Gender and Sexuality Gulag Kazakhstan Soviet Era 1917-1991

What’s in a Strikethrough?

Can a simple manuscript strikethrough be a sign of deep affection?

I’m currently writing a book on Alzhir, a special Gulag camp division designed to hold women arrested during the so-called Great Terror of 1937-1938 as “family members of traitors to the motherland.” These women largely came from families of the political and cultural elite of Soviet society and were arrested for no crime other than being the spouses of men arrested and usually executed during the terror.

My book will be based in part on careful readings of a sizable corpus of Alzhir survivor memoirs. Mostly unpublished, the memoir typescripts often contain handwritten additions, deletions, and corrections. Mostly, the edits are minor, focused on typos and other proofreading minutia. At times, though, they ooze potential, if not easily discernible, meaning.

First, a little background. Tamara Tanina was married to one of Nikita Khrushchev’s assistants in 1937. (Khrushchev was then Party boss in Moscow.) Her husband was arrested and executed in mid-1937, and she was arrested in early 1938 as a “family member of a traitor to the motherland.” Initially sent to Alzhir, Tamara survived her Gulag experience and in the early 1960s wrote In Those Years, a memoir that like many others was sent to the Communist Party’s Central Committee during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization. [1. These memoirs, including Tamara Tanina’s, are discussed in Nanci Adler’s Keeping Faith With the Party: Communist Believers Return from the Gulag.]

The two-volume unpublished typescript memoir found in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History tells an engaging, often moving story about her experience in the camps, personal relationships, conditions, work, etc. [1. Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), fond 560, opis 1, delo 37. The memoir consists of two volumes. All parenthetical citations here refer to the handwritten archival page number in the first volume.] Of particular interest given the widespread taboos of Russian Gulag memoirs, Tamara describes what she calls her “unusual friendship” in Alzhir with Pavla (Pavlusha) Eletskaia. Tamara is at times reticent to describe this relationship as romantic, and at other times easily recalls how Pavlusha “tenderly kissed me.” (148) Same-sex relationships in the Gulag are uncommonly discussed in Gulag memoirs, and when they are it is particularly rare that they are first-person told with a tone of tender remembrance rather than third-person accounts told with a tone of moral revulsion. [1. Adi Kuntsman describes memoirists’ “lack of sympathy for–and often an active disgust and scorn towards–same sex relations in the camps.” Figurations of Violence and Belonging: Queerness, Migranthood, and Nationalism in Cyberspace and Beyond, Peter Lang, 2009, p. 54.] Tamara’s recollections of Pavlusha are decidedly in the tender mode, at times moving in their description of brief, warm, summer moments when they could “luxuriate…hugging each other…under the low Kazakhstani skies full of especially bright and large stars.” (152) It is clear that Tamara really loved Pavlusha. Although they were soon separated to different camp divisions, they stayed friends even in the years after they were released from the camps. (Nothing indicates that their post-Gulag relationship was still of a romantic nature.)

It is at the moment of their separation that the fascinating strikethrough appears in the manuscript. Tamara writes that she was suddenly transferred from the Alzhir subdivision of the Karlag labor camp to the Dolinka division. She had been diagnosed with an unspecified gynecological medical condition and was presumably shipped to Dolinka to see a gynecologist there for emergency surgery. When she arrived in Dolinka, the doctor told her that she had no problem requiring surgery. This led Tamara to suspect there might have been other motives for her transfer. She wrote:

Was it possible that the camp leadership perceived something unnatural in the type of friendship that I had with Pavlusha? And perhaps they were right. Later, recalling our affection for one another, I felt that my feelings for her bore the seeds of an unhealthy attraction. (155)

Had Tamara Tanina’s memoir been published, the latter two sentences may have been left on the cutting room floor, and we would not even know about them. In the typescript, the sentences absent presence is fascinating.

Page from Tamara Tanina's Typescript Memoir with Strikethrough
Page from Tamara Tanina’s Typescript Memoir with Strikethrough

In fact, it is tempting as a historian to read a great deal into the strikethrough, but what exactly? The romantic in me wants to tell the story that Tamara wrote the lines with an eye toward the Party’s expectations at a moment when she was trying to get her life back in the midst of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization. Then, when rereading the typed manuscript, the passionate memory of her tenderest and most affectionate relationship drove her to strike the offending sentences with gusto and submit the memoir to the Central Committee without remorse.[1. Although she continually professes her love for her executed husband in the memoir, it is also clear that he was abusive toward her.]

