The Sharashka Phenomenon

For my first post for the blog, I decided to draw from a forthcoming project of mine on the history of Soviet science and technology as it intersected through the apparatus of repression. What follows is a short summation of several chapters on the so-called sharaskha system. I was led to this topic partly by an interest in censorship during the late Soviet period. As many older Russians undoubtedly remember, by the early 1970s, the culture of underground or samizdat literature in the Soviet Union had evolved into a highly risky but established system for disseminating information among the dissident community. Banned literature—poems, fiction, accounts of current events—vied for space in poor quality publications circulated through a clandestine network. One such type-written manuscript of less than two hundred pages struck a chord among many samizdat readers despite its unusual subject matter—it described the work of an aircraft design organization from three decades before. Known by the title, Tupolevskaia sharaga, the manuscript attracted a large leadership and became a classic in the literature of dissent.

Tupolevskaia sharaga was originally published in the West in 1971. The author, L. L. Kerber, used the penname "G. A. Ozerov."

In vivid language, its anonymous author recalled his experiences as an engineer in a special prison workshop headed by the giant of Soviet aviation Andrei Tupolev.

Andrei Tupolev (1888-1972), considered the greatest Soviet aviation designer, worked briefly in a Gulag installation

The prison camp had been organized sometime in the late 1930s and housed hundreds of leading Soviet aviation designers who, cut off from the outside world, labored through physical and psychological hardships to produce new airplanes for the cause of Soviet aviation. By coincidence, Tupolev died soon after this manuscript began circulating. In Moscow, he was given a state funeral and his contributions eulogized by Leonid Brezhnev, but unsurprisingly there was no mention of his arrest, incarceration, and work in a labor camp during the Stalin era. The anonymously authored memoir, smuggled out to the West and published in English, remained a peculiar anomaly in the historical record, suggesting tantalizing lacunae in Tupolev’s official biography. 1

Although Tupolevskaia sharaga was the only substantive record of Tupolev’s time in prison, it was not the first publication to describe the phenomenon of prison camps for scientific and engineering work: in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, readers found a morally complex tale about a dozen or so scientists and engineers imprisoned in a penal colony who struggle to reconcile the frequently clashing requisites of conscience and ideology. 2 Solzhenitsyn’s acerbic and ironic style brought to life a lost episode—albeit through fiction—of Soviet intelligentsia. Both of these works, one fiction and one non-fiction, opened up a largely unknown dimension of the Stalinist system—the organization and maintenance of prisons established specifically to hold scientists, engineers, and technicians. The glasnost’ years brought more details.

L. L. Kerber (1903-1993), a senior engineer under Tupolev, authored one of the most famous accounts of life in a sharashka.

The anonymous memoir, now much expanded, was finally published under the title Stalin’s Aviation Gulag under the name of its real author, Leonid Kerber, a respected Soviet aviation designer. 3 A number of other scientists and intellectuals published memoirs of their own experiences in these camps—which the prisoners themselves called sharaga (or sharashka in its diminutive form), a word derived from a Soviet-era slang expression meaning a sinister organization based on bluff or deceit. In the years since the initial revelations, the sharashka system has become a common touchstone for historians interested in the history of Soviet science. Two reasons explain this frequent invocation of the sharashka system: first, many noted Soviet scientists and engineers passed through the system, thus making it impossible to ignore; and second, and more importantly, the very existence of the system seems to confirm received wisdom about the Soviet state’s damaging and ideological intervention into Soviet science. Yet, despite the many obligatory invocations of the sharashka system in many books on Soviet history (or intelligentsia, in specific), it remains a surprisingly understudied topic, especially by professional historians. 4

