Thursday, June 2, 2011

Steven A. Barnes's "Death and Redemption"

Steven A. Barnes is associate professor of history and director of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Mason University.  He is part of the group behind the Russian History Blog.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Death and Redemption is part of a discussion of identities in the 1930s Gulag, the Soviet Union’s forced labor system. Once formerly secret Soviet archives opened, we learned that at least 20 percent of the Gulag population was released every year. At the same time, as we have long known, millions died in the Gulag. The book attempts to explore if and how Soviet authorities determined who would be released from and who would die in the Gulag. An important factor in answering that question is the differential treatment of Gulag prisoners according to their identity as understood by Gulag officials. In the Gulag, an informal yet powerful categorization matrix operated based on who a prisoner had been prior to their arrival in camps (that is, their gender, the crime they had allegedly committed, their ethnicity, etc.) and whom they had become after arrival (that is, according to their labor productivity, their behavior in the camps, the state of their health, etc.). One’s position in that categorization matrix was strongly correlated with survival until release from the Gulag. Different axes in the matrix determined everything from the length of the prisoners’ terms of detention, the remoteness and climatic extremes of their place of detention, the amount food they would receive to whether a prisoner would be released early, on-time, or would be charged for a new crime to continue their detention.

Page 99 considers just one aspect of that categorization matrix, looking at the role that gender identity played in the fates of women prisoners. As I write on that page, “Women had their own special place in the Gulag’s identity universe. They were treated as remedial subjects, officially required to work on par with men, but nonetheless subjected to cruelty specifically due to their gender. In the early 1930s, women appeared in a position similar to the national minorities. That is, they were considered to be a group in need of remedial instruction, although their cultural level was generally low due to their oppression in the tsarist era; special attention was generally low due to their oppression in the tsarist era; special attention was required to raise the cultural level of women so they could take their rightful place in Soviet society.” So, women were by definition unfit for Soviet society until they could shake off the deleterious impacts of pre-revolutionary patriarchal oppression. Labor in the Gulag was supposedly the way to enable that transition. Obviously, reality was quite different.

Finally, the page shows how women creatively struggled to maintain their social lives in the conditions of gender separation (even if that separation was never as complete as Gulag authorities wished it to be. “Consider, for example, Catholics in the camps. Since the church only allowed men to serve in the priesthood, the separation of Catholic women from Catholic men denied these women access to the sacraments. While men could find many corners in the camps invisible to the prying eyes of the state to practice their beliefs, women could not. Mass was celebrated in the barracks, mine shafts, and forests whenever the guards had been drawn away. But women did find their own methods to practice their religion. In some camps, where men were nearby, 'Catholic women would write down their sins on a piece of paper or tree bark with a number, which would be smuggled to their priests on the men’s side. The priests would go along the fence and silently dispense absolution to the women, who held up their fingers to identify themselves, and smuggle penances back to them.'” [The quotation comes from Christopher Lawrence Zugger, The Forgotten: Catholics of the Soviet Empire from Lenin through Stalin (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001) 202.]
Learn more about Death and Redemption at the Princeton University Press website, and visit the Russian History Blog.

--Marshal Zeringue