Zhanna Popova – Confinement and Flux: Experiences of Soviet Prisoners

 

Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Zhanna Popova (IISH, Amsterdam) – Confinement and Flux: Experiences of Soviet Prisoners [read by Matthias van Rossum (IISH, Amsterdam)]

Incarceration is characterised by a strict limitation of the freedom of movement of convicts. However, in certain conditions it can also imply an extreme fluidity of the prisoners’ experience. From the early 1920s the Soviet authorities constantly transferred individual prisoners and groups of them between different prisons and camps, and this practice was considered an effective measure of destroying their solidarity and therefore preventing them from organised resistance (cf. Marta Craveri on uprisings in the camps).

This perpetual fluidity of the prisoner experience is often visible in the memoirs, but its ramifications for the persons themselves have never been explored in de-tail. Switching from the viewpoint of relatively stable institutions to the much less documented and traditionally marginalised perspective of the prisoners is an approach inspired by the work of Peter Gatrell and Nick Baron on the “itinerant perspective” of the refugees in the Russian Empire and USSR.

My research bases on the memoirs of both female and male prisoners and in the first instance explores the variety of prisoners’ itineraries and the experiences these produced. The major question here is how the social identity of prisoners was constructed in this double condition of confinement and flux. What kind of discourses and allegiances did this consecutive uprooting produce?

Secondly, extending of the chronological span till the end of 1950s allows me to pay specific attention to the particularities of the experience of representatives of different ethnicities. Arrival of large groups of prisoners from the Ukraine and the Baltic states has profoundly transformed the camp system.

Finally, I analyse this particular form of mass population displacement in a more general way, trying to account not only for the construction of their identities and the interactions within the confined groups, but also for the strategies of the camp and prison management.

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