For many contemporary historians of Russian and Soviet science, especially those based in Russia, the sharashka phenomenon represents biographical history, an episode emblematic of the “tragic fates” of Soviet scientists. 5 The few scholars who have revisited the history of the prison science system have focused their questions on either how ideological concerns “distorted” the “normal” trajectory of Soviet science, or on “correcting” the historical record by portraying the lives of those Soviet scientists who passed through the system in heroic terms. 6 The first assumes the existence of a “normative” science and the latter lapses into hagiography. Both frame the history of the prison science system as a great disruption—a Soviet rendering of “science interrupted.” Here, the scientists are passive and subordinate to some larger levers of power emanating from an all-powerful, monolithic, central, and super-statist structure; the state and science are frequently seen as two distinct categories with clashing motivations. On the surface at least, the sharashka provides a perfect example for reinforcing the kinds of reductive (and seductive) assumptions that recent historians of Soviet science have been busy trying to avoid—for example, that ideological interference caused irreparable damage to Soviet science and technology, or that the apparently poor showing of Soviet science was related to the lack of freedoms, or that the state played an antagonistic and largely negative role in the organization and practice of Soviet science and technology. 7

There certainly are worthy philosophical and ethical questions at the heart of the sharashka phenomenon, particularly on the relationship between the practice of science and engineering and freedom. But a singular concern with philosophical and ethical considerations have obscured some important and provocative historical questions on a number of aspects of the phenomenon. I am referring particularly to questions about its creation and operation, the agency of scientists and engineers in the system, and more broadly, the relationship between intelligentsia and the Bol’shevik state in the aftermath of the Revolution. As I show below, these three questions were all intimately connected in the sharashka phenomenon.

From the very beginning of the Bol’shevik era, the relationship between the political elite (both in the Party and state hierarchies) and the scientific and technical elite was fraught with tension. On the one hand, Party leaders such as Lenin, Bukharin, and Trotskii recognized that scientists and engineers would be indispensable in modernizing Russia. On the other hand, there was a deep suspicion of the scientific and technical intelligentsia because they represented all that the Revolution promised to destroy: bourgeois culture, elitism, and a proclivity for academic concerns removed from the practicalities of the day. Such tension also produced in Bol’sheviks a feeling of vulnerability as more and more scientists and engineers became entrenched in key positions in the Soviet economy. As Kendall Bailes has underscored in his classic works, the Soviet leadership used two strategies to resolve this tension, first, they threw the “old” specialists into jail, and second, they trained a new generation of so-called “red” specialists, i.e., a younger generation who would be more loyal to the demands to the Bol’shevik era. In the former case, the attack on the old scientific and technical intelligentsia was embodied most famously in the Shakty and Industrial Party trials of 1928 and 1930, respectively. Thousands were accused of “wrecking” the tempo of industrial production; many were sentenced, a few to death. 8 Simultaneously, the technical vocational schools in Moscow overflowed with young recruits, many from the peasantry.

The two options of repression and recruitment were effective, at least at first, but raised a secondary set of problems: it would take time to train the new intelligentsia; in the short term, the country lacked capable scientists and engineers to contribute to the First Five-Year Plan of industrialization. Using skilled labor under guard for new projects initiated as part of industrialization, especially ones that required design supervision, offered a highly effective solution to the intersecting problems of the untrustworthiness of the “old specialists” and the simultaneous lack of “red” specialists. Why not put the old specialists to work under guard? The OGPU began to implement their strategy with the Soviet aviation industry, but the practice and the precedents established there spread quickly to most other sectors of the Soviet industrial economy. In other words, the emergence of the sharashka system was intimately related to the disruptions—of an economic, industrial, infrastructural, and military nature—caused by mass arrests of scientific and technical intelligentsia.

The Soviet-era prison science system peaked in three waves, the first during the early 1930s, the second soon after the Great Terror in the late 1930s and into the Great Patriotic War, and the third in the late Stalin years. Each era had its own dynamic but there were key continuities that ran through them all. The decision to use scientific expertise in prison-like conditions always followed short but intense waves of arrests among the Soviet intelligentsia. Scientists and engineers were never arrested and incarcerated for the express purpose of intellectual labor within the sharashka system; a necessary condition for the decision to put imprisoned scientists to work was an excess of penal labor generated by bursts of repression.

I provide here a brief description of the creation of the second phase of the sharashka camps to highlight one of the most unlikely aspects of the system: the role that scientists and engineers played in establishing the camps. The second wave of prison camps followed rather than coincided with the Great Terror in 1937-38. This is not so surprising when one considers the fact that during the turbulence of the terror, the Soviet security services, the NKVD, were engaged in facilitating mass purges rather than managing economic growth, a duty it had increasingly taken on with the expansion of forced labor in the Gulag.

Most historical and popular accounts assume that NKVD chairman Lavrentii Beriia, infamous for his sadist proclivities, instigated and pushed the idea of a prison science system in the post-Purge era. 9 There is compelling evidence to suggest that this was not so, that the idea for a rejuvenated prison science network actually came from a most unlikely source, scientists and engineers themselves. Sometime in late 1937, as they awaited sentencing, a group of scientists and engineers who were languishing in the drudgery of NKVD’s infamous Lubianka put together a short proposal. Fearing that they would inexorably be sent to forced manual labor camps in Siberia, the authors enumerated a list of specific military weapons that they could develop if given resources, and, in early 1938, sent the letter directly to defense industry manager Lazar Kaganovich, who was intrigued and passed the proposal onto then-NKVD chairman Nikolai Ezhov. 10 The idea appealed to the security services for three reasons. First, leaders such as Ezhov and especially his successor Beriia believed that the NKVD should have a strong institutional role in the general rearmament in anticipation of war with Germany; second, the control of leading scientists and engineers would reinforce the NKVD’s expansion of its own vast economic infrastructure based in the Gulag penal system; and third and perhaps most important, the Great Terror that the NKVD had so profoundly disrupted the functioning of scientific and technical organizations that some corrective work was required to bring the situation under control. In other words, in large measure, the NKVD created a new phase of sharashki to limit damage of their own doing.

The NKVD soon began rounding up designers in prisons for research work under a special department of the security services. Beriia’s appointment as NKVD chairman put the effort on a higher footing. In January 1939, only a month after his appointment, he renamed this department the Special Technical Bureau (Osoboe tekhnicheskoe biuro, OTB) and put it under his direct command. He developed a classification system for groups under this bureau to focus on eight (later reduced to seven) different areas of weapons development and also started a program to attach “groups of civilian [i.e., free] specialists, [especially] young specialists” to the research. In determining the content of the work of the organization, the NKVD would take into account proposals from the prisoners but the final approval of any project would be deferred directly to the Defense Committee, the main defense policy organ under Stalin. 11 Beriia’s intervention ensured that the new bureau, which was given the premises of an entire plant, Factory No. 82, had the best resources available, including a staggering 35.9 million rubles as its first financial disbursement. All scientists and engineers were initially transferred from their prisons to a sorting center at Bol’shevo on the outskirts of Moscow before being sent to various locations specializing in different weapons.

This is the site of the OKB-16 sharashka where several different groups of imprisoned engineers worked. One of them was headed by V. P. Glushko, the later-famous rocket engine designer who had been arrested in 1938.

Practically every prison in Moscow had a scientific group working within. Probably the most well-known and well-funded group operated under the patriarch of the Soviet aviation industry, Andrei Tupolev, who had been arrested in 1937 for being the “head of an anti-Soviet wrecking organization and an agent of French intelligence.”

By the end of World War II, at Beriia’s urging, the bulk of the formal prison science system—the Special Technical Bureau (or the Fourth Special Department) of the NKVD—was dismantled. For example, thirty-five men from the rocket engine group at Kazan’ were freed in July 1944. In a letter to Stalin, Beriia justified the seemingly abrupt release of these men to Stalin, not because the system had failed to produce anything but because, apparently, the system had succeeded so well that there was no longer any need to maintain it. He noted:  “considering the importance of the work carried out, the NKVD considers it advisable to free . . . especially the eminent incarcerated specialists . . . and direct them to work in the aviation industry.” 12

