Khruschev's Cold Summer
Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform after Stalin
Cornell University Press 2009
Examinations of the Soviet gulag are a cottage industry in Russian studies. Since 1991, a torrent of books have been published examining the gulag’s construction, management, memory, and legacy. Few scholars, however, have investigated how Soviet citizens reacted to the return of over four million prisoners from labor camps and colonies between 1953 and 1958. How were they received? How did they reintegrate themselves into Soviet society? How did the specter of the “gulag returnee” impact policy on crime and social regulation? To answer these questions we have to turn to Miriam Dobson‘s Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform After Stalin (Cornell UP, 2009).
In Dobson’s book we don’t find the heroic gulag returnee (“Khrushchev’s zeks,” as Stephen Cohen affectionately calls them) who was unjustly persecuted under Stalin for his political views. Rather, Dobson gives us a tragic figure who finds himself indelibly scarred by his years in exile. Soviet citizens seemed to have cared little as to whether the returnee was a political or an ordinary criminal, innocent or guilty. People viewed all the returnees as suspicious outsiders, marked as such by their gulag slang, prison tattoos, and coarse appearance. They were, in a word, a problem, one that eventually caused a series of moral panics. For Dobson, Stalin’s death, Khrushchev’s denunciation of him, and the release of his victims did not (alas) evoke a collective sigh of relief within the body politic.Rather these acts inaugurated an era of confusion and anxiety articulated in society’s attempts to make sense of the gulag returnee’s place in the post-Stalin order.