Gulag Town and the “Little Zone” vs. the “Big Zone”

The main question Alan Barenberg urges us to ponder is the question of space. Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, and others have conditioned us into thinking of Gulag space as separate space. Alan’s book, however, explicitly “aims to free the Gulag from Solzhenitsyn’s metaphorical ‘archipelago.'” (p. 14) As already noted, Alan traces the myriad points of interaction and overlap between the Gulag and the town. Indeed, one aspect of the book that works especially well is the author’s use of specific buildings (for example, the neoclassical children’s hospital in Vorkuta’s main square – see Chapter 3) as a starting point for discussions of the gray areas between free and forced (and even semi-free and semi-forced) labor. What I’d love to open up for discussion is how these gradations of forced/free labor and gradations of Gulag/non-Gulag space relate, if at all, to the old idea of the “little zone” and the “big zone.”

To recap: The idea that the whole of the Soviet Union was somewhat like a prison (the “big zone” – bol’shaia zona), perhaps only somewhat more free than the Gulag (the “little zone” – malaia zona) has been around for a long time, a well-known characterization of those with first-hand experience of Stalinist repression.1 In the context of a perceived separation between the Gulag and society, Alan himself briefly mentions the big zone vs. little zone characterization in his article in the online social sciences journal, Laboratorium. I have generally been dismissive of the idea of Soviet society as a “big zone,” a large prison. Clearly, individuals did not want to go to the Gulag, and thus implicitly recognized that there were key differences in the lived experiences of these two “zones.”

1930s construction of Combine 179 in Novosibirsk, one of the Soviet Union’s largest factory complexes, built and then staffed with a combination of prisoner and non-prisoner labor. Image via Biblioteka sibirskogo kraevedeniia

Yet Alan’s research reveals the lack of a clear distinction between Gulag space and non-Gulag space, at least in the “Gulag Town.” My own research on Novosibirsk and Tomsk–hardly Gulag towns–echoes Alan’s characterization of forced labor in Vorkuta. There was often a lack of clear boundaries between prisoners and non prisoners, even at key defense enterprises like the enormous Combine no. 179, a massive munitions factory in Novosibirsk, situated on the left bank of the Ob’ River. The Novosibirsk Provincial Party Committee (Obkom) would often allocate workers to Combine no. 179, drawing from the regional Gulag, but also from “free” workers at other regional enterprises, and even other provinces. If human resources–both “free” and “forced”–could be allocated in such a manner, can we really speak of a clear distinction between free and forced labor in the Soviet Union? Kate Brown writes of a “continuum of incarcerated space,” and Alan’s research supports this description.2 Can we, in this sense, call Soviet society the “big zone”? As Alan writes in his introduction (p. 9),

… the straightforward distinction between “free” workers (vol’nonaemnye) and prisoners (zakliuchennye) that one often encounters in archival documents and memoirs, and in much of the historiography of the Gulag, falls short of being able to describe the social intricacy of camp complexes and their surrounding communities.

Clearly, one would rather have been “free.” But, in light of Alan’s book, what did that mean?

  1. See Kate Brown, “Out of Solitary Confinement: The History of the Gulag,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 8.1 (2007): 78
  2. Ibid.

About Wilson Bell

Wilson Bell is Assistant Professor of Russian history at Thompson Rivers University
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One Response to Gulag Town and the “Little Zone” vs. the “Big Zone”

  1. Alan Barenberg says:


    Like you, I’ve never liked the big zone/little zone metaphor. I’m uncomfortable with the notion that the whole Soviet Union was a camp. It runs the risk of trivializing the prisoner/camp experience by suggesting that it was shared by all. It also suggests that the whole of Soviet space was kept under tight watch and highly ordered like a camp zone, whereas I’ve been trying to argue the opposite, that camp spaces were often not as ordered or supervised as we have been led to think. Like many sweeping grand metaphors of the Gulag (such as that of the “archipelago”), it may work as a quick shorthand that captures the spirit of something, but it’s less useful as a tool for understanding Soviet society, the Gulag, and the relationship between them.

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