Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society | Wilson Center

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

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Webcast Recap

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



  • Steven Barnes

    Former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute
    Associate Professor, History and Art History, George Mason University
  • Karel C. Berkhoff

    Associate Professor, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Maurice C. Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum