The Soviet Gulag system of forced-labor camps arose in 1930 during Stalin’s campaign for rapid industrialization. An “archipelago” of camps covered the USSR, engaged in forestry, mining, and construction using prisoner labor. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1970s landmark The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956, defined our knowledge of the camps using memoirs of survivors among intellectual inmates, sentenced for “political” crimes. Recently declassified Soviet archives have unleashed new studies of the Gulag drawing on official perspectives. In Illness and Inhumanity in Stalin’s Gulag, Golfo Alexopoulos charts the operation of the Gulag by examining the records of the Moscow directorate’s “medical-sanitary” service, embedded within the general Gulag administration. Alexopoulos addresses questions of prisoner health and mortality, and the institutionalized “inhumanity” of the “Stalin Gulag” from 1930 to 1953. New studies using declassified Gulag archives have provisionally established a consensus on mortality and “inhumanity.” That tentative consensus says that once-secret records of the Gulag administration in Moscow show a lower death toll than expected from memoir sources, generally between 1.5 and 1.7 million (out of 18 million who passed through) for the years from 1930 to 1953 (153–154). Moreover, as Alexopoulos summarizes, we have found “no plan of destruction” of prisoners (7), no statement of official intent to kill them in these records. Instead, historians have found that prisoner releases significantly predominated over deaths in the Gulag, with Alexopoulos’s own earlier work on amnesty a leading statement of this view. Yet her encounter with the Gulag medical-sanitary service’s Moscow archive “surprised” Alexopoulos (1), and she now attempts to challenge the emergent scholarly consensus, with uneven success. Each of Alexopoulos’s nine thematic chapters explores “some aspect of the Gulag’s elaborate, secretive, and lethal regime of human exploitation” (18), including rations, prisoner health and illness, disability, releases, the doctors, and selection for exploitation through labor. While chronologically ordered, the chapters are repetitive and sometimes present confusing temporal shifts. Alexopoulos is primarily interested in 1940–1953, years that are better documented in this particular archive. Her introduction offers little critical assessment of the central Moscow records of the Gulag medical-sanitary directorate, although some good commentary on the “language and mental universe” of the directorate (178) is offered in later chapters. In my view, these archives are an important chronicle of the activity of the Moscow-based managers of a nationwide penal medical service that was “embedded” in its host (the Gulag) and naturally reflected its values. The Moscow perspective of these materials reflects the intentions of central authorities, but not necessarily reality in the camps. Alexopoulos argues that the Soviets “willfully denied food to many prisoners and created an institution of mass starvation,” a “violent zero-sum game” (20) in its ration systems. Few apparently got the calories they needed. Those who met or exceeded work quotas were supposed to get more, while prisoners who failed to meet targets or shirked work got less. Punitive rations “deliberately starved” (36) underproducing and disobedient inmates. “Stalin’s Gulag valued prisoners according to their capacity for physical labor. The healthy and strong appeared superior, while the sick and emaciated were vilified” (61), not only in ideology but in the rationales for what became by the 1940s finely differentiated supply schedules. Alexopoulos wrestles commendably with the complex and fragmentary data in these archives on prisoner health. Her chapters abound with dense and shifting evidence typical of this source base. The central medical archive documents include “Lists of Illnesses” (67–75) that sorted sick prisoners by their production value, and ubiquitous and frequent reports to Moscow on individual camps’ profiles of their prisoners’ “physical labor capacity,” with percentages of populations capable of hard, moderate, or light labor, or incapable of work. For the 1940s–1950s, Alexopoulos draws on reports on the proportion of prisoners engaged in industrial work (hard labor, usually unmechanized), service and support work (desk jobs and lighter toil), or no work at all because they were sick or fully disabled. Given the heavy toil and the pathetic rations, illnesses of malnutrition ravaged working-age and mostly male prisoners: pellagra, scurvy, starvation disease, and widespread tuberculosis and other infections (chap. 4). A significant proportion of prisoners became “invalids” from emaciation and its consequences. Alexopoulos concludes that the Gulag systematically “wrung out” prisoners through work exhaustion (110), and then transferred prisoners down a ladder of lower-priority camps (189–193) until, near death, they were released to die (152). Solzhenitsyn told us much of this story using memoirs; Alexopoulos adds value by discerning from internal Gulag documents a systemic intent to deny people enough food to perform the tasks forced upon them. Equally illuminating, even if from central records alone, is her discussion of Gulag administration internal dynamics and center-periphery tensions. In her account of penal-medical power, Alexopoulos is, however, less persuasive. She invokes a transhistorical and universal set of “humane” medical values to judge the way Gulag medical officials saw their work. This detachment from Soviet and modern medical contexts yields some unbalanced claims. To cite two examples, the Gulag’s “List of Illnesses” is said to be “a creation of the Stalinist camps” emblematic of its brutality (67), implicitly something uniquely diabolical. Yet tsarist, Soviet, and Western medical systems have historically created innumerable lists of disease types to determine who gets care and under what circumstances. Clinical care has never been limitless. In another example, Alexopoulos deplores that Gulag “health care was instrumentalized and aimed at keeping prisoners working” (107–108); and yet after 1930 all health care in the Soviet Union was mobilized to maximize the population’s productivity. Compassion is socially constructed in specific medical cultures: Hippocratic humanism was scarce in Soviet biopolitics. Alexopoulos makes bold arguments that Gulag researchers will have to consider, and in a short review I can mention these only briefly. She contends that the “vast pyramid of camps” (6) distributed prisoners not based on labor need (as historians have long thought) but down the hierarchy as their health deteriorated. She says they ended up in the little-studied “corrective labor colonies” despite an existing understanding that these were reserved for petty offenders (183). Alexopoulos’s claim, based solely on the records of the central Moscow Gulag administration, will need corroboration from regional Gulag archive collections. Gulag doctors, she concludes, “were motivated by a desire to comply with the rules of the system,” not by “hatred towards prisoners” (181), and yet in their work they “became associated with mass violence” (160). Alexopoulos bases this judgment on the transcript of an unusual September 1945 conference of Gulag medical officials (the basis for chap. 7), yet this document cannot reflect the changing composition of staff over her period (which included many prisoner-doctors), or the attitudes of junior medics. Alexopoulos argues that the widely recognized “crisis of the Gulag” at the end of Stalin’s life “was essentially a monumental health crisis” (226), as starvation apparently intensified. Yet historians have long attributed this “crisis” to a restive postwar demographic of ex-combatants, plus economic mismanagement, not prisoner frailty. Alexopoulos by contrast is surprised that there were prisoners strong enough to stage the active resistance notorious during the late-Gulag “crisis” (205, 225). And yet, as Solzhenitsyn and Steven A. Barnes have shown, vigorous prisoners did mobilize in major revolts before and after Stalin’s demise. Finally and most provocatively, Alexopoulos proposes a “conservative” death toll for the Gulag of at least 6 million “given the archival record on [prisoners’] ‘physical labor capability’” (243). Methodologically, this claim is inferred from this one indicator, and Alexopoulos interprets “physical labor capability” assuming the very worst for all prisoners but those classed as healthiest. Thus, she extends the camps’ mortality rate to encompass those whose lives were shortened by Gulag toil (244), a laudable moral choice, but one with obvious methodological difficulties. How do we decide which “deaths after release” to include? If it were possible to obtain it, substantiation from local and regional sources for such a count would be needed. The central records can only hint at the phenomenon. Alexopoulos has produced a provocative reading of the central archives of Gulag penal medical administration and raised dozens of questions for further contestation. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: May 30, 2018
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