A new edition of ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, shown here in 1994, includes a foreword by controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson. AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin

Why is Jordan Peterson writing about the Gulag?

Why did Vintage Classics make the baffling decision to ask controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson to write the foreword to a reprint of the 1970s classic The Gulag Archipelago?

Last year, Vintage Classics (a division of Penguin U.K.) republished an abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago by Russian intellectual, novelist and 1970 Nobel Prize recipient Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The monumental book about the Communist Soviet forced labour camp system has been republished and reprinted multiple times and translated into many languages.

As a scholar of the Gulag I often use this book, which is frequently assigned in classrooms.

Why did Vintage Classics ask Peterson, who is a professor of psychology based at the University of Toronto, to write the intro? And why did he actually write it?

Peterson has no training in the study of the Gulag or in Russian history. He briefly mentions the Gulag in his first book, but his research and notoriety certainly lie elsewhere.

The choice of Peterson to write an introduction to a book on the history of Soviet prisons seems, on the part of Vintage Classics, at least a tacit endorsement of Peterson’s controversial statements related to issues of gender, sexuality, postmodernism and free speech.

Peterson’s notoriety spread when he refused to use students’ preferred pronouns. He provides intellectual justifications for the men who refer to themselves as incels and has appeared to support, or at least find common cause with, far right politicians, such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

What the scholarship says

In his forward, Peterson cites no scholarship on the Gulag except for the highly controversial 1997 Black Book of Communism. That 1997 book was published at the early stages of archival research into communist repression by a group of European researchers. Among scholars of the Soviet Union, it is seen as more of a polemic than an academic work. Stanford historian Amir Weiner described the book in the Journal of Contemporary History, as “seriously flawed, incoherent, and often prone to mere provocation.”

But there have been dozens of academic and popular books on the Gulag published since then, many of which have complicated Solzhenitsyn’s picture. In his introduction, Peterson makes no attempt to reflect on the significant impact of Solzhenitsyn’s work on the academic study of the Gulag.

Solzhenitsyn did not have archival access for his own research, and relied on his experiences and the accounts of other prisoners. Once the archives started opening in the late 1980s, researchers were able to examine former classified materials on the Gulag.

Jordan Peterson speaks to a crowd in Alberta, on February 11, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

My research, and that of historian Alan Barenberg based at Texas Tech University, has challenged Solzhenitsyn’s characterization of the Gulag as an archipelago of camps largely isolated from Soviet society. We have described shifting and porous camp borders in many areas.

These camps incarcerated large numbers of prisoners who interacted regularly with non-prisoners both inside the camps and outside of the camps, sometimes even without guards. Other research has suggested that some attempts at re-education in the Gulag may have been more important and effective than Solzhenitsyn contends.

Yet much of Solzhenitsyn’s picture has been confirmed by archival analysis. While the extent of the destruction of lives and bodies through forced labour continues to be debated, there is no doubt that it took place on a large scale, and was an integral component of the Gulag system as it existed.

Solzhenitsyn’s characterisation of the camps as “destructive-labour camps,” rather than the official “corrective-labour camps” is thus largely an apt one. Archival documents confirm the incredibly harsh conditions and brutality of the Soviet camp system.

History is complicated

Readers will not get an assessment of the current scholarship about either Solzhenitsyn or the Gulag in Peterson’s introduction. Instead, readers will read from Peterson a diatribe against communism and in favour of western individualism.

Peterson eschews any pretence of critical thinking on behalf of the reader. He lets readers know that the only logical conclusion and intelligent response to reading Solzhenitsyn is a rejection of communism and “group identity.” Peterson writes the Gulag demonstrates that “the doctrine of group identity inevitably ends with everyone identified as a class enemy, an oppressor,” thus guaranteeing repression.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1974. Wikimedia commons

Peterson touches on the impact of Solzhenitsyn in only two respects: the “primary role” of The Gulag Archipelago in bringing down the Soviet Union and the impact on “radical leftists” outside of the Soviet Union. He writes, for example, that The Gulag Archipelago drove the “radical leftists … underground (where they have festered and plotted for the last 40 years).”

I am not sure what he means by this. And anyway, he misses the important point that many on the French left, in particular, publicly renounced communism rather than going underground, following the book’s publication.

The book certainly played a role in undermining the reputation of the Soviet Union, but as many historians will agree, there are no singular leading roles in history. The Soviet Union’s eventual collapse was tied to various factors, too numerous to count.

The issues raised are more complicated than Peterson suggests.

The responsibility of the scholar

Peterson views the The Gulag Archipelago as providing clear evidence against communism and group identity, and in favour of western individualism, but Solzhenitsyn did not draw this conclusion.

‘The Gulag Archipelago’ Penguin Vintage

Solzhenitsyn strongly rejected communism. But he also, based on his experience living in the United States, rejected western individualism.

Peterson’s understanding of the Gulag seems both limited and dated, and his YouTube video speaking on The Gulag Archipelago is riddled with factual errors. These facts make Peterson an odd choice for an academic voice on this subject.

Perhaps Vintage Classics employed a certain logic when they chose Peterson for this forward. Both Peterson and Solzhenitsyn are and were well known anti-communists, and conservative public intellectuals (possibly the reason that the Massachussetts-based Solzhenitsyn Center has praised this edition).

Maybe Peterson helps to sell books and the Gulag Archipelago reach a wider audience. But is Peterson’s voice really one that needs further amplification?

What is the role and responsibility of the academic and public intellectual, when asked to write about an area outside their area of expertise? Hopefully the answers to these questions, for those at Vintage Classics, go beyond a desire to sell more books.

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