Gulag Kazakhstan Nostalgia and Memory Soviet Era 1917-1991

A Night in Karlag

Karlag Museum
Museum of Memory of the Victims of Repression in the Dolinka Settlement (Karlag Museum). Photo by Steven A Barnes

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a paper at a conference entitled “Legacies of the Gulag and the Memory of Stalinism” at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. My paper focused on public memory of the Gulag in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstani experience differs significantly from that in Russia, a topic discussed at the conference by Arsenii Roginskii, Nanci Adler, Alexander Etkind, Nikita Petrov, Andrei Sorokin, and others.

While the paper is perhaps too long for this forum, I wanted to share the portion of it discussing the “Night in Karlag,” a fascinating (and disturbing) recent moment in Kazakhstani public memory of the Gulag. The event raises interesting questions about the appropriateness of the experiential museum and historical reenactment for the portrayal of atrocity.

(Given recent news, it is certainly worth highlighting that this paper was made possible through in-country research supported by the U.S. Department of State’s now defunded Title VIII program via the American Councils for International Education.)

The tiny village of Dolinka, Kazakhstan, some 45 kilometers southwest of the city of Karaganda, is dotted by the typical ramshackle single-story dwellings found in small rural settlements all over the former Soviet Union. [1. The town, it seems, will never fully erase its ties to its Gulag past. In fact, the town continues to serve as part of the post-Soviet Kazakhstani penal system. Immediately upon entering the town, you pass high cement walls intended to obscure view of the notorious labor camp AK 159/6, from which reports of torture and beating of inmates periodically emerge. When I first visited Dolinka in 2006, the cement walls were not present, and the watchtowers of the colony were readily visible. However, the colony has given Kazakhstan’s penal service something of a black eye in the intervening years, likely leading to the attempt to obscure it from view. On prisoner abuse at the Dolinka labor colony, see reports from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Inmate Who Filmed “Kazakh Prison Video” Found Hanged in Jail,” July 23, 2010,; “Kazakh Prison Inmates Mutilate Themselves in Protest,” June 4, 2010,; and “UN Official Says Kazakh Prisoners Tortured, Abused,” May 14, 2009, All accessed October 24, 2013. That a former Gulag capital continues to serve as a site of penal incarceration and abuse is unsurprising, if you follow the work of Judith Pallot and Laura Piacentini.] Until just over a half century ago, Dolinka served as the capital of the infamous Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp (Karlag), an enormous camp complex that stretched hundreds of kilometers through the Kazakh steppe and held hundreds of thousands of prisoners as one of the largest and longest-lasting outposts of Stalin’s notorious Gulag (and was the primary subject of my first book).[1. Steven A. Barnes, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.] Driving through the settlement, you pass several blocks of the single-story hovels when a massive, city block-long, two-story, neo-classical building appears rather jarringly out of the steppe. Some eighty years ago, prisoners constructed this building to serve as headquarters for the Karlag administration. This massive structure, which only housed the central Karlag administration and was supplemented by supervisory and armed guard staff in the camp’s many subdivisions spread about the northern Kazakh steppe, attests to the massive numbers of prisoners who suffered in this labor camp outpost. Abandoned and boarded up until recently, the building now gleams after a pricy rehabilitation that transformed it into the Museum of Memory of the Victims of Repression in the Dolinka Settlement (hereafter the Karlag Museum). Officially founded in 2001, but only opened in May 2011, the Karlag Museum is probably the largest Gulag-related museum in the former Soviet Union.

Former Karlag Headquarters, Dolinka, Kazakhstan, 2006. Photo by Steven A. Barnes
Former Karlag Headquarters, Dolinka, Kazakhstan, 2006. Photo by Steven A. Barnes

The Karlag Museum occupies all three floors (two above ground plus the basement) of the enormous Dolinka headquarters with no fewer than thirty halls and exhibitions. The museum is a combination of traditional museum practice with the experiential museum so much in vogue today. The first floor features a series of exhibit rooms devoted to topics like the early 1930s famine in Kazakhstan, the political repression of the Kazakh intelligentsia, the foundation of Karlag, the economic activity of Karlag, repressed artists, women and children in Karlag, deportations of peoples to Kazakhstan, repressions of the post-Stalin years, and post-Soviet Kazakhstan as an independent state. These exhibit halls, in what I would call the traditional part of the Karlag Museum, are mostly dominated by a series of glass display cases holding historical photographs, artifacts, and text blocks explaining the history of Soviet repression in general and the Karlag labor camp in particular.

Basement of Karlag Museum, 2013. Photo by Steven A Barnes
Basement of Karlag Museum, 2013. Photo by Steven A Barnes

Descending to the basement level, the museum takes a turn toward the experiential. Of course, basements have long held a morbid place in tales of Soviet citizen encounters with the secret police. Basements, like that of the notorious Lubianka in Moscow, were places of imprisonment, torture, and all too often execution. The Karlag Museum pulls out all the stops to capitalize on that mental imagery of the NKVD basement, even though the tour guides admit that they have no particular information that individuals were ever held, interrogated, or tortured in the basement of the Dolinka headquarters.

