Vague Borders: Blurred But Still There

The study of one city as a litmus test for broader issues is becoming very widespread because a particular urban case gives an excellent opportunity to trace the formation and unexpected intersections of different processes on the ground level over the long term. However, the main (and rather obvious) challenge of a deep analysis of one case is the question of scale – how to estimate what is typical and what is original in that particular story, how to combine internal and external factors, and many other issues related to the levels of analysis. Alan Barenberg’s Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and Its Legacy in Vorkuta gives a good example of how to put the story of a particular settlement into a broader and more complicated context. Through a detailed analysis of the social and economic history of Vorkuta since the establishment of the camp in the early 1930s until the beginning of the 21 century, Alan problematizes the role of the Gulag legacy in Soviet history by arguing that to some extent it was an integral part of Soviet society (8). Reconstructing the history of that arctic settlement over a long period of its history, he combines macro and micro levels of analysis in an attempt to define different actors and factors that influenced the nonlinear development of Vorkuta and the various ways of becoming Vorkutyane. This shift in focus ties the history of the remote camp settlement with larger processes in Soviet history since all the turning points of Vorkuta’s history were shaped by larger changes in the Soviet Union.

Throughout the book, Alan demonstrates that two incarnations of Vorkuta – as a Gulag settlement in Stalin’s times and as an industrial city in the post-Stalin era – were much closer than one could expect. These two sides of the history of the city had several points of intersection. To me the most significant point of the book is its re-conceptualization of the notion of different borders in the case of Vorkuta since the 1930s until the beginning of the 21century. While structuring his narrative chronologically, Alan problematizes the temporal border between those two sides of Vorkuta’s history. He shows that there was not only continuity between these periods; in many aspects, drawing the particular line between camp town and company town was almost impossible. He shows how the interrelation of camp legacy and company town depended on the blurring of spatial and social borders in the town. His detailed analysis of formal and informal social stratification in the city, and the system of patronage and its changes demonstrates the fluidity of social categories and hierarchies in the Vorkuta camp – Vorkutlag and the town of Vorkuta during all the periods of its history. Established in the early 1930s, Vorkutlag was much more than just a place of imprisonment for thousands of people and forced labor. Alan shows that beside various groups of prisoners (with different work and material conditions), some specialists with valuable talents at the same time could stay in another zone without guards and barbed wire, and they were allowed to build their own apartments where they could live with their families. There were also non-prison camp employees who lived in much better, but still difficult conditions for more than a decade.

Thus, there was a hierarchy of privileges inside the settlement; however, the borders between social groups were blurred. The structure became even more complicated after the official establishment of Vorkuta as an “ordinary” company town in 1943, thus the “normal” Soviet city coexisted with the camp, which was not publicly displayed. Even in the 1950s and 1960s in many cases former prisoners and their families tried to become Vorkutyane. Previous research showed that former prisoners faced discrimination, legal obstacles and social rejection. However, Alan demonstrates that they were not totally “alien elements” in this corner of Soviet society. Instead, the place of their imprisonment gave them some advantages in searching for work, while their already established social networks helped to integrate ex-prisoners into local social structures and become Vorkutyane. Alan argues that company towns like Vorkuta were places where many ex-prisoners could successfully reintegrate themselves into Soviet society. Moreover, local networks of former prisoners even influenced newcomers in the 1950s-1960s as they lived and worked together. Thus, the book shows that a Gulag town turned company town could not only be a place of death and forced labor, but also a site of opportunities for thousands of people: while ex-prisoners could more easily rejoin the “ordinary” social structure, newcomers in the 1960s came there in search of work, private apartments and special material benefits like northern bonuses. What connected all those residents in different periods was the power of industrial institutions and plans that shaped the town’s social composition and practices.

The questions I wanted to pose here are also related to the concept of different borders and levels of analysis. The first set of questions seeks to connect the case of Vorkutlag with the broader context. Alan persuasively shows how different “big” processes affected and changed life in Vorkuta. Yet the development of local formal and informal order as well as the formation of the settlement’s urban structure (and even the very establishment of the city) to a great extent are represented as merely the result of the personal whims of the head of Vorkutlag. However in many other Gulag cases one can trace very similar models of development. Norilsk is one the most evident examples as it was an ideologically and economically highly important Soviet industrial city that grew out from the arctic Gulag system. That settlement also had a complicated social structure. It demonstrated the influences of the “larger history” and even adopted the similar built environment of neo-classical public buildings in the early 1950s, panel apartment buildings of the 1960s, and barracks converted into dormitories. Solovki camp in the 1920s (with all its specificity) also demonstrated a similar model, especially on the issue of the contradictory role of a theater for the administration and for the prisoners.[1] Is it possible to trace some particular connections between the administrations of different camps of the Gulag? Was it a network of actors? Can we speak about exchanges of ideas about managing the camp between different camps or about the existence of some basic organizational models? That also invokes the question of the authorship of those models, whether they really were created on the ground level or were just translated from the center.

That point leads me to the problematization of another important context – the issue of center-periphery relations. How independent was the camp administration in its decisions? For example, although it was not mentioned in the book, in 1938, the Station for the Study of Permafrost was established in Vorkuta as a part of the Institute for the Study of Permafrost at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. So since the late 1930s there was a scientific institute inside the barbed wire zone, which was aimed to study the natural characteristics of permafrost soil and the issues of construction on permafrost. In 1948 architects and engineers from the Leningrad branch of the Soviet Academy of Architecture made several expeditions to Vorkuta in order to observe local building conditions and to improve the built environment in that arctic settlement.[2] Thus, these cases related to another important level of relations between central officials and/or scientists and local administration. Where else can one find the agency of central experts in the case of Vorkuta? Can we thus say that Moscow and/or central institutes saw Vorkuta as a kind of laboratory for some central researches or goals?

The second set of questions, in contrast to the first, relates to the uniqueness of the case of Vorkuta. What united the different periods of Vorkuta’s history was not only the blurring of the social and spatial structure, but also a highly severe arctic environment. As some observations of the region in the 1970s showed, neither in the 1930s nor in the 1960s could the planners create “normal” living conditions for the inhabitants there. Is it possible (and does it make sense) to determine the influence of highly specific natural conditions on the settlers and on the settlements as such? What role did the “harsh climate factor” play in the development of the urban and social structure of Vorkuta? Is it possible to trace (probably through memoirs) how the newcomers in the 1950s perceived the region – as a former Gulag town, as an almost isolated but promising industrial town, or as a remote arctic settlement?

These are just a few comments on this profound study of the legacy of forced labor in Soviet society in the case of Vorkuta and I am looking forward to our discussion.


[1] Natalia Kuziakina, Teatr na Solovkakh, 1923-1937 (St.Petersburg, 2009).

[2] I found these materials while working on my dissertation project, “Making the Arctic comfortable: projects and practices of urban development of the Soviet Far North in the 1950s-1970s.” If Alan is interested, later I can tell more about those expeditions and their results.

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