Mikhail Nakonechnyi, University of Oxford: '“Dead souls”: mortality, disability and early release on medical grounds from GULAG, 1930-1955'

It is widely accepted in recent literature that 1.7 million died in GULAG in 1930-1955, a 10% out of 18-20 million people (Zemskov, Getty, Rittersporn (1993)). But critical appraisal of the data has largely been neglected by scholars since declassification of the central GULAG archive in 1989, from where these numbers were derived. General consensus among historians (with a few exceptions) is that camp medical reports convey the scale of mortality and that 90% of the GULAG population survived their incarceration. Absence of constructive criticism for more than 25 years has created a pervasive notion that no serious reassessment of the central data is possible (Pohl (1997), Morukov (2000), Wheatcroft (2009), Werth (2010), Zemskov (2014)) and that this problem is closed as a field of study.

My project seeks to challenge this entrenched consensus on the central data veracity with a potential revision. I intend to achieve it through a detailed analysis of a specific procedure: early release of invalid prisoners on medical grounds during 1930-1955. I am particularly concentrating on interconnection of medical releases with death indexes. A few scholars hypothesized (Alexopoulos (2017)) that this ‘compassionate release’ of the most emaciated prisoners was deliberately employed by camp administration to artificially reduce death rates. However, it still remains unclear how seriously this interrelation affected registered mortality or if it even existed at all. The majority of the scholarship largely ignores or discards this supposition as a speculation. This scepticism is partly explained by the fact that this idea was derived from prisoner memoirs and is not yet supported with representative archival statistical evidence.  Consequently, my research seeks to prove the mendacious nature of medical releases using mass original archival materials.

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