The dark, dank corridor of the basement level, barely renovated with concrete floors, contrasts sharply with the first floor corridor’s inviting, red runner carpet stretching the length of the building and abundant natural and artificial light. Entering the basement is intended to evoke a feeling in the visitor of entering a different world, a different time. Here in the basements the walls are bare, broken up only by a series of doors on one side of the corridor, and no text blocks guide visitors along the corridor, as they are invited to enter the unknown—to feel rather than think the history they are confronting. Enter through any one of the doors along the corridor, and you enter an imagined life world of the prisoner.

Exhibit Room: Women's Barracks, Karlag Museum, 2013. Photo by Steven A Barnes
Exhibit Room: Women’s Barracks, Karlag Museum, 2013. Photo by Steven A Barnes

Mannequin prisoners, guards, bureaucrats, and interrogators occupy a punishment cell, male and female barracks, a torture chamber, an infirmary, a morgue, an office for photographing and fingerprinting prisoners, and even a scientific laboratory. Genuine period artifacts from bowls and spoons to prisoner mugshots are intermingled with the mannequins and other reconstructions like barrack bunks to draw the visitor into a world simultaneously imaginary and real. Often it is impossible to tell the authentic artifact from the reconstruction.

Torture Chamber Exhibit, Karlag Museum, 2013. Photo by Steven A Barnes
Torture Chamber Exhibit, Karlag Museum, 2013. Photo by Steven A Barnes

Perhaps the basement room most readily evoking a sense that the visitor has time-traveled to an earlier era is the only one without a mannequin. A single bare bulb illuminates sparse furnishings. A water bucket and two small stools are the room’s only furniture. One stool sits in the far corner, the other directly in the room’s center. Lifting your gaze from the central stool, you notice a pair of rusting manacles hangs from the ceiling. Other bits of steel and chain hang from the walls. A meter-long stick leans against a side wall, just beyond the water bucket. One end of the stick has been splattered with a red paint in a shade so vibrant it suggests not 80 year old blood stains but evidence of more recent prisoner beatings. Every wall is splattered with this “blood” in a combination of the stick’s vibrant shade and a much darker hue, indicating both recent torture activity and a long history of brutal prisoner beatings. A “bloody” handprint on the far wall evokes a prisoner driven to madness trying to somehow pass through the walls to escape the pain. Even the water bucket has “blood” running down its sides. The only hope for respite comes through a doorway to the morgue, where a “blood”- stained stretcher marks what seems to be the only possible escape from the building—death.

The torture chamber is undoubtedly morbid, but also surprisingly powerful. In leaving behind any connection to the “real” (none of the items in the room appear to be genuine period artifacts), the room feels somehow more real than any other. My tour guide explained that they had found no evidence that such torture ever occurred in the basement of the Dolinka headquarters, but she was at pains to explain that such things happened, even if not in this particular space. The experiential museum basement raises difficult questions of the limits of the acceptable in a Gulag museum. Standing in the torture chamber, one cannot help but recall the furor raised in the early 2000s when Igor Shpektor, then mayor of the far north Russian Gulag city of Vorkuta, proposed offering tourists a Gulag adventure. As the New York Times described Shpektor’s idea, “Then he spun an improbable vision of hard times and hard bunks, where tourists could eat turnip gruel and sleep in wooden barracks in a faux camp surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, patrolled by soldiers and dogs. ‘Americans can stay here,’ he went on. ‘We will give them a chance to escape. The guards will shoot them’ – with paint balls, naturally, not bullets.” The co-director of the local chapter of Memorial, Evgeniia Khaidorova denounced the idea as “worse than sacrilege.” Although his vision never came to fruition, Shpektor at the time seemed undaunted telling the New York Times that “it should look like the Stalin camps…so that people today can understand what those prisoners went through.” When asked if the idea would offend some, he asserted that “people should see what should not be repeated again.”[1. Steven Lee Myers, “Above the Arctic Circle, a Gulag for Tourists?”, New York Times, June 6, 2005. Accessed October 24, 2013.]

I remember reading the article in the New York Times in 2005 and being appalled that such an “adventure” was even under consideration. Yet, I do wonder what, if anything, makes the basement of the Karlag Museum that different? If the comparison with the Vorkuta mayor’s proposal had not struck me during my visit to the museum, it certainly would have based on recent news of activities at the Karlag Museum. Apparently, in May 2013, staff of the Karlag Museum toyed with allowing guests “to become ‘Stalin-era prisoners’ for one night. The plan was only abandoned when local officials argued that it could conceivably “psychologically traumatize” the participants. Nonetheless, somewhere between 500-1,000 visitors attended a “Night in Karlag,” a night-time tour of the museum complete with museum staff replacing the mannequins and acting out the experiential parts of the museum – in one room performing “a mock interrogation scene…, [and in another portraying] an inmate…hanging by his hands [in the manacles hanging from the ceiling in the torture chamber] while being mistreated by a guard.” Visitors were offered unspecified “Gulag-type meals” to up the level of supposed realism.[1. Yelena Weber and Antoine Blua, “In Kazakhstan, Spending Saturday Night in the Gulag,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 20, 2013. accessed October 22, 2013. It is unclear whether the fault belongs to the tour guide or the authors, but the article contains several mistakes in its recounting of Karlag’s history. The name of the Karlag chief is given as Otto Bin rather than the correct Otto Linin. Further, the article incorrectly asserts that under Linin was the only time when men and women lived together in Karlag.]