For the most part, the wartime NKVD prison science system was successful in generating innovations to support the war effort. Extremely tight control, narrowly focused goals, and high levels of funding led engineers to achieve their targeted goals. Judging by a summary issued in 1944, the NKVD believed that the results were overwhelmingly positive. In the report, the NKVD agents listed twenty major weapons systems or processes—including bombers, engines, propellant production processes, radio systems, and a host of artillery guns and cannons—developed by prisoners. Of these, at least twelve were introduced into mass production, a relatively high percentage in comparison to the prewar record of military R&D. Nearly all the projects reached the certification-testing stage. 13 Some of the successes of the sharashka system were noteworthy. Designer Vladimir Petliakov’s group, for example, developed the Pe-2 bomber, one of the most successful Soviet weapons of the war, of which eleven thousand were produced during the war. Similarly, Tupolev’s team produced the Tu-2 bomber, which was an important asset to the Red Air Force and remained in service until the 1950s.

The Tu-2 bomber was one of the most effective Soviet bombers of World War II. Built by the sharashka team under Tupolev, it achieved legendary status by war's end.

The incarcerated groups also contributed to important industrial innovations by introducing newer and more efficient production processes. Beriia’s concluding report noted that, “as a result of the many measures introduced and proposed by specialists and realized at various factories, many millions [of rubles] of state economic resources [have been saved].”

In the past 20 years as more and more evidence has come to light about the system, it has become clear that the system was not only much larger than historians previously believed, but it also represented a unique solution to a peculiarly Soviet-era contradiction—the tension between the persistent requirement to use the skills of scientist and engineers to modernize the nation, and the equally unrelenting suspicion that such scientist and engineers are fundamentally untrustable. This tension was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the creation and maintenance of the prison science system. We must look for other contextual explanations for the foundation of such a phenomenon. All three phases of the sharashka system were preceded by immense social upheaval in Soviet society—the Cultural Revolution, the Great Terror, and Zhdanovshchina. In each case, the Soviet security services, aided by leading Party and government functionaries instituted widescale projects of mass coercion in the form of purges, one of whose targets was Soviet scientific and technical intelligentsia. The immense pressures of these purges—in the form of mass incarceration—frequently disrupted important economic activities, i.e., the very activity that the Gulag was supposed to strengthen. As a short term solution to the problems that they themselves created, the NKVD put to work scientists and engineers. The goal was to stabilize sectors of the economy which had been rendered unsteady. The sharashka system was in many was one obvious solution to this conundrum.

While the sharashka system was eventually consigned to history, it cast a long shadow over the Soviet economy, particularly the Soviet defense sector. Because the recruitment into the sharashka system often worked through the personal intervention of prisoners who remembered friends from their “civilian” lives, the system as a whole produced a generation of Soviet scientists and engineers who not only knew each other before their prison sentences but together shared an enormous trauma that deeply affected their later lives. An entire generation of elite engineers who were arrested during the second wave in the late 1930s went on to head their own design and engineering firms in the post-Stalin era. As a group, they dominated research and development, especially within the Soviet military-industrial complex, a sector that propped up Soviet political might through much of the Cold War. Their adoption and occasional enthusiasm for certain traits of the organizational culture of the Soviet scientific and engineering system—extreme secrecy, strict hierarchies, coercive practices, rigid reporting protocols—owed much to their shared experiences with similar peculiarities characteristic of the sharashka system. For them, the sharashka experience represented not only a shared rite of passage, but also a deep process of enculturation about the values of coercion, incentive, and especially secrecy in institutional culture.

