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Gulag: Note to writers and editors (1)

The other main focus of my current research is Gulag literature,  particularly the short stories of Varlam Shalamov. I’ll write more about him soon, and post some of my work, but first I have a couple of observations to make on the use of the term ‘Gulag’ itself.

The assimilation of foreign words into a language is frequently a slightly tricky business, so one should probably forgive incorrect usage, but it is very difficult to do so when the perpetrator is supposed to be an expert. Tim Tzouliadis’s book The Forsaken: From the Great Depression to the Gulags. Hope and Betrayal in Stalin’s Russia (Little, Brown, 2008) is a case in point. ‘Gulag’ is an acronym standing for ‘Главное управление лагерей’ (Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei), which means ‘Main Administration of Camps’. In other words, it refers to the system as a whole, not to individual labour camps, and therefore should not be used in the plural to refer to different camps. An indefinite article is acceptable if ‘Gulag’ is being used metaphorically, as in the article ‘How California Got to be a Bankrupt Gulag‘, but unless one is comparing systems in different places, the correct term is ‘The Gulag’. Mr Tzouliadis may have written a very fine book, indeed the fact that he won the Longman / History Today 2009 Award suggests that he has, but the inclusion of such a basic error in the title gives cause for concern.

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4 Comments

  1. Very interesting etymology and thank you.
    Looking forward to the postings of your work in regards to Shalamov.

  2. Yes, your understanding of the “Gulag” is correct. Thanks for this. I’ll look for more of your publications.

    However, I always find it disturbing to see “Gulag” used to describe systems that are completely unrelated to the hellish camp system in the former USSR. The internet is filled with misappropriations. Is it not parallel to naming events a “Holocaust”? Does it not de-value and trivialize the experiences of the victims?

  3. I have certainly found that to be true.

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