Vorkuta’s Many Histories

There is a lot to say about Alan Barenberg’s deeply researched book Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and Its Legacy in Vorkuta, partly because there are so many ways to approach it critically as a work of scholarship. The history of the Gulag and the history of urbanization in the Soviet era are two obvious points of reference, but the book could also be offered as a meta-narrative on the transition from Stalinism to post-Stalinism and how that passage was contingent, complicated, and colored by historical memory: the late Soviet period had elements of the Stalinist past, and Stalinist past had embedded in it the roots of the post-1953 Soviet Union. This kind of articulation, of effacing the firm boundaries that one might seemingly expect in Soviet history, across time (think 1917, 1953, etc.), across space (the “Gulag/Ne Gulag” problem, in Oleg Khlevniuk’s formulation, for example), and across populations (“free” workers and prisoners) are at the heart of the Alan’s fascinating book. In that sense, the book is an exciting intervention into the growing literature on how to think of the Gulag, as a world separate from Soviet society proper or a fundamental constituent of it. Alan’s contribution is to show us that this question is not simply a spatial issue but also one that is inextricably linked to how we understand the temporal spread and the vast population of the Soviet Union. The power of this book is that, having thought deeply about the spatial, temporal, and human divisions within Soviet civilization, it also humanizes them. In this narrative history of Vorkuta, the reader finds a rich social history of the “town,” one which Alan “reassemble[s from] its fragmented history” and populates it with living (and dying) people from all walks of life.

I don’t want to repeat the excellent job that my two colleagues have done in gleaning the key points in the history of Vorkuta, a seven decade story that begins with its emergence as a mining outpost centered on a Gulag camp in the early 1930s, and then, during World War II, accompanied by the creation of a new “civilian” Vorkuta. These two sites were symbiotic entities that evolved in response both to outside exigencies such as the Great Terror and wartime, but also local ones. The two seemingly separate sites eventually merged into a strange and single whole by the late Soviet era. What I’d like to do, instead, is to raise three issues as jumping off points for a discussion. My approach has been guided by my own research interests as a historian of Soviet science but also by some of my recent priorities, particularly the relationship between expertise and the building of the Gulag, and the regulation of space and knowledge, particularly, during the Stalinist era. In that sense, my comments, as is evident, are all essentially part of a common interest in the “creation” of Vorkuta.

First, as I read, I began to intuit a thread running through the book of the requirement for expertise to build and run the mining camp, then the camp for Gulag inmates, and then the city. Alan’s account clearly suggests the ways in which expertise travelled across the boundaries of the Vorkuta and Vorkutlag. I was struck by the story of V. V. Zubchaninov, a prisoner, who, after release worked as “the deputy head of the planning department for Vorkutlag… [then] as an economist in the Ust’-Usa regional subdivision of Vorkutlag, and [then] as an economist in the main camp administration in Rudnik” (38-39). Alan also writes about prisoners who had “valuable skills” who chose to stay on as “free workers” after their release, working in technical or engineering fields. We also hear of Vsevolod Lunev, one of the main architects responsible for Vorkuta’s design who had “an ambiguous social status” (75). Even though institutionally Vorkutlag became more demarcated from its civilian counterpart, this flow of expertise across the divide raises some interesting questions. Here and elsewhere, I am particularly interested in how the ambivalent status of so many of the people who possessed the appropriate expertise to build Vorkuta/Vorkutlag makes it doubly difficult to parse out the biography of Vorkuta. To put in a reductive form: who were the architects, urban planners, economists, public works experts, engineers, technicians, and specialists who built Vorkuta (both the camp and the later city)? Would Alan say that their contributions, much like the history of the site, were as ambiguous, drawing from intellectual (and epistemological) genealogies rooted both in the Gulag and “free” worlds?

My second question has to do with secrecy. In the 1930s, there were a few years when the Gulag and its work were openly mentioned in the Soviet press. But this period was short, and with the coming of the Great Terror and then the war itself, the entire system of forced labor and incarceration became shrouded in official secrecy. Yet, as Alan’s book at least implicitly notes, there was an underlying tension embodied in some of the Gulag camps, especially the ones that could strengthen Party and government claims about the heroic economic output (particularly urgent in wartime) of the state. (Frequently, of course, these claims were framed as narratives about the conquest of difficult natural landscapes). In the case of Vorkuta, as Alan notes, the source of Leningrad’s coal during the war could not be discussed for obvious reasons. He suggests that one reason to build an actual city around the mining site (which, as part of the Gulag, had to be kept secret) was to build a shell around that secrecy, an exterior. Alan notes that “[i]f the significant achievements of Vorkutlag’s coal mines were to be paraded, a city provided a suitable vehicle for this. Thus, we see the emergence of a place called Vorkuta on the pages of Pravda beginning in 1943… (73).” This is, on one level, an amazing recognition: that a Soviet city was created in order to draw attention to the economic production of the Gulag while keeping the terrible human cost of that production deeply secret.

So my question for Alan is one about the history of public knowledge about Vorkuta, and Soviet cities in general. As Alan notes, Vorkuta was not a typical Soviet city—-it had its own particular idiosyncratic history, imbricated in the Gulag but then with the rise of a new “civilian” city, opened into an almost aspirational place for many. In that sense, Vorkuta might be located on a continuum of urban spaces, from the relatively “open” (such as Moscow) to the highly regulated (such as the secret “closed cities” which officially didn’t exist). If we parse this out, we see also a kind of regulation of both the space and information about the city. So, would Alan see Vorkuta/Vorkutlag’s history, intertwined as it is with the Gulag, as instructive for those seeking to understand the regulation of geographical space and information in the Soviet era? (And this question goes, I think, to a fundamental assertion that Alan makes at the beginning of his book, that Vorkuta was not a typical Soviet city nor a typical Gulag camp, but that its exceptional nature has much to tell us.)

My final question is a small one. Recently reading Heather D. DeHaan’s book Stalinist City Planning: Professionals, Performance, and Power (University of Toronto, 2013) — which has been talked about here — I was particularly struck by her description of the reality of urban planning in Gor’kii, which, if my reading is correct, was theoretically planned as a way to suit political elites, to create a kind of urban “sameness” (identified with the architect Nikolai Solofenko) but in practical terms was rather chaotic because people in the middle, such as factory managers and construction foremen were able to intervene and thus produce a city that was actually far from centrally planned. Alan describes the neo-classical children’s hospital created by Lunev in the late Stalinist years as a central site for Vorkuta’s identity but one wonders, to what degree was Vorkuta’s creation also an embodiment of a kind of urban vision emanating from the top (be it Moscow or local regional authorities), or was its ultimate material outcome negotiated at the middle or even at the bottom. In other words, did Vorkuta replicate a model or did it create a new one?

I have some more thoughts I will share later.

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