Gulag outpost, welfare city

Terror and welfare collided in the Soviet Union, and you can read it in the landscape. Before 1953, and especially before 1941, welfare and terror coexisted, shaping each other. Later, after Stalin died, welfare replaced terror as the defining characteristic of Soviet life.

This simple way of explaining Soviet history is inscribed not just in documents but in physical spaces: in cities, villages and the remains of prison camps. Take the Arctic city of Vorkuta, which is the subject of an excellent new book by Alan Barenberg.

Gulag Town cover

Yale University Press, 2014

In the 1930s, the coalmines of the undeveloped Vorkuta region were established by forced labour. The area became a major Gulag outpost. Its hostile climate – the sun never rose in winter – lethally combined with dreadful working and living conditions. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners spent time there, and at least twenty thousand died between 1942 and 1954 alone.

Barenberg carefully reconstructs the brutality of the Vorkuta camp. But his main point is that the Gulag did not exist apart from Soviet society, not in physical space, and not in the experiences of people. For Vorkuta was not just a camp; from 1943, it was also a city. Even before the amnesties that followed Stalin’s death, the populations of camp and city flowed into each other, not least when former prisoners set up home. The camp was scarcely an invisible, unspeakable satellite of the city.

If the camp was a symbol of violence, the city was a symbol of welfare. Perhaps Stalinist violence and welfare reinforced each other in the Arctic cold of Vorkuta. Prisoners built the city’s impressive children’s hospital in 1950, for example, and by this stage they themselves received some primitive attention from the welfare apparatus.

By the Khrushchev era, as the city grew and the camp shrank, welfare displaced terror. In 1962, welfare-minded city planners introduced new microdistricts with significant welfare facilities. Many of the long-standing privileges for working in hostile environments, such as early retirement ages, generous pensions, and extended stays in sanatoria, were associated with the welfare system. In the 1970s and ‘80s, when all this was its height, Vorkuta was a city built on welfare.

Perhaps I should not impose my own framework on Barenberg’s book. But his tremendous research effort and highly readable analysis construct his story in compelling detail. Sensitive to the dignity and agency of the people of Vorkuta, he shows how, for all its violence and tragedy, Vorkuta was also a place in which people lived out their own personal achievements (and still do).

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