Being Human in Hell:
Practices of Existence in the Soviet Gulag and the Chinese Laogai
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.
Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Allen Lane, 2003.
Barnes, Stephen A. Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. London: Pimlico, 2008.
Dolgun, Alexander. Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag. London: Collins/Harvill, 1975.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The House of the Dead. Translated by Roger Cockrell. Richmond: Alma Classics, 2018.
Dutton, Michael R. Policing and Punishment in China: From Patriarchy to “the People.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Fritzsche, Peter, and Jochen Hellbeck. “The New Man in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.”Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, edited by Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick, 302–41. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.
Ginzberg, Eugenia.Into the Whirlwind. Translated by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari. London: Persephone Books, 2014.
Gonzalez, Valentin.Listen Comrades: Life and Death in the Soviet Union. Translated by Ilsa Barea. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1952.
Gorky, Maxim, L. Auerbach, and S. G. Firin, eds.The White Sea Canal. London: Bodley Head, 1935.
Herling, Gustav. A World Apart. Translated by Andrzej Ciolkosz. London: Penguin, 2005.
Lifton, R. J. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. London: Gollancz, 1961.
Malsagoff, S. A. An Island Hell: A Soviet Prison in the Far North. Translated by F. H. Lyon. London: A. M. Philpot Ltd., 1926.
Margolin, Jean-Louis. “China: A Long March into Night.” The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, edited by Stéphane Courtois, 463–546. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Marx, Karl. Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875.
Mühlhahn, Klaus. Criminal Justice in China: A History. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Pasqualini, Jean, and Rudolph Chelminski. Prisoner of Mao. London: Andre Deutsch, 1975.
Shalamov, Varlam. Kolyma Tales. Translated by John H Arnold. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
Shaoqi, Liu. How to Be a Good Communist. Yan’an, 1939.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, I-II. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. London: Collins Harvill Press, 1974.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, III-IV. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. London: Collins Harvill Press, 1975.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, V-VII. Translated by H. T. Willetts. London: Fontana, 1978.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. London: Vintage, 2003.
Stepanic, Stanley Joseph. “The Gulag and Laogai: A Comparative Study of Forced Labor through Camp Literature.” Ph.D, University of Virginia, 2012.
Todorov, Tzvetan. Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps. Translated by Arthur Denner and Abigail Pollack. London: Phoenix, 2000.
Williams, Philip F., and YennaWu. The GreatWall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.
Wu, Harry. BitterWinds: A Memoir of My Years in China’s Gulag. New York: John Wiley Sons, 1994.
Xianling, Zhang. Grass Soup. Translated by Martha Avery. London: Minerva, 1995.
Ying, Lai. The Thirty-Sixth Way: A Personal Account of Imprisonment and Escape from Red China. Translated by Edward Behr and Sydney Liu. London: Constable.