Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Lynne Viola's "The Unknown Gulag"

Lynne Viola is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto and author of The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization, Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance, and the new book, The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin's Special Settlements.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to The Unknown Gulag and reported the following:
I didn’t know Ford Madox Ford’s statement about p. 99. When I read it, I was sure it couldn’t be accurate for my book. But when I turned to p. 99 of my book, it struck me that Ford’s statement was, perhaps, as much of a challenge as a potential deadly silencer of mediocrity.

So, what is on p. 99 of The Unknown Gulag? In short, the paragraphs on this page tell of the grueling work regimes of adult and child forced labor in Stalin’s special settlements.

In 1930 and 1931, Stalin sent close to two million peasants (labeled “kulaks” — supposedly rural capitalist exploiters) into internal exile as forced laborers in the most desolate and forbidding regions of the Soviet Union. Entire families were banished from their villages, expropriated of their property, and sent into the wilderness to extract the raw materials (timber, metal ores, etc.) so vital for Stalin’s forced industrialization drive. The special settlements were the foundation block for the infamous Gulag and marked the beginnings of Stalin’s infamous reign of terror.

Close to half a million people died in the special settlements as a result of hunger, disease, and sheer exhaustion. “A. K. Rodionova, a special settler in Siberia, recalled that she would be ‘up at 4 and to work at 6. The plan was 3 cubic meters of wood. If you didn’t fulfill it, you didn’t go home — they wouldn’t give you your rations.’ In a letter smuggled out to relatives in Canada, special settler Franz Warkentin echoed Rodionova’s statement: ‘All men over 18 years of age were to work in the forest. Here we were forced to cut trees from early morning until late at night in snow a meter deep. If you completed fifty percent of the required work, you received fifty percent of your food ration.’ The eight-hour work day was never observed. Inspection teams reported eleven- and twelve-hour work days as the norm with no days off. In the Northern Territory, bosses were said to dismiss the very idea of an eight-hour day, arguing that they needed special settlers to work at least eleven hours. Doubtless, most worked far more than this.” (p. 99)

Everyone worked, from children to the elderly. “Rules regulating the labor of children, minors, women, the elderly, and the nonablebodied were routinely violated. According to directives from August 1931, minors under 16 were not to be employed in industry; exceptions were allowed only with a doctor’s certificate and then only if the minor was over 14. Fourteen- to 16-year-olds were to have a four-hour work day, and 16- to 18-year-olds a six-hour day. In agriculture, children under 12 were not supposed to work at all. In fact, as a report on special settlers in Kazakhstan noted, children’s labor was used ‘almost everywhere...equally with adults and without time limitations.’ Iagoda complained that the same norms for healthy men were applied to minors, pregnant women, and the nonablebodied. A report on the Urals also noted that norms were not differentiated by gender or age.” (p. 99) In fact, mortality rates were the highest of all for the children of the special settlements.

Many Communist officials wrote in their secret reports that conditions in the special settlements were worse than in the concentration camps of the Gulag. These conditions are partly reflected in the work regimen. “Special settlers often worked without a day off. When bosses in the Northern Territory were forced to grant their workers a day off, they held back their rations for the day. Many special settlers went for long periods of time receiving no pay whatsoever. As was the case throughout Soviet industry during the First Five-Year plan, there were often long delays in paying workers. In the case of some special settlers, these delays could extend for up to two years. And industrial officials frequently refused to pay special settlers anything while they were building their settlements. By September 1931, over one million rubles in back pay was owed to special settlers in the Northern Territory. When they were paid, their salaries were generally pitifully small because they were based on the fulfillment of impossible norms. In the Far East, for example, daily wages of special settlers rarely exceeded one ruble 20 kopeks, a small fraction of the average working salary....” (p. 99)

So does p. 99 of The Unknown Gulag reflect the overall quality of the book? Although an author cannot be the judge of the “quality” of her own book, I do think p. 99 captures the essence of the story I am trying to tell, a story which must now count among the twentieth century’s most horrific instances of mass repression.
Learn more about The Unknown Gulag at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue