Gulag & Soviet Society in Western Siberia


A review of The Gulag and Soviet Society in Western Siberia, 1929-1953, by Wilson Bell.

What was life like for prisoners and camp staff in the many “ordinary” camps, colonies, and special settlements of the Soviet Gulag? This is one of the key questions that Wilson Bell attempts to answer in The Gulag and Soviet Society in Western Siberia, 1929-1953. Bucking the trend of studying camps in the most extreme and remote locations (e.g., work by David Nordlander on Kolyma, Simon Ertz on Noril’sk, and Alan Barenberg on Vorkuta), he examines Western Siberia, an enormous area that roughly corresponds to the Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Kemerovo provinces of the Russian Federation. Western Siberia was the home to one of the Soviet Union’s most extensive prison camp complexes (Siblag) and its various successors and offshoots. It also included a mixture of “corrective labor camps” (ITLs), “corrective labor colonies” (ITKs) and “special settlements.” Bell devotes significant attention to each in this dissertation, a welcome decision given that current works on the Gulag tend to focus on only one of these three types of institutions. ITKs, which tended to hold prisoners with shorter sentences, are particularly understudied. Yet even though Western Siberia held many prisoners and exiles in a wide range of institutions, relatively few of its economic activities were given top priority status by the Soviet leadership. This makes the author’s choice of Western Siberia as a case study particularly valuable, as it is undoubtedly more representative of the vast Gulag system than the high priority camps that have drawn most consistent attention from historians.

Bell uses close analysis of a wide range of archival and published sources to offer a thoughtful new conception of the Gulag and its place in Soviet society. Never one to settle for easy explanations of complex phenomena, Bell discusses how understanding the Gulag hinges on tensions between sets of intersecting goals. He treats the forced labor system first and foremost as a penal institution, closely connected to trends in criminal justice and conceptions of criminality in Russia and the Soviet Union. Yet the political imperatives that accompanied collectivization and industrialization during the first five-year plan played a key role in the system’s creation. Bell argues that the desire to use the Gulag to isolate and punish enemies never disappeared, continuing to inform decisions and regulations well into the 1950s. Yet the Gulag was also an economic institution designed to allocate and exploit unfree labor. One of the strengths of the dissertation is that it examines the ebb and flow of political and economic imperatives in the Gulag’s management and everyday operation. The fact that the penal, political, and economic aspects of the Gulag are examined in each chapter speaks to Bell’s remarkable ability to avoid oversimplification, and his meticulous analysis of his sources.

Another powerful tension that emerges in Bell’s narrative is that which existed between the Gulag as a modern, bureaucratic institution that sought to regulate and control the bodies of prisoners, and the existence of informal practices that undermined many such plans. Unlike Steven Barnes, who sees the Gulag as an institutional embodiment of modernity, Bell describes the Gulag in Western Siberia as an example of what Terry Martin called “neo-traditionalism.” As Bell points out, “While Stalin and the NKVD on paper created a modern system — highly regulated, bureaucratic, efficient, etc. — for its actual operations the Gulag relied frequently on informal networks of exchange and distribution, as well as a system of privilege that depended on personal connections, for the prisoners and camp personnel alike” (p. 16). Thus, the Gulag emerges as an institution defined as much by the unintended consequences of central policies as by their intended goals. In fact, according to Bell, many regulations in the Gulag (as in Soviet society at large), were formulated in such a way that they were virtually impossible to follow, encouraging the spread of informal practices. If for Steven Barnes the Gulag was primarily an institution that was created and defined by Bolshevik ideology, for Bell this cannot adequately explain the everyday operation of the camps.

While the author places his narrative within the growing historiography on the Soviet Gulag, he also engages with broader literatures on modernity, penality, and the concentration camp. Thus, for example, he finds that the relationship between overregulation and arbitrariness present in the camps of Western Siberia closely resembles what Richard Ireland observed in his study of the Victorian prison (p. 124). He also places the widespread practice of contracting prisoner labor to industry in the context of its international origins, particularly the US South. He wades into major theoretical debates as well, examining for example the applicability of Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of the “gardening state” to the Gulag, and finding it rather wanting. Perhaps most insightful is his discussion of whether or not various institutions of the Gulag fit into Wolfgang Sofsky’s definition of the concentration camp. As Bell’s dissertation clearly demonstrates, no Gulag institution resembled the closed universe of the concentration camp. Corrective labor camps, although usually encircled by barbed wire and armed guards, had porous borders due to poor staffing and informal practices. Corrective labor colonies were often not enclosed at all, and the fact that most inmates were contracted out to other economic enterprises made isolation virtually impossible. The “special settlements” were perhaps the least isolated of all, since they more closely resembled exile villages than prison camps. Yet, as Bell skillfully points out, these “special settlements” shared important traits of the concentration camp that the labor camps and colonies did not: their residents were not convicted of a specific crime, but instead were sent there as part of a group that had been targeted by the regime (p. 53). Paradoxically, he shows that many of the “special settlements” were more geographically isolated than camps and colonies, which tended to be located closer to major cities (p. 65). In short, Bell’s dissertation is truly comparative — it does not simply adopt or apply the models of others, it deftly interrogates existing theory and historiography to see where his data fit.

