Death and Redemption
The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society
Princeton University Press 2011
Most Westerners know about the Gulag (aka “Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies”) thanks to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s eloquent, heart-wrenching Gulag Archipelago. Since the publication of that book in 1973 (and largely thanks to it), the Gulag has come to symbolize the horrors of Stalinism. Made up of a vast network of concentration camps, slave labor camps, and (according to some) death camps, the Gulag was a horrible thing indeed. Under Stalin some 18 million people were imprisoned in it; no less than 1.6 million of them died while inmates.
The incredible brutality and injustice of the Gulag system is beyond dispute. Yet, as Steven Barnes points out in his new book Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society (Princeton UP, 2011), the Soviet authorities used the Gulag not only to punish and kill, but also to “correct.” They invested significant resources in the reeducation, rehabilitation, and redemption of prisoners, over 20% of whom were released every year. The vast majority of Gulag prisoners did not die there; they survived the experience and (for good or ill) were changed by it. And as they moved through the system in their millions, and were transformed by Gulag incarceration, Soviet society changed as well. In this fine book Barnes tells us how.