The Gulag Unbound: Remembering Soviet forced labour

29 June 2012, Cambridge University

The Gulag Unbound: conference document

Organizers: Alexander Etkind, Cambridge University and Dan Healey,
Reading University

The history of the Gulag is conventionally understood as a story of enormous injustice and heroic endurance. This story is ‘bound’ to the compelling narrative of suffering of the intellectual in the Gulag, exemplified by the classic accounts of its highly literate survivors or mourners of its victims.

Until recently, these narratives had been the principal prisms through which we saw the Soviet forced labour. The narrative of intellectual martyrdom was powerful, and its great moral prestige fuelled opposition to the Soviet system. Since the 1990s, the state archives of the Gulag have gradually been made available to scholars and this flood of documents must be weighed against the memoirs of survivors. The enormous paper trail generated by the security apparatus and its massive penal bureaucracy now challenges historians to consider the Gulag through the eyes of the perpetrators, those who imagined, built, and maintained the forced labour camps. How can we evaluate the factual validity, bureaucratic rivalries, and ideological aims that underpin these documents? How far can we trust the archival documents of the managers of the Gulag? With the issue of trust coming to the forefront of empirical research, moral and philosophical problems of
interpretative judgement become more pertinent than ever.

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