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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

Soviet Industrialization and Learning to Speak Bolshevik

25 Apr

 Soviet Industrialization and Learning to Speak Bolshevik: a Review of Magnetic Mountain by Stephen Kotkin


In Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, Stephen Kotkin argues that historians must go beyond totalitarianism and address all aspects of how Stalinism and Bolshevism operated.  According to Kotkin, while Stalin is correctly labeled a tyrannical despot, we must not overlook the fact that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a unique civilization where socialism was defined as the opposite of capitalism.  This civilization was built around industrialization and the upward mobility of former peasants as they created a socialist society in the context of capitalist crisis and emerging fascism.  The author succeeds in providing a core sample of life and experiences at all levels of Stalinism while showing the great paradox of a socialist society that was aided by capitalism from the beginning, but was defined as “anti-capitalistic.”

Kotkin uses the building of the Magnitogorsk steel mill and Socialist city to highlight this new society.  This society was an internal colony based on capitalist industrial models (namely Fordist production) and promoted ideals of social welfare and progress, a new urban geography, a new social identity defined by labor, a shadow market economy, a “Bolshevik” language, and a state religion with values that were tested and reinforced by the terror.

The chronology of the city and factory construction structure the narrative and archival evidence underlines how the civilization’s elements can be observed throughout the different stages of Magnitogorsk.  Starting with barren land, the Magnitogorsk steel mill is built through a combination of Western technical assistance and Stalin’s radical will to build a global industrial power.  As the center of the book, the steel mill provides examples of Soviet “gigantism, immoderation, and refusal of realism,” all while the successes of the mill become a powerful symbol for Soviet propaganda both at home and abroad.

The “socialist city” built around the steel mill worked in tandem to construct the new Soviet identities of the workers and their families.  Everyone was part of a master planned internal colony where society was centered on the embracing of socialism and industrialization through learning to “speak” Bolshevik.  While Kotkin agrees that “there were sources of identity other than the Bolshevik crusade,” to survive in the Soviet system people began to police themselves so that “the ways of speaking about oneself became refracted through the lens of Bolshevism.”[1]  Many people believed in the socialist project, but even those who didn’t learned the state language so that they could interact with Soviet society.  Kotkin shows how this “Bolshevik” language, values, and beliefs were radically imposed from the top-down on society in a continuation of the October Revolution that began with war on the peasantry.

While some reviewers have claimed the work to be apologetic for the excesses of Stalinism, Kotkin’s impressive display of Stalinism in action is constantly contrasted with the ironies and hypocrisies of a system that eventually collapsed.   The primary resources describe the terrible conditions and absurd situations that underline the regime’s “monopoly on power and inefficiency.” Another point the author makes is how the largest social organization in Magnitogorsk was actually the market of illegal trade and most people in the new society had “petty-bourgeois” traits.  The violence of the “self-immolation of the party” during the terror helps the reader understand how the society continued to function even as many of its own are being sacrificed.

Kotkin’s work provides a crucial examination of Stalinism that reminds us of the importance of coercion in the system while allowing us to fully understand all facets of the Soviet socialist experiment.  Furthermore, the creation of the civilization is put into the context of capitalist industrialization and European enlightenment ideas that made an attempt at a state-built socialist utopia possible.  Stalinism and its reality, from state terror to social mobility, now have a fitting volume.

Book Reviewed:

Kotkin, Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

Further Reading on Soviet Industrialization:

Ellman, Michael, “Soviet Industrialization: A Remarkable Success?” Slavic Review, Vol. 63. No. 4 (Winter, 2004), pp. 841-859

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930’s (Oxford University Press, 1999).

Rosenberg, William G. and Siegelbaum, Lewis H. eds., Social Dimensions of Soviet Industrialization (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

Scott, John, Behind the Ural: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1942). A firsthand account by an American of Magnitagorsk.

An Article on Culture that Questions Kotkin’s Notion of Speaking Bolshevik:

Malte Rolf, “A Hall of Mirrors: Sovietizing Culture under Stalinism, Slavic Review, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Fall, 2009), pp. 602-630.

Primary Sources and Commentary Online:

Industrialization Debate at

[1] Kotkin, 220-221.

Bolshevik Self-Destruction: A Review of J. Arch Getty’s The Road to Terror

23 Apr

Bolshevik Self-Destruction: A Review of J. Arch Getty’s The Road to Terror

In The Road to Terror, J. Arch Getty declares that “The Great Terror” of the 1930’s was not a plan.  There was no neat line of development from Lenin to Stalin and the horrors of that decade were not inevitable consequences of socialism or Bolshevism.  Rather, the terror was a failure to control the expansive Soviet Union by any other means than arbitrary force.  Furthermore, the mixed signals coming from the top throughout the 1930’s about strengthening or weakening the repressions did not represent “hard” factions in the Politburo gradually overcoming the “soft” factions.  Instead, Getty describes the terror with the metaphor of a “twisting” road that is evolving in a “series of contradictory zigs and zags.”  Far from fractional, the road is constructed by “an amazing group consensus” among leaders on the constant need to control and maneuver around their various real and imagined enemies. In the final bloodletting of 1936-37, this road ended in an “explosion” when the party committed “Stalin-assisted suicide” of many Bolshevik stalwarts.

Getty weaves hundreds of Soviet documents together and creates the most impressive study of the Great Terror to date.  Beginning with the negative effects of collectivization and the “Trotskyist threat” in the early 1930’s, the author guides the reader through the initial repressions, the assassination of Kirov, and then each of the increasingly horrific purges that culminated in 1937 with the Red Army.  As a historical piece, the book is innovative because the narrative encompasses two interdependent groups of characters, the Bolshevik leaders and the documents.

Stalin plays a major role in the terror, but Getty highlights how he was unique in his ability to maneuver through the contradictions and keep an air of mystique by distancing himself from the Terror’s dirty work until the 1936 purges. Figures like Yezhov learn to use the situation to their advantage, only to eventually become publicly berated scapegoats and internal party sacrifices.  Despite the consensus for control and sacrifice in the party, the author underlines that there was still some protest (often suicide) and two different types of Bolsheviks.  Men like Bukharin were complicated theoreticians who understood that they had built this system and were now being martyred.  Others, like Yezhov, inherited the system and learned to play along, but never understood the big picture.

Like their creators, the individual documents tell stories with words, style, and the way they were used and abused.  Some, like those concerning Bukharin’s refusal to confess, are edited to hide ambiguities and contradictions.  Directives ordering the liquidation of enemies across the USSR are shocking because they give regional leaders exact numbers.  Orders to arrest or expel someone from the party are cold and concise, while the passionate self-defenses drag on until the accused can think of no more reasons they are innocent.  One eerie document is the ballot for the Central Committee vote to expel K. Ukhanov.  The names of Yagoda, Piatikov, and others are scratched out and you assume that those voting were wondering if their name would be crossed out next.

The blending of the Bolshevik leaders with the documents that traced their maneuvering and demise is a unique accomplishment that gives evidence to Getty’s thesis that the “road to terror” was not a straight shot, but a long and confused detour.  Stalin, Bukharin, and the party leaders where the drivers, while the documents highlight the constantly changing road signs.  The scope of this study may be narrow, but Getty displays how a proper handling of new archival evidence can overturn long held historical assumptions and arguments, especially the long-standing notion posited by historian Robert Conquest that The Great Terror was the inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Book Reviewed:

J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

Further Reading:

Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (Revised ed.), (London: Macmillan, 1973).

Hiroaki Kuromiya, The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s,  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

Norman Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).