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The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin's Special Settlements Hardcover – 26 Apr 2007

4.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 306 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (26 April 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195187695
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195187694
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 3 x 16 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,987,994 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Well-researched and informative. (David Winnick, Tribune)

Magnificently wide-ranging research. (Kate Brown, TLS)

About the Author

Lynne Viola is Professor of History at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The Best Sons of the Fatherland and Peasant Rebels Under Stalin, and the co-editor of The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I really enjoyed this book. It tells the story of the kulaks, a peasant class persecuted by the Stalin administration for very similar reasons to those of Nazi Germany against the Jews. Relocation, murder, and a slow and agonising frozen death befell most of these people as they were plucked and moved to far flung corners of the soviet republic. The recipients of the "workers" were ill prepared and as a result many died of starvation, malnutrition and neglect. Their stories are told here, and it makes for a sobering read.
The only criticism I would give is that it is weighed down by facts and figures. It is a necessary evil to portray the extent of the disaster, but takes some time to get through.
You won't be disappointed!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars 8 reviews
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very good information for a researcher or graduate student 3 April 2009
By Jason Adamik - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I won't add much to what was said above. The book is well-written and I've never seen such thorough documentation in any non-academic book. is tough going: it's full of /extremely/ detailed lists, numbers of settlers, how many went to which region, etc., etc. Full of so many different acronyms that even the student of Russian history will find it very difficult to keep up with. There is a five page glossary of terms and abbreviations such as OGPU, DGO, GPU, GAVO, GAOPDF AO, GAAO, GARF, RGASPI, etc., etc., etc.

The only comment I'd make about the style is this - although Dr. Viola appears to be extremely fluent in Russian (bravo) due to the sources she quotes, she uses a vexing and unorthodox transliteration system. The part of this seemingly self-made system that bothered me the most was that although all the systems I've seen use the apostrophe ' to indicate the 'soft sound' and the " to indicate 'hard sound' she uses the quote mark sometimes when there is no soft sound in the original word. For example, on page xxiii she writes ob' "edinennoe, which indeed has a hard sound after the b but there is no possibility in Russian for a soft sound + a hard sound immediately following. There are many more examples. The other unusual parts of this system are only a little less irritating to students of the Russian language and if you are familiar with the standard transliteration systems you will know what I mean but if you don't know Russian you wouldn't care about it.

There are only 193 pages before all the appendix and notes section, but luckily the Amazon discounted price makes it not too expensive for a short book. Good for the researcher, but not for the person who is just interested in reading about the subject.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remember the kulaks 15 Jan. 2013
By Marc Comtois - Published on
Format: Paperback
Lynn Viola is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto. She specializes in the social and political history of twentieth century Russia and is well-published in this area of study. In The Unknown Gulag, Viola details how Stalin and his cohort planned and executed a policy that resulted in the exile of over 2 million "capitalist peasants"--kulaks--into the first gulags. Whether planned or not, the release of the book coincided with the dedication of the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. and Viola does a fine job of portraying one group of those victims: the forgotten kulaks.

Stalin's primary motive for removing the kulaks from villages, she explains, was based on his and the Communist Party's political and ideological goals. Primarily, the Communists believed that the peasants stood in the way of their ideal of agricultural collectivization.

Their desire for collectivization was largely an outgrowth of the failure of past Communist economic policies. In 1927/28, the Party had implemented price controls that artificially held down the price of foodstuffs consumed by industrial workers while at the same time they expected the rural farmers to pay a premium for the goods coming out of the factories. This disregard for the natural self-interest of individual farmers led to unintended consequences. Instead of selling their goods at below market value, the farmers held their goods back or sold them on the private markets. In 1928/29, the Communists responded by implementing various laws and taxes to harass and punish the peasants and to force them to sell their goods to the government--at the government price.

The Communist Party came to believe that the "capitalist peasantry" needed to be removed for the sake of more efficient collectivization. Gradually--often based on whim or prejudice--anyone who was perceived as an obstacle to collectivization was declared a kulak. By 1929/30, collectivization efforts were in full swing and with it de-kulakization. Peasant farmers who didn't move into collective farms had their goods confiscated by "grain requisitioning brigades" composed of "urban communists and industrial workers" whose antipathy towards rural peasants was exploited by Stalin.

"The Communist Party perceived issues of socioeconomic stratification through political and ideological lenses. That meant, in practice, that the (broadly defined) political behavior and actions of a peasant were often equally, if not more, important in determining social status than economic position in the village. During the collectivization of Soviet agriculture, almost anyone could be labeled a kulak--the village critic, the outspoken Red army veteran, peasants with large families (and therefore greater land resources), and a host of other village authorities, including priests, church council members, tradesmen, craftsman, byvshye liudi (village notables from the prerevolutionary regime), and even seasonal workers as well as the occasional prosperous peasant. As the state entered into what would be a protracted war with the peasantry, the kulak came to serve as a political metaphor and pejorative for the entire peasantry."

De-kulakization helped Stalin destabilize the traditional village social and political structure by removing leaders and intimidating any peasants left behind. Thus, the Communist party engaged in a "virtual war" that resulted in the destruction of the traditional peasant society that they neither understood nor trusted. In its place, the Communists erected agricultural collectives that would supply the food for the idealized industrial workers who were the true heart of the perpetual Communist revolution.

