Gulag Town, Company Town – First Response

First of all, I want to thank: Steve Harris and Steve Barnes for taking the time to organize these blog conversations; Ana, Ekaterina, Asif, Wilson, and Jeff for taking the time to read my book with such care and offer their comments; and Yale University Press for facilitating the discussion. Second, I want to apologize for how long it’s taken me to formulate my first response. I’ve been traveling, and this has prevented me from sitting down to write something that is equal to the very high standards set by my fellow participants!

I’ll now take some time to respond to some of the questions and comments that the panelists have offered, in the hopes that this will then spark more questions and conversation about my book. I’ll start with what seem to be some common themes in the responses.

Many of the questions and comments from the bloggers have focused on how to contextualize Vorkuta and how it might be compared to other cities in the USSR and beyond. This, I think gets to the heart of what is potentially problematic about writing a local study – how should the findings of one study about a particular place inform what we think about broader historical processes, events, and phenomena? This is a question that other historians of the Gulag and its legacy have to some degree been able to avoid, since most of their projects have been about the system writ large. This is clear, for example, in Oleg Khlevniuk’s The History of the Gulag, and in Jeff Hardy’s forthcoming history of the Soviet penal system after Stalin (so I would assume). Even Steve Barnes’ Death and Redemption weaves a narrative about a particular Gulag region together with a new interpretation of the evolution of the Gulag system as a whole. If my book somehow represents the “maturation” of Gulag studies, as Wilson Bell wondered, it would be in the sense that there were already enough broad secondary studies that I felt it was possible to focus on a particular case and interpret its meaning in the light of synthetic histories.

Jeff Hardy points to a couple of important comparative questions that my book raises/implies, but does not answer satisfactorily. Was the Soviet regime better (or no worse) than other societies in reintegrating former prisoners into Soviet society? I don’t know enough about the “American, Brazilian, French, South African, Indian, or Japanese” cases to make a strong case one way or the other (though I suspect Jeff might). But nevertheless, the question draws our attention to the perhaps unprecedented scale of mass releases from the Gulag in a global context. Millions of prisoners and exiles were freed over the course of the 1950s, and this was indeed a hugely difficult problem: how were they to be reintegrated into Soviet society? Further, this was a society and polity going through other major upheavals (as Miriam Dobson has so convincingly shown in Khrushchev’s Cold Summer). All told, the Soviet system seems to have coped with the mass release of Gulag prisoners remarkably well.

In her responses, Ekaterina Kalemeneva points to other important comparative issues raised, but not answered, by the book. To what degree was Vorkuta like, or unlike, other cities that grew out of prison camp complexes. Further, what connections were there between the camps, those who ran them, and their practices. I suspect (and hope!) that studies of similar camp/cities, such as Noril’sk, would point to significant similarities in practices. There undoubtedly were “exchanges of ideas about managing the camp between different camps or about the existence of some basic organizational models.” In its attempt to focus on patron/client relationships on the ground, my book undoubtedly downplays the importance of orders received from Moscow in determining how the city was built and developed. And we do know that camp chiefs talked to each other, bragged and competed. Later on, exchange of ideas and experiences between Vorkuta and Noril’sk in urban planning and construction were many – in fact, urban planners in Vorkuta seem to have bemoaned the fact that their city wasn’t quite up to the standards set by Noril’sk. But perhaps Vorkuta and Noril’sk, while alike, point to the distinctiveness of the camps and cities, since they were as much influenced by their location in the Arctic as they were by their legacies as camp complexes. I absolutely agree with Kalemeneva that “the influence of highly specific natural conditions” is not fully explored in the book. I look forward to seeing it examined in her work!

And then there is the question of experts, scientific knowledge, and the construction of Vorkuta. Both Ekaterina and Asif Saddiqi make reference to the key role of prisoner experts in planning, building, and running the camp and city. Asif mentions Zubchaninov, a key planning official as both a prisoner and an ex-prisoner, but there were many other such characters that I encountered during my research, including Oleg Borovskii, who built x-ray machines as a prisoner, and Vsevolod Lunev, who designed buildings and planned much of the city as an exile and former exile from the 1940s to the 1960s. Could Gulag camps, or post-Gulag cities, have functioned without the expert knowledge of these prisoners and exiles? Further, what was the role of the Gulag in colonizing remote regions with members of the creative and scientific intelligentsia from the center? Finally, I want to acknowledge Ekaterina’s question about the relationship between experts from the center (especially Leningrad) and those on the ground in Vorkuta. Certainly such experts played a key role in planning and building the city and camp, particularly in the area of mine construction – Lengiproshakht was an organization that featured prominently in my archival research, although I must admit my relative ignorance about how this relationship worked in practice.

Finally, on the big question of ‘camp,’ ‘town,’ ‘city,’ and ‘company town’ raised by Ana Kladnik and Jeff Hardy. Why refer to both ‘camp’ and ‘town’ during the 1940s, when for all intents and purposes this was a camp complex? There are two reasons for this: first, the camp administration paid a great deal of attention and devoted significant resources to building a town that was at least nominally separate from the camp. As I’ve demonstrated, such distinctions were largely academic at first. But the second reason for doing this is that I wanted to make the point that the construction and development of a city was not something that began after Stalin’s death. Certainly 1953 was a huge breaking point between camp and city, but I point out, the city had already reached a number of key milestones by this point, including the fact that the non-prisoner and prisoner populations were roughly equal, and that the city already had a number of key institutions, including a Gorkom (party committee) and a newspaper.

Why a “company town”? Here I was following William Taubman’s notion of the Soviet company town from his 1973 book on Soviet city governance. In particular, Taubman points out that in a number of Soviet cities that were dominated by a single enterprise, the role of the party in governance was somewhat diminished. I think that Vorkuta after 1953 clearly falls into this category. But, as Ana and Jeff point out, “company town” refers to a model from outside the socialist bloc. So perhaps “socialist town” would have been a better characterization. But it may not have made for such a snappy title!

More to come in later postings. I look forward to the panelists’ further questions and comments!

About Alan Barenberg

Alan Barenberg is Assistant Professor of History at Texas Tech University.
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