Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cover story: "Gulag Town, Company Town"

Alan Barenberg is assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University.

His new book is Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and Its Legacy in Vorkuta.

Here Barenberg explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
The cover image comes from a collection of photographs that Polish prisoners took after they were released from a prison camp in Vorkuta, an Arctic camp complex that was among the most notorious in the Soviet Gulag. Like many other former prisoners, these Polish ex-prisoners spent time in the city after they were released while awaiting papers allowing them to return home. This particular image shows ex-prisoner Anna Szyszko picking flowers in the tundra just outside the barbed wire that enclosed one of the sections of the Vorkuta camp. I first encountered this photograph at the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University, but the original photograph resides at the KARTA Center Foundation (Warsaw, Poland). KARTA graciously granted permission to use it as the cover.

I chose this photograph as the cover because it visually demonstrates a very important part of the book’s argument. Gulag Town, Company Town argues that the the Gulag was not an “archipelago” – instead, it was tightly integrated with Soviet society at large . The flowers in the foreground are juxtaposed with the prison camp buildings in the background, with the barbed wire standing in between. This visually demonstrates the proximity between life on the “outside” and the world of the Gulag “zone.” The figure of the recently-released Szyszko represents the ambiguous nature of identity and status for many prisoners and ex-prisoners: although her back is to the camp “zone” of her past, she remains close to it even as she engages in the most “normal” of activities, picking flowers. Szyszko’s serious, knowing glance is directed at the viewer, reminding us that this photograph is composed deliberately and intended to convey a particular message. The first time I saw this photograph I was absolutely transfixed, and I remain so every time I see it.
Learn more about Gulag Town, Company Town at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue