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Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society

Death and Redemption examines the Gulag's role defining the border between reintegration into society and permanent removal through death. Steven Barnes focuses on Kazakhstan's Karaganda region, a location that hosted a number of Soviet detention institutions, and suggests that the Gulag should be construed as a "corrective facility," which gave its occupants a final chance to prove themselves through forced labor. Those who succeeded returned home after years of brutal, forced labor; the ones who "failed" died. Barnes traces the evolution of the Gulag from its origins post-1917, immediately following the Russian Revolution up to the death of Stalin in 1953. The author draws on recently declassified materials from Russia and Kazakhstan, including memoirs of survivors, to show that the Gulag as an institution remained closely linked to the Soviet idea of creating an utopian socialist society.

Date & Time

May. 19, 2011
4:00pm – 5:30pm ET


The Gulag is widely understood to have been the Soviet Union’s death camp. In his new book, Steven Barnes gave the Gulag a second look, digging deep into the origins and structure of the Gulag, and attempting to understand the historical context of the inter-war and post-WW II periods. Barnes described his research and travel to the Karaganda region in Kazakhstan, where four work camps were built in the Soviet period. Although a tragic number of people sent to the Gulag died or were killed there, Barnes’s research attempts to explain why so many inmates were allowed to leave and, eventually, return to their homes. He concludes that the camps’ strict internal hierarchy, didactic use of labor, and the elaborate personal profiles for each of prisoners dutifully kept by overseers clearly illustrates that the Soviet state believed that some people could be redeemed and returned to society. The Gulag, therefore, was not only a death camp, but also a “second chance,” where the enemies of the regime, criminals and renegades could be reformed by the state through labor.

Barnes described the Gulag as an institution of forced labor, where workers had real prospects of being released. According to the author 18 million people passed through the work camps. While approximately 1.6 million died, a large number were released and reintegrated into Soviet society. The camps functioned primarily as a penal system and this is how the Soviet society perceived them. In Barnes’s terms, the Bolshevik world view influenced the mission of the Gulag. It served as a means of getting from an imperfect present to a perfect future.

Re-education of inmates was tracked through elaborately detailed files kept and maintained by prison guards. Each file included an identity questionnaire, a summary of the prisoner’s conviction, prisoner evaluations, as well as appeals on conviction and receipts for personal property brought to the camp. The preoccupation with collecting such data, Barnes asserted, reveals an obsession by the state with getting to know its society of criminals and political prisoners. In addition, the elaborate camp portfolios contained statistical computations of the population on site, including escapes, violations and types of work performed. Authorities reviewed individual records periodically to determine a prisoner’s eligibility to be released.

“Humanity’s dark side unleashed under the fig leaf of ideology” – is how Russian intellectual Solzhenitsyn described the labor camps. He belonged to a group of political prisoners convicted under article 58 of the Soviet Republic, which broadly prohibited counter-revolutionary behavior, and could be applied to almost any case when needed. Individuals sentenced under this article received harsh treatment and their chances for redemption were low. Criminals, on the other hand, were considered socially friendly, and more likely to be reformed. For them, it was easier to climb the camp hierarchy quickly, and some even served as prison guards.

In his comments, Karel Berkhoff confirmed that Death and Redemption conceptualizes the Gulag in a broader context, and presents it not only as a site of violence alone, but as a means of reforming people. Reeducation was never intended to be easy, and labor was considered a measure of redemption. In conclusion, Berkhoff suggested that the Gulag made only secondary contributions to the economy. It remained an ideological institution.

Drafted by Nida Gelazis, Senior Associate and Kristina Terzieva, Program Assistant, European Studies
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, European Studies



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History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

Cold War International History Project

The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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