Of course, this may not at all be the proper reading of something so inscrutable as a strikethrough. If Tamara wrote these lines just for Party consumption–just to express her condemnation of a taboo relationship–why did she write at such length about her relationship with Pavlusha in the first place? How do we even know it was even Tamara who crossed out the sentences?

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.

Blog Conversations Gulag Gulag Town Company Town Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism

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.

Gulag Kazakhstan Nostalgia and Memory Soviet Era 1917-1991

A Night in Karlag

Karlag Museum
Museum of Memory of the Victims of Repression in the Dolinka Settlement (Karlag Museum). Photo by Steven A Barnes

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a paper at a conference entitled “Legacies of the Gulag and the Memory of Stalinism” at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. My paper focused on public memory of the Gulag in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstani experience differs significantly from that in Russia, a topic discussed at the conference by Arsenii Roginskii, Nanci Adler, Alexander Etkind, Nikita Petrov, Andrei Sorokin, and others.

While the paper is perhaps too long for this forum, I wanted to share the portion of it discussing the “Night in Karlag,” a fascinating (and disturbing) recent moment in Kazakhstani public memory of the Gulag. The event raises interesting questions about the appropriateness of the experiential museum and historical reenactment for the portrayal of atrocity.

(Given recent news, it is certainly worth highlighting that this paper was made possible through in-country research supported by the U.S. Department of State’s now defunded Title VIII program via the American Councils for International Education.)

Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

Death and Redemption – Responses, but not answers

Thanks to Golfo Alexopoulos and Dan Healey for joining the conversation. It is pleasing to see that not only are new young scholars writing about the Gulag, but some of the best established scholars like Golfo and Dan have turned to the subject as well. We still have so much to learn about the operation of this system, and over time all of these scholarly efforts will coalesce into a truly new understanding of the Gulag that will far surpass my own efforts in Death and Redemption. Although I toyed with moving on from studying the Gulag, this plethora of unanswered questions has pulled me back into the subject.

In general, I find the critical responses here as with many earlier responses to emerge to a significant degree from the boldness with which I lay out my argument. In laying out the argument, I will admit to giving up some valuable nuance in favor of an attempt to steer our conversation about the Gulag in new directions. Often, as these respondents repeatedly show, the nuance appears in the heart of the book and at times seems to contradict, or at the very least complicate the bold central argument. At the same time, the respondents seem to value the change in direction of our Gulag conversation above all else.

Blog Conversations Death and Redemption Gulag

Death and Redemption – a newspaper article and some thoughts on release

It’s  been pointed out that the translated newspaper article I pasted into a comment at the bottom of a long discussion might go unnoticed, and – given it might be useful to others teaching on the Gulag – I thought I’d add it here as a proper post. 

Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

Death and Redemption – Reforging, Reeducation, Redemption

So many interesting posts in this discussion, I feel like I could write an entire article responding to all  of it. Here, I want to try to address some issues brought up initially by Jeff Hardy and in the comments of Wilson Bell (two of the best and brightest among the young Gulag historians) and then expanded on by others. (I must say, also, that Jeff often explains my book’s argument better than I do.) Each writing independent of the other, they raised similar questions about the book’s argument focused on whether and to what extent the “redemption” of the book’s title really matters in practice at the local level. I believe Jeff’s and Wilson’s comments, amplified by others, represent the most spot-on critiques of my book I have ever read and represent what I hope the next generation of Gulag histories will help us better understand.

What I hoped to do with the book, and what I think I have accomplished judging from the collected comments here, was to change the conversation about the Gulag and the role that it played in the Soviet Union. I wanted us to understand the Gulag was much more complex than Anne Applebaum would have it. I wanted us to think about more than the merely repressive or merely economic elements of the Gulag, while never forgetting the repressive and the economic in our analysis. I wanted us to start thinking about the Gulag as a penal system both similar to other modern detention institutions but with its own Soviet particularities.[1. In this, I stand on the shoulders of giants, following a raft of scholarship from the last twenty years that pushed us to see late imperial Russia and the Soviet Union as part of the broader Euro-American development of a modern political system rather than something sui generis, while maintaining sensitivity to the particularities of the Russian/Soviet version of this modernity.] When we learned in the late 1980s and early 1990s that a huge percentage of the Gulag population was released every year and that a minority of Gulag prisoners were politicals, previous explanations for the Gulag’s role in the Soviet Union seemed, if not wrong, certainly incomplete. Understanding what these new facts meant for our understanding of the Gulag has driven my research for more than a decade. Who was released, and when, and why? Who was not released? Did Soviet authorities care what became of the millions who would spend time in the camps but then return to Soviet society?