The Gulag maintained its secrecy regime in many different ways. For example, Gulag administrators took great pains to create a unique and dehumanizing language of numbers, acronyms, and fake names. By the late 1930s, the Soviet landscape was dotted with Gulag camps and colonies known only as “post-office boxes,” “special facilities,” “units,” and so forth. By the 1950s, one could find the exact same conventions used by hundreds of thousands of men and women who worked in the Soviet defense industry—a litany of post-office boxes, special facilities, fake names, and fictitious towns. For the many scientists and engineers with experience in the Gulag’s sharashka, such practices were welcomed without too much resistance. The transition from the Gulag economy to the military-industrial economy was made all the more easy by the lack of a physical move. In many cases, prison science teams that had worked under guard became “free” enterprises the following day simply by allowing the scientists and engineers to go home at the end of the day. As Sergei Korolev was said to have joked, the guards who protected him in his high position as the chief designer of the Soviet space program were probably the same ones who watched over him in the sharashka. In both periods, the guards had the same job, to serve as an immutable wall between the scientist and the outside world. The sharashka, like its parent, the Gulag, created walls within Soviet civil society that remained standing long after the Gulag itself was consigned to the scrapheap of history.

  1. A. Sharagin, Tupolevskaia sharaga (Frankfurt: Possev-Verlag, 1971). A French translation was also published in 1973.
  2. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle (New York: Harper & Row, 1968). Also, published as V pervom krugu (London: Flegon Press, 1968).
  3. L. L. Kerber, Stalin’s Aviation Gulag: A Memoir of Andrei Tupolev and the Purge Era (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996). Expanded and published in Russian as L. L. Kerber, Tupolev (St. Petersburg: Politekhnika, 1999).
  4. There is one historical monograph on the sharashka system, but it is a popular historical work based on memoirs. See A. Pomogaibo, Oruzhie pobedy i NKVD: Sovetskie konstruktory v tiskakh repressii (Moscow: Veche, 2004).
  5. The phrase is from V. A. Kumanev, ed. Tragicheskie sud’by: repressirovannye uchenye Akademii nauk sssr (Moscow: Nauka, 1995).
  6. See for example, D. A. Sobolev, “Repressii v sovetskoi aviapromyshlennosti,” Voprosi istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki no. 4 (2000): 44-58.
  7. For a recent take of the state of the literature on Soviet (and its subset, Stalinist) science, see Michael D. Gordin, “Was There Ever a ‘Stalinist Science’?,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and European History 9, no. 3 (Summer 2008) 625-639
  8. Kendall E. Bailes, Technology and Society Under Lenin and Stalin: Origins of the Soviet Technical Intelligentsia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 69-158.
  9. For one recent popular account, see Anne Applebaum, The Gulag: A History (New York: Doubleday, 2003)
  10. Kaganovich to Ezhov, March 13, 1938, RGAE, f. 8044, op. 1, d. 408, l. 78.
  11. Beriia to Stalin, January 7, 1939, ARPF, f. 3, op. 58, d. 142, ll. 72-73; “Ob osobom tekhnicheskom biuro pri narodnom komissare vnutrennykh del sssr,” January 8, 1939, ARPF, f. 3, op. 58, d. 142, ll. 70-71.
  12. Beriia to Stalin, April 25, 1944, State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), f. 9401, op. 2, d. 65, ll. 385-92; “Protokol No. 18, 27 iulia 1944 goda,” July 27, 1944, Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ARAN), f. 1546, op. 1, d. 28, l. 1.
  13. “Kratkii otchet o rabotakh 4-go spetsotdela NKVD sssr s 1939 po 1944 g.,” August 14, 1944, GARF, f. 9401, op. 2, d. 88, ll. 155-61.
This entry was posted in Great Purges, Gulag, Soviet Era 1917-1991, Soviet Intelligentsia, Soviet Science. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Sharashka Phenomenon

  1. Andrew Jenks says:

    Great stuff, Asif. I especially like your point about the sharashka giving rise to the absurd post-Stalinist regime of secrecy — and how the inmates brought sharashka values into the systems they managed in the post-Stalin era.
    Andy

  2. Asif Siddiqi says:

    Thanks Andy. The point you raise is actually one that interests me the most, the influence (and legacy) of the Gulag on Soviet science and technology. Given the size and scope of the Gulag economy, it’s clear that it bequeathed much to the practice of Soviet science and technology. Some of this was tangible, i.e., new forms of institutional secrecy and opacity, but some of it was intangible or more difficult to measure, as in cultural norms that were transmitted to the ‘outside’ world through individual experiences.

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