On the one hand, the event was a “success.” Obtaining substantial visitorship is a significant challenge for a museum located in such a remote, hard-to-reach location. Furthermore, the “Night in Karlag” was covered by at least four different Kazakhstani and one international television stations. [1. See television news footage from Astana TV, Channel 1 “Eurasia”, Karaganda Channel 1, Telekanal 24KZ, and RTVi All accessed October 24, 2013.] Yet my gut reaction is that the absurdity and unseemliness of the event outweighs any addition of emotional value for the visitor. Notably, the torture chamber, the one basement room without even a mannequin in its regular setup, seems significantly less powerful with an actor hanging from the manacles, while a “guard” almost comically repeatedly demands of the prisoner, “Don’t sleep.” (See the photos from RFE/RL.) The visitor of the empty torture chamber can almost imagine that the room is actively used, but the patently obvious unreality of the actors breaks the spell.

Experiential museums like the Karlag Museum have been sites of significant controversy, raising significant moral questions about the acceptable limits in the portrayal of atrocity. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) faced harsh criticism for the experiential elements of its permanent exhibit, especially but not only for its funneling of visitors through the type of freight car that carried many Holocaust victims to the site of their mass execution.[1. See Edward Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum, New York: Viking, 1995 and Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.]

The Karlag Museum’s “Night in Karlag” raised additional difficult question with its use of actors to reenact an imagined version of Karlag’s history. (I do not mean to suggest that events like those depicted during these reenactments did not happen. Rather, the scenes portrayed in the museum were stylized representations of events that likely happened in some place and in some form, but not necessarily in exactly the way shown.) Reenactment brings in a wide range of comparative considerations and difficult questions of appropriateness. Historical reenactment has long been most prominent among U.S. Civil War enthusiasts. Yet, critics have long stood opposed to such practices that glamourize war, turning its horrors into an entertaining weekend activity. Even more controversial is the yearly reenactment since 2005 of the 1946 lynching of four African Americans at Moore’s Ford in rural Georgia. Controversy attends not only to the question of whether this is an acceptable subject for reenactment, but also for its locus in a more recent and still unresolved history. Organizers claim that their purpose is to call attention to the history of racial violence in the United States and to encourage elderly local citizens who might have knowledge of the 1946 events to come forward in a case that has to this day never resulted in prosecution.[1. See Mark Auslander, “’Holding on to Those Who Can’t Be Held’: Reenacting a Lynching at Moore’s Ford, Georgia,” Southern Spaces, November 8, 2010. Accessed October 24, 2013.]

Reenactment raises the tricky question of how to locate the boundary between the experiential museum that appropriately creates a visceral response from its visitors, and the theme park that inappropriately commercializes and trivializes the history of violence and oppression. Colonial Williamsburg and similar “living history” heritage sites certainly blur this line with their constantly in-character actors moving about and interacting with visitors. Colonial Williamsburg, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Virginia, engages in a significant idealization of life in 18th-century Virginia. Yet, the cursed American question of slavery makes it difficult to combine an “authentic” portrayal of colonial Virginia with the kind of family-friendly entertainment that has made the place so successful with tourists. In the late 1970s, significant numbers of actors were added to portray slaves, but overt violence like brandings and lashings is not reenacted. In 1994, a reenacted slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg drew so much controversy, it has never been repeated. Does it change our attitude on such reenactments when we realize that lynchings were reenacted and audio-recorded in the United States in the 1890s not for protest but for commercial purposes, and as Mark Auslander describes, “to satisfy white public voyeuristic curiosity?” Even today, can one view the lynching postcards of “Without Sanctuary” without feeling just a little complicit when looking at objects produced precisely for voyeuristic purpose? When I require students to view the photos for a class on how states and societies cope with the aftermath of mass violence, to what extent am I complicit with perpetuating the gaze that itself was part of the humiliation of the lynching spectacle and the terrorization of racial minorities? [1. See Auslander, “Holding on to Those.”]

I do not pretend to have a simple answer to these complex questions. I do want to note, however, that intellectually or viscerally, through language and image or in a more immersive and experiential fashion, remembering the past does not necessarily result in the reconciliation or healing we might seek.[1. This is decidedly the case with the reenactment of the Moore’s Ford lynching, where local public opinion is decidedly split along racial lines about whether the activity encourages racial healing and reconciliation or “unintentionally feeds cycles of hatred and retribution.” See Auslander, “Holding on to Those.”] Does visceral traumatization connect the viewer with the traumas of the past, or does it merely preserve and transmit that trauma into the present? The experiential museum may, in the end, simply be too problematic for use in portraying the history of atrocity.

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