Being Human in Hell:
Practices of Existence in the Soviet Gulag and the Chinese Laogai
Keywords:Gulag, Laogai, Labour-camps, Solzhenitsyn
In The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky writes that the labour camp was “a world apart”, with “its own unique life.” His novel is set in Tsarist Russia, but his words are equally applicable to the Soviet Gulag and Chinese laogai. In these camps, the experience of being human was unique, grotesque, and transformative. To stay alive, never mind to stay human, was often impossible. Drawing on survivor memoirs from the camps, this paper examines the forces that shaped and remade the human experience in these places and analyses the responses to and results of these forces. By considering the Soviet and Chinese cases together, certain insights about being human in extreme circumstances are revealed, while highlighting the different adaptations that were made in varying conditions. The paper follows a three-part structure: the impact on human life of the economic logic that underlay the camps; the role of thought reform in reconditioning personalities, and the adaptations that people made in order to survive. The primary material is contextualised with reference both to the historiography surrounding the Gulag and laogai, and some of the theoretical writing on totalitarianism in the camps.
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