Chapter 1, “Forced Labour and the Development of Siberia,” places the growth of the Gulag in Western Siberia into historical context. Bell sees the development of forced labor in Siberia as a largely ad hoc attempt to solve two longer-term Russian problems. The first was the problem of how to adequately exploit the rich mineral resources of Siberia and other remote regions of the Russian Empire. This “Siberian problem” had been an issue at least since the time of Peter the Great, and the difficulty of securing a sufficient labor force for Siberian industries was at its core. Thus, although the form and scale of the Gulag were distinctly Soviet, the idea of using penal labor to exploit Siberia’s resources had much deeper roots in Russian history. The second longer-term issue, the so-called “peasant problem,” was perhaps even more fundamental. How was the central government to pacify, exploit, and control Russia’s vast population of peasants? The “war against the peasantry” of the first five-year plan, which eventually crushed the countryside, created a surplus of kulaks that could be used to help colonize Siberia and other remote regions. Thus, as Bell demonstrates, the long-standing Siberian and peasant questions were solved in a related manner, with surplus peasants from the countryside used to colonize Western Siberia.

Chapter 2, “The Gulag in Western Siberia, 1929-1941,” explores the often chaotic process of the creation and development of a vast network of camps, colonies, and settlements in Western Siberia. In this chapter Bell emphasizes both the degree to which the development of the Gulag was unplanned and the diversity of its institutions. Overall, Western Siberia exhibited the same overall trends of the Gulag as a whole, with rapid expansion of its population in the early 1930s and once again during the Great Terror of 1937-38. Further, over time large camp complexes like Siblag tended to be broken up into smaller units, as the Gulag tended towards greater economic specialization. In this chapter Bell clearly demonstrates the degree to which the Gulag in Western Siberia was geographically, economically, and institutionally diverse, with urban and rural outposts, industrial and agricultural enterprises, consisting of camps, colonies, and “special settlements.” He even presents the curious case of the “Tomsk Camp for Family Members of Traitors to the Motherland,” a subdivision of Siblag specially designed to house family members of counterrevolutionary prisoners, which did not require prisoner labor and had no economic function whatsoever. What this “experiment” demonstrates, according to Bell, is that while the general trend was for the Gulag to become more of an economically-focused institution over time, the process was never unambiguous (p. 97).

Chapter 3, “Gulag Regulations on the Eve of World War II,” examines the Gulag at a time when many historians agree that it had become a more stable and mature system. Here, as Bell demonstrates, we see clear evidence of the desire of Gulag administrators to create a modern, bureaucratic system with highly regulated daily life for prisoners. Yet, using a number of examples of Gulag regulations dating from the late 1930s and early 1940s, he argues that authorities were rarely able to actually realize this vision for the camps. Here he uses the examples of de-convoyed prisoners (those given passes allowing them to move unguarded outside the camp), basic recordkeeping of prisoner information, and the system of graduated rations, to show just how far practices departed from regulations. Particularly striking is his conclusion that while, “The intention of these rules conforms to a modern ethos concerning the rational ordering of society….[but] The result of many of them, however, was increased inefficiency and an entrenchment of informal practices” (p. 130, emphasis in original). Overall, this chapter makes the strongest case for Bell’s observation that the Gulag both followed and departed from Foucault’s model of the modern prison. Bell’s evidence shows the desire of officials to regulate the daily life prisoners and also their clear inability to do so in many cases.

