Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism Teaching Russian History

Death and Redemption – On Images

First, I must thank my colleague and co-blogger Andrew Jenks for setting up this blog conversation here at Russian History Blog. As an academic author, I have found the wait for journal reviews of my book to be excruciating. The book came out almost exactly one year ago, and the first two reviews of the book appeared only in the last month. (Only this French review is available on the free web.) Immediacy is definitely something the blog conversation can uniquely provide.

It is a great honor to have this stellar cast gathered for this conversation. I find the praise overwhelming and flattering (“dean of Gulag studies“? wow!) and the critiques painful but also exhilarating and thought-provoking. Most of all, I am excited to see that the argument I tried to make in the book (warts and all) actually came through to the readers.

In an effort to facilitate this as “conversation”, I’ll respond intermittently to the readers’ comments rather than waiting for all to chime in. Here, I want to address the issue of images raised both by Deborah Kaple and Cynthia Ruder. Obviously, I can change nothing about the book now and I acknowledge that the book would have been improved with more images, but I can point now to some visual (and textual) evidence that might be useful to readers and to all of our students. I like Cynthia’s idea of creating auxiliary web material for the book, and it’s something I’ll think about doing. However, I would point out the availability of some freely available auxiliary material that may not be known to all. (For an extended discussion of materials available for teaching the Gulag, look at the posts by Wilson Bell and me at Teach History, Karl Qualls’ blog on teaching Russian history.)

I would point readers and students to the Gulag website created with my colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media here at George Mason University. In addition to a virtual exhibit, complete with visually-based original mini-documentaries, the site, especially in its archive, contains a wealth of visual evidence.The text search and the “browse by tag” function allows one to find materials by location, subject matter, person, etc.

In particular and in relation to Death and Redemption, I would like to point colleagues, readers, and students with Russian language skills to a selection of documents from the local Karlag archive in Karaganda.

As for a map of Karlag, it is easier said than done. Karlag, like most Gulag camps, did not occupy a single defined (let alone enclosed) space. It was diffuse with many different sub-camps located around the steppe of central Kazakhstan (not to mention the many “de-convoyed” prisoners who were herding animals around the steppe without residing in a particular camp zone and sometime even without the presence of an armed guard.) I try to describe the extent of the camp in the text by pointing out its outermost sub-camps, and I provided a map that located the most important geographic locales in Kazakhstan discussed in the book. To draw lines around the camp would be misleading as to how the camp was actually organized. (Here is a rather poor-quality version with credit to the cartographer Stephanie Hurter Williams.)




3 replies on “Death and Redemption – On Images”

Thanks for the additional information and sources, Steve, of images and materials relating to Karlag and the book. Your comment about the map of Karlag raises another interesting issue and that is the geography of the camps/Gulag. That is, the spaces they occupied and how those spaces became the Gulag–through the various kinds of settlements and buildings erected, by the fact of enclosing a geographic location and calling it a particular name thereby making name and place somehow synonymous, through the perceptions of the space by those who occupied it. To me this is an interesting question that you raise in the book, but that hovers over (if that is the best term) Gulag studies in general. Place, space, landscape play such fundamental roles in the organization and implementation of the Gulag, as well as our apprehension of it. Certainly Judy Pallot’s work goes a long way in addressing this issue, including her web site, as well as her book that is due out soon.

Indeed the mere fact that it is difficult to set the actual parameters of Karlag, because they were so diffused and covered such a large territory, also speaks to the notion of the slippage between spaces officially demarcated as “the Gulag” and supposed non-Gulag spaces. This in turn relates to the idea you present so eloquently as to the “parallel universes” that were Soviet society at large and the Gulag.

This leads to another thought–your next project on Alzhir–also speaks to the issue of space and place. Calling a Gulag camp with the name of a foreign, exotic, non-western place conjures up all sorts of images, as does the notion of creating a space of remembrance–a museum–in which memories, remembrances, and mementos are housed both to “remember” and “re-create” to a certain degree the original place.

On the frequent lack of demarcation of space between “Gulag” and “non-Gulag,” you’ll definitely want to check out the work of Wilson Bell. I believe he has a forthcoming article that questions this issue explicitly.

I definitely appreciate the thoughts on ALZhIR, and I think the issue of naming the place will be important to consider. (I never, by the way, found a document in the Karlag archive that used the term. It was always simply referred to by its special subdivision number. So, I even wonder where the term originated. Maybe Wilson could shed light on whether the corresponding sub-camp in Temlag had any special moniker.) I would also very much like to include in the book a chapter on memory and the museum, in particular, depending on my thoughts about the museum after I visit next year.

[…] The Gulag–the Soviet Union’s vast system of forced-labor camps, internal exile, and prisons–has long been referenced as a gruesome symbol of tyranny in the Stalin era. But why did Soviet authorities act as they did? Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society by Steven A. Barnes, director of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Mason University, takes a fascinating look at the role of the Gulag, contrasting it with Nazi concentration camps and exploring how it operated primarily as a brutal penal institution and instrument of ‘reeducation’, and not one of genocide. This week the book is the subject of an ongoing blog conversation at the Russian History Blog. A number of Gulag specialists will be discussing the book over the next seven to ten days. Catch the first installments here. […]

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