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  • Scientists and Specialists in the GulagLife and Death in Stalin’s Sharashka

By the early 1970s, the culture of underground or samizdat literature in the Soviet Union had evolved into a highly risky but established system for disseminating information among the dissident community. Banned literature—poems, fiction, accounts of current events—vied for space in poor-quality publications circulated through a clandestine network.1 One such typewritten manuscript of less than 200 pages struck a chord among many samizdat readers despite its unusual subject matter: it described the work of an aircraft design organization from three decades before. Known as Tupolevskaia sharaga, the manuscript, as one historian has noted, “attracted a large readership, becoming … a classic in the literature of dissent.”2 In vivid language, its anonymous author recalled his experiences as an engineer in a special prison workshop headed by the giant of Soviet aviation Andrei Tupolev. The prison camp, organized sometime in the late 1930s as part of the Gulag, housed hundreds of leading Soviet aviation designers who, cut off from the outside world, labored through physical and psychological hardships to produce new airplanes for the cause of Soviet aviation. By coincidence, Tupolev died soon after this manuscript began circulating. In Moscow, he was given a state funeral and his contributions were eulogized by Leonid Brezhnev, but unsurprisingly there was no mention of his arrest, incarceration, and work in a labor camp during the Stalin era.3 The anonymously authored memoir, smuggled out to the West and published in English, remained a [End Page 557] peculiar anomaly in the historical record, suggesting tantalizing lacunae in Tupolev’s official biography.4

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Andrei Tupolev in Omsk (1942)

Source: S. P. Korolev Archive via Wikimedia Commons.

Although Tupolevskaia sharaga was the only substantive record of Tupolev’s time in prison, it was not the first publication to describe the phenomenon of prison camps for scientific and technical work: in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, readers found a morally complex tale about a dozen or so scientists and engineers—“specialists,” in the parlance of the time—imprisoned in a penal colony who struggled to reconcile the frequently clashing requisites of conscience and ideology.5 Solzhenitsyn’s acerbic and ironic style brought to life a lost episode—albeit through fiction—of the Soviet intelligentsia. Both of these works, one fiction and one nonfiction, opened up a largely unknown dimension of the Stalinist system—the organization and maintenance of prisons established specifically to hold scientists, engineers, and technicians. The glasnost´ years brought more details.6 The anonymous memoir, now much expanded, was finally published as Stalin’s Aviation Gulag under the real name of its author, Leonid Kerber, a respected Soviet aviation designer.7 A number of other scientists and intellectuals published memoirs of their own experiences in these camps, which the prisoners themselves called sharaga (sharashka in its diminutive form, pl. sharashki), a word derived from a Soviet-era slang [End Page 558] expression meaning a shady organization based on fraud or deceit.8 Partly because of the proliferation of testimonies about its history, and partly because its memory confirms received wisdom about the Soviet state’s damaging and ideological intervention into Soviet science, the sharashka remains one iconic example of the vicissitudes of Soviet science. Yet it has been a distinctly understudied topic in contrast to that other iconic exemplar of Soviet science, Lysenkoism, whose memory has also embodied the triangulation of state, ideology, and science.

For many contemporary historians of Soviet science and technology, especially those based in Russia, the sharashka phenomenon represents only biographical history, an episode emblematic of the “tragic fates” of Soviet scientists and specialists.9 The few scholars who have revisited the history of this unique system of incarceration have focused their questions either on how ideological concerns “distorted” the “normal” trajectory of Soviet science, or on “correcting” the historical record by portraying the lives of those Soviet scientists and engineers who passed through the system in heroic terms.10 The first assumes the existence of a “normative” science, and the latter lapses into hagiography. Both frame the history of the prison system as a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-5000
Print ISSN
1531-023x
Pages
pp. 557-588
Launched on MUSE
2015-08-29
Open Access
No
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