Reproductions of Soviet-era propaganda posters hang on TRU history professor Wilson Bell’s wall above and across from large bookshelves full of books about Russian history.
“I’ve always been drawn to these grim chapters in human history,” Bell said. “Part of my interest in Russian history is because it’s a very dynamic history but there’s also a lot of suffering in that history. I’m very interested in how people can inflict suffering on other people and how people deal with these situations.”
Bell’s new book, Stalin’s Gulag at War: Forced Labour, Mass Death, and Soviet Victory in the Second World War, is a unique offering to the world of Russian history. While there have been many other books discussing Stalin-era gulags, many of which you will find on Bell’s bookshelves, Bell takes a look at how the gulags were utilized for the war effort.
“The book is organized roughly thematically,” Bell explained regarding the structure of the book.
“The first chapter is more of a background chapter talking about the development of the region and the gulag before the war,” he said. “And then the three main chapters on the war itself, the first one is about the economic mobilization of the region for the war. Every sub-camp in the region in Western Siberia was converted to wartime production. For example, a musical instrument factory where prisoners were working in Tomsk was converted into producing artillery shells.”
Source material for the book has largely consisted of declassified documents from the Russian government as well as memoirs of people being held prisoner in the gulag system.
“There’s two main groups of sources. One is sources written by the authorities and the other is documentation from the prisoners,” Bell said. “On the administration side, there’s a variety of documents available. So, in fact, there’s way too many for any one researcher to look at. Some of the main ones I focused on were operational orders to the Gulag coming from Moscow.”
Bell’s book is out now and is available for purchase through the University of Toronto Press website at utorontopress.com/ca/stalin-s-gulag-at-war-2. In the future, there will likely be a limited amount of copies in the school bookstore, and at the local Chapters store.