Gulag Town Company Town

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!

Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism

Death and Redemption—Theory and Practice

Though still a relatively young scholar (nine years since receiving his Ph.D.), Steve Barnes can rightfully be considered the dean of Gulag studies in the United States.  From his provocative 2003 dissertation, to his Gulag: Many Days Many Lives website, from his many public talks to his mentoring of other scholars, Steve has been at the forefront of all things Gulag over the past dozen years.  He organized a conference devoted to new interpretations of the Gulag, he helped facilitate a traveling Gulag exhibition put on by the National Parks Service and Gulag Museum in Perm, he has authored several scholarly articles, and his current slate of projects includes several devoted to Gulag themes.  I therefore consider it a privilege to review his latest and most important work, which is in my mind the most significant book on the Gulag since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.  On the surface, it has much to recommend it against other works on the Soviet penal system.  It covers the entire Stalin era, plus a little beyond.  It is a detailed study of one location—Karlag—but it employs evidence from across the Gulag.  It is based evenly on archival and memoir sources, both of which are necessary to understand the Gulag phenomenon.  It covers a range of penal institutions.  And it explores both the theory and the practice of punishment in the Soviet Union.

The primary contribution of Death and Redemption is the author’s willingness to ask (and, of course, answer) a seemingly simple question: Why did the Soviet authorities spend enormous amounts of energy and resources “to replicate the Soviet social and cultural system within the Gulag?”  In other words, why not just kill the prisoners either through execution or through penal labor and use the resources on any number of other important priorities, rapid industrialization being chief among them.  Why go to such lengths to try to reform them into good Soviet citizens?  Certainly, millions of Soviet subjects were shot or worked to death in the camps of the Gulag, or left to die in the so-called special settlements.  But several times more survived confinement and returned to Soviet society having supposedly undergone the process of “reforging” or “re-education.”  To some this re-education process was a farce, lip service to Bolshevik identity that prisoners simply ignored or manipulated to their own advantage.  Barnes, while not dismissing such reactions to the re-education process, nonetheless accepts it as real, as tangible evidence that the Gulag represented not just the fears of Soviet socialism but its hopes and dreams as well.  Indeed, he views it as a crucial link for understanding in their full complexity the tensions inherent in the Soviet worldview, and, more narrowly, in their vision of criminal justice in a socialist society.

This understanding of the Gulag as a microcosm of Soviet society, with events, institutions, and relationships in the Gulag mirroring those outside the barbed wire, owes much to Solzhenitsyn, as Barnes readily acknowledges.  Yet Barnes views this not as an exclusively negative, repressive phenomenon as Solzhenitsyn does, but as a positive, constructive one.  It was perhaps not a moral system, but it operated within its own system of ethics that made sense to its practitioners.  From political indoctrination sessions to socialist slogans in the barracks, from literacy classes to musical performances, Gulag life was organized around this new socialist ethos.  And the most important part of this ethos and of Gulag life was labor.  It was the primary method and indicator of re-education, of the inmate’s readiness to return to a productive life outside the barbed wire.  Those who failed this critical test could have no place in Soviet society—they were slated for death.

For Barnes the tension between life and death, between redemption and guilt is summarized in this visual propaganda piece, which is described but unfortunately not included in the book:

Here a mock grave complete with coffin has been constructed for members of a prisoner labor brigade.  The crime, as depicted by several signs, each bearing a prisoner’s surname along with a percent—22%, 30%, 42%—was underperformance of the work quota.  Laziness.  The message is unmistakable: those who do not perform their labor duty are not submitting to re-education.  They will exit the Gulag not by release but by death.  Or as Barnes puts it: “In the harsh conditions of the Gulag, the social body’s filth would either be purified (and returned to the body politic) or cast out (through death).” (14)  What is important here is that both options—death and redemption—are appealing outcomes in the Soviet worldview.  Setting deadly violence alongside correction was not a contradiction, but an ideal.  It was not a perversion of socialism, it was not some sort of Stalinist deviation, it was how socialism was to be built.  This argument is the central tenet of the book and a significant departure from most other works on the Gulag, from Solzhenitsyn’s and Anne Applebaum’s memoir-based studies, to the more archivally-grounded works of Oleg Khlevniuk and Galina Ivanova.  It is also an important theoretical foundation on which younger scholars, including myself, can build.

Gulag Boss

Gulag Boss – Administration and Complicity

Gulag Boss is clearly a valuable contribution to the growing body of Gulag literature.  For decades our understanding of the Gulag was informed almost exclusively by prisoner memoirs.  Then in the 1990s and 2000s came the archival revolution, which provided a wealth of information about the internal workings of the Soviet penal system.  But although they have taught us much over the past two decades, archival documents will never present the full picture of how the administration of punishment worked in the Soviet Union; they lack, for the most part, the candid voices of the actual administrators explaining how to properly interpret the documents.  Which orders were important?  Which orders were ignored?  How were promotions and disciplinary actions really decided?  What personal intrigues stood behind such actions?  Were some commands given orally rather than in written form?  Were there motivations behind certain decisions that were not printed on paper, or which among the given motivations carried the most weight?  What did Gulag commanders and guards really think of their work and of the prisoners?  These are questions that are sometimes answered in investigatory reports and petitions, but often the historian is left guessing.  And it is precisely these sorts of questions that memoirs or oral histories of Gulag personnel can help answer.  They can provide a sort of bridge between the prisoner accounts and the official documents.  Unfortunately, historians have at their disposal very few such sources and this is where Gulag Boss is particular valuable.  One only wishes it were three times as long and detailed as it is.


So what do we learn from Gulag Boss?  Or, what do we already know about the Gulag that is reinforced by this memoir?