Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society

Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society

Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society

Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society


Death and Redemption offers a fundamental reinterpretation of the role of the Gulag--the Soviet Union's vast system of forced-labor camps, internal exile, and prisons--in Soviet society. Soviet authorities undoubtedly had the means to exterminate all the prisoners who passed through the Gulag, but unlike the Nazis they did not conceive of their concentration camps as instruments of genocide. In this provocative book, Steven Barnes argues that the Gulag must be understood primarily as a penal institution where prisoners were given one final chance to reintegrate into Soviet society. Millions whom authorities deemed "reeducated" through brutal forced labor were allowed to leave. Millions more who "failed" never got out alive.

Drawing on newly opened archives in Russia and Kazakhstan as well as memoirs by actual prisoners, Barnes shows how the Gulag was integral to the Soviet goal of building a utopian socialist society. He takes readers into the Gulag itself, focusing on one outpost of the Gulag system in the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan, a location that featured the full panoply of Soviet detention institutions. Barnes traces the Gulag experience from its beginnings after the 1917 Russian Revolution to its decline following the 1953 death of Stalin.

Death and Redemption reveals how the Gulag defined the border between those who would reenter Soviet society and those who would be excluded through death.


In one of the telling episodes of his history of the Gulag, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn relates the tale of a prisoner ship convoy headed for the Dalstroi goldfields of the notorious Kolyma. As the convoy approached Magadan, the ships got stuck in the icy waters of the Kolyma River. The prisoners were forced to disembark and walk across the frozen river to the shore. Solzhenitsyn continues:

Nonetheless, continuing to play out the farce of correction, in other words,
pretending they had brought not simply bones with which to pave the gold
bearing Kolyma but temporarily isolated Soviet citizens who would yet re
turn to creative life, they were greeted by the Dalstroi orchestra. The orchestra
played marches and waltzes.

What could possibly seem more out of place than an orchestra trumpeting the arrival of a prisoner convoy into the depths of the Gulag?

In 1950, the American Alexander Dolgun sat outside the gates of the Steplag labor camp in the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan. His welcome to the camp was almost surreal.

I began to feel as though I was hallucinating again because I could hear music,
a band, playing some kind of bravura march. It sounded weak and the instru
ments were not well tuned, but the rhythm was fast and I was sure it was
coming from inside the gate. I had a sense of deep cosmic horror that made me
dizzy. In the distance I could see the silhouette of the corpses on the wagon. The
band seemed to be playing some kind of grotesque farewell. Then it got worse.
Out of the gate came, in lines of five abreast, a column of walking corpses in
black cotton jackets with white number patches…. The music … came from
a pitiful little band of prisoners lined up near the … guardhouse…. Faces of
death playing a lively march.

The Gulag was a massive phenomenon. Understood here in its broadest sense as the entire Soviet forced labor detention system, the Gulag destroyed the lives of a large portion of the Soviet population. The overall detained population in the camps, colonies, prisons, and internal exile reached a maximum in the early 1950s well in excess of 5 million people. Throughout the Stalin era, some 18 million people passed through the prisons and camps of the Gulag, and another 6 or 7 million were subject to internal exile. From 1921 to 1953, according to official figures, some 800,000 people were sentenced to death by the Soviet secret police organs alone. Furthermore, no fewer than 1.6 million died in the appalling conditions of the Gulag camps. We will never know for certain . . .

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