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The Evolution of Prisons and Penality in the Former Soviet Union - Book Reviews (4)

Luba Jurgenson et Nicolas Werth, Le Goulag : Témoignages et archives

Paris, Éditions Robert Laffont, S.A.S., 2017, 1120 pages
Alan Barenberg
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Luba Jurgenson et Nicolas Werth, Le Goulag : Témoignages et archives, Paris, Éditions Robert Laffont, S.A.S., 2017, 1120 pages

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1Is it best to examine the history of the Gulag from literary or historical perspectives? Should one attempt to study the camps from below, through prisoners' own words, or is it better to analyze the Gulag through the reports written by state bureaucrats? As Luba Jurgenson and Nicolas Werth argue and demonstrate in Le Goulag : Témoignages et archives, it is not necessary to make such a choice. In fact, one shouldn't – as the editors show, it is only through the careful consideration of both personal narratives and archival documents that scholars can begin to understand a phenomenon as complex and varied as the Soviet Gulag. In fact, over the course of its approximately 1,100 pages, Jurgenson and Werth don't just make the case for combining literary and historical perspectives to understand the Gulag, they also offer a model for other scholars seeking to use interdisciplinary approaches in their work.

2Throughout the book, the editors apply what they call approches croisées to the Gulag and its sources. Each thematic section puts personal narratives and archival documents side-by-side. This is already somewhat unusual for a primary source collection. What is even more impressive, however, is how Jurgenson and Werth frame the sources within the broader context of their disciplines. In an extensive introduction, each provides the context needed to understand the state of Gulag studies today. For Jurgenson, this means tracing the history of personal narratives on the Gulag, and their interpretation and reception in France. Werth, on the other hand, explains how the historiography of the Gulag evolved over the past several decades, discussing how the release of new sources affected the discipline, as well as examining the course of various long-running debates. The result is an introduction over 100 pages long, but this is understandable given the authors' ambitions.

3The rest of the text is divided into fifteen chapters that follow a dual organizational scheme. Some track the journey of Gulag prisoners from arrival through release (e.g., "en route," "arrival," and "return"), whereas others tackle key themes for understanding the Gulag (e.g., "Solovki, laboratory of the Gulag," "the camp as a social microcosm," and "dysfunctions"). Each of these chapters contains a brief introduction and a selection of memoirs and archival documents that shed light on the subject in question. The archival documents, by and large, are selected from the seven-volume History of the Stalinist Gulag published in 2004 as a collaboration between leading historians of the Gulag and the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The personal narratives, on the other hand, come from a broad range of authors of different nationalities and degrees of fame, and date from different eras. While some authors are well-known, like Nobel prize winning Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, others, like Lithuanian Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, are likely less familiar. Even readers who know the Gulag literary canon are likely to encounter new texts and authors, one of the many things that make this collection valuable.

4Jurgenson and Werth have produced what is undoubtedly the best (and certainly the most exhaustive) one volume introduction to the Gulag through personal narratives and archival sources available in any language. The relatively inexpensive price, and an emphasis on employing accessible language rather than scholarly jargon, make this is a fantastic introduction to understanding the Soviet Gulag. Its only real shortcoming is an unwieldy table of contents that makes it challenging for readers to find particular documents or authors. But given the volume's emphasis on mixing approaches and sources, this is a very minor quibble. Those who take on the challenge of this lengthy volume will reap great rewards from its interdisciplinary and eclectic structure.

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Electronic reference

Alan Barenberg, « Luba Jurgenson et Nicolas Werth, Le Goulag : Témoignages et archives », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 19 | 2018, Online since 15 November 2018, connection on 18 November 2019. URL :

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About the author

Alan Barenberg

Texas Tech University

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