deliberately caused by Stalin and that the victims therefore should be
included with the victims who perished as a result of the labor camps. The debate was
very fairly and eloquently summarized by Michael Ellman in 2002, who pointed out that
while Conquest's original figures were too high, so were many others and that
Conquest's "main aim was to give a qualitative picture of the enormous horrors to the
general public, and in this he succeeded admirably."7 That being said, Ellman also took
Conquest to task on his sources, arguing that relying on memoirs provides a false
impression of the Gulag as being primarily filled with political prisoners, which in
6Robert Conquest, "Victims of Stalinism: A Comment," Europe-Asia Studies 49 (Nov., 1997).
Stephen Wheatcroft, Victims of Stalinism and the Soviet Secret Police: The Comparability and Reliability
of the Archival Data: Not the Last Word," Europe-Asia Studies 51 (Mar., 1999). Robert Conquest,
"Comment on Wheatcroft," Europe-Asia Studies 51 (Dec., 1999).
7Michael Ellman, "Soviet Repression Statistics: Some Comments," Europe-Asia Studies, 54 (Nov.
Ellman's assessment is incorrect, as only in 1946 and 1947 were counterrevolutionaries
in the majority. As he rightfully points out, "if more use had been made of the
experience of the criminals our image of the Gulag would be substantially different."8
Ellman also calls into question Conquest's reliance on figures released by the
Russian historian D. Volkogonov in 1992, when according to Ellman, the "political
demand was for high figures for Stalinist repression."9 In closing he argues that the
range for repression deaths between 1937 and 1938 was most likely 950,000 to 1.2
million. Ellman also draws attention to the common misconception that the majority of
the prisoners were convicted of political crimes and argues that in fact the majority were
incarcerated for criminal activity, such as theft or assault. However this statement is
qualified by his questioning the Soviet categorization of crimes. After all, is one who is
homeless or jobless guilty of a crime or simply the victim of a repressive regime?
Likewise, is a person who has resisted collectivization truly an enemy of the people and
therefore a counterrevolutionary?10 Although, given that trials were held throughout the
country to convict counterrevolutionaries and kulaks it is doubtful that Soviet citizens
would have made such a differentiation between those convicted of political crimes and
those convicted of ordinary crimes." Nor would citizens have necessarily assumed that
it was incorrect to arrest persons for political crimes as this was certainly not a novel
1Khlevniuk, History of the Gulag, 147.
practice. In fact, many leaders of the Revolution were themselves convicted and exiled
for such crimes.
In certain respects the Soviet regime's nationalities policies were intertwined with
the Gulag, and this connection is repeated in the historiography and resultant debates.
Pavel Polian's work on forced migrations of nationalities and ethnic minorities within the
Soviet Union draws attention to the fact that exiled and deported persons were often used
as forced laborers in a manner similar to that of Gulag prisoners. Polian notes that a
division between the two groups was "discernable, though not always clear cut." The
significant difference being that exiled persons were sent to areas of a milder climate than
those subjected to Gulag imprisonment.12 Additionally, the presumed leaders of any
exiled or deported group, its "prominent members," were arrested and thereby
imprisoned rather than being sent into exile with their community.13
Because Soviet policy focused on certain nationalities and ethnic groups, such as
Germans, Poles, Tatars, and Chechens, Eric Weitz suggested that the Soviet regime
resembled that of Nazi Germany in some aspects. In his opinion, although the Soviet
Union was not a genocidal regime per say, the "drive to remake the very composition of
its citizenry, to remove targeted population groups from the social body, to cast certain
nations as pariahs for eternity, and to drive them into internal exile, does invite legitimate
comparisons with Nazi policies."14 Weitz also took Soviet historians to task for not
12Pavel Polian, Against Their Will: The History and Geography ofForced i '[,,,. Ia in the USSR,
transl. Anna Yastrzhemskba (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004), 48.
