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  • Sex, Pregnancy, and Power in the Late Stalinist Gulag
  • Wilson T. Bell (bio)

In May 1947 G. I. Zhurba found herself in a situation similar to that of many other Soviet women of the postwar era: she was a single mother raising her nine-month-old child by herself. The child’s father had left her six months before the child’s birth. Had they been living under normal circumstances, changes to Soviet family law in 1944 would have made it incredibly difficult for Zhurba to collect any child support, because they were not married.1 Zhurba, however, did not live in normal circumstances. Unlike most Soviet women, Zhurba was raising her child inside a prison camp in Stalin’s notorious penal empire, the Gulag (Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei, or Main Camp Administration).2 The father of her child was one Leonid Arkad’evich Kotliarevskii, a Gulag boss in the Tomsk Province Labor Colony Department in Western Siberia. Kotliarevskii was fired from his job in May 1947 for engaging in sexual relations with prisoners.3 [End Page 198]

We do not know much more about the fates of either Zhurba or Kotliarevskii. We know, however, that both heterosexual and homosexual sex—whether consensual, coerced, or extremely violent—were common in the Gulag. This article focuses on issues of heterosexual sex in part because, as will be discussed in greater detail below, central and local Gulag officials were remarkably silent on the issue of homosexuality and in part because the issue of heterosexual sex posed problems for authorities that help reveal power relations in the late Stalinist camps. As we shall see, both male camp officials and prisoners committed acts of extreme sexual violence against female prisoners, and the women sometimes used their sexuality as a form of barter for better living and working conditions. Sex could also be a source of pleasure and a form of resistance in the camps. Why were regulatory and physical barriers designed to prevent contact between men and women not strictly policed or enforced? What insights might we glean about the sexual norms and practices of the late Stalinist period from an exploration of a history of the various forms of sex that took place within the Soviet penal system?

Authorities consistently complained about interactions between men and women in the camps and gave orders to keep them separated, yet these same authorities created the conditions that made heterosexual sexual contact possible through a spatial organization that facilitated illicit interaction. Many camps also included maternity wards and nurseries. The memoir literature reveals that, while sexual violence could reinforce the terror of the camp system, consensual and bartered sexual activity became an important part of camp subculture and an area of considerable autonomy for prisoners.

That authorities explicitly forbade heterosexual sex in theory yet acquiesced to it in practice, while prisoners themselves used sexual activity to help foster their own culture in the camps reveals that sexuality was part of the negotiated power of the Gulag. As work on sexual activity in prisons in other contexts has shown, intimate relations in prisons can be a form of resistance. Prisoners carve out both space and activity that is outside the complete control of the state, thus implicitly—and in certain cases, explicitly—undermining the state’s authority. Because sexual activity in prisons allows for this independent space but can also reinforce power structures in the form of sexual violence, Mary Bosworth and Eamonn Carrabine argue that sexuality should be understood as part of what they term the “negotiated power” of the prison system.4 This understanding of negotiated power is applicable to the Gulag, where heterosexual intimacy was technically forbidden but nevertheless occurred regularly and could even be a way to assert bodily and social autonomy. [End Page 199]

We might expect that the Gulag, a form of extreme punishment that operated as the heart of the penal system for one of the most notoriously repressive regimes of the twentieth century, would also have policed sexual desire and sexual intimacy. Prisoners of the Gulag had been sentenced for a wide variety of crimes, both petty and violent, from property crimes to counterrevolutionary actions, and many...


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pp. 198-224
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