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HIS3355 : The Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps - Origins, Experiences and Aftermaths

  • Offered for Year: 2024/25
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Robert Dale
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
  • Capacity limit: 40 student places

Your programme is made up of credits, the total differs on programme to programme.

Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0
European Credit Transfer System


This module seeks to explore the social, economic, political and cultural history of the Soviet camp system, known as the Gulag. The module examines the history of the Soviet penal system from its inception in the early 1920s, through to the final dismantling of the Stalinist-era camps under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev in 1960, and into the influence of the Gulag on post-Soviet penal systems. Yet it also examines the antecedents and precedents for the Soviet camps in the Tsarist system of Siberian exile, as well as the long afterlife of the Gulag in Soviet and post-Soviet culture, and individual and collective memories. The Gulag played a central role in the Soviet Union, especially under the Stalinist dictatorship. Yet thanks to a wave of recent scholarship, historians are only just beginning to appreciate the complexity and diversity of the camp system, the range of different camp regimes, experiences of different categories of prisoners. The Gulag imprisoned men, women, and children, and prisoners of different nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and social and cultural backgrounds. The module, therefore, seeks to examine how the Gulag was established, the evolution of the camp system under Stalin and after, and the multiple entanglements and inter-relationship between the Soviet penal system, and wider society. At its core is an attempt to explore the different forms Gulag regimes took in different places, the differing experiences of different groups of prisoners, and how these changed over time. Furthermore, it will explore ongoing historiographical debates about the functions, purpose, and objectives of the Gulag, and their contribution to the wider Soviet project. In addition, the module will examine the impact of the Gulag upon its prisoners, survivors, and wider Soviet society. The Gulag shaped Soviet environments, landscapes, contributed to industrialisation and urbanisation. The seminars will explore the wide, vibrant and expanding scholarship of the Gulag, especially recent case studies which reveal the histories of individual camps, or specific groups of prisoners. These will also be supporting by an examination of the rich variety of primary source material available in English for studying the Gulag system, including official documents generated by the Gulag administration, camp memoirs, camp literature, and other documents generated by the vast camp network and its millions of prisoners.

The module aims are:
1) For students to have a detailed knowledge and understanding of the history of the Soviet camp system and its antecedents in the Tsarist penal system, from the establishment of the first Soviet concentration camps in the early 1920s, through to the dismantling of the Gulag in the late 1950s, and early 1960s.
2) For students to have an in depth understanding of the historiographical debates surrounding the Gulag system, particularly the different forms Gulag camps took, their different functions and contribution to the Soviet economy and wider project, as well as scholarly discussions behind the purposes behind the Soviet camps.
3) For students to consider the vast range of experiences of different groups of Gulag prisoners and how these varied over time, and between camp regimes. In addition, to consider the experiences of camp guards and administrations.
4) For students to conduct research using primary sources (including official documents produced by the camp administration, camp literature, Gulag memoirs, diaries, and letters) and to bring that primary research to bear on historiographical debates.
5) To improve students' skills in analysing and interpreting a range of Soviet primary sources from across the period relating to the Gulag system, and the wider Soviet project.

Outline Of Syllabus

Outline syllabus, intended as a guide only: week-by-week topics might be different to the following. This module is designed to be based on seminars, with lectures supporting the core of seminars, by providing scaffolding of key context and information, exploring particular forms of primary evidence, individual case-studies, and complementing each week’s seminar topic.

The following are a representative guide to some of the central topics that the in person seminars are likely to follow, although individual topics may vary in emphasis.

Seminar topics:
1.       Introductions - What was the Soviet Gulag, and how can we approach its history?
2.       The Tsarist Penal System and Precedents for the Soviet Gulag
3.       Solovki and the Origins of the Gulag System
4.       Death, Redemption or Extermination? – What was the function of the Gulag?
5.       Forced Labour, Grand Stalinist Projects, and the expansion of the Gulag.
6.       The Stalinist Gulag at War
7. Decolonising the Gulag – The Camps beyond Russia - Karlag and Karaganda
8. Experiencing the Gulag – Women and Children in the Camps
9.       The Gulag After Stalin – Dismantling the Stalinist Gulag
10.       Remembering the Gulag: Monuments, Museums, and Commemoration
11.       Gulag Echoes - Russian and post-Soviet penal systems and Gulag influences.

Seminars are intended to be supported by short lectures and/or document talks which introduce forms of evidence and how to work with them relevant to the corresponding seminar. Lectures and these non-synchronous materials are intended to align with the seminar topics.


1. Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” – Thinking about the camp system, and camp regimes.
2. Dostoevsky, “The House of the Dead” and Siberian exile.
3. Political prisoners and criminal sub-cultures in the camps.
4. Special settlers within the camp system
5. The environmental impact of the Soviet Gulag
6. Changing camp populations during the war / The Bitches’ War
7. Ethnic Groups and their presence in the camps.
8. Food and Medicine in the Gulag
9. The Gulag Survivor – Life after the camps
10. Screening the Gulag: Representations of the camps on Screen.
11. Russia's Prisons Today - Are they continuations of the Gulag? / Did the Gulag really end?

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture111:0011:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion561:0056:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading561:0056:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching112:0022:00Seminars.
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study551:0055:00N/A
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Seminars are designed to encourage students to engage directly with a wide range of primary and secondary source materials, and to raise and discuss the issues that are explored in the historiography of the topic under consideration that week. Seminars give students the opportunity to actively engage with these debates, and to interrogate source materials for themselves. Seminars are intended to be student-led and facilitated by the module leader, and will hinge upon smaller and larger group discussions in response to questions and source materials circulated in advance. A range of different activities centred around primary source materials, and examinations of the historiography will be the focus of seminars. Seminars are an important forum for students to develop their own ideas and arguments in the light of wider discussion.

Lectures in this module are intended to support and augment the seminar discussions, by introducing students to particularly important debates, providing scaffolded information and context, or focusing on particular forms of primary source material, specific documents, or case studies. They will provide the necessary scaffolding to support student learning, and to complement seminar discussions. Lectures will help students to read, interpret and work with a variety of different forms of Soviet primary documents, many of which will be unfamiliar. Some parts of lectures will also explain and provide advice and support about how to prepare for pieces assessment, and how to use primary documents in both documentary commentaries and essays. Lectures then are intended to aligned with seminar topics, and offer guidance in how to examine particular forms of evidence.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written exercise1M40A documentary commentary of 1,500 words (including footnotes, but excluding bibliography) analysing primary sources.
Essay1A602,000 word essay (including footnotes but excluding bibliography) focusing on a historiographical issue supported by primary sources
Formative Assessments

Formative Assessment is an assessment which develops your skills in being assessed, allows for you to receive feedback, and prepares you for being assessed. However, it does not count to your final mark.

Description Semester When Set Comment
Oral Presentation1MStudents will deliver a 5 minute presentation on a topic providing a max 500 word handout to accompany & structure the presentation
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The formative assessment for the module will take the form of a short 5 minute presentation on a particular topic, introducing the topic to the rest of the group. To support this a student will produce a short handout of maximum 500 words (and potential many fewer) which accompanies the presentation. This will enable students to begin to research a particular topic, and develop important presentation skills, and verbal reasoning skills.

The documentary commentary exercise tests knowledge and understanding of the primary sources examined throughout the module. The ability to compare and contrast related primary sources, and explore how they should be interpreted and the relevance to contemporary scholarly debates is an important historical skills. The ability to expound and criticize a textual extract lucidly, succinctly and with relevance in a relatively brief word count tests key historical, analytical and writing skills. In addition, this forms of assessment closely replicates the source commentary questions previously set in examinations for this module in previous academic year, albeit in a different format appropriate for the current situation.

The final essay for the module tests both students' knowledge and understanding of key historiographical questions in the study of the Soviet camp system, and explores key debates about the origins, evolution, and functions of the Gulag. There will be an opportunity to think about the different experiences of individuals, and different groups of prisoners (and indeed guards and administrators) with the camps. The final essay will give students an opportunity to explore key themes from lectures and seminars, but also an opportunity for students to develop their own historical arguments supported by the primary evidence that they have been looking at over the course of the module. This form of research-led assessment rewards steady and incremental engagement with the issues explored in the module, and allows students to bring ideas developed from seminars to bear of a major historical question.

Seminar preparation will help students to develop the skills required to select, prioritise and interpret a wealth of evidence and then use this evidence to support their arguments in their assessed work. All students will deliver a presentation on a prearranged theme, and provide a written handout to accompany and structure that presentation.

Work submitted during the delivery of the module forms a means of determining student progress.

Submitted work assesses the intended knowledge and skills outcomes, develops key skills in research, reading and writing, and allows students to demonstrate the historical skills and methodologies they have learnt in this module, and other parts of their degree.

Study-abroad, non-Erasmus exchange and Loyola students spending semester 1 only are required to finish their assessment while in Newcastle. Where an exam is present, an alternative form of assessment will be set and where coursework is present, an alternative deadline will be set. Details of the alternative assessment will be provided by the module leader.

Reading Lists