Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union has left many unanswered questions but in The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements Lynne Viola answers one: what happened to millions of peasants in the 1930’s. Viola, a Professor of History at the University of Toronto, has captured the day-to-day life of Stalin’s first victims by conducting research in the previously closed archives of the central and provincial Communist Party, the Soviet State, and the secret police.The OUPblog is proud to host Viola for the next five days as she brings us inside the archives and explains to us just how she was able to write this book.
Stalin’s special settlements originated as penal institutions for the roughly two million peasants who were labeled kulaks and forcibly expropriated and deported to the most far-flung and forbidding hinterlands of the Soviet Union. Once there, these families worked as slave labor to extract the raw materials so vital to the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialization drive of the early 1930s. They lived in special settlements that they constructed from scratch. The special settlements were the foundation block for Stalin’s gulag, a fact that historians were not aware of until the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the archives.
When I first entered the field as a graduate student at Princeton University in the late 1970s, I was keenly aware of the existence of Soviet concentration camps—what we routinely equated with the gulag. Yet there was little sense at the time of the variety of forms inherent within that huge penal behemoth—camps, labor colonies, special settlements, labor settlements, children’s colonies or “special” orphanages, and so on. And it was assumed, quite correctly, that this was not a topic that was amenable to archival research given the near inaccessibility of Soviet archives.
So I began my research by looking at topics within and around the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Although the Soviets were cautious about welcoming a foreigner pursuing such a sensitive topic, it was not quite off limits and I even managed to work in the archives for a period of about three months in 1982. While I was conducting my dissertation research, I became intrigued by the question of the so-called “liquidation of the kulak as a class.” When the Soviets began their collectivization campaign in the late 1920s, they decided to “eliminate” an entire group of peasants, the kulaks, who supposedly represented the wealthier or capitalist element among the peasantry. This process, called “dekulakization,” was extremely arbitrary and struck all manner of peasants, including regime critics and the village elite. Given that this repressive campaign encompassed literally millions of peasant households, I couldn’t help but ask where did all the kulaks go after they were dekulakized? There were hints of their fate—a few references in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and occasional mention of them in Soviet secondary sources which featured kulaks said to be “rehabilitated” and honored as heroes after World War II. And we knew quite a bit about the repressive operations against the kulaks in 1930 and 1931. But then what happened?
Through the 1980s, I continued “to look for” the kulaks, scouring literary sources, published documents, memoirs, any accessible documentation. Time was on my side. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as a reforming Communist; survivors began to speak about the repression, including dekulakization; and the archives cracked open their doors. Once the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the archives, or most of them, became accessible for a decade of relatively unhindered research. It was clear to me almost immediately that an entire shadow world existed within the gulag, one inhabited by peasant families, including children, the elderly, the infirm, and ruled by forces as merciless as those in the concentration camps…
It turned out that the Soviet archives contained hundreds of thousands of documents on the special settlements alone. Where these documents were and what they contained is the subject of my next installment.