Gulag Gulag Town Company Town

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?

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.

Gulag Boss

Gulag Boss, Good Boss

Mochulsky comes across fairly positively in his account, even if today’s reader is frequently frustrated by his lack of introspection and personal accountability. He is remarkably resourceful at problem solving, and seems genuinely concerned with the physical well being of the prisoners. As Deborah writes in her afterward, perhaps Mochulsky “was a man who want[s] to show us that even in an evil system there were people who tried to do their best”.[1. Deborah Kaple, “Afterward,” Fyodor Visilevich Mochulsky, Gulag Boss, trans. and edited Deborah Kaple (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) 181.] I’m very curious about the issue of the “good boss”—the boss who, in other words, treats the prisoners humanely, while continuing to maintain a position of power and responsibility within this incredibly cruel and inhumane system. In my own research, I’ve come across one possible “good boss” candidate, who, like Mochulsky, commanded a sub-camp within a much larger camp complex.

F. I. Kazachenko, boss of a Siblag sub-camp

This man, Filip Ivanovich Kazachenko (pictured), presided over the Antibess and then the Orlovo-Rozovo subdivisions of Siblag, in present day Kemerovo Oblast’.[2. For more, see Wilson T. Bell, “The Gulag and Soviet Society in Western Siberia, 1929-1953,” (PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 2011) 87-88, and 242-243:] In any case, I’d like to explore (very briefly) two questions regarding the “good boss.”

  1. How possible/common was the “good boss”?
  2. What do we make of some of the silences in Mochulsky’s memoir?
Gulag Gulag Boss

Gulag Boss – Mochulsky and Gulag Space

Thank you, Steve, for organizing this group discussion and for inviting me to participate! No doubt one of the more interesting points of inquiry will be to assess Mochulsky’s role and behavior as a “perpetrator,” and Deborah Kaple eludes to a possible “ordinary men” understanding of Mochulsky in her afterward (p. 179). But I want to focus my first post on the following: what does Gulag Boss tell us about Gulag space?