Chapter 4, “Mobilization for War,” is the first of two chapters that examines the transformation of the Gulag in Western Siberia during wartime. This chapter focuses specifically on various attempts to mobilize prisoners for war, both in economic and ideological terms. As he shows, the war resulted in the further transformation of forced labor institutions in Western Siberia. On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of prisoners evacuated from the western part of the Soviet Union became prisoners in the camps or passed through on their way elsewhere. On the other, the population of forced labor institutions in Western Siberia declined significantly over the course of the war due to astronomically high mortality rates. While mortality rates were clearly higher than the average throughout the Gulag (which was generally not the case in priority camps), Bell concludes that administrative chaos, poor record-keeping, and constantly fluctuating prisoner population render it virtually impossible to calculate an accurate yearly mortality rate (p. 164). As the economic importance of Western Siberia increased dramatically over the course of the war, so did the economic exploitation of prisoners and “special settlers” in defense and related industries. Yet the poor health of prisoners and low productivity meant that the widespread use of forced labor added little to the wartime economy. Bell also demonstrates that a remarkable amount of resources was devoted to “cultural-educational” activities among prisoners. Unlike the 1930s, the focus was now on rallying support for the state and the war effort, rather than on the idea of reforging or rehabilitation. In the end, Bell remains skeptical that such activities were fulfilled in much more than a pro forma manner.

Chapter 5, “Camp Personnel during Wartime, 1940-1945,” turns to the activities and ideological outlook of local officials during the war. This is a pathbreaking chapter, as few studies of Gulag personnel exist. Bell shows that camp personnel were constantly in short supply, poorly trained, and often lived in dreadful conditions. Looking primarily at reports from Communist Party organizations of forced labor institutions, he concludes that informal practices and relationships played a constant role in the lives of camp personnel, and by extension, the prisoners whom they guarded. Theft, blat, and other illicit economic practices were rampant, sometimes improving the lives of prisoners but often making them worse. His conclusion that camp personnel seemed to view the prisoners not as dangerous enemies, but as prisoners to be economically exploited, is certainly striking, and it runs counter to the conclusions of Steven Barnes that the Gulag was a thoroughly ideologized space.

Chapter 6, “The Gulag in Western Siberia, 1945-53,” extends the dissertation’s narrative into postwar Stalinism. In this chapter, Bell explores the paradox of the postwar Gulag, an expanding forced labor system that seemed to be increasingly ineffective in the eyes of a wide range of officials. At a time when the Gulag appeared to be more bureaucratic and professionalized than ever, the persistence of informal practices continued to undermine the creation of a modern Foucauldian prison system. The Gulag institutions in Western Siberia grew after World War II and were often split into increasingly specialized units. Regulations for the operation of camps continued to proliferate. Yet black market activity also continued, as did forbidden sexual relationships between camp staff and prisoners, subjects of significant concern in administrative reports. The rise of prisoner resistance, with frequent prisoner-on-prisoner violence, was another phenomenon that undermined the bureaucratization and regulation of life of the Gulag. For Bell, this tension between regulations and informal practices was not a new phenomenon in the postwar, but as the scale of the Gulag expanded in Stalin’s final years, it appeared to become even more pronounced than had previously been the case.

Overall, this is a fine dissertation that makes a number of original contributions to the study of the Soviet Gulag. It is the first major archival study of a non-priority part of the Soviet penal system, thus providing key insights into the experiences of ordinary prisoners, exiles, and camp staff. By examining regulations, practices, and prisoners’ experiences in a wide range of forced labor institutions in Western Siberia, Bell makes a strong case that the Gulag was a clear example of Soviet “neotraditionalism.” While Soviet leaders and Gulag administrators may have conceived of their system as thoroughly modern and bureaucratic, the gap between intention and capacity resulted in the proliferation of informal practices that shaped the lives of prisoners and personnel as much as formal regulations did. Such a conclusion fits with Bell’s consistent effort to place the Soviet Gulag into comparative perspective, providing readers with meaningful insight into what was unique about the Soviet Gulag and what it shared with other modern prison institutions. Overall this dissertation is a model of how thorough archival research can be fruitfully wedded to historical comparisons and the critical deployment of theory.

Alan Barenberg
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Texas Tech University

Primary Sources

GANO (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Novosibirskoi oblasti / State Archive of Novosibirsk Province)
GARF (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiskoi Federatsii / State Archive of the Russian Federation)
GATO (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Tomskoi oblasti / State Archive of Tomsk Province)
Tomsk Memorial Society Archives
TsDNI TO (Tsentr dokumentatsii noveishei istorii Tomskoi oblasti / The Centre for the Documentation of the Contemporary History of Tomsk Province)

Dissertation Information

University of Toronto. 2011. 332 pp. Primary Advisor: Lynne Viola.


Image: Antonu, Location map of soviet Gulag system concentration camps, 16 August 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

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