Friday, 31 March 2023 to Sunday, 2 April 2023

Forced-labour Camp as a Site of the Nation Building? Bamlag’s Cultural-Education Department and Ethnic Minority Prisoners, 1930-1934.

Fri31  Mar04:30pm(15 mins)
Main Building Room 134


Mikhail Nakonechnyi1
1 Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland


Emily Johnson provocatively argued that Soviet labor camps, however deadly and inhumane, paradoxically, also “might aptly be described as sites of nation-building” in the early 1930s.  Mirroring larger trends of korenizat’sia (indigenization) within society, the camp administration was supposed to redress the injustices of tsarist Russian colonialism, under which the government curtailed ethnic minorities’ social mobility and participation in political life, refused access to education, suppressed their national identities and languages. In the early 1930s, to rectify this colonial legacy of Great Russian Chauvinism, so-called Cultural-Educational Departments (KVO, Kulturno-vospitatel’nii otdel) of all major camp complexes developed a set of distinct  “affirmative action policies” targeting prisoners hailing from nats’meny (national minorities) background. So far, with the exception of Karlag in Northern Kazakstan, the scholarship overlooked the operationalization of these idiosyncratic attempts at ethnic identities’ construction amid starvation, beatings, and executions.  This paper provides a window into how ethnic identities of Soviet minorities were fostered by camp officials on the ground, using Bamlag, a gigantic forced-labour camp in the Far East, as a case in point. The paper elucidates the details of a contradictive, almost absurd social-engineering drive to mould “truly cultured Soviet citizens” from representatives of incarcerated ethnic minorities against the backdrop of extreme brutality and harshness.