Death and Redemption Gulag

Death and Redemption

Over the past eighteen months I have come to realise that I’m not an ideal blogger in the sense that I’m not always very good at checking the internet! I’ve been busily writing my first thoughts about Death and Redemption without realizing that the conversation had already started. So here are my reflections about Steve’s book and its contribution to the field of Gulag studies.

Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism Teaching Russian History

Death and Redemption – On Images

First, I must thank my colleague and co-blogger Andrew Jenks for setting up this blog conversation here at Russian History Blog. As an academic author, I have found the wait for journal reviews of my book to be excruciating. The book came out almost exactly one year ago, and the first two reviews of the book appeared only in the last month. (Only this French review is available on the free web.) Immediacy is definitely something the blog conversation can uniquely provide.

It is a great honor to have this stellar cast gathered for this conversation. I find the praise overwhelming and flattering (“dean of Gulag studies“? wow!) and the critiques painful but also exhilarating and thought-provoking. Most of all, I am excited to see that the argument I tried to make in the book (warts and all) actually came through to the readers.

In an effort to facilitate this as “conversation”, I’ll respond intermittently to the readers’ comments rather than waiting for all to chime in. Here, I want to address the issue of images raised both by Deborah Kaple and Cynthia Ruder. Obviously, I can change nothing about the book now and I acknowledge that the book would have been improved with more images, but I can point now to some visual (and textual) evidence that might be useful to readers and to all of our students. I like Cynthia’s idea of creating auxiliary web material for the book, and it’s something I’ll think about doing. However, I would point out the availability of some freely available auxiliary material that may not be known to all. (For an extended discussion of materials available for teaching the Gulag, look at the posts by Wilson Bell and me at Teach History, Karl Qualls’ blog on teaching Russian history.)

I would point readers and students to the Gulag website created with my colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media here at George Mason University. In addition to a virtual exhibit, complete with visually-based original mini-documentaries, the site, especially in its archive, contains a wealth of visual evidence.The text search and the “browse by tag” function allows one to find materials by location, subject matter, person, etc.

In particular and in relation to Death and Redemption, I would like to point colleagues, readers, and students with Russian language skills to a selection of documents from the local Karlag archive in Karaganda.

As for a map of Karlag, it is easier said than done. Karlag, like most Gulag camps, did not occupy a single defined (let alone enclosed) space. It was diffuse with many different sub-camps located around the steppe of central Kazakhstan (not to mention the many “de-convoyed” prisoners who were herding animals around the steppe without residing in a particular camp zone and sometime even without the presence of an armed guard.) I try to describe the extent of the camp in the text by pointing out its outermost sub-camps, and I provided a map that located the most important geographic locales in Kazakhstan discussed in the book. To draw lines around the camp would be misleading as to how the camp was actually organized. (Here is a rather poor-quality version with credit to the cartographer Stephanie Hurter Williams.)




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.

Closed Cities Cold War Gulag Soviet Intelligentsia Soviet Science Uncategorized

ZATOs In View

A few weeks ago, on March 27, I was at a reception at the Harriman Institute (for Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies) at Columbia University for the opening of a new exhibit entitled ZATO: Soviet Secret Cities During the Cold War. The exhibit, which will be on display until May 22, was curated by Dr. Xenia Vytuleva, an architectural historian who did her graduate work at Moscow State University and is now visiting at Columbia. The exhibit includes images, diagrams, maps, and documents, some of it provided by Richard Pare, the English photographer well-known for his work on Soviet modernist architecture. Dr. Vytuleva has done an exemplary job of visually communicating the essence of the “closed cities” and I encourage all in the New York area to come and see her superb work.

