BAM Construction: Living Memory of the Happiest Time?

At the X. Siberian Studies Conference, St. Petersburg, Oct. 24-26 2016 Olga Povoroznyuk and Peter Schweitzer focussed on emotionally charged memories of the construction of Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) as the most important transportation route of northern East Siberia and the Russian Far East and the largest construction project of the late socialism. In the 1970-80s, the railroad construction, drawing mass inflow of labor force from across the former Soviet republics, laid the basis for a new group of population identifying themselves as bamovtsy (BAM builders). Consolidation of this multicultural socio-professional group was stimulated by material (benefits for buying apartments and cars and the northern supply) and ideological (Komsomol slogans and romantic images of "conquest of the nature", heroization of builders) factors. During the socio-economic crisis of the 1990s, the majority of bamovtsy migrated back to their home regions, however, for many of them the North became home and their children's place of birth. Presently, BAM builders and second generation "children of the BAM", who didn't take part in the construction but identify themselves with the railroad, constitute the majority population in the settlements along the BAM.

Interviews with BAM builders don't simply reiterate Soviet ideals of solidarity, patriotism and construction of the new life. Despite the well-grounded criticism of the project in 1990s, the memories of the construction project are always charged with emotions, among which happiness, joy and enthusiasm are prevailing. Personal emotional experiences connected with the BAM often refer to the "happiest time in life", whereas collective memories draw a utopian embodiment of the dream in the past contrasting the present day realities.

Whereas the phenomenon of socialist construction sites had been previously studied from post-socialism and collective memory approaches, narratives of the past and present interpretations of the BAM construction history deserve attention in the frameworks of the developing field of anthropology of emotions. How are these memories translated and/or transformed among different generations of men and women, who constructed the BAM? Which emotional contexts and connotations help us to look behind the ideological façade of the typical narratives of the BAM and open unknown pages of the history and everyday life of the construction period? How do the recently launched modernization and second track construction actualize old memories and produce new discourses and emotions of the BAM?