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Steve Barnes: Teaching the Gulag with Images


The Gulag Lecture (2): The Images

When I give my Gulag lecture, I use quite a number of images and for many different reasons. In some cases, they simply provide illustration to back up and reinforce the things I am talking about. In others, the image itself becomes an integral part of the lesson, and I will focus on one of them below. Other than maps, all images that I use come from the archive of Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, the web project I completed with my colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason and with partners at the International Memorial Society and the Gulag Museum at Perm 36. It really is a terrific resource for teaching the Gulag, and I know many Russian history colleagues use the site in their courses in some creative ways. (Andrew Jenks at Cal State Long Beach had his students write reviews of the site. Steve Norris at Miami University had his students create posters on the Gulag that were displayed during a conference I attended at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies and a great many students used the Gulag website archive to create their stunningly superb final projects.) At the end of the post, I will provide a list of links to some of my favorite images to use during my Gulag lecture.

I’ll start this post talking about maps. For many years, finding a really good Gulag map was difficult, but we have many options now. I find a combination of three maps necessary to make the points I want. First, like Wilson, I use this map to provide a general sense of the Gulag’s geography. It offers one really important advantage over any other, as the shaded areas on the map indicate regions that held a substantial number of internally-exiled peoples. For students, though, its Cyrillic labeling is problematic, so I turn to this version of the same map (without the shading) but in Latin letters, though in German not English.

Like Wilson, I show students how much of the Gulag existed in the European parts of the Soviet Union. However, this map gives a somewhat false impression in this regard, for the map does not take account of the population of camps. Fortunately, we have an absolutely terrific web-based mapping project helps clear up this problem. Oxford University’s geographer Judith Pallot, a specialist in Russia’s “penal geography,” has undertaken a monumental and magnificent project. Her Mapping the Gulag: Russia’s Prison System from the 1930s to the Present, a site worth an extended look, provides a whole series of maps with a wide variety of information. For my lecture, I use this map which provides a sense of the distribution of prisoners in the Soviet Union and shows how the geographic extremes held the largest numbers of prisoners. The site offers all kinds of interesting possibilities for more in-depth discussions. Just one example, here you will find a map that overlays the distribution of camps in 1951-1952 with average January temperatures. This should certainly bring home some of the realities of the Gulag to students.

Finally, I want to turn to one particular image (click on the image for a larger version) that I received from the International Memorial Society during the course of the creation of Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives. I have written about this image before at Russian History Blog, but it is worthy of some repetition here as the image is so integral to the way I teach the Gulag.

The image shows the “Graves of the Lazy” (with the word that I translated as “lazy” really a Gulag acronym standing for “the false invalids of the camps of special designation”) What this image shows is a “propaganda” graveyard. After I have talked to the students about the way in which fulfillment of one’s daily work norm was treated as evidence of one’s level of reeducation and how food provision was tied to work norm fulfillment, it all comes together when I show them this image. The individual grave markers read: Mavlanov 22%, Gaziev 30%, etc. Thus it is clear, the failure to fulfill labor quotas was treated as a prisoner’s failed commitment to “reeducation.” Nobody was understood to be “unable” to fulfill norms. (Thus, the deceased in this propaganda graveyard are “false invalids.”) Rather, failure to fulfill norms was treated as a willful activity, an evidence of continued “enemy activity” on the part of the prisoner. Reduced rations would either compel “reeducation” by breaking down a prisoner’s resistance, or if a prisoner continued to “resist” by failing to fulfill norms, their rations would lead to starvation and death. Gulag camp directors, as we can see through this image, were not ashamed of the explicit link between poor labor productivity and death. They actually advertised that link directly to their prisoners. The students generally find the image as breathtaking as I did when I first saw it after years of making this argument about the tie between labor, correction and death in the Gulag.

Whether photographs, paintings, or memorials, images of the Gulag can provide an excellent opportunity to engage students in conversation about what the camps were all about. Here are some of my favorite images for lectures on the Gulag, but I do urge you to explore Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives at the easy-to-remember http://gulaghistory.org for other possibilities. (In addition, be sure to check out Nikolai Getman’s phenomenal series of 50 paintings. I usually use numbers 8 and 37 in my lecture, but one could conduct a whole class period around these paintings.)

Brass Band at the White Sea Canal

Fence and Guard Tower at Perm-36

Cutting Timber

Construction at White Sea Canal

Mining in Kolyma

Mikhail Distergeft, Without the Right of Correspondence

Benjamin Mkrtchan, Digging a Grave