But what to do with all of the kulaks? G.G. Iagoda's OGPU (secret police) was charged with implementing the policies of that came to be known as de-kulakization. But little thought had been given to how to facilitate the removal of millions of kulaks. Or where to put them.

As a result, Iagoda made it up has he went along. Seeing the increasing disarray in the countryside, Iagoda developed a plan to relocate the kulaks to the Northern Territories, Siberia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, peasant riots broke out and local and regional mismanagement of the policy led to "excesses." Additionally, tensions arose between those territories who sought rid themselves of the kulak problem and those regions that were charged with taking them in. As so often happened, the "perfect" Communist plan somehow failed to materialize in reality.

Despite these problems, the relocation went forward. But a concrete plan was still lacking and kulaks languished in temporary settlements. Eventually, they were moved to remote areas where they began the slow, arduous and uncoordinated process of building permanent special settlements, usually located near prospective labor camps. These families worked together--though they were often separated, too--to scratch out an existence in the remote regions of the Soviet Union.

Such is the lead-in to the heart of Viola's work: the personal stories of those who survived life in these unknown gulags. Viola's work is both a solid institutional and an engaging social history. She accents her intricate sketch of the Soviet bureaucracy with the vivid and often heartbreaking accounts of those who survived the kulak gulags.

In the final analysis, Viola believes that Stalin's de-kulakization policy has been overlooked as a key component of his consolidation of power and that "the peasantry paid the highest price for the Soviet experiment..."

"The Soviet superpower was built upon the poverty of the village, artificially fueled by an economy and a society that could not in the end sustain its growth and power. Long before 1991, to those who could see, it was evident that the Soviet Union was a Leviathan in bast shoes. Soviet modernity always remained moored to its agrarian legacy."

Soviet Communism relied on exploiting the common people it claimed it was trying to help. Eventually, the Iron Curtain was drawn and the world saw the fallacy upon which the Soviet utopia had been built. Unfortunately, it was too late to help a lost generation of small farmers.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fills out the Western image 11 Aug. 2012
By R. L. Huff - Published on
Format: Paperback
Lynn Viola has, overall, done a superb job of filling in the Western historical blank on the "less than free" settlers exiled to Stalinist Siberia, to beef up the labor pool of the Russian hinterland. It is, of course, a continuation of Russian administrative exile as practiced under the Tzars. But in scope it also resembles the "kidnapping regime" of Georgian Britain, in peopling the labor-starved American colonies with indentured servants. Like their counterparts of two centuries previous, the descendents of Soviet "special settlers" stayed on to become the majority population in their "adopted" new homes.

Ms. Viola is on target as dismissing the "Leviathan state" image of Western cold war lore. Soviet Russia remained Russia, a rather ramshackle place that tried - as per Trotsky's unacknowledged theory - a great leap forward over the missing links of historic evolution. This rationalized a ruthless exploitation of workers free, enslaved, and those in between. But she misses the continuity between the Tzarist state and its "need" to repress and exploit, for parallel reasons. To make of the Russian peasant a "colonial native," as Ms. Viola does, misses the point that such native peoples under external rule were to remain forever subject; while the Soviet peasant was to be transformed and integrated into a proletarian citizen - a project largely succesful by the USSR's end. This occurred despite the Stalinist bureaucracy, however: the OGPU's police "kidnappers" can no more take credit for any longterm success out of their devastating methods, than English "soul stealers" for peopling their own realm with "useful subjects."

A useful and interesting take for those interested in its time and place.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Before the Gulag 17 Oct. 2008
By Paul E. Richardson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
We well know that, before the Gulag, there was Solovki. But, as Viola shows, between Solovki and the Gulag there were the spets - poselki (special villages) built by two million peasant kulak in 1930 and 1931, after they were forcibly removed from their villages and dropped in remotest Siberia without food or shelter. Some half-million souls died in these deadly precursors to the Gulag, whose existence was defended as a State Secret until recently - long after the crimes of the Gulag had been well chronicled by Solzhenitsyn and others. Thank fully, there are tenacious researchers like Viola bringing such things to light, honoring the victims in a society that seems determined to forget. (Reviewed in Russian Life)
15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shocking and brutal; a time when evil reigned 9 Sept. 2007
By Jeri - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I got interested in the subject of the gulag by reading a book called "Cannibal Island" which told the horrifying story of one settlement in the gulag.

This book is a more scholarly and detailed examination of the gulag. It is a truth "that was suppressed for nearly sixty years, locked in Soviet archives and buried in the memories of frightened survivors" (p 2).

The communist party, and Stalin in particular, declared war on the kulak class during the 1930's. A kulak was a slang word for a tightfisted person, and the communists were certain that the country would flourish if only they could be rid of those peasants who hoarded food and goods.

In fact, the country was in a state of chaos and the people who were branded kulaks were as likely to be already starving as hoarding anything.
Yet, "In the violent context of the First Five-Year Plan, the countryside became a foreign country to be invaded, occupied, and conquered" (p 32).

Millions were swept up, wrenched from their families and their land, sent in over packed trains to the gulags. And millions died. Typhus and smallpox, exhaustion and starvation claimed the poor peasants who were sent to the gulag.

In their desperation, many tried to escape the gulag, only to perish in the vast emptiness of Siberia. Some rebellions occurred, and were swiftly put down. The dry reports from those in charge make for grim reading, containing such statistics as half of the women had ceased to menstruate due to hunger (p 133).
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