Some of you might remember review Maya Haber and I wrote of Miriam Dobson‘s book Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform After Stalin. Now there’s an interview I did with Miriam about the book on the New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies site.
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By Sean — 5 years ago
In a recent column, “Incarceration Nation, Fareed Zakaria claimed that number of people in the United States under “correctional supervision” exceeded that of Stalinist Russia. The assertion comes via Adam Gopnik, who wrote an extensive article on the US prison system in January. “Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America–more than 6 million–,” writes Gopnik, “than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.” Correctional supervision means adults on probation, in jail or prison, and on parole. Zakaria follows Gopnik’s incantation of Stalinism with some horrifying figures:
Is this hyperbole? Here are the facts. The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and Britain–with a rate among the highest–has 153. Even developing countries that are well known for their crime problems have a third of U.S. numbers. Mexico has 208 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, and Brazil has 242. As Robertson pointed out on his TV show, The 700 Club, “We here in America make up 5% of the world’s population but we make up 25% of the [world’s] jailed prisoners.”
It is no hyperbole to say that the US prison industrial complex is unacceptable, especially for a country that purports itself the world’s preeminent democracy. But it is hyperbole because placing the US next to Stalinism (and Nazism for that matter) is inherently hyperbolic. The rhetorical move is supposed to provoke an emotional reaction not stimulate critical awareness. And as much as American liberals would like to think that the numbers of bodies ensnared in the US prison industrial complex is as bad, if not worse, than Stalinist Russia, the situation is far more complicated.
Here I don’t mean the quality of the Stalinist system No one is claiming that the US system is worse than Stalin’s forced labor camps. I only mean the quantity of humans in both systems.
The Stalinist penal system was a complex network of punishments and detentions: prisons, noncustodial forced labor, corrective labor camps, forced labor detention (katorga) special settlements, and corrective labor colonies. I won’t go into the meanings and various differences between these. Though experts make clear distinctions between these various units, to the popular mind, they all fall under the general name of gulag. The numbers of people, which also included children, in this penal machine at any given period remains partial. Up 20 percent of the gulag population was released every year, new inmates went in, corpses went out, some even managed to escape. But exactly how many people under Stalin’s correctional supervision is unknown.
Here’s the population of some of these institutions between 1935 and 1940:
According to the straight numbers, the Stalinist system did not exceed the US’ six million during the years of the Great Terror. In 1938, there were 2.7 million people in the “gulag.” But this doesn’t include everyone under Stalinist “correctional supervision.” Therefore it doesn’t take account of prisons and released gulag prisoners who were forced to carry “Form A” which detailed their past crime, prison term, the deprivation of civil rights up to five years, and restricted where they could settle. There were roughly 2 million people released from the gulag between 1934 and 1940 which etches the Stalinist number closer to the United States.
Things change in 1953, the height of the Stalinist gulag. Here are the numbers:
This means an estimated 7.4 million people were under Stalinist correctional supervision 1953, exceeding Zakaria’s and Gopnik’s 6 million for the United States. Again the numbers are probably higher since these numbers don’t include everyone in the Stalinist penal system.
Things get even more complicated when you consider the gulag population per 100,000 citizens. According to Eugenia Belova and Paul Gregory, the Soviet institutionalized population in 1953 was 2,621,000 or 1,558 per 100.000. When you include special settlements, the numbers jump to 4,301,000 or 2,605 per 100,000. This puts the 760 per 100,000 in the United States into perspective.
The numbers in the United States should produce outcry. No argument there. But caution is required when Stalinist Russia is thrown into the mix, that is, if you want to go beyond rhetoric and emotion.
Eugenia Belova and Paul Gregory, “Political Economic of Crime and Punishment Under Stalin,” Public Choice, 140, 2009.
Steven A. Barnes, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, Princeton, 2011.Post Views: 2,056
By Sean — 12 years ago
A rather strange article appears in today’s Johnson’s Russia List #53 and I’m not sure why. It’s a piece by Alice Gomstyn called “Where the Cold War Still Rages” from the February 6, 2004 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Gomstyn revisits the “totalitarian”/”revisionist” debate that has structured Russian historical studies in the United States for the last 25 years. I mention the article here because some readers might be interested especially since totalitarianism has recently appeared on this blog in conjunction with Khrushchev’s speech.
As a member of the so-called “post-revisionist” generation, I lament the passing relevance of this debate in Russian historical studies. When reading over that work one gets the sense that ideas mattered. The polemics that fueled it made the scholarship people were producing exciting. I can’t say the same for now. I just don’t see the debates over modernity, periodization, the (in)applicability of Foucault, the linguistic turn, etc as having as much punch as the totalitarian/revisionist debate. The creation of schools like the so-called “Soviet subjectivity school” out of the work of really two scholars seems manufactured and forced, if not down right lame. As does claims about the emergence of a “neo-totalitarian” school. They just leave me limp.
The only light I see at the end of this tunnel of boredom is perhaps some of the interesting scholarship being done of nationality and ethnicity. But until we see whether that scholarship will make an impact on the field, I will have to sit around and lose myself in nostalgia for more political charged times.Post Views: 206
By Sean — 9 years ago
Since the raid on Memorial is hitting more and more English language news outlets, the most recent being in the Chicago Tribune, I figured it was time to give an update to the story.
Since the raid on Memorial’s St. Petersburg’s office on 4 December there have been a few developments, but none that illuminates the real reason why police confiscated the NGO’s archival materials and financial records. The raid has gotten a lot of international attention. Orlando Figes, whose recent book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia is mostly based on interviews and materials collected by Memorial, has written a petition to President Medvedev. So far the petition has been signed by many well known American and European scholars.* In addition, the US State Department expressed concern about the raid and called for Russian authorities “to ensure the speedy and safe return of all seized equipment and archival material.” For a comprehensive description of the seized materials, see Tatiana Kosinova’s “Eleven Hard Disks” at Open Democracy.net’s Russia page.
The Russian authorities provided some hope that Memorial’s materials would be returned. On 12 December, Memorial’s director Irina Flige reported that she was promised that the materials would be returned on Monday. They weren’t and no call from the investigators as to when they will be returned remains unknown.
The one promise that authorities did keep was that Memorial’s petition to the court would be heard on 17 December. It was and a few interesting developments came out of it. Memorial still has not been provided with any evidence or really an really a believable explanation as to why its office was raided. The official reason is that Memorial is connected with an anti-Semitic article published by Novyi Peterburg, which is under investigation for extremism. Memorial has repeatedly denied any connection to the article, its author or the newspaper.
What the Wednesday’s hearing did reveal is that the case’s head investigator Mikhail Kalganov did not prepare the materials so the court could verify the legality of the raid. His excuse? He didn’t have enough time. The court gave him some more. His new deadline is 22 December.
In a statement to the press, Memorial’s lawyer Ivan Pavlov said, “The court gave him another chance and scheduled a hearing on 22 December to give him time. In our view, the court has no basis to grant this. He has a chance and I hope that the investigator understands that the postponement of the hearing and the granting of additional time for preparations is offer of good will from the court.” Then Pavlov dropped this bomb: “Moreover, according to our facts, a formal inquiry is preparing materials of all criminal cases for transfer to the General Prosecutor so it could analyze the legality of the search and also other investigative actions which were conducted by Kalganov in relation to this criminal case.”
Does this mean that there is an investigation of the investigator in the works? Stay tuned . . .
UpdatePost Views: 382