The growing pantheon of Gulag memoirs presents a unique set of problems, not just for researchers of the forced labour system but anyone more broadly interested in the functioning of the Soviet system. On the one hand, accounts by former prisoners such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Eugeniia Ginzburg raise important issues regarding individual memory, as many memoirists record their testimony several years after release having suffered dislocation and other traumatic experiences. On the other, memoirs help to fill lacunae in the archival record by describing prisoner society, culture and personal interactions between inmates; helping to create a more nuanced picture of daily life from ground level. One of the biggest obstacles to their use as a historical source, however, continues to be the strict binary between the labels ‘political prisoner’ and ‘common criminal’. With the majority of memoirists hailing from amongst the urban intelligentsia, and the lack of written records from other marginalised groups, this divide has now been written into the historiography of the camps.
Janusz Bardach’s account of the notorious penal region of Kolyma can help researchers to begin to challenge this dichotomy. Despite Bardach’s educational background, his arrest for wartime treason and relations with other prisoners sees him regularly shift between such rigid modes of categorisation. Bardach changes from being the target of a violent attack and witness to gang rape to altogether more cordial relations as he provides an important function as a storyteller for a rudimentary prisoner gang; thus helping to widen his own survival network through extra food rations and increased security. Moreover, Bardach’s account of their hierarchy and ritual practices also displays similarities with those observed by sociologists Donald Clemmer and Irving Goffman in regards to other ‘total institutions’ and can help advance scholarship on Russian criminal subculture beyond the narrow focus on mafia organisations such as vory v zakone (thieves-in-law) and situate the camps more fully into the wider picture of twentieth century crime and punishment.