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

The Stalinist Gulag harboured centres for research, but little is known about this aspect of the vast network of places of confinement that stretched across the Soviet Union. The principle vehicle for Gulag research, the sharashka or research institute behind barbed wire, was made famous in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1968 novel The First Circle. Solzhenitsyn’s novel advances a picture of a research culture that is debased in its research objectives by Stalinism and distorted in its practices by informants and the ever-present threat of violence.

As part of a larger project on the history of medicine in the Gulag, I have assembled a significant body of archival evidence that reveals the existence of a research culture beyond the sharashka in many Gulag outposts. Much of this research had a medical focus, and was motivated by the determination of some physicians (prisoners and the “freely hired”), and camp administrators, to improve the health of camp inmates and the population servicing the camps. Research also sought to open up resources in previously unexplored regions to exploitation (for example, to use radioactive mineral waters for therapeutic purposes) and to enable European Russians to adapt to arctic conditions (by, e.g., finding locally sourced supplies of essential vitamins). Whether in expeditions funded by the central Gulag authorities, in individually conducted studies of patient-cohorts presenting specific diseases, or in formally constituted “institutes” (such as in Noril’sk), medical research in the Gulag offers a historical case study of the construction of research cultures in forbidding and extreme circumstances.

This proposal will investigate the phenomenon of Gulag medical research to explore some of the themes interrogated by CRASSH’s “Future University” programme. The ways in which knowledge was structured by the Gulag as commissioning bureaucracy, and the degree to which a research brief might “escape” from its sponsor’s control will be explored. The investigation will examine the migration of ideas, investigators, and research subjects around the camp system, and the circulation of scientific knowledge inside the Gulag via conferences, journal subscriptions and professional development courses. By examining the ethics of medical research in this extreme context the project will weigh the degree to which comparisons with Nazi science and medicine are appropriate and illuminating. The contemporary relevance of Gulag research for the founding of research cultures in the new settlements of the camp system – some are now sizeable university towns – will also be evaluated.

The outcome of this investigation will be an article about the Gulag’s research culture, which will form part of my book-length project exploring the history of medical care in the Stalinist forced-labour camp system.


Dan Healey (History, University of Swansea) is a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH, Michealmas 2010.


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