Prisoners without borders: Zazonniki and the transformation of Vorkuta after Stalin

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Abstract

This article offers new insight into the nature of the Stalinist Gulag and the transformation of the Soviet prison camp system under Khrushchev. Looking at the infamous Vorkuta Arctic camp complex, it examines an oft-overlooked category of prisoners: zazonniki, those who were allowed to live outside the territory of the camp "zone." According to official Gulag regulations, camp directors were allowed to grant such permission only under very limited circumstances. However, Vorkuta camp directors repeatedly flouted the rules, granting permission to hundreds and even thousands of prisoners. They did so chiefly in three cases: first, by "default," when camp "zones" were not enclosed, so that prisoners were not separated from non-prisoners; second, as a way for "patrons" in the camp administration to reward prisoner "clients" who had particularly valuable skills; finally, as a means of navigating the difficult economic and political upheaval of the post-Stalin period, when Gulag towns and industries were fundamentally reorganized. Zazonniki and the practices surrounding them give a new perspective on the nature of the Soviet system of forced labor and its relationship to Soviet society as a whole. The prevalence of prisoners allowed to live outside camp territory calls into question the common understanding of the Gulag as an archipelago, with strict borders between the "zone" and the outside. Instead, divisions between the inside and the outside of the "zone" were constantly contested and renegotiated. Distinctions between prisoners and non-prisoners were not as simple as a division between prisoners and "free" people, even at the height of Stalinist repression. As this article argues, hierarchies in camp complexes and the surrounding areas were based on a complex and often contradictory set of social, economic, and legal characteristics. Just as Gulag prisoners were rarely isolated completely from the communities surrounding the camps, the Gulag itself cannot be considered as separate from Soviet society.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)513-534
Number of pages22
JournalJahrbucher fur Geschichte Osteuropas
Volume57
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2009

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