The Wild East

by Chris Bertram on June 19, 2007

I experience all kinds of odd reactions on reading Kate Brown’s “review of three books about the Gulag”:,,25340-2645702,00.html in the TLS. She writes about some horrific events (starving prisoners abandoned on a island) but the general impression is not of the Gulag as I’d come to imagine it. True, this is the early system, circa 1933, but what the books Brown is writing about depict is something that calls to mind the British transportation of their undesirables to Australia, or, perhaps, ethnic deportations like the Trail of Tears. Deportees sent to the frontier to build a new life, and issued with guns to protect themselves from polar bears! Escapees running riot and terrifying the locals. And deluded managers in Moscow issuing orders to well-meaning subordinates in the distant east and giving them problems to solve but not the resources to cope. Read the whole thing, as they say.



joel hanes 06.19.07 at 8:58 pm

For a view of the Siberian gulag from inside, ca. 1940, try Slavomir Rawicz’s gripping The Long Walk. Should be in most good libraries; Amazon has several editions.

Rawicz’s experience of Siberia was that the prisoners were underfed and worked to death. Interrogation under torture happened earlier, before he was transported to Siberia.


JR 06.19.07 at 9:26 pm

The Long Walk is undeniably a gripping tale well-told, but there is some skepticism that it’s true. Rawicz’s story — ghost-written by a British journalist — has never been verified by documents, which doesn’t disprove it but doesn’t help, either. For example, the British army has no record of his hospitalization at any Indian military hospital. And his fellow escapees were never located or interviewed. He conveniently never learns their full and correct names, and loses track of them once they reach India. Certainly parts of the story are not true (he claims to have seen a yeti while crossing the Himalayas, and to have spent 12 days in the Gobi desert without water).

A lawyer would say, “false in part, false in whole.” But given the role of the ghost-writer at a time (1950) when Rawicz’s English was poor, it’s possible that the story is true at the core but embellished.


Matt 06.19.07 at 9:42 pm

Deportation of radicals/state opponents to Siberia but w/o putting them in real camps had a long history in pre-Soviet Russia. It had been done to the Decemberists (those who were not executed) and to some of those involved in the 1905 revolution, I believe, as well as to many inbetween. Kropotkin talks about Polish nationalists sent there when he was leading a cossack group exploring the Amur region while in his late teens/early 20s (!) I don’t remember for sure but I don’t think they were confined, at least not once they were there.


Anderson 06.19.07 at 9:56 pm

Anne Appelbaum’s book Gulag gave the same impression about some of the earlier camps.

Not my field at all, but I’ve somehow gotten the impression that the camps didn’t become truly hideous until the great purges began. (Had I finished the AA book, I would’ve gotten to the really awful camps ….)

It is also very likely true that some camps were better than others.


Henry 06.19.07 at 10:27 pm

My understanding like jr’s is that Slavomir Rawicz is at best somewhat unreliable – the yeti incident seems a dodgy interpolation intended to grab the attention of Western readers.


JR 06.19.07 at 10:43 pm

Now that I’ve read the review, I have to say that I’m skeptical about the truth of these reports about Vaigach Island. Before Vaigach, Eikhmans had run the Solovetsky Camp, where he staged a benign camp atmosphere on visiting days – most famously for Maxim Gorky – who would return to Moscow and report on the enlightened penological methods practiced there. In fact Solovetsky was brutal. I suspect that he carried out the same Potemkin Village practices at Vaigach. Why wouldn’t he? I do believe, though, that there were no fences around the Vaigach camp. It’s a frozen waste of an island, with polar bears and no inhabitants other than the Nenets people (who were like Eskimos). Where would a prisoner go? And I really don’t think that a photo of Eikhmans’ wife on skis tells us much about the life of the average prisoner.

As for calling Iagoda a “deluded manager” and Eikhmans a “well-meaning subordinate” — well, choose your own Nazi analogy, because they were literally as evil as the Nazis. Iagoda was a monster who enjoyed torturing people, and Eikhmans was a competent and heartless cog in a brutal death machine. The fact that Iagoda issued Eikhmans written orders that could not be possibly be carried out, and that Eikhmans replied with hopelessly over-optimistic forecasts of what he could accomplish, does not make them deluded or well-meaning. That is how Soviet bureaucrats communicated with each other. Both sides of the correspondence knew perfectly well how to read those kinds of letters.


Otto Pohl 06.19.07 at 10:56 pm

The Soviet penal system had a number of components. What Brown is writing about are the “special settlements” for dekulakized peasants. This is also the subject of Viola’s recent book. During 1930 to 1931 the Soviet political police (OGPU) deported over 1.8 million to barren regions as described in the review. Not only did the regime remove them from Soviet society, but it also provided a labor force for remote areas. Finally, it saved on the costs of incarcerating these people in actual camps in prisons. The dekulakization campaign had quikcly overwhelmed these institutions.

