It is well known that Soviet citizens were often victims to incredibly harsh punishments for mediocre crimes: examples of trial worthy crimes are here and here. But on March 27, 1953 De-stalinization reached the prisoners that had been locked into the camps (Freeze, 2009, P. 410). Those who were released were “persons sentenced for up to five years, those convicted of economic and military crime regardless of their terms of imprisonment, women with children under 10 years of age or who were pregnant, juveniles up to age 18, men over 55 years of age and women over 50 years of age, and convicts suffering from incurable diseases (von Geldern). The release of these prisoners had monumental impacts: symbolically, socially, and politically.
Symbolically this act of De-Stalinization fit into the larger theme of dismantling the regime of “repression and secrecy” (Freeze, 2009, p. 412). This release signaled a change and undermined the Stalin legacy. Georgi Malenkov is quoted saying:
“You have suffered innocently, you pregnant women, you mothers and children, you boys and girls under eighteen, you the old and the sick, and all the rest of you!
It was Stalin who needlessly kept you behind bars and barbed wire, and who deprived you of civil rights.
We have no need for such barbarity. We are releasing you. Remember to whom you owe your freedom.” (Deutscher, 2012)
Stephen Cohen wrote a report called the Social Dimensions of De-Stalinization, 1953-64 where he analyzed both the inclusion of camp culture into soviet society and the long term influence of these prisoners entering politics.
Simply put, prisoners struggled to reconnect with normal society. Many had demolished families, financial insecurity, and psychological troubles from the camp (von Geldern). To make matters worse: “There was little the state could do for the many families already torn asunder by the Gulag (the plethora of divorces, remarriages, lost chil- dren, etc.), or for the many returnees who had psychological problems similar to those among survivors of the Nazi death camps. These family and personal problems created many traumas in Soviet society” (Cohen, p. 1). Often times, prisoners stayed in the towns of imprisonment, became citizens, and tried to integrate into society as well as they could. Others, integrated their experiences into soviet culture and there was a subculture of literature, music, and folk tales inspire by prison experiences. “Broadly speaking, the process developed on four interrelated levels of culture: everyday language, folk songs, poetry and prose in manuscript, and eventually official publications” (Cohen, p. 16). Here is a song called Somewhere in a Field Near Magadan that deals with difficulty of societal reintegration . Poems were also popular and below is one attempting to understand to social unity of all prisoners regardless of socio-economic status.
“ … fate made everybody equal
Outside the limits of the law,
Son of a kulak or Red commander,
Son of a priest or commissar.
Here classes all were equalized,
All men were brothers, camp mates all,
Branded as traitors every one.”
(Cohen, p. 10)
Finally, released prisoners became political voices for change within the government. “Early returnees with access to high official circles became lobbyists for further releases in 1953-54 and catalysts in the mass liberation policy that followed” (Cohen, p. 2). Interestingly, not all prisoners had similar views on politics and were scattered all across the political spectrum. Even though they were not all politically united their views were heavily dictated by their experiences in the camp.
This post received the Comrade’s Corner award
Cohen, S. Social Dimensions of De-Stalinization, 1953-64. Retrieved from https://www.ucis.pitt.edu/nceeer/0000-624-17-Cohen.pdf
Deutscher, I. (n.d.). Russia After Stalin. Retrieved March 26, 2017, from https://www.marxists.org/archive/deutscher/1953/russiaafterstalin.htm
K. (2015, August 24). Somewhere in a Field Near Magadan (1982). Retrieved March 26, 2017, from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1954-2/prisoners-return/prisoners-return-music/somewhere-in-a-field-near-magadan-1982/
Volkov. (1953). (Feuilleton)-GULLIBLE PEOPLE. The Current Digest of the Russian Press, Vol. 5, 13. Retrieved from https://dlib-eastview-com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/browse/doc/13832155
(1953). Trial: WINDOW DRESSERS. The Current Digest of the Russian Press, Vol. 4, 17. Retrieved from https://dlib-eastview-com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/browse/doc/14112798
Von Geldern, J. (2015, September 01). Prisoners Return. Retrieved March 26, 2017, from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1954-2/prisoners-return/
7 thoughts on “Out With the Old (Prisoners)”
You did a great job tying everything together with your quotes. I thought the quote “remember to whom you owe your freedom” is significant considering the prison uprisings which were going on along with their newfound political freedoms. I also like that you talked about how this impacted the arts. Overall great post!
What first caught my eye was the photo that was at the beginning of the post. It’s crazy that prisoners had to build their own prisons. It is interesting to think of the release of prisoners as a part of De-Stalinization. It is incredible the social, symbolic, and political significance that characterized the release of Soviet prisoners.
I agree with what others have said — there’s so much here that really resonates, and can be read in a number of ways. Nice use of the Current Digest! Beyond the fact that the offenses seem relatively minor to us, why would the state be so concerned about falsifying production quotas and registering under several aliases?
You did a great job summarizing an event that indeed was monumental! The large scale release of these prisoners is a great example of an act of De-Stalinization that meant so much symbolically, socially, and politically. This post makes me think of the the current debate over privatized prisons in the United States and our current vast over population of prisons with non violent offenders. Great post!
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You do a nice job connecting de-Stalinization with the political motivation of the state and the wave of art that followed the release of prisoners. Prisoners were not the only group that felt isolated from society, as youth began to identify with Western culture and the state eagerly tried to democratize life and increase economic growth to win back the people. You provided some excellent quotes and research!
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I think it was really great of you to initially highlight the importance of de-Stalinization and how something like releasing prisoners reflected change. I also thought it was funny that at the end of Malenkov’s quote, he ended with essentially “remember who freed you and who you ought to thank” but I also read between the lines something like “remember this for the future, because I may hold it against you,” very early Soviet-esque, if you ask me. I liked that poem, and it is interesting to read that prisoners were so polarized when it came to politics!
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This post made me first think of PTSD and how much more we know about it today than people did back then. Your use of the quote “It was Stalin who needlessly kept you behind bars and barbed wire, and who deprived you of civil rights” was really good because it showed that society recognized and wanted to stand up for prisoners, but what else did people really do to help prisoners transition back into society. I also like that you mentioned some of them got involved in the government. . . I think that would have really inspired others.
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