Gulag Gulag Town Company Town Historiography Soviet Era 1917-1991

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.

By Wilson Bell

Wilson Bell is Assistant Professor of Russian history at Thompson Rivers University

3 replies on “Gulag Town, Company Town, and the History of the Gulag”

Great question, Wilson. I think that Alan’s book (and your own work as well) definitely represents a shift in how scholars are viewing the Gulag. In some locations in the Soviet Union, places of detention were isolated from society, whether by prison walls or by extreme geographical isolation. As a rule, however, Gulag institutions were an integral part of the local economy and even of local society. So the Gulag in this view stands not just as an essential, though discreet, of Soviet-style socialism–it was part of the fabric of Soviet socio-economic structures. I think Steve Barnes makes this point quite nicely in his book, but Alan’s work provides much more of the evidence to support this supposition.

[…] 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 […]

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