My contribution to the project was to provide the historical text (and context) and to help conceptualize an exhibit ostensibly designed to render visible a phenomenon that was largely about invisibility. I provide here a brief summary of some of my thoughts that fed into the ZATO exhibit and the ways in which we might begin to situate the “secret cities” phenomenon on the social and political geography of the former Soviet Union. On a very cursory level, these cities are no mystery. Consider the official designation that created this typology of urban life: the Closed Administrative-Territorial Formation (Zakrytoe administrativno-territorial’noe obrazovanie, ZATO). All of these words hold certain meanings, but they all communicate a sense of boundaries, demarcations, limitations, and circumscriptions on the social and political geography of the Soviet Union. At a deeper level, the language of secret cities is also one of omission, most starkly demonstrated by the fact that the cities themselves were never shown on official maps produced by the Soviet regime. Implicated in the Cold War posture of producing weapons for the Soviet military-industrial complex, these cities were some of the most deeply secret and omitted places in Soviet geography. Those who worked in these places had special passes to live and leave, and were themselves occluded from public view. Most of the scientists and engineers who worked in the ZATOs were not allowed to reveal their place or purpose of employment. Again, this omission.

If the secret cities can be seen as a phenomenon of omission, they can also be understood as spaces of exclusion. Much like other social spaces that were highly exclusionary—such as the Gulag—passage in and out of these urban “formations” was very strictly regulated, even for people who lived within. Yet, what made them different from the Gulag was, of course, the intersection of exclusion and privilege. For Soviet intelligentsia—particularly scientists, engineers, and technicians—secret cities represented aspirational spaces, idealized urban formations where the day-to-day amenities of life were seemingly abundant and plentiful. In these markers—exclusion, omission, and privilege—we see the secret cities functioning as metaphors for the place of knowledge in Soviet civilization. Knowledge—and information—was excluded, omitted, and privileged, according the often arbitrary codes of the Bol’sheviks, creating a system of secrecy at the political, social, and cultural levels that affected every Soviet citizen. Activities from the most anodyne to the most dissident acquired and lost meaning when they were confronted with the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

Much of the discourse surrounding the secret cities has centered on Cold War imperatives and pressures; this was a story of the Soviet military-industrial complex.[1. For some useful social science and history literature, see Richard H. Rowland, “Russia’s Secret Cities,” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics 37.7 (1996): 426-462; Ira N. Gang and Robert C. Stuart, “Where Mobility is Illegal: Internal Migration and City Growth in the Soviet Union,” Journal of Population Economics 12.1 (1999): 117-134; Cynthia Buckley, “The Myth of Managed Migration: Migration Control and Market in the Soviet Period,” Slavic Review 54.4 (Winter 1995): 896-916; David Shearer, “Elements Near and Alien: Passportization, Policing, and Identity in the Stalinist State, 1932-1953,” Journal of Modern History 76.4 (2004): 835-881] But an obvious touchstone for the ZATO, especially in terms of secrecy, was the Gulag. Everything about the Gulag, its institutional structure, the scope of its camp system, how it operated, how many prisoners labored as part of it, where it was located—all of these were considered secret. The Gulag archives are, in fact, replete with directives whose sole goal was to ensure occlusion from public view. Like the ZATOs, the Gulag camps that dotted the Soviet landscape were also omitted from official Soviet maps.

Once the ZATOs began to emerge on the topography of Soviet maps in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they immediately became the object of study for Western security studies scholars (interested in weapons proliferation) and environmentalists (who were concerned with the effects of nuclear and industrial waste). Their concerns are certainly legitimate but it has been equally exciting to see humanities scholars and social scientists exploring other aspects of the ZATO phenomenon. New work among others by Victoria Donovan (who is studying migration) and Ekaterina Emeliantseva hold much promise to add to what has so far been a relatively straightforward recounting of facts. Much in the mode of this new work, the Van Alen Institute is hosting a discussion on May 15, 2012 on the theme of “ZATO: Secret Soviet Cities During the Cold War.” Present will be Jean-Louis Cohen, the Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at NYU, Xenia Vytuleva, Richard Pare, and myself. On the same day, the Harriman Review will issue its Spring/Summer issue containing an essay by me proposing a conceptual framework for the study of ZATOs in the context of the history of secrecy in Soviet civilization. We hope that this will be the beginning of further discussion on the history and urban ecology of the phenomenon of closed cities.

