A Look into the Gulag Part 1: Origins

26 Apr

A Look into the Gulag Part 1: A Review of The Unknown Gulag by Lynne Viola

Lynne Viola’s The Unknown Gulag argues that the attack on kulaks (wealthy or successful peasants) during the 1930’s and their exile to desolate special settlements was the first and most heinous of Stalin’s purges.  These internal “colonial” settlements were the foundation of the Gulag “archipelago” and set the precedent of repression in the Stalinist “empire.”  Furthermore, the attempted elimination of the “class enemy” during the colonization/collectivization of the Russian peasantry was a disaster.  The project was unrealistic, created by Stalin and his ideology, had poor planning, met resistance, and only exacerbated the socio-economic problems of the USSR.  Viola guides the reader through the full chronology of the dekulakization campaign by exploring kulak identity, repression, transport to exile, the settlement conditions, and the reckoning of officials and organizations that mobilized a war against the peasantry. The book is a masterful account of all aspects of dekulakization, with the only real flaw being that some of Viola’s more interesting points could be compared with Stalin’s other crimes to solidify her argument.

From the start, Viola’s narrative humanizes the victims by bringing accounts of the horrific deportation process to light and contrasting that reality with the madness of the propaganda and methods used against the kulaks.  By outlining the conditions in the countryside, initial orders from above, the “classifications” of kulaks, and the workings of the OGPU (Secret Police), the reader understands the archival evidence of kulak repression in the context of the inter-war USSR, as families were loaded into trains and subjected to unspeakable conditions.

The actual building of special settlements and the lack of preparation for the surviving deportees display how the Soviet Union constructed internal colonies “on the fly.”  Viola highlights the ridiculous hypocrisy of a Soviet policy that hoped to exploit labor, only to have many able-bodied people die because they had no shelter or food.  The first hand accounts and upset Soviet officials confirm the nightmarish conditions, particularly during the famine of 1932-33 and when describing the fate of kulak children.

Because Viola has so well arranged her archival research in the book, the creation and experience of the Kulak identity is cemented in reader’s mind.  This identity became part of all the victims, even the ones who came back into the Soviet mainstream through service during World War Two or repatriation after the death of Stalin.

While providing almost every detail about the events and people involved in dekulakization, one absence is a more thorough comparison with some of Stalin’s similar crimes like the deportations of various national groups. The plight of Polish women and children portrayed in Katherine Jolluck’s Identity and Exile comes to mind.  This type of comparison would allow the reader to better comprehend the evil precedent established by the initial kulak deportations and further Viola’s argument that the crime was Stalin’s first of many purges.

In sum, any student studying Stalin’s Soviet Union must read the Unknown Gulag.  This account of “dekulakization” is vital in understanding how the Bolshevik experiment with the New Economic Policy (NEP- limited market economy with communist party control) abruptly ended in the late 1920’s and Stalin launched the radical industrialization and collectivization goals of the Five Year Plans. Viola successfully humanizes the victims of Stalin’s first mass attempt at reshaping the economic and social structure of the Soviet Union.   The “other Gulag’ of dekulakized peasants and the settlements where they suffered as “state enemies” now has a fitting account that will preserve their memory.

Book Reveiwed:

Viola, Lynne, The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Further Reading for Different Perspectives on Deportation to Special Settlements:

Jolluck Katherine R., Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union During World War II, Pittsburg: Pittsburg    University Press, 2002.

Uehling, Greta Lynn, Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatars’ Deportation and Return, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004


2 Responses to “A Look into the Gulag Part 1: Origins”

  1. Austintatious May 7, 2012 at 2:18 am #

    Great review of Viola’s book. Was the Gulag a Soviet home-grown product? Or did the 1930s governments look to other historical precedents for exhile? Do you think Guantanamo Bay is kind of like a modern US Gulag?

  2. debatingbolshevism May 7, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

    I think a camp like Guantanamo is scary, but on such a smaller scale that it hard to compare. Still, it is significant because any state that chooses to incarcerate people in a camp now faces much needed scrutiny and pressure from the international community. Also, there certainly were historical precedents for such camps, the ones built by the British during the Boar War and Mau-Mau Rebellion immediately came to mind.

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