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Looking Beyond the Usual Periodization of Soviet History

Alan Barenberg, Associate Professor in the Department of History at Texas Tech University, recently gave a presentation entitled ‘From the Margins to the Home Front: Vorkuta at War’ at a seminar held by the HSE International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences. In his presentation, he sought to provide insights not only about the role of forced labor in the USSR during the Second World War, but also regarding the relationship between the Gulag and Soviet society more broadly.
Professor Barenberg agreed to speak with the HSE news service about his presentation, his views on the way Russian and Soviet history are studied, and his current research interests.

— You are so devoted and coherent in your studies of the social and economic history of the 1930s-1970s in the USSR. Why is it so important to you and why do you think it's so important to young students?

— This period of 50-odd years was formative for the Soviet Union and continues to have a strong impact on the present.  So understanding these years is essential to understanding both the USSR and post-Soviet Russia.  Also, I’d encourage students to try thinking outside the usual periodization of Soviet history, which tends to follow only the political narrative of who was in power.  Certainly the transition from one leader to another was quite important, but some of the most interesting questions that historians are now asking are about social and cultural continuity and change, which didn’t necessarily correspond perfectly to who was in power.  I think that some of the most compelling work being done on Soviet history finds different ways to divide up historical periods: for example, looking at the 1960s or 1970s rather than at the “thaw” or ‘stagnation’.

— Vorkuta, an arctic coal-mining town, is famous also as part of the Gulag.  What is the main focus of your book 'Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and Its Legacy in Vorkuta'?

— I started this research project because I wanted to understand better the complex legacies of the Gulag.  Although there are several outstanding recent studies on prison camps and exile, I didn’t think that historians had fully come to terms with the complex ways in which this massive system of unfree labour had lasting effects on the Soviet system.  What happened to the millions of prisoners and exiles after they were released?  What happened to the industries that they built?  What about the towns like Vorkuta that owed their very existence to the Gulag?  I felt that there was a whole range of social, economic, and political legacies of the Gulag that needed to be explored.

The strategy that I decided to employ was to choose one particular camp complex and trace its development throughout the Soviet era and beyond.  The book starts in 1930, when coal was first discovered in Vorkuta, and traces its development all the way until the second decade of the 21st century.  I wanted to trace how a place that had virtually no settled human inhabitants was transformed first into a massive prison camp complex and then into a Soviet company town.  In particular, I was curious to learn about those people who were part of Vorkuta as a camp complex (whether as prisoners, exiles, or camp employees) who then remained in the city after the 1950s when most of the camps were closed down.

— Could you please say a few words about your research methods? How have you been collecting materials for your book on Vorkuta?

— This was a very fun project to research that took me to interesting places and introduced me to fascinating people.  The bulk of the research is from former Soviet archives in Moscow, Syktyvkar (capital of the Komi region where Vorkuta is located), and Vorkuta.  In these places I looked at a variety of state and party records – not just from the so-called Gulag archive in Moscow, but also materials from the Ministry of Coal, the Komi regional party organization and the Vorkuta local party organization.  In Vorkuta, I was very fortunate to be able to work in a local museum, which has a unique collection of unpublished memoirs and photographs from the city’s history.  Perhaps the most interesting of all were the oral history interviews that I did with several camp survivors, children, and grandchildren.  It’s easy to get caught up in doing research in Moscow and neglect the fascinating variety of sources available elsewhere.

— You shared your presentation 'From the Margins to the Home Front: Vorkuta at War' with the students of HSE Moscow. What are your impressions of that event? How did the discussion go?

— I always enjoy engaging in discussions of my work, but this was a particularly lively group that challenged me with difficult questions from a variety of angles.  I was particularly impressed with how they pushed me to think about how my study of a single camp complex and city fits into the broader history of the Gulag and of the Soviet Union.

— How will HSE figure in your plans going forward?

I hope to attend more HSE-sponsored talks while I’m in Moscow and hope to participate in future conferences.  It’s clear that this is become one of the best places in the world to study Soviet history, especially the history that’s related to the Second World War.  I look forward to more opportunities to talk about the exciting new research being done on this period.

— What books would you recommend that international students read for a better understanding of Soviet history and the history of the Russian Empire?

— There are so many important books on Soviet history that it’s hard to know where to begin!  I recently read Oleg Khlevniuk’s new biography of Stalin, and it’s a book that everyone with an interest in understanding Stalinist era should read.  On the one hand, it presents a fascinating picture of Stalin and the system of governance that he created.  At the same time, it’s probably the best single volume political history of the Stalin era.  Khlevniuk’s mastery of the sources is unrivalled, and his careful analysis should be a model for all aspiring historians.

I also think that Miriam Dobson’s book, Khrushchev’s Cold Summer (which is now available in Russian translation from ROSSPEN) is a great example of thinking beyond the usual periodization of the Soviet era.  One of the things that struck me as most interesting about this book is how Dobson demonstrates that ordinary Soviet citizens really struggled to understand the acceptable parameters of discourse after Stalin’s death.  Stalin’s death precipitated radical and rapid reforms, and ordinary Soviet citizens found these changes to be profoundly disorienting.

— What aspects of the Soviet past are you focusing your research on now?

— I’m currently in the very beginning stages of a new project on cotton in the Russian and Soviet empires.  While writing my book on Vorkuta, I became particularly interested in the question of the relationship between Russian and Soviet colonization and imperialism.  I hope to use the goal of attaining “cotton independence,” which was pursued both by Imperial Russian and Soviet authorities, to better understand continuity and change in their respective imperial policies.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service