Academic journal article Kritika

"The Camp Is Not a Resort": The Campaign against Privileges in the Soviet Gulag, 1957-61

Academic journal article Kritika

"The Camp Is Not a Resort": The Campaign against Privileges in the Soviet Gulag, 1957-61

Article excerpt

"Rulers change, the Archipelago remains." (1) Such was the final judgment of the preeminent Gulag chronicler, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, after his brief description of the Soviet penal system under Nikita Khrushchev. At first glance such a broad condemnation seems counterintuitive, in light of the well-known reforms of the mid-1950s that freed the vast majority of political prisoners in the Soviet Union, noticeably ameliorated conditions in the camps, and put in place mechanisms to ensure that neither the staggering numbers of prisoners nor the terrible abuses of the Stalinist Gulag would return. Yet Solzhenitsyn's primary contention is that after these "pitiless blows of liberalism staggered and rocked the camp system" during the mid-1950s, "the whole cast of practical workers" that staffed the Gulag, fearful of their jobs, fought zealously to restore the Gulag to its former, repressive state. (2) The initial reforms of 1953-56 were followed by potent ground-up counterreforms, most notably the 1961 statute governing corrective-labor colonies and prisons; and as a result, living conditions for prisoners in the 1960s rivaled those of the late Stalinist period. Solzhenitsyn is not alone in making such claims. A number of scholars and memoirists have echoed the view that, in the words of Anne Applebaum, "the neo-Stalinists had triumphed," and that, according to Anatoly Marchenko, the Soviet penal institutions of the 1960s were "just as horrific as in Stalin's time." (3)

A few historians, however, have recently questioned, at least in part, Solzhenitsyn's characterization of the conservative counterreforms in the penal system of the early 1960s. Marc Elie, in a brief account of "the conservative shift" in the penal sphere, for instance, ignores Solzhenitsyn's mid-level Gulag officials, portraying the counterreforms rather as a product of the struggle between high-level "reformists" and "conservatives." Moreover, he sees the reaction occurring because of a brief crime wave in 1959--60, which conservatives blamed on the recent "laxity in repression" in the Gulag. (4) Thus the motive was not the restoration of jobs and privileges but rather anger at the criminal actions of ungrateful and unreformed released prisoners. Miriam Dobson, by contrast, finds the press and especially the general public to be influential actors in shaping national debates. More specifically, she posits that the reeducation theme of the mid-1950s "failed to resonate" with the broader Soviet population, and as a result, Khrushchev and his peers in the late 1950s turned instead to optimism for the future as a ruling technique, a trope that was inseparably coupled with intolerance for those unwilling to move forward toward communism. (5)

There are important reasons for investigating the transformation of the Gulag under Khrushchev: not only does it reveal much about the nature of Soviet society and officialdom in the 1950s and early 1960s as they grappled with the legacies of Stalinism, but the penal system that Khrushchev left behind when ousted in 1964 continued without substantive alteration until the fall of the Soviet Union and then persisted beyond 1991 in the successor states. (6) Certainly the subject deserves far more attention than it has received, a lacuna this essay remedies only partially. Indeed, the present work makes no claim to providing a comprehensive narrative of penal reform under Khrushchev but instead focuses on the motivations for creating harsher living conditions in the early 1960s, the specific policies that ensued, and the result of these reforms. As Sohhenitsyn rightly notes, Stalin's death was followed by a period of theoretical and substantive "liberalization" in regard to inmates' living conditions that persisted into the late 1950s. Likewise, there certainly was a campaign that began in the late 1950s and culminated in 1961 to make living conditions in the Gulag harsher. Moreover, there were many continuities between the Gulag of 1950 and that of the early 1960s that would seem to support Sohhenitsyn's contention: the basic organization of camps and colonies remained relatively unchanged (barracks, barbed wire, guards); production by means of inmate labor remained a serious if not overriding concern for camp administrators; corruption continued unabated; stool pigeons and trusties were always being recruited; ethnic distinctions among prisoner groups remained, and so forth. …

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