"Sound and Identity in Stalin's Gulag": presentation of Gabrielle Cornish
In recent years, historians have reevaluated the place of Stalin's labor camps in Soviet society. Their work has emphasized the “spatial regime” of the Gulag—one in which the movement of bodies and borders was heavily regulated—as well as the visual and material elements of mass incarceration. A more complete sensory history of everyday life in the labor camps, however, has been largely overlooked. This article intervenes in these historical discussions by attempting to reconstruct what I call the “everyday auralities”—the lived, sonic realities—of the Gulag. Using memoir accounts of camp prisoners, I argue that aural experience was an essential means of constructing life and identity in the Gulag, which was as much a sonic regime—with bells, barks, whistles, and shouts—as it was a spatial one. Within this sonic regime, moreover, prisoners also used musical performance to assert their personal sovereignty and individual agency. To this end, I trace the many appearances of a single patriotic mass song, Isaak Dunaevskii’s “Wide Is My Motherland,” the authority of which convicts questioned through performance and parody. Shaping identities both within and without, the Gulag created, absorbed, and refracted the lived sonic experience of its prisoners.