Gulag Town Company Town

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.

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

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Released Prisoners and the Question of “Company Town”

Thank you to Steve Barnes and to Steve Harris at the Second World Urbanity blog for organizing this forum.  And a special thanks to Alan, of course, for allowing his fascinating book to be discussed in such fashion.  To start my own contribution to this conversation, I would like to offer focus on two themes: the re-adjustment of prisoners after release and the idea of the “Company Town.”

To me this book offers two central contributions. First, it explores in intimate detail the porous boundaries between freedom and unfreedom, showing how patronage networks and economic realities created a town with a surprisingly high level of interaction between prisoners and non-prisoners.  Wilson Bell has begun this discussion, so I will not discuss it further here.  Rather, I would like to focus on what I consider to be the second and no less important contribution: the transition of Vorkuta to a non-Gulag (or only lightly-Gulag) city.  After Stalin’s death, the Gulag was vastly reduced in size, and most of the large camp complexes, including those around Vorkuta, were dismantled.  Alan provides excellent detail on how the municipality and economic structures of Vorkuta were able to manage this transition.  Of particular concern were the related issues of released prisoners and labor shortages.

Scholars of the Gulag have long told tales of how difficult it was for released inmates to readjust to society after many years behind barbed wire. This has been treated at length by Nanci Adler, Anne Applebaum, Orlando Figes, Miriam Dobson, Amir Weiner, and others.  Yet Alan presents a picture that is to a large extent different from theirs.  Sure, he tells of some job discrimination and other barriers to re-entry.  But he also writes about how many inmates, upon release, stayed in Vorkuta, the very place where they had been incarcerated.  Given the opportunity to leave, they chose to continue(!) building their lives at the site of their punishment.  And many, he claims, were able to forge (pardon the Soviet terminology) fruitful lives marked by meaningful employment and valued social networks.  To me the take-away point here is this: re-adjustment to society after incarceration is difficult in any society.  Ex-cons globally are marked by social stigma and often beset with certain legal disabilities (not that you will find much acknowledgement of this in discussion of former inmates in the Soviet Union).  Perhaps, if we are to believe that Alan’s conclusions can be extended Union-wide, the Soviet Union was not (much?) worse than other regimes in this regard.  Certainly the scale of the problem was much larger, with millions being released from the Gulag in the 1950s.  But qualitatively, we may be led to the conclusion that released (non-political?) prisoners in the USSR fared no worse on average than those released from American, Brazilian, French, South African, Indian, or Japanese prisons.  That is a provocative conclusion and I’d like to hear Alan’s, and others’, thoughts on the matter.

The second question that I would like to briefly raise is that of the “Company Town.”  This term, I think, should have been given more theoretical and comparative discussion, seeing as how it stands in the title of the book.  It is a concept that is non-Soviet in its origins, and its applicability to the Soviet Union is questionable, seeing as how one could broadly define every town in the USSR as a “company town” under Sovnarkom.  Or if Alan chooses a more narrow definition, why is the work of Stephen Kotkin (Magnetic Mountain) or Kate Brown (Plutopia) not engaged (Alan mentions them only briefly)?  I wonder if others, particularly those at the Second World Urbanity blog, have further thoughts on this question.

I look forward to a fruitful discussion.  Please comment in the space below!

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Gulag Town, Company Town, and the History of the Gulag

Thanks, Steve, for inviting me to participate in another Blog Conversation on the Gulag! Since we have almost a complete handful of Gulag specialists in on this conversation, I thought it might be useful to place Alan’s excellent book within Gulag historiography. To my mind, in any case, Gulag Town, Company Town marks a break with all previous English-language book-length studies of the Gulag, in that it focuses on one particular camp system, from its origins to its legacy to its place within the local community, without particularly trying to write a history of the Gulag as a whole. This is a history of Vorkuta. As Alan states in his introduction, his book is “the story of a particular place.” (p. 6) Yet, as he goes on to demonstrate, by narrowing the focus to a particular place, the details–day-to-day interactions between prisoners and civilians, shifting camp boundaries, and so on–can reveal much about the system as a whole. So my question for conversation is as follows:

  • To what extent does Gulag Town, Company Town represent the maturation of “Gulag studies” as a subfield of Soviet history?

In other words, perhaps the broad, over-arching interpretations (of which I include Steve Barnes’ key work, Death and Redemption, which of course has a local focus on Karaganda as well as a broader interpretive framework) have paved the way for more focused studies that can excavate deeper and deeper layers of the Gulag’s history. What do you think? Anyway, I have a lot to say about this book, but I thought I’d start with a broad question, first.

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Gulag Town, Company Town: A Blog Conversation

We are excited to be trying something new with the latest in our series of blog conversations. We are co-hosting this blog conversation in conjunction with the Second World Urbanity Project blog. You can follow part of the conversation here at Russian History Blog, but should see the rest of the conversation (and check out the project!) over at Second World Urbanity. (And don’t forget to follow Russian History Blog on Twitter (@RussHistBlog) or on Facebook.) Now on to our book:

Alan Barenberg, a past blog conversation participant here at RHB, has published a magnificent new work on the history of the Gulag and its legacy. Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and Its Legacy in Vorkuta (Yale University Press, 2014) takes us north of the Arctic Circle to one of the Soviet forced labor camp system’s most notorious locations. Through an in-depth study based on archival research in Moscow, Vorkuta, and Syktyvkar, Gulag Town shows that the Gulag was thoroughly enmeshed in the Soviet system. It is a meticulous ground-level study of Soviet life–the history of the coal-producing city of Vorkuta from its foundation as a Gulag town in the 1930s to its transition from Gulag town to company town after Stalin’s death. Alan shows the deep integration of the Gulag into the local community spatially, economically, and through its personnel, an integration that left lasting traces well into the post-Stalin era. As such, he has provided a concrete picture of the legacies of the Gulag in post-Stalinist and ultimately even post-Soviet history.

I am looking forward to this conversation and will add many of my other thoughts about the book as we go. For now, jump below the fold to see Russian History Blog’s participants in the conversation and don’t forget to check out what’s happening with the conversation over at Second World Urbanity. My thanks to Steve Harris for his willingness to consider this kind of joint venture.