Welcome to Episode 1

Welcome to “Episodes in Gulag History,” a series of conversations with scholars about the history and legacy of the Soviet Gulag system led by Steve Barnes, George Mason University professor and Lead Historian for Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives. “Episodes” is made possible with the support of the Kennan Institute and Title VIII of the U.S. Department of State.

This inaugural Episode features Lynne Viola, Professor of History at the University of Toronto, discussing her recent book, The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements, that explores the life and fate of millions of peasants sent into exile in Siberia, the Soviet Far North and Central Asia in the early 1930s during collectivization and the campaign to liquidate the kulaks as a class.

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4 Responses to “Welcome to Episode 1”

  1. Steven Harris Says:

    Thanks Lynne and Steve for conducting this stimulating discussion on the special settlements, which raises a couple questions I’d like to pose for both of you.

    First, how do the Soviet special settlements compare with similar forced deportations and migrations in other countries and other times on questions of scale, purpose, and outcome? In what ways can a comparative approach to this topic shed light on the Soviet case?

    Second, in listening to your conversation, I wondered about how the leadership evaluated the special settlements. In other words, did they have a definition of what “success” would mean in this project and, if so, did that definition change over time and why?

    Third, if we take seriously the Soviet leadership’s goal of creating a “classless society,” where did the special settlements fit within this overall project?

  2. lynne viola Says:

    Dear Steve,
    Thank you so much for your comments. I’ll attempt at least a partial answer, starting with your third question and working backwards.

    You wrote, “if we take seriously the Soviet leadership’s goal of creating a ‘classless society,’ where did the special settlements fit within this overall project?” The special settlements were an attempt to rid the countryside of what the state deemed to be rural capitalists (the kulaks). Although the actual implementation of the policy of “liquidating the kulak as a class” was arbitrary and struck many families that clearly were not of this status, the policy was intended to level out the class field in the countryside en route to the new supposedly socialist system of collectivized agriculture. In terms of the actual special settlements, they became sites of poverty and isolation–definitely classless.

    Your second question is a good one and very hard to answer in limited space. You wrote that you “wondered about how the leadership evaluated the special settlements…did they have a definition of what ‘success’ would mean…and, if so, did that definition change over time and why?” Initially, the leadership concerned itself with “simply” ridding the countryside of the kulak–all the emphasis was on the “push factor.” At the same time, Iagoda, the head of OGPU, was determined to bring down the cost of incarcerating prisoners by creating special villages where the prisoners would essentially support themselves (and their families) in their imprisonment. If success were to be judged by the degree to which, in the end, the special settlers could, in fact, support themselves, then we see that the endeavor was not very successful in the majority of villages. On the other hand, the labor of kulak families was also used in forestry, mining, construction and other industries. Their labor provided a stop-gap measure to supply these labor-scarce areas with working hands. Yet most party and industrial leaders focused only on the short term–and therefore ignored the material upkeep of this labor force. Ironically it was the OGPU which most often attempted to mitigate the special settlers’ material conditions with a view to long term labor needs. In the end, I think, that is by the late 1930s, the leadership realized that the special settlements were not an effective economic measure.

    Finally, in your first and most difficult question, you ask if I can compare the Soviet special settlement with other cases of forced deportations and migrations elsewhere. One could, of course, fit this case within studies of population politics. Like population transfers elsewhere, the Soviet leadership was attempting to solve social and economic problems with massive social engineering of its population. The state was paramount in this initiative, demonstrating, as elsewhere, the major role that the state played in such massive endeavors in twentieth-century history.

  3. Steven Harris Says:

    Thanks for those responses, Lynne. If I could switch gears to something a bit more specific: you mentioned in the interview that kulaks relocated to special settlements near Magnitogorsk were mobilized for work in that city’s industrial projects. Did allowing this population to work alongside the workforce of Magnitogorsk cause any problems and worries among the local and central leadership? On a practical level, if you worked at Magnitogorsk, how did you know that someone was a dekulakized peasant living in a nearby special settlement?

    Another specific question: as far as you know, who was the highest ranking party leader ever to visit any of the special settlements you write about, or did the central leadership generally stay away and rely on the OGPU for reporting what was going on there?

  4. lynne viola Says:

    Thank you again for the questions, Steve. I will try to answer them. First, the OGPU was always worried when “kulak” special settlers worked in the vicinity of “free” workers–worried about ideological contagion of the free workers. But in cases when special settlers did work along with free workers, it was virtually impossible to prevent such contacts. I have incidental reports of free workers assisting special settlers from time to time.
    I have no record of top leaders visiting special settlements, so can’t say for sure if anyone did other than those involved in spring 1930 in the inspection of the exiles for cases of “incorrect dekulakization.” At that point, leaders like Tolmachev and Bergavinov visited the exiles, most of whom were not yet at their final destinations.