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Maternity behind Bars as a Blessing and a Curse: Women’s Experiences in the GULAGt

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The authors of the publication:
Kis Oksana
Bibliographic description:
Kis, O. (2017) Maternity behind Bars as a Blessing and a Curse: Women’s Experiences in the GULAG. Folk Art and Ethnology, 2 (366), 32–43.


Kis Oksana

a Ph.D. in History, a senior research fellow, a doctoral candidate of the NASU Institute of Ethnology, a president of the Ukrainian Women’s History Female Researchers Association.


Maternity behind Bars as a Blessing and a Curse: Women’s Experiences in the GULAGt



This article explores an important aspect of everyday life of Ukrainian women – political prisoners in the GULAG in the 1940s–1950s, namely – experiences of maternity while being imprisoned. On the basis of analyzing the personal testimonies of former female political prisoners as well as the official GULAG documents and statistical data, the authoress reveals the custodial conditions of pregnant women and mothers with babies in GULAG prisons and camps. The study also shows an ambivalent nature of female convicts’ maternal attitudes and special connections between mothers and their children. Underlying reasons and consequences of parity behind the barbed wire are examined as well. The authoress claims maternity to be an important stimulus for women’s survival in the GULAG.

According to the official data, women constituted about one third of the GULAG population after World War II, and many of them gave birth while in duresse. Despite the GULAG aministration efforts were aimed at total isolation of women from men in order to decrease the level of pregnant and parturient women, those constituted over 6 % of female convicts in January 1949. As a result, over 28 000 children were kept in 234 special premises attached to camps in 1952.

The major factors leading to pregnancy and childbirth behind bars were as follows: a convict’s intention to ease her camp regimen; a convict’s aspiration to create a real family with her child’s father in the future, after her release; a desire to overcome loneliness and a need to perform a maternal role; a survival prostitution with no contraception available; a rape. Maternity in confinement had nothing in common with normal practices of childbearing and childrearing.

Although the GULAG rules and regulations provided for generally acceptable living conditions and nursing for prisoners’ babies, women’s recollections reveal that real situation was very bad: due to the lack of proper care, low-quality nurishment, non-existent education, insufficient health care, sickness and death rates in nurseries were high, while survived kids were physically, emotionally and mentally retarded.  Contacts of convicted mothers with their babies were strictly regulated and limited; at the age of 1–2 years, children were normally transferred to regular orphanages all over the USSR or handed to convicts’ family members. The will to find out her child traces, to (re)establish contact and ultimately to get her child back after serving a sentence turned into a purpose of life for each imprisoned mother; a sense of maternal duty incited women to survive.

Women’s experiences of mothering in prisons and camps were generally quite traumatic as the conciseness of their testimonies proves. For some women, a childbirth was a way to resist the dehumanising effects of the GULAG regime. Despite all the physical and emotional hardships and distress a maternal role (actually performed at a place or experienced at a distance) helped women to maintain the established value system, to remain women on the verge of death, thereby preserving their endangered gender identity in prisons and camps.



Ukrainian women – political prisoners, GULAG, everyday life, maternity, women’s history.



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