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The First Guide to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union by Avram Shifrin

8 November 2007

I was looking for a suitable book to post to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the October Revolution, but it seems that I’ve already gone through and posted most of my previously written USSR-related book reviews…except for this one. And since I don’t have my copy of my perennial favourite title, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, with me at the moment, this book is the next obvious candidate.

A bit of backstory on how I acquired it: When one of my undergraduate history professors retired, he invited those of us who were taking his class on modern Russian history to come to his office and take anything we wanted off his bookshelves. He’d already gone through and cleared out all the books he had room for and wanted to keep, and he figured that it would be a lot easier for his students to clear off the shelves for him before he took the rest of the books to be recycled or donated….and no, I didn’t actually trample anyone in my haste to get to his office once the lecture had ended. That said, one of the books I made off with was this one.

The First Guide to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union by Avram Shifrin

As the title says, it’s a guidebook, first published by a Soviet dissident in the early 1980s. And by a guidebook, I mean that it gives general (and sometimes quite specific) locations of Soviet prisons and labour camps, the remaining substance of the gulag, broken down by area and region and type of prison. The guidebook even goes so far as to mention the type of labour that is done or thought to be done at each prison, whether in heavy industry or manufacturing…or the ‘special’ camps where prisoners worked to mine radioactive materials (without adequate shielding) or performed tasks that can only be described as murderous (such as cleaning the nozzles on nuclear submarines). Also included in the guidebook are the location of politico-psychiatric facilities where prisoners were often held, generally with no attempt made to separate political prisoners from the actually insane. And since the book is written and edited by a man who spent several years in the prison camp system, based on research he compiled with others who had fallen foul of the Soviet justice system, there’s an authenticity to it that has to be seen to be fully understood.

This book is almost certainly out of print, and probably only available in used bookshops if anywhere. I only managed to get my hands on a copy by chance. But it’s absolutely chilling to read, because it shows the depth and breadth of the prison camp system in the USSR years after Stalin’s death. When you look at the book and think that every little dot on the map represents anywhere from two dozen to several hundred human lives, many imprisoned for their dissenting opinions or even their well-meaning attempts to reform their political system…well, it wasn’t so long ago, historically speaking. Shifrin’s guidebook manages to bring home the reality of the gulag in a way that few purely academic texts can hope to emulate.

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