The special settlers endured a number of legal restrictions. They could not leave their assigned settlements without special permission of the OGPU. The OGPU also had responsibility for their living and work arrangements. The special settlers could not work in most professions. Finally, they had to pay for the OGPU administration of a separate and unequal set of laws ruling them out of their wages. This witholding tax was initially 25% then reduced to 15% in August 1931 and finally down to 5% after February 1932. Later during WWII the Stalin regime deported whole nationalities to the same regions. They also came under the legal restrictions of the special settlement regime.

The ITLs (Corrective Labor Camps) and ITKs (Corrective Labor Colonies) are what most people in the English speaking world usually think of as the Gulag. All the decent literature on the subject clearly differentiates between the labor camps (ITLs) of the Gulag and the punitive internal exile of the special settlement system. See for instance Khlevniuk or even Solzhenitsyn. You might even check out my first book, _The Stalinist Penal System_ (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1997). The ITLs, ITKs and special settlements all coexisted in the USSR under Stalin. There were also other penal institutions such as the GUPVI camps for POWs and foreign internees.


David Sucher 06.19.07 at 11:22 pm

I experience all kinds of odd reactions reading your post, CB.

[One snarky hint too many, to add to the stuff you’ve been posting as “dms”, which I’ve been ignoring. Please don’t visit again David. CB]


james stevenson 06.20.07 at 5:41 am

I read the first of these three, Nicholas Werth’s Cannibal Island a couple of months ago. (The magazine where I work got a review copy that somehow found its way into my hands.) The Times’ account of the action of the authorities in Nazino doesn’t quite jibe with what I remember in the book. It wasn’t just a case of criminally poor planning on the Soviets’ part, though that did play an obvious role in the horrors that followed. Guards didn’t hesitate to fire on unarmed, malnourished prisoners and the book included accounts from locals indicating that they sometimes did so for sport. Nor was Dmitri Tsepkov the benign, ineffectual administrator he comes across as in the review. There were probably some “well-meaning suboordinates,” in the early years of the Gulag, but there is little evidence they ended up in Nazino, at least not in Weth’s account. I’ll try and dig up my copy to provide some cites. It’s around here somewhere…


Chris Bertram 06.20.07 at 6:58 am

jr: I wasn’t meaning to call Iagoda a “deluded manager” since, esp. as a one-time Trot, I’m familiar with his capacity for evil. I guess was especially riffing off the penultimate para in that remark (together with some of the other bits). Obviously, I’m not a specialist and I don’t have independent knowledge of the minor characters such as Tsepkov – I’m just a blogger reacting to what struck me as a fascinating article. I’m grateful for those who know more for commenting.


abb1 06.20.07 at 10:20 am

…Iagoda was a monster who enjoyed torturing people…

Yeah, I heard it too: monster, sadist, pervert, enjoyed torturing people.

I have zero sympathy for Yagoda and no desire to defend him, but somehow I always suspected that this kinda melodrama has more to do with antisemitic sentiment (including Solzhenitsyn’s) than anything else. How do you know he enjoyed torturing people?


ajay 06.20.07 at 10:59 am

Minor point: I was struck by the irony of both the Gulag and the RSHA having a senior camp administrator called Eichmann.


ajay 06.20.07 at 4:04 pm

“Genrikh Yagoda was unfairly maligned!”

Nice troll, but a bit obvious.


abb1 06.20.07 at 4:31 pm

#13, was this for me? And why can’t Yagoda be unfairly maligned? It’s you who is trolling.


notsneaky 06.21.07 at 10:42 pm

How do you know he enjoyed torturing people?

Ah, yes. This is of crucial importance. Did he PERSONALLY enjoy torturing people, or did he just personally enjoy turning over people, to the people who personally enjoyed torturing people?

It’s worth remembering that the Inquisition never burned a single heretic.


abb1 06.22.07 at 9:19 am

But how do you know he enjoyed any of it, anything related to torture at all?

Did Truman enjoy annihilate people by nuclear explosions, Kissinger burning people alive by napalm, did Pinochet enjoy firing squads, Robespierre the guillotine, Rumsfeld blowing people up? I have no idea.

Why do you so predictably need this silly melodrama for the official bad guys; certainly there are better explanations than their being ‘evil’.


us politics forum 06.23.07 at 3:39 am

I’m no expert on Russian history, but from what I’ve watched on the History Channel shows that the Siberian areas were basically forced labor camps. If you disagreed with Stalin or the Communist Party, you got sent to go dig for gold in Siberia or some other hell hole where you are slowly worked to death in an Arctic prison.

Comments on this entry are closed.