Gulag Revelations

The infamous Soviet labor camps are described by one word — GULag — an acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies. GULag is one of those words for which nothing more need be said. No need for history; the word GULag explains it all. Finally a bold and intrepid researcher goes beyond the word and documents a more accurate portrayal of the Soviet labor camp system.

Steven A. Barnes, Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Art History at Virginia’s George Mason University is the researcher and the book is The Gulag’s Foundation in Kazakhstan.

Wisely, Barnes has moved his book into public think tanks, such as the Woodrow Wilson Center, so its contents won’t become dusty on University book shelves. His revelations challenge accepted dogma, his research combats propaganda, and his history illuminates a black time. A closed record opens to more inspection.

Note: The following is this reporter’s record of Steven Barnes’ talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Washington DC., May 19, 2011, Death and Redemption: The Shaping of the Gulag System and Soviet Society.

The camps were not conceived as producers of death. All types of prisoners, politically incorrect, socially unfit and criminally attached mixed in the same camps. The criminal elements developed their own sub-culture.

Barnes research shows 18 million prisoners passed through the GULag, with 5.2 million incarcerated at its peak. However, the camps weren’t designed to kill or destroy; they were the last opportunity for the ‘enemies of the state’ to become rehabilitated. About 20 percent of the prisoners returned home each year, with releases reaching 0.5 million in some years. Although high, the total of those who died is far below estimates; Barnes statistics show about 1.6 million died in the principal thirty years of camp existences. Rather than being just ‘work to death’ penal institutions, the camps had cultural activities, correction programs and their own economic organization. Prisoners shaped their own society.

The Soviets believed their society was moving the world to the end of history. Similar to the German dictum “Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Makes Free), Soviet vision equated strong labor with ultimate freedom. The camps were one of many historical responses to the nation’s conditions, to the need to industrialize a rural population, to destroy opposition which prevented the forward march, and to remove those who blocked the vision of struggle and suffering.

Meticulous files were actually kept on each prisoner and these files were periodically reviewed to ascertain who had repented and could be released. In effect, the prisoner guided his/her own destiny. Work would either reshape the individual or prove the individual’s incapability to assume a proper place in society. Life is a battle against nature, and only those who cooperate and fight valiantly in the battle will survive.

Barnes’ own words tell the more complete story.

The most salient feature of the Gulag was an apparent paradox: forced labor, high death rates and an oppressive atmosphere of violence, cold and constant hunger coexisted with camp newspapers and cultural activities, a constant propaganda barrage of correction and reeducation and the steady release of a significant portion of the prisoner population.

The Bolsheviks could not escape their fundamental belief in the malleability of the human soul and they believed that labor was the key to reforging criminals. The very harshness of the Gulag was seen as necessary to break down a prisoner’s resistance in order to rebuild him or her into a proper Soviet citizen. If a prisoner refused correction, the brutality of the Gulag would lead to inevitable death, for the Bolsheviks were no humanitarians. If mistakes were to be made, they believed it was better to kill too many than too few.

Steven Barnes has made a major contribution to the historical record. By careful research and analysis, he has supplied us with new knowledge and the recognition that events are not simplistic recordings to be explained by unqualified statements. He has shown that the Soviet labor camps had a deep meaning, one requiring in-depth thought and analysis. Hopefully other intrepid and skillful researchers will reveal details in other historical events that have been hidden by media control, demagoguery, propaganda and unwillingness to combat accepted knowledge.

Dan Lieberman is Editor of Alternative Insight, a monthly web based newsletter and author of the book A Third Party Can Succeed in America. He can be reached at: alternativeinsight@earthlink.net. Read other articles by Dan.