Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Geschichte Osteuropas

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften | Geschichte Osteuropas | Forschung | Drittmittelprojekte | Gulag’s Shadow Economy. Prisoner Society and Networking inside the Stalinist Labor Camps

Gulag’s Shadow Economy. Prisoner Society and Networking inside the Stalinist Labor Camps


Projektleitung: Prof. Dr. Jörg Baberowski

Mittelgeber: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

Laufzeit: 2023-2026

Mitarbeiter: Alexander Trendafiloff (wiss. Mitarbeiter)


Project description:

This dissertation project handles the problem of illicit trades within the prisoner society of the Stalinist labor camps. Such trades created a sort of “shadow economy” within the camps, which relied heavily on an informal network system, which encompassed both the camp inhabitants and the nearby population. I will not only study the various aspects of the shadow economy within the Soviet camps and its crucial importance for circumventing the poor living conditions in them, but I will also dive deeper into exploring the origins of the camps’ illicit trades. By drawing comparisons with the katorga in the late Tsarist period, I will be uncovering the continuities from one penal system to another to demonstrate how certain informal practices and interactions among prisoners, guards and locals formed a strict hierarchical system within the labor camps. Such structures, which were outside of the control of the official local authorities, not only substituted official power within the camps but also helped circumvent the insufficient supplies of food, clothing and other essentials

What this project offers, is a new research angle through which to explore the Soviet camps, one which is much more comparative driven and takes into account the continuities and influences inherited from the period of late Tsarist rule. For this purpose, I am comparing similar developments within the prison societies of the Tsarist katorga and the Soviet Gulag in order to prove that certain institutional flaws, present in both political systems, contributed immensely for worsening the conditions in prisons and camps, spreading corruption and establishing a shadow economy as a way to circumvent the poor supply. To put it concisely, I am arguing that the shadow economy in the Soviet Gulag represented an informal answer to institutional inefficiency.