14Eric Weitz, "Racial Politics without the Concept of Race: Reevaluating Soviet Ethnic and
National Purges," Slavic Review 61 (Spring, 2002): 24
recognizing what he viewed as racial aspects of Soviet policy.15 Weitz's foray into
Soviet history, he is after all a German historian, sparked a debate on the pages of Slavic
Review and produced resounding rebuttals from both Francine Hirsch and Amir Weiner.
Francine Hirsch essentially turned Weitz's thesis on its head and argued that the
Soviet regime did have a concept of race, but that it did not in fact practice racial policies
such as those of Nazi Germany. As she noted, the Soviets "by contrast, did not aspire to
eliminate races, genotypes, or racial traits," but rather they aimed to "control or eradicate
all forms of nationalism and to wipe out the national territories, languages, cultures, and
histories of those nationalities that it considered a threat."16 Amir Weiner countered
Weitz's comparison by arguing that in contrast to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union did
not operate death camps, nor did they call for the "total physical destruction" of groups
such as the nobility, bourgeoisie, or kulaks. Instead, the initial goal of labor camps, exile,
and special settlements was for the reeducation of these very groups.17
It is doubtful that a consensus will soon be reached among historians or Russian
intellectuals over the meaning or origins of the Gulag. As of 2005 a plan for the
monument which will one day grace Liubianka Square has yet to be decided upon.
Although thousands of entries were submitted in the early 1990s for the design of such a
monument, the Memorial committee which is now in charge of the selection process has
not been able to come to an agreement. Independent actions, such as the sphinx
monument dedicated to victims of political persecution in St. Petersburg and funded by
16Francine Hirsch, "Race without the Practice of Racial Politics," Slavic Review 61 (Spring,
"7Amir Weiner, "Nothing But Certainty," Slavic Review 61 (Spring, 2002): 44.
Mikhael Chemiakin, have drawn severe criticism from members of Memorial and
survivors alike. In the case of Chemiakin's sphinx, survivors objected because they were
not included in the dedication ceremony nor were they consulted regarding the design.18
While the debates may be frustrating to survivors and historians alike, they are
indicative of the plurality of opinion surrounding the Gulag, particularly during the
Soviet period. The interpretations presented by Soviet intellectuals provided the regime
with a voice and a manner in which to influence its population. The inherent differences
in each interpretation allowed the government a greater choice in its articulation of
desired values and a broader public, so to speak. For instance, by allowing the
publication in the 1960s of decidedly loyalist accounts by writers such as Georgy Shelest
and the more ambiguous account of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the government reached out
to liberal intellectuals and reform-minded communists. But as Katherine Verdery noted
in her study of the relationship between Romanian Communism and intellectuals, in a
socialist system intellectuals are "both necessary and dangerous: necessary because their
skills are implied in determining social values, and dangerous because they and the center
have potentially different notions of what intellectual practice should consist of."19
Khrushchev and Gorbachev each recognized this danger and attempted to define and
restrict the parameters of acceptable discourse. However, by the late 1980s Soviet
intellectuals were simply not willing to abide by such restrictions any longer. And in
their rejection of official Soviet ideology, they were joined by large numbers of the
1Kathleen Smith, "Conflict over Designing a Monument to Stalin's Victims: Public Art and
Political Ideology in Russia, 1981-1996," inArchitectures ofRussian Identity: 1500 to the Present, eds.
James Cracraft and Daniel Rowland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 199-202.
19Katherine Verdery, National Ideology Under Socialism: Identity and Cultural Practices in
CeauSescu's Romania (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 88.
population who were no longer able to accept the disparity between Socialist rhetoric and
Socialist reality that was so artfully depicted in the work of Marina Goldovskaya or
Tengiz Abuladze. In such works and through the efforts of the Memorial Society, Soviet
intellectuals finally destroyed the ideal image of the Gulag their predecessors had worked
so hard to create.
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The author is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of
Florida. Her research interests are Russian society, intellectual history, and historical
memory, particularly the memory of the Gulag. In addition to studying Russian history,
she has also focused on Russian language, literature, and culture.