> 1, 2015 > Gulag Legacy: Spaces of Continuity in Contemporary Everyday Practices

Olga Ulturgasheva
Gulag Legacy: Spaces of Continuity in Contemporary Everyday Practices

14 2015

Olga Ulturgasheva is the issue’s guest editor. She is a lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester.
Address for correspondence: Arthur Lewis Building 2.047, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester,
Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK. olga.ulturgasheva@manchester.ac.uk.

Although more than half a century has passed since official suspension of the organization called the Gulag (Gosudarstvennoe upravlenie lagerei, State Administration of Camps), the Soviet system of incarceration and internal exile, it still retains its elusive omnipresence and heavy imprint on various aspects of everyday lives in contemporary Russia. As a system of concentration camps, the Gulag was officially established in the 1930s with its territory stretching across the Russian North, Siberia, and the Far East, and into Central Asia. Even though amnesties, mass releases, and reduction of the number of camps officially happened in the 1950s, the system was still functioning until the 1980s (see Bacon 1994). The Gulag was an enormous department within the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) that was involved in the implementation of punitive measures against those who were perceived as posing a counterrevolutionary threat and ideological and political danger to the Soviet regime. The population groups subjected to repression and punishment included a most diverse mix of people, ranging from political dissidents, kulaki (rich peasants), private traders, members of certain religious sects, ethnic minorities, and people of bourgeois background to social deviants such as prostitutes, gamblers, tax evaders, embezzlers, and the infirm (Alexopoulos 2003; Kuntsman 2009). NKVD would supply millions of prisoners as a free labor force for gigantic timber and gold industries in Siberia and the building of important roads such as the Kolyma Roadway (Kolymskaia trassa, widely known as “the road of bones”), canals (including the White Sea–Baltic Sea Canal), and railways. In the 1930s the entire production of natural resources and associated industries came under the remit of the Gulag. Gulag prisoners were concentrated in labor camps where they were exposed to slavery and starvation to death (Beck and Godin 1951; Applebaum 2003; Gregory and Lazarev 2003; Barnes 2011). The era of mass repressions went in parallel with the development and proliferation of a pervasive and insidious network of surveillance that involved a rapidly expanding network of NKVD secret agents, collaborators, and informers (stukachi) throughout all areas of the former Soviet Union.