Gulag Gulag Boss Russian Literature Uncategorized

A guard’s perspective: Dovlatov’s Zona

After a slightly longer blogging ‘vacation’ than I had intended, I used some of the Christmas break to catch up on the posts I missed. Like many others, I particularly enjoyed the Gulag Boss discussion. It motivated me to start re-reading one of the few other texts I know written from the perspective of a camp worker, rather than a prisoner: Sergei Dovlatov’s wonderful The Zone.

Dovlatov’s work relates to his time he served as prison camp guard as part of his military service in the early 1960s. It masterfully integrates extracts from his (allegedly) incomplete manuscript full of rich anecdotes from camp life, and correspondence with his editor about how such material should be treated. 

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Gulag Boss: On Truths and Silences

First, thanks to all the contributors to this discussion. Honestly, it has to this point exceeded my expectations. The intellectual content has been high, the questions thought-provoking, and the traffic heavy.

For a moment, I want to dwell on the level of “truthfulness” in Gulag Boss and question how looking at the memoir with an assumption that it represents falsehood rather than truth might change our analysis of the questions around the tricky issue of complicity. Here I am largely not questioning whether the particular events described in the memoir are “true.” Rather, I think the contributors to this conversation are united in the belief that the memoir is filled with silences, especially in relation to prisoners’ Gulag experiences. If this is the case, then the memoir is at best “partial truth.” What does that mean for our evaluation of Mochulsky?

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?

Gulag Gulag Boss

Gulag Boss: Scribblings

Deborah Kaple’s publication of Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir is a real achievement and a significant contribution to the burgeoning field of gulag studies. Mochulsky’s memoir presents a rare first-person description of the gulag by an NKVD employee working on a mandatory work assignment following his university graduation. I found this book interesting for many reasons, but thought, for the sake of the blog, that I would note two in particular.

I believe that Mochulsky offers readers one of the best descriptions of the isolation of many of the camps. Not only are these camps situated in desolate, remote pockets of the enormous Soviet landmass, they are at times virtually self-run. Mochulsky arrives in a number of sub-camps in which there is no leadership, apart from the VOKhR guards. The degree of autonomy of these sub-camps is more frightening, of course, than enabling, as they become forgotten islands, neglected by a cadre-short central administration and left to their own non-existent resources. The kind of neglect that is apparent here–as well as in many special/labor settlements–was a deadly aspect of the gulag, one that was as threatening as tyrannical bosses, murderous criminals, and back-breaking work regimens.

Blog Conversations Gulag Gulag Boss Uncategorized

Gulag Boss – A Blog Conversation

Welcome to the first Russian History Blog conversation. If you have not, do take a quick look at my introduction to these Blog Conversations. In this post, I want to introduce briefly the subject of our discussion and provide a biographical sketch for each of the Gulag specialists who will lead the conversation. I hope the readers of Russian History Blog will participate in the conversation by commenting on our authors’ posts.

Deborah Kaple met Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky in 1992, while conducting interviews with Soviet specialists sent as advisors to Communist China in the 1950s. He had advised the Chinese for many years on ideological and Communist Party matters. Kaple and Mochulsky developed a friendship over the course of many interviews. Shortly before her research trip in Russia came to a close, Mochulsky revealed that he had once worked for the Gulag and gave her the typescript memoir he had written about his experience in the late 1980s. Kaple has translated and published the memoir as Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir (Oxford, 2011). To see the Gulag through the eyes of one of its non-prisoner employees is quite unusual.

Blog Conversations Digital Russian History Gulag Gulag Boss

Blog Conversations

Starting Wednesday, Russian History Blog will host what hopefully will be the first in a series of blog conversations. On Wednesday, I will provide a more formal introduction to this particular blog conversation (on the new memoir Gulag Boss), but for now I wanted to talk a bit about the format and goals of these conversations.

Digital Russian History Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

Interview on Death and Redemption

Princeton University Press published my book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society in May. I had the great pleasure to talk about the book with Sean Guillory (of Sean’s Russia Blog) at New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Listen to the interview here.

Digital Russian History Gulag

ASEEES NewsNet Article on Russian History Blog

If you haven’t seen it yet, please do visit the first all-digital edition of the ASEEES NewsNet, where you will find an article by yours truly that discusses the origins and the goals of Russian History Blog along with a few thoughts about the digital dissemination of our research in Russian history.

If you’re new to the blog, please have a look around. We’re on a bit of a hiatus for the summer, but we will have occasional posts and look for more regular updates in the fall.