All entries for Thursday 14 May 2009

May 14, 2009

At the Centre of the Gulag Archipelago, a Quiet Lagoon …

What sights and sensations does the word "lagoon" evoke? The poet Sheri Hoff thinks of:

A quiet lagoon...
Floating in the salty, blue water,
the sun shining on my face.

That's what it makes me think of, too.

If you like playing with words, there can be other associations. For Germans and Russians the first syllable of this beautiful word might evoke less pleasurable images. If the British invented the concentration camp (at the time of the Boer war), the Germans abbreviated the term to konzentrationslager and the Russians imported the word lager from German for their own forced labour camps. "Lag" was the Soviet-era abbreviation of anything to do with the institutions of forced labour. GULAG for example, was the chief administration of labour camps of the USSR interior ministry in Moscow; Siblag, Sevlag, among many others, were respectively the Siberian and Northern camp complexes.

But how could you get from the frostbitten outposts of the Soviet empire, encircled by barbed wire, to a lagoon? While some could only dream, others played with words.

On July 5, 1946, Lt. Col. Luferov, chief of the secretariat of GULAG (the chief administration of labour camps) of the USSR MVD (interior ministry) in Moscow, signed off a curt memorandum to his party comrade Major Silant'ev, chief of the control and inspection department (the document is in the Soviet archives collection of the Hoover Institution: GARF, f. R-9414, op. 1 dop., d. 144A, folio 91):

I inform you that the word "Laguna" is assigned to GULAG as its customary telegraphic address.

I request you to inform all departments and administrations of the USSR interior ministry chief administration of labour camps and also the peripheral units: ITL MVD [the labour camps themselves], UITLK MVD (the administration of labour camps and colonies), OITK MVD [the department of labour colonies], and PFL MVD [the verification and filtration camps for returning Soviet prisoners of war and labourers previously held in Germany].

This story shows that even the most heartless of Soviet bureaucrats could hear the poetry of word-play in his soul.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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