Book Review: The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements

By Lynne Viola

What do we think when we hear the word ‘Gulag’? Barbed-wire fences, watchtowers, dark and damp punishment cells; names like Kolyma, Vorkuta, and Perm. But as author Lynne Viola reminds us in her new book, there existed a less known part of the 'gulag archipelago', the sites holding the first massive population of forced labourers –the ‘special settlements’ created in the early 1930s to exploit the labour of the 'dekulakized' peasants. Little more than clearings in the dense forest with hastily built wooden barracks, these places lacked the intimidating infrastructure and security of the famous labour camps, but nonetheless served as places of confinement, punishment and exploitation.

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RRP: £12.99
Publication Date: 2009
ISBN: 978-0195385090
Classification: Hob Nob Accompaniment

The author aptly calls this the ‘unknown Gulag’, for the special settlements have consistently been left out of histories of the Gulag. In part, this stems from the Soviet government’s suppression of the issue; for more than 60 years, the topic was taboo. Solzhenitsyn exposed the camp system largely through the stories of elites; lacking contact with and memoirs written by these peasants, he could only mention their exile in Gulag Archipelago. The documents connected with this socioeconomic experiment remained classified and the stories of survivors were silenced until 1991, when Boris Yeltsin fully exonerated the victims of Soviet political repression, including the so-called kulaks.

The author uses a skilfully assembled mixture of official sources and voices of the dispossessed to eloquently tell the tragic story of the first special settlers. Based on Party and state documents from the centre and the provinces, published document collections, Soviet periodicals, and memoirs, this is a deeply researched and powerfully written study of the fate of the approximately two million peasants who were punitively exiled from their homes in the years 1930–33. Viola covers all aspects of this experience, starting with Bolshevik attitudes towards the peasantry, rural developments of the 1920s, policy-making under Stalin, the expropriation and transport of the kulaks, and their arrival in the remote places chosen for them. She focuses her study on the Northern Territory, the Urals and Siberia, examining the lives of the special settlers, their suffering, dying and methods of coping. The book discusses their travails to the end of the Soviet period, when survivors were finally able to
shed the fear and stigma that had permeated their lives, long after their term of exile ended in the 1950s.
The author shows, in glaring detail, the complete and scandalous lack of planning for accommodating the exiles in inhospitable locations. Guided by hatred of the peasant as the epitome of backwardness and the desire to exploit natural resources in harsh locales in service of industrialization, the Soviet authorities, starting in March 1930, dumped the exiles in places ill-prepared to house, feed, or employ them. Over the next months and years, the regime responded to the disasters as they unfolded: the deaths of half a million people, epidemics, famine, escapes, rebellions, and low productivity.
She therefore goes beyond documenting the process of dekulakization and uncovering the lived experience of its victims. She dwells on the importance of this cataclysmic operation, underscoring the central role dekulakization played in the development of the Gulag, in particular, and Stalinism, in general. She shows that the special settlements, first established for the exiled kulaks, formed an essential part of the Gulag in its initial decade. Dekulakization constituted the largest exile operation and provided the first massive wave of un-free workers; the exploitation of the kulaks’ labour provided the model (even barracks and workplaces) for later exiles of ‘enemy’ ethnic groups, such as the Poles, Germans, Crimean Tatars and Chechens. Furthermore, the creation of the special settlements established practices and taught lessons that were used in the expansion of the Gulag of the camps and penal colonies. The author concludes that, ‘the Soviet state was not the Leviathan of Western cold-war lore’, but rather ‘an infrastructurally weak, agrarian state'. This reality, coupled with the radical policies of its leader, meant that coercion took the place of administrative control, and resulted ‘in excesses, violence and terror’. These features, the author argues, constituted the essence of Stalinism. The ‘war on the peasantry’ played a critical role in the shaping and solidification of Stalin’s rule, particularly in the growth of, and reliance on, the secret police. Lynne Viola convincingly asserts that knowledge of the dekulakization of the peasantry, the practices it established and the cataclysmic changes it engendered, is central to understanding Soviet development from 1930 onwards. This book is essential reading for students of Soviet history, and for experts on Stalinism and the Gulag, as well.