Physicians, Disease and the Research Culture of Stalin’s Gulag 1930-1960

15 November 2010, 12:45 - 14:00

CRASSH

Part of the CRASSH Fellows Work-in-Progress seminar series.  All welcome, no registration necessary.  Sandwich lunch and refreshments provided.

Dr Dan Healey (History, University of Swansea)

Abstract

The Stalinist Gulag camps fostered research, but little is known about this aspect of life in places of confinement. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1968 novel The First Circle made one vehicle for research in the Gulag, the sharashka or research institute behind barbed wire famous. The novel portrays a research culture debased by Stalinism and distorted by informants and violence.

Archival evidence reveals a research culture beyond the sharashka in many Gulag outposts in remote regions little explored by Europeans. The need to preserve prisoners’ “labour capacity” for economic purposes motivated medical research into curative waters, vitamin sources and disease patterns. Whether in expeditions funded by the central Gulag authorities, in local studies of patient-cohorts presenting specific diseases, or in formally constituted “institutes,” this research culture was built in forbidding circumstances.

The Gulag as commissioning bureaucracy structured the knowledge it commissioned, and yet research briefs could “escape” from official control. I consider the migration of ideas and investigators around the camp system, and the circulation of scientific knowledge inside the Gulag. By examining the ethics of medical research in this context I ask whether comparisons with Nazi medicine are appropriate. I also address the contemporary legacy of Gulag research in the camp settlements – now sizeable university towns.

 

To access the Readings for the Work in Progress seminar, please contact Michelle Maciejewska.