Work in the Soviet Arctic

Alan Barenberg’s fascinating book Gulag Town, Company Town presents different stages in the life of the town of Vorkuta. The story is based on rich archival material and numerous interviews, mostly with former Gulag prisoners or their relatives. In the beginning of the 1930s, high-quality coal was discovered above the Arctic Circle of European Russia. Shortly afterwards, a decision was made to begin building a rapidly growing Soviet forced-labor camp. During the Second World War, the construction began of a town, separate from the camp complex. The book highlights the connection and interaction between the camp and its prisoners with the newly emerging town and its citizens, and the transition and integration of prisoners to non-prisoners. In the 1950s, Vorkuta underwent a transformation into a new mining town. The population grew and the 1970s and 1980s could be considered Vorkuta’s golden age, before the established stability was destroyed by perestroika and the economic reforms of the 1990s.

My first set of questions refers to the title of the book and the definition of both ‘towns’. Firstly, I would like to ask why the Gulag is sometimes referred to as a camp or a town? In the case of Vorkuta, could ‘camp’ and ‘town’ be regarded as being synonymous? As one reads in the book, Vorkuta “was entirely a creation of the Soviet system, deeply connected to terror and forced labor” (248). According to this definition, I wonder why the title refers to the new mining town as a “company town” and not rather as a Soviet or socialist or mining town or any other type of town? And finally, how would you, Alan, define the town after the fall of socialism?

Although the book deals with forced labor and its legacy in Vorkuta, in this first post I would like to concentrate on the opposite, not so noticeable type of work, namely unpaid voluntary work. The book first mentions voluntary work during the construction of the town on the initiative of the former camp director at the height of the Second World War. Although most of the labor was carried out by prisoners, some was also done by non-prisoners on a ‘voluntary’ basis after working hours (74). Later, especially after 1956, young Komsomol volunteers joined the town workforce and participated in the construction work (which was, of course, largely also used for propaganda purposes).

In my own research, I work mainly on new socialist and mining towns in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia after 1945 and the emergence of new forms of social and cultural interaction within them.[1] In 1947, in the northernmost Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia, the first new socialist town to be built was Nova Gorica. The construction of the town had a special political significance, since it was built right on the Italian border. The construction was an important federal and republican project. Despite the budget for the construction of the town being guaranteed, at least for the first years, Youth Working Brigades from the entire country came to work voluntarily as well as temporarily on the construction of the new town.

The second new socialist town in Slovenia provides another image of unpaid voluntary work. The first postwar plans for the mining town of Velenje were nothing more then a more modern version of a mining colony. However, around 1953 the Velenje Coalmine Company director played an important role in the construction of a new, modern town center. As the construction had not been approved by the federal or republican authorities, the Company financed most of the construction. However, ‘voluntary’ workers also played an unusually large role in the construction. These were composed of miners and other town inhabitants who worked on the construction sites after their regular working hours. The work was not strictly speaking ‘voluntary’, since a specific number of hours of voluntary work was a condition for the acquisition of the right to housing.

Voluntary work had a major impact on the life of the community. To keep the working morale of the volunteers high, formal celebrations for voluntary workers were organized, at which the most diligent and ambitious volunteers received medals. The celebrations were usually followed by festivities with a barbecue and dancing — celebrations reminiscent of parties in the villages from which most of the workers came. To the present day, Velenje maintains the identity of a town constructed by volunteers.

Alan, could you tell us more about how the voluntary work was organized in Vorkuta during the 1940s and 1950s, and whether voluntary work also played a role later on? Were there special regulations or benefits for volunteers? Did voluntary work mainly serve propaganda purposes or did it contribute to a more positive attitude, identity and integration into the new town?

I have already mentioned the important role of the Velenje Coalmine Company management and especially its director in the construction of the new town. It seems similar to that of Vorkuta, as it took some time before coal-mining companies handed over the town government competences to the town committees. For example, in Velenje, when the new town center was opened in 1959, the two most important buildings on the main square were the House of Culture and the Administration building of the Coalmine Company, while the Town Hall building was placed on the outskirts of the square. Today, the former Velenje Coalmine director is remembered as a very authoritative and demanding man, on the one hand, but on the other hand, is also considered the founding father of the new Velenje. In 2009, his statue was erected near the former Administration building of the Coalmine Company (the present Town Hall) on the main square of the town.

A comparison may be difficult, but it seems that, in the case of Vorkuta, the municipal authorities were weak or even absent during the first years of the town’s existence and were replaced by the camp and company administration. The town patrons, both camp directors Mal’tsev and Kukhtikov, exercised a great deal of direct power. As one reads in the book, “It would not be until the early 1950s that the city would begin to acquire a typical Soviet city government.” How have the town patrons been remembered? Is there any debate about both directors having been camp officials as well as patrons of the town?

I have more questions regarding the current debate and interpretation of the historical burden of Vorkuta, which I would like to leave for the following post.

[1] Ana Kladnik: The Formation and Development of the Socialist Town in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, 1945-1965. PhD Dissertation, University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana 2013. The dissertation is in preparation for publication.

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